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? 

11 comments

  1. This is a wonderful post that is very helpful for people who are looking for an academic position orare junior faculty. Regarding the funding agency, do DoD agencies not have a peer review process? Then how do they evaluate the proposals?

  2. Excellent advice, except for one thing. It seems like every year is crazier than the last – and I’m a few years past tenure. I’m not quite sure when it plateaus.

  3. Lighthill, DoD agencies certainly can use peer review, but its role appears different than with NSF/DOE/NIH. For instance, NSF and DOE will provide reviews from panels/mail-in review (NSF ones can be scant, DOE reviews are always nice and detailed; I don’t do NIH-relevant work). In contrast, as PI, I have never received reviews of my grants from DoD (one of them was a young investigator award), so I cannot tell if the proposals were externally reviewed or not, and how. I know that DoD program officers certainly have the option of sending out for review, and some do (i.e. I was asked to review a few times), but I trust the reviews are not required the way they are at NSF/DOE/NIH and are generally for the PO’s information, and there is probably variability between agencies. I think the biggest difference between DoD aand other agencies comes from whom the POs answer to (brass) and what the ultimate utility of the work is (defense). The POs have much more clearly delineated boundaries between individual portfolios and a vision of what they want and don’t want to fund. At DoD, you live and die by white papers: do not bother submitting a proposal if the PO is not excited about the white paper. If the PO likes the work, feels you are competent, and feels what you do has a spot in their portfolio, then the funding will very likely happen. Finally, large solicitations (MURIs): the rule of thumb is that if you don’t know that a solicitiation is coming and what it will be on until it comes out, you are too late. Becoming part of the trusted circles of PIs is critical with DoD, but once you do the funding is stable and relatively abundant. So you need to spend a lot of time initially traveling and talking with them and understanding where you fit with what they want. (There must be people in the readership who routinely have DoD grants, so I hope they chime in here.)

    Blah, I agree — it keeps getting crazier but I guess in different ways. I think the first 3 years on the tenure track are hard because you really are just learning the ropes of the job (students, equipment, grants, teaching). By end of year 3 you have essentially learned to do the job so it’s no longer so bewildering. But then the amount of work just never lets up. Past year 3 there is more service, and the more you get exposed in the community there is service you never knew existed that you now keep doing. There are centers grants that are a whole new level of effort. Your group is larger, more grants means more of them are expiring per unit time… I agree, the amount of work does not saturate past tenure, or at full prof. Probably never for people who don’t plan on becoming deadwood. On the upside, I think people tend to become more cognizant of what makes them fulfilled, are able to do more long term risky projects, say no better, etc.

  4. Talk to the program officers in your area at the agencies. Volunteer to review proposals and sit on panels. It’s the part of service that the program officers value.

    Also if the money is there hire a post-doc. You can usually squeeze some sort of deal as a TA or whatever for grad students from the school. Good senior undergrads are also useful but require handholding.

    Also understand how the rules on overhead affect you at your place. In particular startup money does not carry F&A (aka overhead), therefore money spent on materials and supplies and travel and salaries is worth ~150% of money spent on equipment.

    BUT, most places give you a rebate on overhead which is unrestricted. As grants come in this rebate will be very important for travel (remember the 150%), Make sure you know the rules.

  5. I should perhaps be more specific about the early career awards. Essentially each agency has its own.

    NSF CAREER (generally due July)

    DOE Early Career (link is to last year’s solicitation, new one coming soon; preapplication due September)

    ONR YIP (Young Investigator Program)

    AFOSR YIP

    ARO YIP

    DARPA Young Faculty Award (due April)

    Check eligibility, some require just being on the tenure track, some cap after some number of years post PhD. Some may require permanent residence or citizenship.

    PECASE (Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers) recipients are selected from among the recipients of the early career awards. (You have to be a permanent resident or citizen to be eligible.)

    There are also many universities that maintain nice aggregates of funding opportunities for new faculty. Here’s the one from UC Berkeley.

  6. Serve on your department’s seminar or colloquium committee. It’s not a heavy task, but it ticks the service box while also providing networking opportunities.

    At some point, find an opportunity to get to know a more senior faculty member on the other side of campus, in some field completely unrelated to your own. Getting the occasional advice from somebody totally outside the local politics of your department, discipline, college, etc. can be beneficial. Also, you never know who they know, and whom they might be able to mention your name to. A university is much larger than your hallway and your field.

  7. I totally endorse Alex’s comment. One of the most important things to do is to get to know fellow tenure-track professors at your university outside your department, even completely outside your field. My university has what we jokingly call a “boot camp” for new faculty- several intense nonstop days of orientation to All Things University (services, facilities, rules, offices, procedures, HR, this is who you talk to for this and here is where you go for that, everything) for new tenure-track profs. I promptly forgot a lot of what we were being “trained” on, but the relationships I made with fellow beginning assistant professors were priceless.

    It’s crucial to have “outside-your-department” peers you can go to and compare and contrast your experiences, blow off some steam and commiserate with a colleague in a “neutral site” completely outside your field, ask the questions you might feel embarrassed or reticent asking someone in your own department- “just which office do I call to ask about this? Who is in charge of that? What do I do with a student who says/does XYZ? How do you do this in the university’s accounting system? What has your experience been with the campus XYZ office/service/policy? Just how do you upload grades with this new software?” After all, some aspects of academia (dealing with students, administration, colleagues, travel, finances, the mechanics of teaching, campus infrastructure, etc.) are the same, whether you’re in the department of English, Endocrinology, Earth Science, Economics, or Electrical Engineering.

    It’s been over a decade since then, but I still maintain very close friendships with about half a dozen peers who started with me- in all different fields. We have helped keep each other sane and supported through the academic maze, celebrated over successes and commiserated through tough times. And you never know where things will turn professionally: I’ve written a well-cited paper with a colleague in a completely different field that was inspired by a random conversation we had one day during lunch, and collaborated on proposals with friends in other disciplines that I met on that first day of “boot camp.”

  8. Find out which faculty member is most hated by the department or college staff, and then be different from that person.

    Find out which staff member is most useless and learn to work around that person. You can’t fix them, but the sooner you learn not to rely on them the less stress you’ll have.

  9. One of the things I did just for fun turned out to be really useful. I invited a different person to have coffee with me every week. It was just 30 min/week, but a nice way to get away from my computer and get to know people. These can be faculty inside or outside your department or administrators that can help you navigate within the university ecosystem. Some of these meetings led to great collaborations, some led to long friendships or mentoring relationships, sometimes it was just a good coffee break. In any case, it was a fairly effortless way to create a useful university network and a helpful social outlet.

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