You are Not Prepared: Some advice I've received on how to be a professor

You Are Not Prepared: Some Advice I’ve Received on How to Be a Professor

Hey, were you just hired as a tenure-track Assistant Professor? In the words of Illidan Stormrage, “You are not prepared”.

I’m not a professor. But, I will be in about four months. A thing that happens when you are an almost-professor is that many already-professors will give you advice on how to to do well at your future job. I am grateful for that because without their advice I would be lost. I want to share some of the advice I’ve received.

But, first, a disclaimer. This advice is primarily meant for tenure-track Assistant Professors at R1 universities, but some of it might be useful for others as well. Also, this post is not meant to be a definitive guide to professing. As I said, I am not (yet) a professor, so I cannot evaluate any of the advice I’ve received in context. Maybe after I’ve been a professor for a few years I’ll re-visit this post and annotate the advice I’ve received with my own experiences.

can say is that this is the advice I’ve received by smart people who have been professors for at least a few years, if not a few decades. Much of the advice I received was repeated by many different people. In some cases, I even received contrasting advice. Accordingly, while the advice in this post is not my original thinking, it is filtered and interpreted through my own thought process. So, reader beware.

How did I receive this advice? Through a combination of: phone calls in which I specifically asked for advice, academic job interviews in which advice was given as a natural consequence of the conversation, informal chats with colleagues at conferences, formal chats with senior colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, and the Georgia Tech new faculty orientation I recently attended. Anyway, on to The Advice.

Expect overwhelm and be ready to adapt

Professors wear many hats: researcher is just one of those hats. The other hats include: mentor, teacher, fund-raiser, steward, advocate, marketer, governer, manager and yarn spinner.

As a grad student or postdoc, you are mostly trained to be good a researcher. You’re also probably exposed to teaching, and you might even play some role in fund-raising, marketing or yarn spinning. But, you are rarely The Person Responsible in any role apart from researcher.

In other words, everything you’ve done to get this job is only one part of the job. It’s perhaps the most important part of the job, but, as a proportion of how you will be spending your time, it’s just a small part.

The upshot of all this is that “you are not prepared”. But, neither are you unique in that: nobody is prepared. So, expect to be overwhelmed and be prepared to adapt to shifting time demands.

Keep sight of why you chose to be a professor through all of the noise of the job. Let that vision guide you even when it feels like you’re drowning. Do that, and, apparently, you may be alright.

Take advantage of the resources your university provides to help deal with overwhelm

A corollary to wearing many hats is that there are many rules associated with the each hat you wear. Writing grants has a set of rules and processes; teaching has a set of rules and processes; advising has a set of rules and processes and so on and so forth.

Your university likely has administrative structures and personnel in place to help you navigate these different aspects of your job. Learn about these resources and the staff who can help you as soon as you get on campus. Maybe even before. Some common examples include: a center for teaching and learning, dedicated staff who will create your budget sheets for NSF grants, staff who are dedicated to interfacing with non-government funding agencies and foundations, and a media office who may try and get your work some publicity.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that your university exists for students.

Universities are built for students. You were hired to be an adviser, a mentor, and a teacher to the students of your institution. Everything you do as a professor should be, directly or indirectly, in service of your students. Luckily, your success is largely evaluated by your students’ success so, in that way, your motivations should be aligned with this responsibility.

You will never have more time than you do now.

You’ve probably heard that your first year as an Assistant Professor is stressful, overwhelming, unpredictable, difficult, exhausting and painful. It can be all of those things. Apparently, though, you will also never have more free time as a professor than in this first year.

Embrace this free time for deep thinking.

Befriend your administrative support staff

The administrative support staff your department provides will help you. A lot. With grant submissions, with hiring GRAs, with interfacing with the internal systems your university uses and requires you to use. And, as they will be assisting many faculty in your department, they will probably have a long backlog of work that they need to do. Appreciate and befriend them as soon as you get on campus. Buy them a coffee. You’re going to need them.

Justify and document your research purchases

If you’re anything like me, it might seem…an interesting choice that you have been trusted with managing all the money you will be asked to manage as faculty. You can use that money to make important purchases that you need for your research. However, every once in a while, your university / department might get audited by a funding agency in order to make sure that their grant money is being put to good use.

