Surviving the pre-tenure years

Following up from yesterday’s post, here’s another When I Grow Up about surviving professorship. This week Joel McGlothlin talks about advice for new professors, and the pre-tenure stresses. Joel is an awesome evolutionary biologist who is currently at Virginia Tech. Also, he’s looking for graduate students

Back when I was a postdoc looking for a tenure-track job, sometimes I thought the search would never end. I had the disadvantage of being on the job market during the Great Recession. I submitted my first job application two days after the stock market collapsed in 2008, and it took me four years and 139 more applications to finally get job offers. Once I had secured a position, I felt like the hard part was over. After all, I had been a postdoc for five years, and had worked in a lab in some capacity for thirteen. I had done plenty of research, had written plenty of papers and grants, and had even taught a few lectures. I should be ready for this, right?

Now I have been an assistant professor for five years, and a few weeks ago, I turned in the final version of my tenure dossier. This document serves both as an excruciatingly detailed summary of everything I have done in my academic career and as yet another job application. This time, if the college tenure committee (and eventually higher levels of the university administration) reviews my application favorably, I get to keep my job. If they don’t…well, then I had better get busy submitting even more job applications.

Putting the dossier together forced me to reflect on my time as an assistant professor. The job has been extremely rewarding, but it has also been challenging in ways that I couldn’t have predicted five years ago. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. Below, I share a few of the lessons I’ve learned, which I hope will be helpful to others who find themselves in my position.

Lesson 1: There is no time

The biggest change a new assistant professor faces is the sheer number of things that are supposed to get done at any given time. As a postdoc, I didn’t keep a calendar, because I knew that I had one thing to do every day: get my research done. A faculty member’s time is split among research, teaching, and service (the percentages will vary depending on your institution). All of these categories hide a multitude of tasks and responsibilities. For example, research no longer means just doing your experiments and writing papers. On top of this, you need to get grants to keep the lab funded, purchase all the things the lab needs, keep the lab in compliance, and advise your students in their own research. With all of these other things to do, it often seems like there’s no time to do experiments and write papers anymore.

The first year was particularly hard for me. When I showed up, the lab was empty and I had to order everything it would take to get research cranking, from beakers to thermocyclers to computers. At the same time, I also had to teach my first lecture course. My department gives first-year faculty an extra semester off from teaching, but I elected to teach in the first semester while I waited for the completion of some animal space renovations, with the rationale that I should be able to get the lab set up and teach in the same semester. However, I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to prepare to teach a course for the first time. By the end of the semester, I found that teaching your first class takes precisely all the time available. I managed to survive the class, but by December, most of the stuff in the lab was still in boxes. Even worse, the manuscripts I needed to work on hadn’t progressed at all.

The reality of being a faculty member is that whatever you’re doing at the moment, there’s always something else that you should be doing. There will always be more things to do than time to do them, and your to-do list will just keep getting longer. A colleague of mine has likened this to trying to juggle bricks—and people just keep throwing you more bricks.

If you’re like me, this reality quickly turns into guilt. It becomes hard to focus on getting any one thing done because of the weight of the to-do-list albatross around your neck. I wish I could say that I found some magical time management solution to balance tasks and get caught up, but I never did. What I did realize is that it’s possible to let go of the guilt. You can forgive yourself for not getting things done on time or done as well as you would like, or for prioritizing one task (sometimes the wrong one!) over another. Yes, I still apologize to others when I’m late or otherwise let them down, but I try to forgive myself, cut the albatross loose, and move on.

Lesson 2: Assembling a team takes a while

As Melissa Wilson Sayres noted recently, the first few years of a tenure-track job can be extremely lonely. In most places, you don’t start your faculty job with a cohort—you’re hired on your own, and you’re the new kid in town. (I was lucky enough to get hired in the same year as three other assistant professors, so the four of us were able to stumble through the darkness together.) For most people, this will also be their first experience leading a team. It will be the first time that there is no adviser to consult when there is a tough decision to make, which can be daunting at first.

