Top-ten Things I Learned my 5th Year as a Lab PI: AKA Taking Time to Smell the Roses the Year You Go up For Tenure

David Letterman may have retired, but Top-Ten lists live on!


Top-ten Things I Learned my 5th Year as a Lab PI: AKA Taking Time to Smell the Roses the Year You Go up For Tenure.


  1. I absolutely adore the smell of walking into my tissue culture lab room! Ah the sweet smell of 70% ethanol and all things sterile. It actually calms and soothes my nerves. I opened my letter from the Promotion & Tenure committee in that room so I wouldn’t hyperventilate from stress in case it was bad news. I’m considering working on my computer in there on stressful days but don’t want to lose the pleasure of that room. Especially since working in the tissue culture hood is one of my most favorite activities!
  2. When people tell you that its worth it to test serum lots and reserve them from companies….they…. are not…… lying. A whole year of results was delayed because of a bad lot I got. Everything from reduced infectivity, to inability to grow certain cell lines, to different phenotypic changes after treatment. I’m now a believer!
  3. Some of your colleagues will start to show you their true colors this year.   Not sure why (since they have tenure), but they do. Maybe they sense the last time they will have complete power over you? Keep you head down and smile. You are so busy preparing all those tenure docs and trying to publish stuff that you are really too overwhelmed to spend any time thinking about it or reacting to their antics. This too shall pass.
  4. Having a single Departmental Chair in place from your 3rd year review through your tenure-review process seems like it would be helpful and a truly amazing gift! Don’t take it for granted. My Department was in the middle of a Chair Search when I declared my candidacy for tenure. No bueno. I had one chair who had been around for 20yrs when I was hired, then an interim chair who didn’t know me for my 3rd year review, followed by a different interim chair (who was not even from a Natural Science department) during my actual Tenure-process. Oy vey!
  5. This is when the rubber hits the road.  You’ll be amazed by how much you can make your budget stretch when needed. You subconsciously begin implementing a “no data, no orders for you” policy.  At this point, everything going on needs to be a direct contribution to the science in your lab in one way or another. Put your money where the data is.
  6. I remember this one year in undergrad when I wanted to be a lawyer and I now think I could have been one. I argued my case for tenure like an attorney showing the facts of what I had done, and why it mattered (in other words, “What wouldn’t be know without me and my research program”!). I made a compelling case for why its worthy of tenure and promotion (i.e., how it showed that I am on the trajectory for being the –ish if I keep on this path. And why that, plus all the stuff I have planned, will make me the –ish for sure). I pointed out all the things I had done in the exact categories my university listed as important for tenure in the P & T documents or manual. Use those policy documents wisely.
  7. I learned that I have no desire to be an administrator…..I took no joy in taking time away from actual experiments, and my students, to document all the stuff I had done over the previous 5 years. Come on! Just let me get back to actual work and do my job! Death by documenting.
  8. I realized that I wanted tenure more for my PhD students sake than my own. Being able to assure them that I would be around at least until they finished their degrees was the biggest motivator (and stressor).
  9. I’m still not sure what “having tenure” means. Doesn’t seem as valuable as it once was historically. Whenever people ask it feels silly to say, “Yeah I got tenure, and then in 5 years they review me again to see if its still worth it to keep me around.”. I mean, I still have to sign a year-to-year contract each Fall. The promotion part clearly has value that provides a new title, and a salary increase.
  10. There will never be a better time to “toot your own horn”! Got a new grant? Published something cool? Contact your universities’ public relations team to write about it. I did:

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