Make sure you clearly document why purchasing equipment / resources is relevant to a research grant.

Apply for funding early and often.

In theory, you should not be being judged for the number of dollars you bring in through grants and gifts. In practice, running a research lab and advising students takes a lot of money. Also in practice, raising money takes time, work and luck. Depending on your field and research interests, grants can range from being very competitive (10–15% or so) to extremely competitive (<5%).

Apply for funding early — don’t wait for your start-up money to run low before you think about getting grants. Even if you don’t get awarded the grant, the effort you put in getting funding will be appreciated when it comes time for your department to re-appoint you.

Get to know your colleagues.

The other faculty in your department are going to be your colleagues for a long time. Try to be their friend, too. The best research ideas often come about from unexpected collaborations and the best way to make that happen is to have friends who know you, like you and can make research connections both with you and for you.

A good way to spend time your first semester is taking other faculty in your department out to coffee. Introduce yourself and get to know them.

Your university is investing in you. Part of the expected return on investment is service to the university.

You’ve probably heard of the three pillars of professing: research, teaching and service. Service can be external or internal: external being things like taking on administrative responsibilities in service of your broader academic community (e.g., being the program chair for a conference), internal being taking on responsibilities in service of your university.

This internal service can take on many forms: joining committees to discuss new degree programs or student admissions or faculty hiring, serving on a faculty senate to help with the governance of the university, taking on administrative duties to help ensure that the faculty in your department can quickly and easily access the resources they need.

The point is this: as a member of the faculty of the university, your university is investing a lot in hopes of your success. Part of the expected return on this investment is your being a good citizen and helping with the governance of the university and department.

Counter-point: Limit your service responsibilities pre-tenure

Service is a necessary part of your being a good academic citizen. But, when you are just hired, you have this big hurdle you need to get past: tenure. Service is likely the smallest consideration in your tenure case (relative to your research and teaching), so many universities try to “protect” their junior faculty from taking on too much service. As a green-horn professor, you should learn to say “no”. Not to everything, of course, but no one will know how thin your time is already spread better than you. Your highest priority should be getting your research agenda up and running. It’ll be hard to do that if you take on too much service.

Good service responsibilities to take on as an assistant professor are those that can help you spool up your research: for example, the Ph.D. student admissions committee. You’ll probably need good students to do good research (this is largely field driven, and there are exceptions) so being able to directly have a say in who gets in may be useful.

Get a post-tenure mentor at your university.

This advice was echoed by pretty much everyone. You’ll need a mentor at your university who is already tenured and is well acquainted with your subfield who can answer questions like: What grants should I apply to? What kind of lab should I create? What should I do my first N years? Who should I talk to about this research idea? What can I do to recruit students?

Many universities will have a formal mentorship program in place where they will set you up with an appropriate mentor who you will meet at least once a semester. If yours does not, or if you don’t get along well with your assigned mentor, don’t be afraid to just find someone who you think would be a good fit, take them out to coffee, and ask them any questions you might have. Your department has spent a lot of time, energy and money to get you there — they’re invested in your success.

Assemble an advisory board of mentors outside of your university.

Your need to be well known not just to the people in your university but also to your broader academic community. One effective way is to ask senior colleagues who you respect to be, informally, a part of an “advisory” board. You’ll very occasionally ask them questions or ask for their advice on big career decisions, and they’ll get to know who you are and keep track of your progress.

You might be asking: What’s in it for them? I’m not sure. Again, this is just advice I’ve received. I can speculate, though. As a newly hired Assistant Professor, you are part of the future of their discipline. Being able to pass down their approach to academia to others outside of their immediate students is a strong form of impact. Moreover, it’s flattering to be asked to serve as someone’s mentor and academics like to give advice. Anyway — the worst that can happen if you ask is that they say they are too busy or do not reply. That’s not so bad.

Befriend other junior faculty and share your experiences and strategies.

Advice from senior colleagues is important, but commiserating with junior faculty is also important. The other junior faculty in your department are the people you will be “growing up” with as a faculty member. They’ll share similar struggles and will have their own strategies for dealing with overwhelm, doubt and time management. Moreover, they, along with you, will be the future leaders of your field and department. You should get to know them.

