Reflections of a New PI
by Christian Danve M. Castroverde
“Should I stay or should I go?” belts The Clash in their classic punk rock hit from 1982. Although this song was released before I was born, it appropriately served as one of my mental anthems during my postdoc, which was a period of creative independence but also of uncertainty about my career’s future. This year – in what I consider just short of miraculous – I finally landed a tenure-track Assistant Professor position.
After a fantastic postdoc experience in the laboratory of Sheng Yang He at Michigan State University, I am now based in the Department of Biology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. I have always wanted to be an academic in an institution that balances its research and teaching priorities, especially one located in Ontario so that I could reunite with my partner and be close to my family. That is why it felt like winning the lottery when I received the email offer on that fateful morning! This is no hyperbole, as getting offered a faculty position had held an almost mythical status for me. Although I don’t think I am merely “chopped liver,” the increasing number of Ph.D. graduates combined with the relatively stagnant number of available openings has made it extremely difficult and competitive to make that elusive transition forward.
It is and will always be an absolute honor to have this opportunity. As I reflect upon this, I thought to myself, “I must have done something right.” But which “something” is still a source of contemplation for me. Turns out, this “something” is not one magic factor. In a recent preprint just posted on bioRxiv, the authors conducted a detailed survey of faculty job applicants and found that “there is no single clear path to a faculty job offer.” They also found that traditional metrics (i.e. independent funding and papers) were not completely able to delineate successful and unsuccessful applicants.
So, what gives? I have known since I was a graduate student that faculty members are expected to achieve excellence in three main components – research, teaching and service. Just like the field of biology, navigating these three faculty areas is a complex, and sometimes labyrinthine process; there is no single “magic factor.” But just like biology, certain conserved patterns start to emerge that one could use as an overall guide. For my part, I tried to practice three core philosophies as a guide to manage my academic career as a Ph.D. student at the University of Guelph and eventually as a postdoc at Michigan State University.
Love what you do, do what you love
During my Ph.D. studies, I found that the tomato resistance gene I was studying was involved in responses to both pathogens and mechanical wounding. I became very curious about this interplay of plant signalling in response to both living and non-living factors. As I contemplated moving forward with this line of inquiry, my graduate advisers, Jane Robb and Ross Nazar, advised me to utilize my postdoc program to expand my horizons beyond what I was already comfortable with. Heeding their wise counsel, I decided to branch out of my area of specialization to study the effect of combined abiotic and biotic stresses in a model – but new to me – plant pathosystem.
In a bit of serendipity, I interviewed in the lab of Sheng Yang He at MSU, where a talented grad student finishing up her degree – Bethany Huot – had initiated a research project on the impact of temperature on plant-pathogen interactions. My interest in abiotic-biotic stress interplay in plants was a perfect fit for continuing this project, particularly since it had opened up a wealth of possible research directions. This also allowed me the fortune of having an experienced and passionate mentor in Bethany, who trained me in the lab work and helped me get up to speed with Sheng Yang’s research group. Because of her training and mentoring, I was able to perform some experiments resulting in a research article co-authorship during my first year in the lab.
My career navigation was greatly enhanced when Bethany introduced me to The Pub Club, a weekly group that she led with the goal of leveraging scientific networks to move individual careers forward. Through her “Community of Minds” approach, I learned how to be more efficient in keeping up with the research literature, critically helping my postdoctoral program especially since I was exploring a new research area. It also facilitated me learning to take ownership of my career by enhancing other skills beyond the lab bench, which significantly helped my teaching and service responsibilities. I loved being part of The Pub Club as it practically integrated research, teaching and service. This opportunity helped me refine some “hidden” skills needed to become a PI – writing, networking, negotiation, email communication and events planning, among others.
Around this time, I was introduced to the concept of the Individual Development Plan or IDP (https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/). Although I had always tried to consciously reflect on my activities and responsibilities, especially regarding how they could advance me professionally, the IDP provided a great conceptual framework to achieve this. It made me think concretely of my core values, technical skills, and interests and provided my best-predicted career fits. Apart from confirming my belief and desire that I wanted to be in academia, the IDP results pointed me to a list of other career options – some of which I did not know even existed for Ph.D. graduates like me!
Take those opportunities, make those opportunities
Developing my communication, presentation and interpersonal skills has always been one of my passions since I was in high school. This would prove extremely valuable for my eventual career choice as a faculty member. As a graduate teaching assistant in Guelph, I fell in love with teaching because I enjoyed interacting with students to whom I shared my knowledge and hopefully propagated my enthusiasm. Although I had no prior formal teaching training, I always signed up for TAships and valued the mentorship provided by professors and course coordinators. I also joined the TA Advisory Council allowing me the opportunity to recognize the unique challenges of and various opportunities for Guelph TAs. I continued my passion for teaching in East Lansing by registering for the “Pathways to Scientific Teaching” course run by Diane Ebert-May of the Department of Plant Biology. This opened up a new way of looking at pedagogy and active learning, utilizing evidence-based approaches that outperform learning outcomes using conventional methods. For this class, I designed, optimized and demonstrated a lesson on the plant hormone auxin to my classmates. I would eventually volunteer to implement this lesson to an actual class of undergraduate students being taught by Diane. This opportunity gave me both a theoretical outlook and practical experience of scientific teaching, and also a chance to submit my lesson for publication in the Pathways to Scientific Teaching book.
