I spent close to a year in a mentor-mentee relationship that just wasn't working out. Now I have just over a year left in my training program in which to create a pilot project from scratch and apply for a grant. Fortunately I've found an additional mentor with whom things appear to be working a bit better, but I'm worried about the very little time I have left to navigate the entire from-scratch research process. Any tips on how to watch out for pitfalls and streamline the process?
From the discussion at the Early Career Session, one of the main messages was that young investigators really need to investigate the environment they will be entering for their post-doctoral training prior to committing to the lab/PI. Key issues to investigate are: satisfaction of current post-doctoral trainees, the success of previous trainees leaving the lab/mentorship history of the PI, and whether you agree with the research and mentoring philosophy of the PI. Thoroughly researching the environment you will be entering is a vital part of having a successful post-doctoral experience. The panelists also advised making a visit to the lab where you plan on training (easy if you are already at the institution, more difficult if not), to try and get a better feeling for the environment (and so the PI can determine if you would be a good fit in the lab as well).
The more difficult question, of course, relates to your situation: what do I do if I am not happy with my current mentoring situation? I think there are two key things that need to be done. First, make sure that you communicate clearly with your current mentor about what you would like to improve on in your current situation/relationship. For example, if you don’t get adequate face-time with your mentor, let him know that you feel you would benefit from meeting with him/her one-on-one on a weekly basis to discuss data, problems, etc...
Equally as important, you should have open discussions with both of your mentors describing your involvement with each one (unless it is very clear that you are switching labs and will not have further involvement with your first PI).
If you are starting in a new lab “from scratch” for one year, I think it is in your best interests to work on a project that your PI thinks is a sure thing (i.e., no high-risk, potentially high reward studies). The name of the game in short-term experiences like this is productivity (as evidenced by publications). I would also seriously consider extending your research experience in your new lab so that you can ensure that you will see a project to fruition. This could be supported in part by an AHA post-doctoral fellowship, fellow-to-faculty transition award, or a beginning Grant-in-Aid (which does not require independence at the end of the award). Also, setting up structure (regular meetings, timelines/goals/milestones, etc.), should help you to streamline the process and self-evaluate your progress (and re-adjust goals as necessary...).
Finally, I think that you should be completely open during the interview process, as well as with your goals regarding research after your training. Asking about the success of previous trainees, the PI’s mentorship style, how the PI would envision planning to help you transition to independence, etc., are all reasonable questions. Your post-doctoral fellowship is a major determinant of your trajectory when you enter the job market, and ensuring that you find a good fit for yourself is highly important for all involved.
After my training is complete, I hope to find a job that gives me clinical time as well as protected research time. My ideal balance would be at least 50% clinical... which, to my understanding, means that any research that I participate in will be solely as a co-PI or collaborator. Do these jobs still exist? If so, where do I look for them, and how do I sell myself for such a job?
It is entirely reasonable for a 50%/50% investigator to be a PI on a major grant (e.g., R01). While I am not a clinician scientist, my impression from many of my colleagues is that you just need to ensure that your research time really is protected, and that you have a reasonable time frame in which to garner extramural funding to continue to support your research efforts (e.g., collect preliminary data, write the grant, probably resubmit the grant, etc.).
As I have not looked for a combined clinical/research position, I can’t provide you with good advice about where to look (perhaps someone else could expound there). Networking at meetings, however, will get your name out among your colleagues and may help you identify new positions (and will also help you stand out among the stack of applications the department will receive for a position).
From a research side, the reality is that you need to convince the institution that you will be highly likely to be: 1) productive, and 2) able to garner extramural funding. The best ways to do this are: 1) be as productive as possible in your post-doctoral training, and 2) develop a track record of productivity and funding (e.g., post-doctoral fellowships, transition awards, etc.).
I hope this is helpful. Please don’t hesitate to post additional questions you may have, and I will do my best to answer them—my hope is that these answers will stimulate some discussion on the topic…