Be adaptable in your time management strategy.

Academic work is interdependent and unpredictable. Recognize that your work will rarely go according to plan. Expect and embrace interruptions and sudden breaches in schedule.

Know your students — professionally and personally.

There should always be certain barriers between advisers and advisees but you must know your students in order to be an effective adviser and understand the constraints with which they are dealing.

If your student is dealing with a family death, or is recently engaged, or is working a part-time consulting job so that she can pay rent, you should know that so you can contextualize their progress, calibrate your expectations and provide help if necessary or appropriate.

Do not collaborate with everyone who would be a good collaborator. You need tenure letter writers who have not worked with you.

This one was a bit counter-intuitive. The basic idea is that tenure is a matter of your reputation in your field. Your reputation is assessed through letters of recommendation by known leaders in your field who do not have a conflict of interest with you. A conflict of interest would be, for example, being a family member, a close friend or a direct collaborator.

So, if there is someone at University X who would be the perfect tenure letter writer for you, but also the perfect collaborator, you may need to strategically hold off that collaboration until after tenure.

I’m not sure how much I like this advice, but it is pragmatic.

Set aside distinct blocks of time for teaching prep that is adequate. Stick to those blocks of time — no less, no more.

Teaching takes a lot of time, especially the first few times you do it. Teaching, in fact, can take up all of your time if you’re not careful. A friend told me he spent somewhere on the order of 40 hours/week on teaching the first time he taught. But, teaching is also important and a necessary part of your job. So, you should time box.

Set aside distinct blocks of time in your week for teaching related responsibilities: prep, grading, office hours, etc. These distinct blocks of time should be significant — I’ve heard that you generally need 3–5 hours of prep per 1 hour in the classroom. Do not exceed those pre-allocated blocks of time so that you can also make progress on your many other responsibilities.

Ask department head to repeat teaching assignments pre-tenure.

That ratio I mentioned before: 3–5 hours of prep per 1 hour in the classroom? That only applies the first time you teach a course. The amount of prep you need the second time you teach the same course is significantly reduced, and significantly reduced again the third time.

If possible, then, you should try and repeat teaching assignments pre-tenure. This will help you save time and allocate it towards spooling up and strengthening your research agenda. There’s a trade-off, of course: teach a course too many times and it might become boring. If you find a course boring, the quality of your instruction might drop.

Counter-point: Teach multiple things early on to reduce required prep in future years when you will have less time.

Limiting course preparations pre-tenure is commonly offered advice. I also heard a counter point that plays off one of the first pieces of advice I mentioned above: “You will never more time than you do now”. If that’s true, then perhaps you should do multiple course preps now so that later, when you have less time, you will be prepared to teach a variety of different courses as the need arises. The person who gave me this advice mentioned doing 4 course preparations pre-tenure and then not having to do another for 8 years.

Be known to your department head.

This advice should be obvious enough, but it can be difficult to execute if, for example, a new department head is hired from an external search at some point before you go up for tenure.

Your department head is probably the most important Position of Power standing in between you and tenure. Every other Position of Power (e.g., the Dean, Provost and President) is usually at least one step removed from you and will largely rely on the judgement of your department head when it comes time to deciding if you should or should not get tenure. Naturally, then, you should make some effort to get to know your department head and keep them up to date on your efforts.

Invite leaders in your field to give a talk at your department.

Again, tenure is largely about establishing a (positive) global reputation for yourself and your work. You should be recognized as a Leader in Your Discipline by other Leaders in Your Discipline, both inside and outside of your university.

A good way to acquaint yourself with these Leaders in Your Discipline is by inviting them to give an all-expenses-paid seminar talk at your department. Many departments pre-allocate funds towards a seminar series and allow their faculty to invite interesting speakers with those funds. If your department doesn’t already have such a seminar series, try and set one up. These seminars are a good way to expose faculty and students to interesting ideas going on in other discplines and universities, and can also help start cross-university collaborations.