Other opportunities I took at the departmental level included volunteering as the postdoc representative of the Plant Research Lab’s Academic Personnel Council (APC). Being an APC member gave me remarkable insider’s knowledge and experience in the department’s internal administrative affairs (e.g. institutional review, research strategic framework, hiring, budgeting, external relations). It also provided me the opportunity to interact regularly with PRL professors, thereby expanding my network and further enhancing my communication and interpersonal skills. Because the PRL is split between two buildings (Plant Biology Laboratories and Molecular Plant Sciences), I took this meeting as an opportunity to catch up with more “distant” colleagues. Although this was not a huge time commitment, it proved very insightful and was a nice physical/mental break from the lab. By serving as a liaison to the postdoc community, I had to constantly practice my written and oral communication to PRL colleagues. In retrospect, my experience has helped me navigate through the service requirements and commitments of being a tenure-track faculty member.
At an institutional level, I took the opportunity of advancing my professional development. A mass email to grad students and postdocs about the MSU Leadership Academy piqued my interest in the Winter of 2017. I had thought that this was a great co-curricular experience to go hand in hand with my research development. I decided to sign up for the Leadership Academy, which entailed attending 12 weekly sessions on diverse topics like emotional intelligence, conscious leadership, and conflict management. This provided me with a solid conceptual context and strategies for good leadership – something that should not be underestimated when pursuing a career as a PI.
In addition to taking opportunities, I tried to “make” opportunities as well. People always tell me that it never hurts to ask, and so ask (however shamelessly) I did. Because it is crucial to constantly practice and refine one’s writing as an academic, I emailed Mary Williams of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) and Plantae Network regarding writing opportunities. As it turned out, the ASPB journal The Plant Cell was still looking to complete their inaugural set of Assistant Feature Editors; Senior Editor Nancy Eckardt was particularly looking for someone who specialized in plant immunity. After some emails and writing sample submission, I was welcomed to the Editorial Board to write short “In Brief” articles highlighting the most impactful research in the journal. This allowed me an avenue to synthesize ideas for knowledge mobilization. This also exposed me to service opportunities beyond the university, like helping out with a professional society. As an Assistant Features Editor, I corresponded with various groups around the world (authors, senior editors, reviewing editors) in order to properly highlight the featured research.
Although writing is sometimes viewed as a time-sink, I did not shy away from other writing opportunities. For example, I co-authored a review paper with my labmate André Velásquez along with our PI, Sheng Yang He. Writing this review gave me a comprehensive background on the current state-of-the-art of molecular plant pathology. Because it was important to balance my time as a postdoc with all these responsibilities, I took this as a challenge to further and continually refine my time management as well.
Keep your colleagues close, and keep them closer
One way for me to continuously hone my presentation skills was to volunteer as a seminar speaker for the Plant Research Laboratory and Plant Resilience Institute seminars. Because these internal seminars were meant to be an opportunity to share new findings, there was little pressure to present “complete projects.” I discovered this was a great way to improve how I deliver talks as well as an opportunity to get friendly, expert feedback. I leveraged the collegial seminar environment to catch up with colleagues within and outside the department with whom I would not normally interact on a daily basis.
Lunches with invited external speakers were also excellent avenues to network and practice communicating with professors – a skill that is particularly important during faculty interviews. Through these lunches, I got to have a feel of how meet-and-greet events go in most institutions, like knowing what questions to ask seasoned professors or how to navigate conversations. These lunches are free, local networking events with established leaders in the field; I believe that more junior researchers should partake in these opportunities. Although networking within a group setting can be a challenge for more introverted personalities, a good strategy is to follow up with an email after meeting a speaker. This not only allows you to make an impression but also establishes that connection in a more formal manner.
Beyond the institution, I always took the opportunity to share my research in different conferences including the International Conference for Arabidopsis Research in St. Louis (2017), the Canadian Phytopathological Society Regional Meeting in Niagara (2017), the Plant Biology conference in Montreal (2018) and the Plant Canada meeting in Guelph (2019). In addition to enabling me to communicate my research program, these experiences helped build my confidence in networking with research colleagues.
Networking does not have to be strictly and always about science. Socializing with colleagues in various PRL events (e.g. Gutter Ball Bowling, Holiday Party, Pizza Lunch, Kaffee Klatsch) was a nice interlude for me not to think and talk about work all the time. These were great events that facilitated a sense of community within the department. With some luck, I was actually able to make a friend or two! With the free and ubiquitous availability of email and other communication channels, socializing is no longer restricted geographically. After leaving Guelph following my Ph.D. and, more recently, leaving East Lansing transitioning from my postdoc, I still put an effort into staying in touch with friends, lab mates, colleagues and mentors. Apart from being a nice gesture, regular contact allows you to maintain and perhaps expand your professional and social network. Ultimately, I just love having friends to talk to!
I definitely know that the path I took to get where I am today was not absolutely perfect. After all, navigating academia is just like navigating life in general – there is no single “magic factor.” I remember all the hiccups, failures and setbacks of my grad studies and postdoctoral program. But I also remember the satisfaction, privilege and friendships. That is the beauty of discovery after all, isn’t it? There is no certainty in pushing the frontier and delving into the unknown. It is exciting. It is anxiety-inducing. “Should I stay or should I go?” To answer The Clash’s question: whatever the case, (1) just love what you do, (2) make the most of those opportunities, and (3) maintain your relationships. With the right mindset, attitude and lots of patient persistence, the whole experience can be ultimately rewarding!