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.

Joel in lab.jpg