Am I prepared yet? Reflections on my first year as faculty
Just over a year ago, I shared a brain dump of all of the advice I had received about being a professor. That post went semi-viral, garnering tens of thousands of views. I posted it prior to actually starting my faculty position, however, so I had no way to assess the advice as it related to my personal experience and nothing to say about how I actually implemented the advice in practice.
Now, I’ve been a tenure-track professor for just over a year and a half (I started January 2018). So, I thought it’d be appropriate to provide an update — to reflect on this advice, how it relates to my experience, as well as if and how I tried to implement it and to what effect.
If you have not read the original post, it might be best to start there. In this post, I’ll be referring to each piece of advice in that previous post by its title, but the title does not necessarily capture the full scope of the advice. Following the title, I’ll provide my reflection on the advice a year and a half into the job.
I’m not trying to be prescriptive. I’m still new, and you probably shouldn’t be following my lead if you want any guarantee of a smooth path to tenure and beyond. That said, I hope that by sharing my personal experience, you will have a better understanding of what to expect should you try to follow some of this advice yourself. I would also love to hear more about what’s worked for you, if you feel inclined to share.
1. Expect to be overwhelmed and be ready to adapt
The multi-faceted nature of this job is very true. But it didn’t all manifest at once. Perhaps I am fortunate to be in a department that values giving their junior faculty some breathing room, but I would say that my first semester on the job was surprisingly calm.
There were several reasons for this: I did not yet have a Ph.D. student, I was teaching a class that was already well structured, and the other faculty member with whom I shared student and lab space was on leave. So, every day, I would come in to a mostly empty space, sit in my office, and…think, code, read and write. In retrospect, it was almost blissful. At the time, however, I was anxious — partially because of this advice, that I would be overwhelmed. I was expecting to be torn apart from day one. The fact that I wasn’t made me feel like I must have been doing something wrong.
I didn’t need to be so anxious. Now, I feel many different pulls on my time. Too many. And, just as people told me, I was not and am not fully prepared for most of the things I need to do. I spend the majority of my time, as faculty, doing things that are important but for which I have no formal training. If I’m lucky, I spend maybe 10% of my time doing the things that I did well in graduate school (e.g., programming, writing papers, reading and synthesizing work in areas that interest me). In general, my days usually comprise of some combination of teaching (e.g., designing a class, preparing a lecture, grading), service (e.g., serving on program committees, internal committees, reviewing papers and grant proposals), grant writing, meeting with my students and other collaborators, giving talks, making connections with industry partners and making financial decisions that nobody should trust me with. The context switching between all of these different things is time consuming in and of itself.
I’m still struggling with balancing activities that have high managerial leverage (e.g, grant writing) vis-a-vis activities that I enjoy doing and that got me interested in this field in the first place (e.g., programming). I wrote a blog post about that, too, if you’re interested.
This careful dance of juggling all of these different responsibilities is a price you pay. The reward you get for paying that price? One of the best jobs in the world. There are so many things about being faculty that are great. My top 3:
- Being(mostly) in total control of your own schedule: Pretty much the only thing set in stone is your teaching schedule. Any other structure you impose on yourself is of your own doing. Don’t forget that you can change large parts of that structure if you don’t like it. There’s no rule that the meeting schedule you started with in the beginning of the semester is the one you have to end with.
- Being(mostly) in total control over your work environment and culture: You can choose how many students to work with, the sort of equipment that you have available, how meetings are structured, the values you want your lab to embody.
- Being (mostly) in total control over your research agenda: Since you have control over which students you’d like to hire and how to spend your research funds, you can indulge your scientific curiosity. Since you’re mentoring students who take the leading role in the day-to-day operations of the work, you can explore so many more of your ideas. There’s something really magical about meeting with a student, pitching a vague idea, and seeing that idea come to life in a few months.
Yes, you will probably be overwhelmed. It may not happen right away. It almost certainly will happen eventually. It’s worth it.
2. Take advantage of the resources your university provides to help deal with being overwhelmed
This is great advice. It can be difficult to follow in practice. There are two difficulties: learning what resources are available in the first place and finding the time to learn how to take advantage of those resources.