Unless you’re lucky enough to find students or postdocs right away, when you start you will be leading a team of one. This can be a huge adjustment for people used to being part of a large lab, as I had been as a grad student and a postdoc. The first year, when you’re working solo in your office or in an empty lab, can be incredibly isolating.

Finding the right people to work with is the most important part of establishing your research program. For me, it took a long time to get my lab going. I recruited one student who started my second year, but I failed to recruit anyone the next year. By my fourth year, I finally managed to recruit a second student and hire a postdoc, and I felt like the lab was gaining momentum. After a year, though, the student decided to leave science and the postdoc left to take a tenure-track job, so the lab was back to being tiny again.

This was not for a lack of trying. Every year, I advertised my lab and reached out to my network of colleagues trying to drum up applicants, but the applicant pool was always very small. One year, I received zero applicants for a graduate position that would have been funded by a NSF grant. Unless they are part of a small handful of programs that naturally get a lot of applicants, New PIs face an uphill battle when trying to grow their lab. When you’re just starting, no one knows who you are. If potential applicants do find you through your work, it’s often a safer bet for them to apply to work with your previous advisors, who already run established labs.

In year six, the lab is now back up to size and I have my best pool of applicants ever, so I feel like we’re now out of the slow growth phase. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through that phase if I hadn’t had sought out scientific interactions elsewhere. One good strategy is to team up with other people in the same situation as you. I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in some really productive collaborations with other early-career faculty. In the best case, these collaborations can drive both of your research programs forward. I’ve also been able to get a lot of work done with some very talented undergraduate students and lab techs.

Lesson 3: Say No

This is advice that everyone who mentors early-career faculty—including my mentors—will give. But it’s been hard advice for me to follow. When you get a request to review a manuscript, write a book chapter, or serve on a committee, it’s difficult to say no for many reasons. For one, when someone asks you to do something, it’s flattering. Less egotistically, you might be able to help, or at the very least learn something. In my first couple of years, I rarely said no to any request, and this led to a lot of problems. Occasionally, when buried under a pile of manuscripts or fellowship applications to review, I would lament the choices I had made. Recently, I have gotten better at figuring out what requests I can afford to turn down. Because time is limited (see Lesson 1), it’s an essential skill to develop. For example, now I try to say yes to only one manuscript review at a time, and I usually only take on the ones that I feel are going to teach me something important to my research. When you say no, it’s a good idea to do it with grace. Tell whoever is making the request why you’re saying no and suggest others who might be able to help out in your place.

Lesson 4: Say yes

On the other hand, it’s just as important to say yes now and then. I think it is crucial to get involved in one or two substantial commitments (beyond your research and teaching) that connect you somehow to your scientific community, society at large, or both. My most important commitment has been to my primary scientific society, Society for the Study of Evolution, where I have served on the Hamilton Award Committee since 2013. This experience has been richly rewarding for me. Each year, I get to facilitate a process that might help graduate students along in their careers, and as a bonus, I get to see some of the best talks at the annual meeting!

Lesson 5: Look for synergy

When you’re juggling a lot of bricks, it’s helpful to figure out ways to reduce the number of bricks as much as you can. One way to do this is to look for ways to accomplish two things by doing one. The easiest place to do this is in your teaching. Many of us have a huge amount of freedom in choosing the material we cover in class. If you’re not locked into a rigid curriculum, try to teach the kinds of courses and cover the type of material that will help you in your own research. This doesn’t mean you have to teach your students about the narrowest niche of your subfield. Rather, you can use the opportunity to teach a course to learn about the breadth of your field, making it easier to understand how your own research fits into the bigger picture. A NSF program officer once told me that to write a good grant, I should try to imagine how my research could serve as an example in a textbook. This was so much easier to do after a couple of years teaching evolution to undergraduates.

