In the back of your mind you know it could happen. You've just moved to this new postdoc position--packed all of your possessions and relocated to a new state in order to work with a particular research scientist. Then, in your first formal meeting with the lab team, your new principal investigator (PI) announces he is taking a semester-long sabbatical leave.
It may have been common during your graduate school years for your adviser to attend conferences and visit various institutions to promote the scientific advances and/or discoveries of the research group. But this is different. You are a postdoc now. Time is critical. How can a PI's prolonged absence be good for your career?
Call it an opportunity wrapped in panic.
If you are part of a research group with more than one postdoctoral associate and/or senior research associate, the departing PI must determine who will be the acting lab director in their absence. This may be a perfect opportunity for you to step up and earn some valuable experience.
While I was a postdoc in the department of chemistry  at Louisiana State University, my PI's sabbatical departure gave me the opportunity to take on additional research, management, and administrative responsibilities. In addition, I would be working with some outstanding students that could be of tremendous help to me during my postdoctoral tenure. Moreover, it created an opportunity for me to acquire from my postdoc adviser the additional mentoring I would need to learn how to successfully manage a laboratory.
What should you do?
Do you want to be acting director in the PI's absence? Although this opportunity would be great preparation for anyone considering an academic career, there are some personal and practical issues to consider. Do you have enough seniority in the lab to command the necessary authority? Do you want to take on the extra responsibility of managing a lab at this point in your career? Do you have personal considerations that make working extra hours unfeasible? Working well with others in the lab will be essential. Do you have the time management and delegation skills to call on others for assistance with tasks such as proposal writing, manuscript preparation, evaluating students, and organizing laboratory cleaning assignments?
Once you get these issues sorted out, you'll need to learn what your PI expects of the acting lab director. Does she or he have a vision for the working relationship between the acting manager and the other postdocs, research associates, and staff members? How much contact does the PI expect to have while they're away? Should the group meeting schedule be maintained? Who will do student evaluation reports? Are there manuscripts in preparation that will require attention? Having thought through the obligations and opportunities, if you are still interested in the position, now is the time to let the PI know you are up to the challenge.
If you are selected to lead the laboratory, it is imperative for you to begin preparing for your new role as a "pseudo" research professor before your PI's departure. Working out matters in advance will make the experience less stressful, giving you and the PI sufficient opportunities to articulate expectations and understandings about how things will work. It is much easier to plan in advance and avoid crises created by predictable deadlines and operational needs.
Two areas that require clarification are lab operations and sustaining your own research program.
As acting lab director, you will be responsible for essential lab operations. Considerations that you'll need to address include: establishing authority to purchase supplies and equipment; maintaining laboratory instruments and facilities; the status and responsibilities for proposals and manuscripts in preparation; the group meetings schedule; student progress/evaluation reports; research plans; back-up resource persons on campus; budget oversight responsibilities; and deadlines for reports, proposals, and updates.
In addition, you and your PI should discuss in detail your working relationship with other staff members and research associates. You should work with the PI to sustain patterns of activities such as group meetings. If the PI will be gone from all meetings, are you expected to conduct them? Does the PI expect you to forward meeting summaries? Does the PI have standard roles or duties for other participants? Does the PI have a work plan and schedule you can follow? Has the PI made it clear to others in the lab who will be evaluating the research and professional progress of the students in the PI's absence? Does the PI require students to submit progress reports regarding their experiments? How would the PI like students to be evaluated (oral communication, technical writing, in-depth technical knowledge, ability to work in teams)?
You also need to address sustaining your own research and professional agenda. What is your plan and what do you hope to accomplish in your adviser's absence? This should include your own research productivity as well as sustaining that of the PI's lab. How will the PI assure you that you can make the temporary role be a professionally rewarding experience?
After you and your adviser have discussed these important and pertinent details regarding management of the research group, it is an excellent idea to have a joint meeting with the students before the sabbatical begins. Make sure everyone in the lab understands what is expected of them in the PI's absence, and that you are in charge of running the research group.
No matter how carefully you prepare, your PI's departure will inevitably require a major adjustment. However, your preparation will determine if you will have a smooth or difficult transition into your new role. Playing the part of your PI will not be an easy task. Don't panic! Simply use your resources and enjoy exploring the life of a research professor.