For example, Georgia Tech has a wonderful Center for Teaching and Learning that can help with course preparations and improving your teaching more generally, but I have yet to fully take advantage of it because it is an extra thing to do.
I only found out a few weeks ago that Georgia Tech provided free access to the Adobe Creative Suite. I had been paying out of pocket for almost a year!
The return on investment for figuring out what your university provides is probably worth it, and I will be trying harder to take advantage in year two.
3. Don’t lose sight of the fact that your university exists for students
Checks out. One of the trickiest transitions from grad student to professor is understanding that your output is not just your individual scholarship anymore: it’s your students and their work, as well. This subtle mental shift was tough for me to make, but, once I made it, I felt much better about how much time I spent simply meeting with students and facilitating their work.
4. You will never have more time than you do now
I definitely have less flex now than when I first started. I’m still relatively early in my faculty career, though, so I’m not sure how my current time commitments will compare. I certainly don’t feel like there’s much room to add more commitments (but I still usually say yes to more things than I should).
5. Befriend your administrative support staff
Well, I think this is generally a good thing to do as a human being. I have no way to “assess” if this is good advice or not because I have nothing to compare against. I will say that my administrative support staff at Georgia Tech have helped me immensely, and that our rapport makes it much easier to work together through some of the bureaucratic hurdles I need to get through for adhoc requests like: buying a couch, hiring a former student who graduated but wanted to stick around for a bit, converting some money allocated for equipment into money for a post-doc and setting up a summer internship program.
6. Justify and document your research purchases
Makes sense in theory. Hasn’t affected me at all in practice yet.
7. Apply for funding early and often.
This also makes sense in theory. I applied early, and was very fortunate to have been awarded a NSF CRII grant. Between that and my start-up package, I have been able to support myself and my students for the first two years without issue. So, I actually have not focused much on fundraising my first year.
I am now steadily ramping up my fundraising efforts. Friends of mine have told me that the outlook is bleak — 20 submissions per acceptance. These are people who I think do stellar research, by the way. So, it probably does make sense to apply early and often. If there’s interest, I can write a longer form post of my experience with funding in academia.
Remember, though, funding can come with strings attached. Don’t chase money to do things you don’t want to do — that’s not why any of us took this job.
8. Get to know your colleagues
Absolutely. My first semester on the job, I tried to set up one meeting a week with another faculty member in my department. I invited them out to coffee. I learned a lot from my colleagues in those meetings — what to look for in prospective Ph.D. students, who else in the university might be interested in the work I do, the resources that Georgia Tech provides that might facilitate some of my research activities. It was truly invaluable. Moreover, it helped me get to know people on the faculty with whom I would otherwise not likely speak to one-on-one.
I stopped doing this my second semester when things got busier, and I regret it. As I write this, I feel an urge to start this practice back up again. Hopefully, I will.
9 & 10. “Your university is investing in you. Part of the expected return on investment is service to the university” vs. “Counter point: Limit your service responsibilities pre-tenure.”
Part of the price you pay for all of the freedom that comes with faculty life is that you have to self-govern, and self-governance entails service. But how much service should you do when you are just starting out? I think being proactive makes sense here. My mentor gave me some specific advice on pre-tenure service: do something that gives you high visibility among your departmental colleagues. That way, few will question that you are contributing.
I volunteered to be on the faculty hiring committee, which involves sifting through and triaging all the job applications for faculty positions we get at my department, and making recommendations for who we should interview. It’s a fun role that allows me to help my department with a critical task: few things are more important. Moreover, since I have to coordinate with domain experts to help assess a candidate who we are considering inviting for an interview, it gives my service contribution broad visibility among my colleagues.
11. Get a post-tenure mentor at your university.
Absolutely do this. I have one formal mentor (the department pays for me to go to lunch with this person once a semester), and several informal mentors. A good way to develop these informal mentor-mentee relationships is by co-advising a student or attending the would-be mentor’s lab meetings.
