How I Approached My Lab Move
Every neuroscientist makes transitions for different reasons. In my case, when I was recruited from Howard University in Washington, DC to the University of Michigan in 2016, I wasn't actively seeking to leave. In fact, I was really happy at Howard.
But this opportunity came along, and the timing was right. My research projects had just started to pick up enough traction that the work was ready to grow and expand.
Though it was tough, a major part of my conscious decision was to become less of a teacher and more of a researcher.
At Howard, a liberal-arts school, the split was maybe 70 percent teaching and 30 percent research. At Michigan, it's maybe 80 percent research and 20 percent teaching. Michigan is a power-house, set up to do world-class research.
As much as I enjoyed my students, colleagues, and DC living, moving to Michigan was an opportunity to grow my research in ways that I couldn't have imagined.
Here’s how I made the decision.
I basically created a list of all of the pros and cons. Part of this analysis, which I tried to keep as quantitative as possible, centered on what I needed to do my work, and what I thought it would cost.
There were also other factors.
For example, one downside of moving to Michigan would be not getting to know as many students on a personal level the way I did at Howard. There, I felt very connected to the students, and I felt part of their academic and personal development. Former students would send me birthday cards and gifts. Sometimes even parents would send me brownies or cupcakes as tokens of appreciation.
That personal connection is a difficult factor to quantify, but still I tried to assign it a value.
Even though my mentors agreed that analyzing research, professional development, and lifestyle considerations was important, they shared that in the end, it really is an emotional decision.
I'm married and have a family. I had to consider my wife and her work, and our two children. If you're going through this process, it can be beneficial to let the recruiting school know that your family is part of your calculus.
There may be resources available you don’t know about, such as assistance with finding your partner a job or help finding childcare or schools.
What I’ve told my friends is, "For the first time in my career, I feel like the only limitation is my own creativity and hard work."
This is what many scientists dream of.
Once the offer became real and I did the nuts-and-bolts analysis to make sure it was a viable career move, I let myself experience the emotions associated with being able to do the types of experiments I have always wanted to do.
For example, drug discovery has always been a major interest. The University of Michigan has exceptional infrastructure for drug discovery and development. We’ve already developed a project to identify novel compounds for the treatment of PTSD.
Also, simply being in an environment where I am surrounded by other neuroscientists doing amazing science is inspiring and motivating.
However, moving is not over when you show up and your boxes arrive.
The process takes a really long time. There are so many other steps, such as ordering equipment and supplies, recruiting students and postdocs, hiring, and interviewing people.
It’s a lot to manage. I was in the thick of it for a while. After about 6-7 months, we finally had enough of the lab set up to run our first set of experiments. It was very gratifying.
My new colleagues have been super helpful in directing me to the right resources and helping me navigate through many of the necessary administrative and regulatory tasks, such as animal protocols, which can differ dramatically at every institution.
You can actually get started on some administrative work, which can slow you down, before you leave. For example, start filling out the regulatory forms and getting into the new institution’s computer system.
If possible, try to bring members of your lab with you. I was so fortunate to be able to convince one of my doctoral students to come with me. The tasks of disassembling and reassembling a laboratory is much more manageable with at least one other person.
In retrospect, this is what I now know and recommend.
I probably would have transitioned slower if I had to do the process over.
We finalized an offer around April or May. I was in Michigan by August because we didn't want to move the kids during the middle of a school year. But, I had initially been planning to move in January 2017 to have double the time to take care of administrative details.
Give yourself as much time as possible to make your transition from one place to another. You can then wrap up experiments in your old lab while you're setting up your new lab. If you time it right, you can have seamless productivity.
Know, too, that your space typically won’t be ready because renovations are necessary to make your lab space fit your needs. The school will also want your sign-off, even for the placement of items as small as a single pipe or electrical outlet.
If possible, order as many items as you can before you arrive, so that when you get there, your boxes will be waiting for you.
And don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
Rely on your colleagues and your networks, not just people at your old institution, but also friends at other institutions. Call them up and ask them for their insights.
I also think that sometimes we believe that people at our new institution expect us to show up as a perfect professor and have everything together — but they do not. They understand that we have some strengths and some weaknesses. Don't be afraid to engage with new colleagues.
You can say, "I'm not good at budgets. Can you sit down and help me with my budget?" Or, "I don't know how to estimate my monthly cost for plastics. What did you decide to do?" Or even, "Can you send me your quote for that piece of machinery?"
When you’re in this situation, don’t be afraid to meet up with everybody and get as much advice as possible.