So, in the past year (or two) you’ve been through several interviews for faculty positions; you’ve finally been offered a tenure-track position; you’ve been given (or at least promised) a nice start-up package; and you’re ready to start your new job as a junior faculty at Research U.
You’ve now been at your new job for three months, and you’re still unpacking boxes. You spend a lot of your time trying to convince graduate students to take a chance on you and join a new lab. You’re ordering equipment, dealing with vendors, secretaries, and administrators. And, you still think that you have time to do experiments. Based on the stories you’re telling yourself about lack of production in those three months and the extrapolations you’re making into the future, and realizing that you have only 5-7 years before you come up for tenure, your life is now very stressful.
Relax. Take a deep breath. Set some priorities.
The concept of “tenure” is too large, too nebulous, to take on as your primary goal. From discussions you’ve no doubt had with other faculty, you probably have a reasonable idea of the expectations of Research U. for faculty granted tenure. So, take control of what you can control, and let tenure take care of itself.
A few years ago, I took a training course that focused on teaching effectiveness for new faculty. The instructors of the course recommended that we list our priorities – what do we want to accomplish as new faculty?
Here are my priorities, listed in order of importance, and brief descriptions of each.
Priority #1. Stay Married.
The life of a new tenure-track junior faculty member can be very stressful on a spouse or partner. I’m not an expert in relationship management, but I do know that good relationships take a lot of work. Make a commitment to your spouse/partner so that the long hours you work don’t strain your relationship. If I had been granted tenure but lost my family along the way, then, for me, the process would not have been worth the effort. On the other hand, I was also OK with not making tenure so long as my family remained intact.
Priority #2. Publish Your First Papers from Your New Lab.
At first glance, this may seem obvious. In practice, however, publishing your first papers can be quite difficult and will require planning. Turn your funds into data. Take time to plan out how to take the start-up funds (or whatever grant funds you have) and turn them into data. Instruments, student (or post-doc) salaries, computers, software, supplies. In my opinion, people equal data. That is, focus on getting the personnel into the lab and properly trained, then make sure they have the instruments and supplies they need to collect data.
Priority #3. Get Funded.
Junior faculty spend a significant portion of their time writing grants. And, guess what. So do senior faculty. It’s a fact of life for academic scientists. I consider my lab like a business owner would consider his small business. I’m responsible for the livelihood of ten or so employees. It’s my responsibility to keep them employed by bringing in the funds to pay their salaries.
Turn the data from priority #2 into grant funds. It may take a while before you have enough preliminary data (and publications) to be competitive at NIH or NSF, but a number of organizations or foundations are supportive of junior faculty. My first grant, for example, was a three-year grant from the American Diabetes Association. The grant may not be renewable, as in the case of my ADA grant, but you may get enough funds to allow you to delay your submission to the government agencies. Although this item could be the topic of a separate blog, my advice is that when you do submit proposals to NIH/NSF/USDA (or where ever) that you be persistent. You’ll see your grant-writing skills improve as you gain experience, so pay attention to the critiques and be persistent.
If Research U. is similar to most universities, then mentoring graduate students (and/or post-docs), publishing papers, and obtaining renewable funding for your project will be major considerations in the tenure process. So, focus on what you can control, and let tenure take care of itself.
These were my top three priorities. I’ll be interested to hear from new faculty as well as seasoned faculty. What were your priorities when starting your new position?