Mentors give you good advice, yes, but they do much more. My mentors have helped me forge invaluable contacts with people both inside and outside of Georgia Tech. At least two of these connections have resulted in important and exciting collaborations.
12. Assemble an advisory board of mentors outside of your university.
I haven’t done this yet, partially because I feel guilty and awkward about it. I’m not completely sure how I would go about building this advisory board. Directly asking people to mentor you seems kind of selfish (you’re basically asking them to do work for your benefit for free…continually). That said, I’m sure there are good ways to broach this in a way that is mutually beneficial. I just haven’t given it a lot of thought.
One thing that should make this easier is the fact that academics are often fairly generous about mentorship. We, generally, like providing advice and helping out those who come after us. So, maybe this barrier is entirely self-constructed and I just need to get over it. Maybe I’ll make some progress towards this by my next update!
13. Befriend other junior faculty and share your experiences and strategies.
I definitely have quite a few junior faculty friends, both inside and outside of Georgia Tech. At Georgia Tech, we have an informal group of junior faculty who semi-regularly go for drinks together on Friday nights. This has helped me to get to know colleagues from departments outside of my own.
To be honest, I haven’t done a lot of strategy-sharing with these junior faculty friends and acquaintances. I have done a lot of commiserating, though. I may not be prepared, but I am also not alone.
14. Be adaptable in your time management strategy.
The nature of faculty work almost necessitates interruptions and frenetic sprints. You can and should try to impose structure on your time, but you’ll go insane if you get upset at every interruption.
I might add that it makes sense to experiment with different time management strategies and meeting structures in your first few semesters to figure out what works best for you.
So far, I have tried two different strategies: (i) individual meetings with each project group at set times every week; and, (ii) open office hours where project groups could come and meet with me for as long as they needed.
While I initially thought I might like the second strategy better, it was messy. Owing to the consistency of class schedules, many project groups would all come to meet with me at the same time, only to find a long queue of others waiting. Meetings were almost never short — the open-ended nature of office hours made it so that project group meetings were often longer than necessary. Accordingly, I’ll probably move away from the open office hour model next semester. If I continue with it, it will be supplementary. Perhaps shorter individual meetings with office hours to supplement.
15. Know your students — professionally and personally.
While it’s obviously good to know your students and understand the pulls on the their time and headspace, I think the degree to which you forge a personal relationship with your students depends on your own personality. Your students need your guidance and mentorship. Sometimes, they are best served if you can provide with them constructive but critical feedback. If your relationship precludes your ability to provide this critical feedback, then you should reconsider the personal relationship.
In his book, High Output Management, Andy Grove provides a good litmus test: Think of a close friend. Do you feel comfortable providing that friend with an objective review of their performance if they are asking you for feedback? If so, then a personal relationship with your advisees might be fine. If not, you should probably avoid getting too close outside of the professional context.
While I often try to avoid conflict, I don’t think I have problems providing constructive but critical feedback to close friends. By the way, if you want to get to know my student Youngwook, we recently produced a YouTube video together. Check it out if you feel so inclined.
16. Do not collaborate with everyone who would be a good collaborator. You need tenure letter writers who have not worked with you.
I’m not close to tenure so I can’t fully assess this advice. Most of my collaborations, thus far, have been with other faculty at Georgia Tech and with industry partners, however, so I guess I’m following it!
17. Set aside distinct blocks of time for teaching prep that is adequate. Stick to those blocks of time — no less, no more.
This is probably good advice, but it has been difficult for me to follow because I get nervous about teaching if I feel at all unprepared. One way to practically enforce this is to force yourself to prep exclusively in the hours right before class. This gives you a real deadline— you cannot prepare for the class once it starts. I did this in my last semester teaching. While I cheated once or twice and prepped at other times, in general I stuck by it. I had great evaluations, so I don’t think my quality of instruction went down much.
18 & 19. “Ask your department head to repeat teaching assignments pre-tenure” vs. “Teach multiple things early on to reduce required prep in future years when you will have less time.”
