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Setting, meeting and adjusting my expectations

Posted by , on 12 February 2024

It’s now been 4 months since I started as a Junior Group Leader at the ZMBP in Tübingen, Germany. And I love it. But while I quickly found the literal fertilizer, there are many things I am still learning or that I am not even aware of yet. I came in expecting to learn a lot in my first few months, but my biggest surprise has been how it feels like I have accomplished very little. I’ve been making progress but there are so many things going on that each individual task feels like it’s barely moving.

Every week I talk to my family and initially I struggle to say what I did that week. But then I start remembering and it turns out that while things do move slowly, a lot of things are moving. So here is me (1) complaining about the things I didn’t manage to do, (2) realizing all the things I did do, and (3) concluding that I need to adjust my expectations and all will be alright.

I didn’t write the outline for my final postdoc paper, plan experiments for that postdoc paper, start our new lab’s big EMS screen, finish optimizing tissue culture techniques, characterize or even genotype all the mutant lines I received, or generate any transgenic lines. All of those feel big and like I should have done at least several of them. They each live rent free in my head. But on the other hand, nothing has spectacularly failed (yet) and there is plenty of time.

The things I did do feel smaller even though some are objectively bigger:

– I recruited 2 PhD students and 2 BSc students. While only one of those has started so far, by April 1st we’ll have 6 people in the lab (including me and Steffi, our lab’s technician). In the process of recruiting, I learned a lot about interviewing and hiring, but also about how our institute and the DFG are organized.

– I decorated my office. It needed some plants and it is a great place to work now.

My office. A variety of office plants that are surviving this far and some of mine and my friends’ prints on the walls.

– I gave talks for BSc students Nanoscience, MSc students Plant Biology, an online symposium (pre-recorded), our entire institute, and the DFG (German Research Foundation). On one hand they were all around the same topic, on the other hand they all had different the time slots (12 – 90 minutes), audience, and effects on my nerves.

– I got a grant! The DFG interview for the Emmy Noether went well and 2 days after I got an informal phone call indicating the committee had recommended my grant for funding. We officially started Feb 1st. With this grant we can expand our lab with 2 PhD students and a Postdoc and do the expensive experiments I proposed.

– I learned a lot of German. This is maybe more a personal than professional achievement, but I will count it for both. While I don’t have to teach in German and everyone at the ZMBP speaks English I feel that it’ll make my life a lot easier. My speaking is still hesitant, but I can understand most in a one on one conversation.

– Steffi and I set up plasmid and seed stocks from the materials I brought and have started cloning in preparation for the new students joining. The first destination vectors are on their way!

The first rounds of plants for setting up our seed collection and for bulking plant lines for future experiments.

Overall, my distorted feeling of not getting anything done comes from how I used to organize my time and attention during my PhD and postdoc. I had gotten really used to the workflow I had as a postdoc: managing a few projects in parallel but having enough time and flexibility to really push one forward when I want to.

Right now I still spend quite some time in the lab because a) I like it, b) we are still small, c) I have the skills to get stuff done and train people. But because my time is fragmented, things don’t feel like they move very fast. And I don’t think that is going to get a lot better any time soon. While right now every week is different and surprising, soon I will hopefully have more of a routine and things should start to feel more manageable. This is of course all relative…

In addition, I’ll try to change my mindset, instead of regularly feeling down because things seem to move slowly, I should take some time to recognize the progress we’re making. While I never really got into the “Gratitude Journal” lifestyle, maybe parts of that can help me feel more positive. Not that I am overall feeling negative! I just need to re-contextualize and re-set my expectations. Right now, I keep enjoying learning on the job and developing our research. All while making some mistakes but progressing slowly but surely. Fingers crossed!

Winter in Tübingen. We had some cold and snow in December but since then it has been relatively mild and sunny.
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