Advice for new PIs part I: start before you start

Knoepfler Lab empty 2006. New PIs
My empty lab when I arrived.

Update in 2020: It was kind of wild to read this post now so many years later as an “old” professor, seemingly ages from the realm of new PIs (principle investigators). What do you think? You can read more about the current state of our lab here.

It’s an exciting feeling coming into a new lab as a new professor. An empty lab has so much potential and one can imagine how one’s lab will look in the future.

I walked into my lab in 2006 (see above on the left) here at UC Davis School of Medicine.  As you can see, it was pretty quiet. The gas lines were even still capped.

Now 4 years later (image on the right), we are very much running at full speed.

The first few years of being a new PI are very challenging and one has to learn a lot of things, often the hard way. I wish I had known a lot of stuff before I started.

This post is the first in a series that give advice to new PIs, particularly those working in the stem cell field. It’s true that I’m only 4 years into being a PI, but it is all fresh in my mind.

The first advice I would give applies to postdocs who have a new academic position, but have not yet started. You are still in what will become your “old” lab, perhaps with several months to go before you move. You are excited. My advice to you is to take the mindset that you already started. Yes, your postdoc mentor expects stuff from you, but realistically your focus is ahead of you. And yes, you want to wrap up some projects, etc., but the reality is that they are not so important.

What you should do is start applying for funding as soon as possible. Start writing grant applications. You do not have to already be in your new lab to do this. Even if you do not get the grants funded, which odds are you won’t, you will get valuable experience. Ask potential new mentor(s) at your new institution to read your drafts. This will not only be helpful for the grant, but it will help you get a sense who is willing to mentor you.

You will also interface with the grants office at your new institution very early this way, which is very valuable.

Who knows, if things work out, you might even get the grant.

Seriously considering hiring a senior technician who might start even before you do. This person can get the ordering going for the equipment and supplies your lab will need to do any experiments. This process of stocking the lab can take months. The technician can also start on paperwork for all kinds of things that will be required by your new home institution. If necessary, and this is what I did, fly the candidates to where you are wrapping up your postdoc to interview them.

Start applying to graduate programs for membership. Again, this takes time but you’ll need membership to have students rotate in your lab.

Start networking via email and phone at your new institution. There are a ton of people you will need to know and you’d be surprised how even long distance you can make some important connections.