Why not both? There’s plenty of time before tenure to do multiple course preps and repeat. Repeating a class definitely saves a lot of time. Designing a new class is very time consuming. I just designed my first new class in the spring semester — a graduate class on usable privacy and security research. I’m very glad I did. The upfront legwork that went into preparing that class is likely to pay off for years to come. Two of the group projects in that class might result in a publication, which is a great bonus.
20. Be known to your department head.
I was hired by one chair, and started my job under another. At first I was apprehensive, because I did not know what to expect. Luckily, both my old and new department chairs are great.
It has been immensely helpful scheduling a meeting with my department chair once a year to discuss my progress. Your department chair / head wants you to succeed: it makes the whole department look good. So, in my experience at least, they will do what they can to help you if you get stuck.
One good way to be more visible to your chair is to apply for workshops, programs, grants and awards that require your chair to submit a nomination letter. One I did this year was the CCC’s LiSPI workshop. You will probably have to provide the high-level points to put in to the letter, but the process of drafting and submitting a short nomination letter should help your chair keep abreast of all the great work you’ve been doing.
21. Invite leaders in your field to give a talk at your department.
This makes sense. I haven’t done much of this yet, but when I meet colleagues at conferences, I do sometimes offer to invite them to give a talk at Georgia Tech if they would be interested. So far, I have invited one colleague. I plan to invite more in the coming semesters.
Inviting colleagues to speak at your university is a great way to forge a collaboration. I’ve found that this is especially true for industry partners: often, it is easier for them to make these trips if they are unfunded and they are usually very interested in meeting with your students. People in industry are always on the lookout for good interns and future employees!
22. Take on as many compensated opportunities to speak as you can.
Sure, but these tend to not fall into your lap in my experience. You can sometimes apply to speak at industry-focused conferences. If selected, these are usually reimbursed. You might even get an honorarium.
I did one of these, at the USENIX Enigma conference. It was a great experience. It was probably my largest audience for a single talk, to date. My talk there also led to another invited talk at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab — another great experience.
23. Invite yourself to give talks at other universities / labs
I haven’t done this yet, but I plan to. Perhaps in a future update, I’ll speak more to this! If you want to invite me to give a talk at your university, by the way, please shoot me an email :)
24. Take advantage of industry resources. Industry resources are more than just money — also data, equipment.
It takes time to build inroads with industry collaborators, but I think it makes a lot of sense — particularly for those in computer science and engineering.
Conferences a great way to begin these conversations. If you go to any of the industry sponsor booths and introduce yourself as faculty, you are likely to find someone who would be interested in inviting you to give a talk or coming to visit your university. Folks from industry are always interested in recruiting interns and full-time employees, so make sure to pitch the great work your students are doing.
Recently, I’ve been able to spool up an early collaboration with both Symantec Research Labs and Google. This came in the form of giving a talk about my ongoing research efforts, followed by a shared brainstorm of how we might be able to collaborate.
Remember that industry partners can also write “Letters of Collaboration” for NSF grant proposals. In my experience serving on an NSF panel to review grant proposals, letters of collaboration can be beneficial.
Also remember that are many different ways to collaborate. You could send a student to do an internship; you could work there as a part-time consultant if your university allows it (in my understanding, most do); you could have ask them for a “gift” (some money to help support the collaborative research endeavors); or, if the company has some sort of formal academic research grant program, you could submit a grant to that company with an internal champion.
25. Effective mentoring is a skill & a teaching relationship
I’m still learning how to be an effective mentor and manager, and it’s perhaps too early to report on any meaningful meta-observations. Perhaps in a future update, when I have more than one Ph.D. student who has worked with me for more than one year!
26. Don’t take a teaching release your first semester
I didn’t take a teaching release my first semester. Instead, I’m planning to take it this coming academic year. I think that was the right call. Teaching was my one clear, concrete thing to do that first semester. It helped me orient myself when I felt like I had no idea what I should be doing. Had I taken a teaching release my first semester, I probably wouldn’t have done much with the saved time.
Now, I have some momentum and some students. I have grant money. I know more about the resources I have available and what to expect of the students with whom I plan to work. Hopefully, the saved time will allow me to accelerate. I’m very much looking forward to next year!
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