Lesson 6: Take care of yourself

Academics like to talk about how much they are working, and it’s often seen as a badge of honor to work long hours. I have never been able to sustain the workaholic pace of some academics. Sure, I occasionally work 80-hour weeks, most often around grant deadlines, but they’re usually followed by a week where I feel can barely function. A regular 40-hour schedule (punctuated by periods of insanity) is the steady state for me. I don’t want to tell anyone how many hours to work, but it’s important to find your groove. You want to be productive and do your job well, but you also don’t want to burn out. Try to find a work-life balance that works for you, and if you’re having a hard time doing that, refer to Lesson 3.

Final Reflections

Looking back over the last five years, I have made my share of mistakes, but in general, I feel good about how things have turned out. I’ve been fortunate to get to work with an excellent group of students and postdocs, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done together and excited about the research to come. I’ve also enjoyed my time in the classroom, and I have improved as a teacher after a bit of a rough start. Despite the stresses it sometimes brings, I love my job and I hope I get to keep it. I’m looking forward to tackling the unpredictable challenges that being an associate professor will bring.

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Running a Successful Lab

This week’s post is from a established and successful professor at an R1 institute. The author  prefers to remain anonymous, but is happy to pass on valuable information for starting a lab and becoming a successful academic. This post also represents the last post in the “When I Grow Up” series. However, if you are at a different stage in your career (how to run a field station, how to design a study abroad class, how to not burn-out, how to sabbatical, how to set up an NSF research station, etc.) and want to write a blog post about it, please contact me
You’ve landed a job at a research 1 university – congratulations! You’ve set up your lab, you’ve got tenure, you’re ready to go! Now… how do you do this long term?
One of the keys to success is how you set up your lab,  and this can vastly influence your chance of being successful down the road.
1) Have a specific research project that can carry you through the first few years. You’re going to be writing grants, recruiting graduate students, possibly teaching a new (to you) course, and getting things up and running. Yes, this is a busy time, but you are expected to be producing during this period. Make sure all your research isn’t focused on starting out brand new, and have something already simmering to carry you through those first tough years.
2) Make sure you have a deal with your chair for teaching assignments and committee assignments. Most places give you up to a year with no teaching sometime in the first years. Each new class taught will take about 8 hours of preparation for each hour of new lecture. I took my time off in my second year ( I showed up with funding), so got my lectures prepared in year one while purchasing stuff and getting the lab set up. I rocked and rolled the research in year 2 +, generating the papers that got me tenure a few years later.
2.1.) Women tend to accept more than their share of committee assignments, and sometimes teaching assignments. They should realize their dude colleagues will be ok with this, but it’s not ok. That’s why it is even more imperative that you have a deal with your chair capping your assignments. 
3) Use your start up funds to hire the best people you can. Getting crappy people working in your lab, as techs, students or post-docs, is like a ship taking a torpedo under the water line. You may not notice it at first, but the ship is listing if not going down. Spend money, immediately or soon after you start, on hiring good people. It’ll make the difference immediately and pay off down the road.
4) Get a good mentor, a more senior faculty member who has learned some of the time management issues, and is willing to provide advice on personnel management. Most places have some training sessions for newbies, so get some of that. Grad school and post-doc jobs largely do not train you on people management, and this part of your work can use up significant amounts of actual and emotional time. Learning how to set and enforce boundaries is a critical professional skill.  The administrative part of people management is not intuitive and there is rarely a complete, comprehensive reference/guidebook available to assist you through the labyrinth.  By being connected to someone in the department who has already gone through this, and is willing to be your Sherpa, you save yourself time and effort trying to reinvent the wheel. You are not the first person to do this, and asking for help/advice is not weakness. So find yourself a mentor.
5) Hard work is not enough. You have to work smart. Surveys show that assistant profs work  55 hours per week. MORE time is not necessarily good time. Use your time efficiently and make sure you do not burn out. Work-life balance is a whole other topic.  This goes back to whether you really WANT a research one job, and whether you have a partner (if you want one) who understands that that you’re gonna be busy and focused. But this is NOT the time to start a second career doing something else. Family issues definitely depend on a supportive all-in partner and understanding on your part.
6) Networking in your field is important (meetings, conferences, etc.), but doesn’t help if you’re not bringing your A-game. It’s great to have good friends, but in the end, being recognized in the meritocracy is more than bonhomie. Your real goal is becoming a good scientist. Just showing up at conferences without presenting ground breaking, or even just solid, research is a waste of time. Pedigree and who you know matters, but ultimately, not nearly as much as good research which has seen the light of day. Consider presentations as a way to showcase your awesome work, not as your ultimate priority.
7) Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about biology. It’s what gets you through the tougher parts in this most difficult of times. This is what I mean about being sure you WANT a research one or academic career (turns out small colleges, especially the really good ones, choose faculty on the same criteria as Research 1 institutions, believe it or not). It’s going to be really much harder if biology is not your top three distractions. In the end, it has to be fun (e.g. I still get an actual physiological buzz when a paper gets accepted for publication).
Don’t forget, this is the dream! Make time for fun things, including but not limited to, your work!

