Columns Journey of a YI

Self-doubt as a Principal Investigator

Roop Mallik

Roop Mallik is a Professor at Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. He attended YIM 2011 as a YI. In this invited piece, he writes about dealing with self-doubt as a young PI.

Roop Mallik
Roop Mallik  

It’s the fifth year of your postdoc. Your “big” paper just got accepted, and in a week you fly back to Swadesh. You will soon sit in your own office and lovingly survey the Lab outside. The best students will line up to join you, funds will flow and you will joyfully set sail on the path to success guided by wise colleagues. Capable technicians will float around fixing everything that needs to be fixed. You will sip coffee in the office and disseminate ideas to obedient students, who will produce data and figures that will get pasted into the papers you have already formatted in your mind.

Alternate, and more likely scenario…

It’s been six months since you joined. You finally found an office to park yourself, but you don’t have a Lab yet. Everybody is friendly and nice, but nothing much actually seems to be happening. Forget data and papers, you are still doing “L1/L2” to buy a computer. A student showed up yesterday. You charmed her with an hour-long monologue, but she eyed you suspiciously through the Nobel lecture and then asked – “Do I have to work on weekends”?

Those doubts will now creep in. This is not what it was supposed to be. Every day is worse than the one before. Why did I ever come back? Hang on … what I wrote is not India-specific. Some version of this will play out wherever you set up shop. What do you do when everything is out of your control, and now there is no “advisor” to show you the path? The easy way out is to become negative and blame the system, but is that useful? Perhaps a good start is to understand what resources are available to you. Can you do something that you never did before? Beg, borrow (don’t steal), but do start something new. It may be small and not the primary focus of your Lab, but you need something positive to happen. I have found it quite remarkable what students are capable of with a bit of guidance and motivation. Build trust with them and respect them as equals. Use the carrot and the stick wisely. Come what may, you must appear to be in control. 

What can you do to make things easier? It is always a good idea to anticipate what lies ahead and prepare during your postdoc years. Think of independent projects, learn something from the next lab and make friends with the postdoc there who could be a potential collaborator, develop a new model system … whatever it takes. Yes, I know that being a postdoc is hard – there is so much to do to get that paper in, I mean the one that will get you the PI position. But succeeding as a PI is probably much harder because now you depend on others to get the job done. This is not about you anymore. It is about everything else but you, and at the end of it you get blamed.

Perhaps your best friend at this time is your ability to think of new projects within the inevitable constraints. This will be much easier if you got into the habit early in your postdoc days, as I wrote earlier. Doing and thinking “new” is very important. I had to completely reboot myself when I started my postdoc because I had no knowledge or training in Biology. I did learn biology, but there is still so much that I had never heard of. There is no solution to this problem, but to get around this I try my best to recruit students who are smarter than me.

Good science is possible in India and indeed we are seeing it happening. As with traffic signals, many things here are left to interpretation. This flexibility can help us in unexpected ways, but we need to understand and adapt to this. But, finally it boils down to self-belief, ambition and originality. I am all in agreement with Oscar Wilde:- “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken…”.

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