Day: July 5, 2015

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track?