What’s better than Dinosaurs? Baby Dinosaurs

Paleontologists just discovered the mother lode of pterosaur eggs, and they are over the moon.

“Extraordinary.” “Stellar.” “Truly awesome.” “A world-class find.”

That’s how paleontologists are reacting to the discovery of several hundred ridiculously well-preserved pterosaur eggs in China, some of them still containing the remains of embryos.

Want to know more about baby dinosaurs? Read about it here!

Side note to avoid people telling me I’m wrong: The pterosaurs were an order of flying reptiles that went extinct some 66 million years ago. They were not actually dinosaurs, but they went extinct at the same time.

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Dinosaur-era shark found swimming off the coast of Portugal

The frilled shark has been around awhile. Fossils date back at least 80 million years, largely unchanged. So imagine the surprise when said fossil was found swimming and thriving off the coast of Portugal.

This almost literal “living fossil” was discovered off the Algarve coast by researchers who were working on a European Union project in the area, the BBC reported. The aim of the project was to “minimize unwanted catches in commercial fishing,” the researchers told SIC Noticisas TV, as the BBC noted. but the team unknowingly unearthed one of the rarest and most ancient animals on the planet.

Read about it here!

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Marine Biology Chess over Twitter

Twitter recently bumped all the users up to 280 characters, which just seems excessive.

Unless you invent a new and delightful way to play chess, and are a marine biology nerd.

An epic match between Dr. Andrew Thaler, and Dr. David Shiffman had simple rules. Using marine biology emojis, the chess game had only two additional rules: 1) every move had to be accompanied by a fact about the animal 2) all captures had to be accompanied with detailed description of how the kill went down. Read more about it here!

8🐧🐬🐡🐠🐳🐡✖️🐧
7✖️🦈🦈🦈🦈🦈🦈🦈
6✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️🐬✖️✖️
5🦈✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️
4✖️✖️✖️🦀✖️✖️✖️✖️
3✖️✖️🦐✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️
2🦀🦀🦀✖️🦀🦀🦀🦀
1🐚✖️🦑🐙🐌🦑🦐🐚

The sippy cup is half full – a story of having kids in Academia

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Both parents in our household are academics (The Two Body Problem Awesomeness). We knew we wanted a family and I knew I didn’t want to put it off forever. We picked a biological time instead of a career time to try – and we were lucky to have no fertility issues. We had both just secured postdocs at the same institution when we discovered I was pregnant. I defended my dissertation in the first trimester, my husband defended his in the second, and then we moved across the country to start postdocs on the cusp of the third. We had a second child less than two years after our first (while still postdocs). I applied for, interviewed (while pregnant with #2) and secured a tenure track position during my first application cycle, and we negotiated a soft money position for my husband. We were able to defer for one year so I could take maternity leave and we could (try) to wrap up our postdoctoral work.