If there is no departmental financial support for a seminar series, invite external speakers anyway. Invited talks look good on a CV, so maybe the person you invite will try and do it anyway. You can probably increase your chances if you invite them at a time they’ll be in or close to your city anyway. Be upfront about not being able to pay for their expenses, of course.

Take on as many compensated opportunities to speak as you can.

It’s even better if you give a seminar talk at another university, industry lab, government agency or conference. Especially if doing so doesn’t come out of your own travel budget. These opportunities will arise every once in a while. If your schedule permits, you should absolutely do them. Travel can be a pain, especially when you are juggling all of the responsibilities of being a new professor and trying to maintain a speaking relationship with your family. Still, your primary job pre-tenure is to get yourself and your work known and appreciated. So, try not to turn these opportunities down unless you really must.

Invite yourself to give talks at other universities / labs

As you come closer to tenure, it’s a good idea to strategically “invite yourself” to give seminar talks at other universities. How? First, enumerate people who you expect a tenure committee would ask to write a letter for you. Then, starting about two years before you’re up for tenure, e-mail the people on your list that you’d love to give a talk on your research at their department. Even if they can’t compensate you, just say that you were planning to be in town anyway.

Most departments would be happy to host a seminar speaker, especially if they don’t have to foot the bill. Try and pool multiple talks in geographically close locations together — that way, your expense is limited and perhaps you might even find a way to be compensated for part of your trip by one of the places you are giving a talk.

Take advantage of industry resources. Industry resources are more than just money — also data, equipment.

Your job is not to write grants, it’s to do good research. Writing grants is a means to an end. Consider alternative paths to that end. Depending on your discipline, there’s a good chance that there are many industry-sponsored funding opportunities. Also remember that industry has more than just money: often they have expensive equipment as well as rich datasets. So, pursue collaborations with academic colleagues in industry research labs that might be mutually beneficial. Industry collaborations are also a great way to have impact beyond just papers and citations.

A good way to establish these relationships is by encouraging your students to pursue internships in industry. Your students can be a good bridge between a university and a company. They can take your ideas into industry and bring their ideas back.

Effective mentoring is a skill & a teaching relationship

You’ve been an advisee, but being an adviser is a different sort of beast. It’s a skill that you must cultivate.

Importantly, no two students are alike, and your advising style should be adaptable and personalized to the student. It may be tempting to borrow your adviser’s style but change everything you would have wanted done differntly. That may be a good starting point. But, remember, you are not your adviser and your student is not you.

Your role as adviser is one that you can define, but generally requires you to be a guide, a mentor, a champion, an advocate and a facilitator among other things. Remember the point above: “Your university exists for the student”.

Don’t take a teaching release your first semester

I got this advice from pretty much everyone. Your first semester, you will have a lot to do: you’ll be learning about the job, figuring out how to write grants, setting up your living situation, getting to know students and colleagues. It may be tempting to want a teaching release just so that you can figure things out.

But, you shouldn’t take a teaching release, if you were offered one, in your first semester. Teaching can be a concrete thing for you to do that can help you structure your time. Everything else may be total chaos, but at least you know you have a class to teach on Tuesdays on Thursdays. Moreover, because you won’t yet have any Ph.D. students, teaching a class can be a good way interact with students and get some of them interested in your research.

You’ll want to save your teaching release for sometime later when you’ve found your groove: when you have Ph.D. students and are making progress towards your research agenda. That way, you can make the most effective use of the time you save from not having to teach.

If possible, try and teach a small, graduate seminar about your subfield your first semester. If that’s not possible, try and teach a course that is already well organized and structured so that you have do not have to start from scratch.

That’s…a lot of advice. And that’s not even all of it. It’s just the advice that stuck. You probably won’t be able to internalize all of that advice. That’s not why I’m writing this post, anyway.

I’m writing this post to solidify everything I’ve heard over the past year into something concrete and to remind myself of, perhaps, the most important advice I received out of all of this: expect overwhelm, be adaptable, keep sight of why you’re doing this, and you’ll be fine.

Once I’ve been a professor for, you know, at least a day I’ll re-visit this post and annotate it with my own personal take.

Till then, let me know what’s worked for you. I’m already overloaded with information and advice, but a little more can’t hurt, right?

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