From postdoc to PI, it’s a journey. Don’t forget to pack some support

| Written by Sanju Sinha
Sanju Sinha (right) with computational biologist Lihe Liu, Ph.D., a postdoc member of Sinha’s new lab
Sanju Sinha (right) with computational biologist Lihe Liu, Ph.D., a postdoc member of Sinha’s new lab.

The journal Nature Cancer asked a dozen early-career investigators to share their thoughts and experiences about starting their own labs in 2023. Among them: Sanju Sinha, Ph.D., who joined Sanford Burnham Prebys in June. Below is his essay. You can read the rest here.    

Don’t forget to pack support 

Against the backdrop of a world emerging from a pandemic, starting my laboratory in 2023 was a whirlwind of excitement and anxiety, against the backdrop of a world emerging from a pandemic.

The goal for my laboratory is to understand cancer initiation and use this knowledge to develop preventative therapies—a goal appreciated by many, yet understudied and underfunded. We are aiming to achieve this by developing computational techniques based on machine-learning and leveraging big data from various sources, such as healthy tissues, pre-cancerous lesions and tumors. This journey has taken several unexpected turns, with its fair share of delights and challenges.

One significant hurdle appeared early: hiring. I recall the advice I received: “Forget it, you can’t hire a postdoc as an early-stage laboratory.” This made me ponder—if I were to choose right now, would I pursue a postdoc? My immediate answer was no. It struck me then: the traditional postdoc route needed a revamp.

Determined to instigate change, I introduced a new role: computational biologist. This position, an alternative to a postdoc, was tailored for transitioning to industry and offered better pay. The response was staggering—more than 400 applications.

Now, I’m proud to lead a fantastic team of three computational biologists from whom I am continually learning. This experience taught me a valuable lesson: crafting roles that serve both the goals of the laboratory and the career aspirations of the applicants can make a world of difference. I urge new principal investigators to shatter norms and design roles that provide fair compensation and smooth industry transition—reflecting the reality of the current job market.

However, the path to establishing a new laboratory was not without setbacks. Rejection is common in this field. I have already experienced a grant rejection and, considering the average grant success rate, I am prepared for many more.

Amid these challenges, my support system proved to be my lifeline. I’m grateful to be part of Sanford Burnham Prebys, which has proved to be more than just a top biomedical research institution. It is a community that provides unparalleled support for early principal investigators through generous startup packages, administrative assistance, hiring and grant-writing guidance, and a network of compassionate peers and mentors.

Equally important is my personal support system—my family, partner and friends who remind me that there is life beyond science, helping me maintain my well-being. This balance, I have realized, is the most crucial tool for anyone on a similar journey—so do not forget to pack support for the ride.

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