Planning and some luck are responsible for the fact that we are both still academics. My post doc advisor was so, so, so, so supportive of me. He put no pressure or guilt on me from day one, and his entire lab is family friendly. Having a kid is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding boss guilt to the list. I will always be grateful for this fact and hope to emulate it in my own lab. I also applied for and received a fellowship that allowed me to work at my own pace and on my own project for the last two years of my postdoc. This was huge for my career. My husband’s advisor was similarly supportive. Without the understanding and flexibility of our mentors, I’m not sure we could have made it this far.

Personally, I say I “crash landed” into parenthood. It wasn’t pretty. I had never been around kids. We had a serious health scare. I had the Baby Blues and a short period of post-partum depression. Breastfeeding—not easy under the best circumstances—was much, much harder than I thought it would be (physically and mentally). Pumping at work is the second worst part of parenthood (in my opinion). The first worst part is sleep deprivation. That shit is real. It’s a torture mechanism for a reason. At the start, some babies need to be fed every hour. Go ahead and set your alarm for every hour of the night, stay up for half an hour then repeat. Your next day is not going to be great. Then repeat that for a couple of months and the fact is, your work productivity is going to take a hit. It just is. Plan for it as best you can, don’t beat yourself up for the biological realities, sleep if you need to and rest assured, it will pass.

It took a long time for my fully functional science brain to return to my head. I doubt I worked “full time” for many months after having kids – having children alters every aspect of your life and it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll take a little while, or maybe a long while, to adjust.

All that said – kids are amazing! Now that they are 2 and 4, I am more efficient, happier and (at this point) more productive as a scientist than I was before. Kids give my work brain a break (and work gives my kid brain a break!). I love playing with them. I love reading to them. I love weekends and I love having a very full life. I just traveled to NYC to give a talk and I loved being able to take a short awesome trip and I loved buying two dinosaur toys to spoil them when I got home. I love my life and although I wouldn’t choose to go back to the hardest parts of the last four years, I would never ever change that decision.

I don’t really know what useful advice I have for the young-uns out there. We’ve been lucky and privileged in a lot of ways and it’s not exactly helpful to say “Just be lucky!” We wanted children so we had children. And it’s worked out pretty ok (so far, knock on wood). I guess knowing my priorities helped me a lot. I’m very lucky. I’m very happy. I work my butt off at work and at home and go to bed exhausted every day – and I love it. Good luck to all (and please feel free to post questions here or on twitter @sarahmhird and @NM_Reid)

Noah’s notes on…

  • …mentor support: Both of our postdoctoral mentors were incredibly supportive. That said, the system is unfair to everyone in this circumstance. On average, people starting families are going to experience a productivity hit, particularly women. And PIs on the grants supporting them are likely to feel that. If we want science to be more diverse, PhD students and postdocs can’t just rely on the magnanimity of tenured professors to start their families, we need a system that renders that magnanimity unnecessary.
  • …institutional support: The University of California postdoc union has negotiated decent healthcare and benefits. The first two trimesters of the first pregnancy at our PhD institution cost us dramatically more money than the third trimester, birth and the whole second pregnancy combined at UC Davis. However, technically mothers only get 6-8 weeks “paid” maternity leave (paid by disability insurance! pregnancy as disability, how wonderful!). That is absurdly short. There is amazing variance in needs of infants, and each of our kids completely destroyed our ability sleep out to at least six months before gradually getting better.
  • …the nature of the postdoc: We both did work that allowed flexible hours and did not require extended time at distant field sites or 12 hour stints in the lab. I walked into a postdoc where the initial stages of the project were already underway. I had clear goals for skills I wanted to develop and the project had low technical risk. When your life is about to be upended by children, managing uncertainty is key.

The Crabbiest of Crabs

There’s a theory that giant crabs overwhelmed Amelia Earhart, dismembered her and carried her bones underground.

Speculative, at best. Sounds crazy, we know.

But so has almost every other horrifying rumor about the so-called coconut crabs — until science inevitably proves them true.

They grow to the size of dogs. They climb trees, and tear through solid matter with claws nearly as strong as a lion’s jaws.

And now we know what they eat (spoiler alert: basically anything they want).

Here. And watch the video…