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? 


There is work to do tonight, but I can’t make myself do it. Preparing a whole new midterm for one student who was ill, writing a letter of nomination for a student for an award, getting an abstract/bio ready for an upcoming talk.

This has been a really difficult semester and I am really cranky.

I am teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. I have essentially no TA support to speak of (thankfully, I have a grader for homework), and the course has required a lot of time to prep the materials (homework, homework solutions, exams) and grade the exams. I teach the lectures and the discussion and I have more office hours than usual, because they are needed — there is always someone in my office during those. This past weekend I graded nearly 100 exams; it took all weekend. The weekend before, I wrote the solutions to about 50 homework problems (postings of solutions before the midterm, making up for missed postings due to work travel). If you are at a teaching-heavy institution, what I wrote might seem like nothing, but I am at a research institution, and teaching is not supposed to take up 20+ hours a week.

I have had more travel than I am comfortable with this whole academic year, and much of it was service related, which means I traveled, worked a ton, then came back to a punishing backlog of work. I have a break in travel till July, and then it’s 6 effing trips between mid-July and mid-September.

I have written too many proposals, and the new NSF fall deadline is just around the corner. I also have some schmoozing with DoD to do to see if some money could be had.

I have way too much service at the department and university level. One of the university-level committees has turned out to be drastically more work than initially promised, so it has been a huge time drain and I have constantly been pissed off about it. It does nothing for me or my career, it is just a humongous waste of time and I feel like a fool for having agreed to do any of it. The way the whole thing is run is unbelievably inefficient and just plain wrong.

Eldest’s swim practice has moved to 4:30, which means I often have to leave at 3:50 to pick him up and drive him to practice. And this also means I always have to work evenings and often weekends, to make up the lost time because the work day is now even shorter than usual, so I also get no play time.

As a result of all this, I have virtually no time to actually mentor my students and work on the group’s papers, let alone read the literature. The fact that I get to do none of it is making me very, very cranky.

I find it mind-boggling that I have to fight hard to find the time to do research, because all the other stuff — most of which does not require me to seriously turn on my brain at all — easily fills 50+ hours per week. It should not be this hard to find the time to do the work that no one but me can do.

Grant Woes

Yesterday I found out that one of my NSF proposals got declined. I was disappointed, as I think this was probably the best proposal I have ever written.

I read the comments and felt even more down. The comments indicated that it was poorly placed panel-wise.

It received 3 “goods”, and the comments were pro forma. First, the fact that there were a minimal number of reviews (usually there are more than 3 when the panel is well suited to review a proposal) was the first indication that there was no one there who would champion it. Second, the program manager had told me that theory proposals don’t usually review well just because; so this one didn’t either, even though the project is as applied as they come, I have plenty of preliminary data, and two enthusiastic in-house experimental collaborators who contributed letters of support. Comments were things like the proposal is poorly organized (Why did I not have a separate section on preliminary work as opposed to have each task  described in terms of what I have done and then what I  will do? Well, it has worked well thus far many times. Why is there no preliminary data comparing to experiments of other groups? Uhm, yeah, there are probably 6-7 figures showing exactly experiments from other groups versus theory without phenomenon versus my theory with phenomenon. Why is there no discussion on different materials used? Uhm, because they are well known and characterized and a detailed discussion is unnecessary for people at all in this field, while a brief discussion was indeed given.)

The thing with doing theory and simulation in the physical sciences is that, unless you want to be subservient to an experimentalist with DoD funding, there are not many agencies that fund purely theoretical work. And NSF allows for only a single submission window per year, and one proposal per division (which is pretty broad). People get creative and target several different divisions, but there are definitely whole topical areas that fall through the cracks. And I am tired of being shafted in experiment-only panels; I go through great pains to make the proposal readeable and understandable to non-theorists (not a single goddamn formula!) and then the panelists don’t even bother.

What’s funny is that this project is nearly complete. We have done well over 1/2 of it already with fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing) so the story was as complete as I was ever going to write. There is no detail that I did not address because everything worth  addressing actually came up and was discussed in the proposal. As I said, I don’t think I ever wrote a better proposal, it was polished, and thorough, and just wonderful. And the criticisms just show it should not have been reviewed where it went.

I will tell you one thing: experimentalists to whom I show the work fall all over themselves with joy at the predictive capability of the simulation. As they should, because it’s unique and powerful. Maybe I will go against all I hold dear, clean up the code and allow for download at a fee. Maybe I should go with a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t need or want profit, but if everyone wants to use it, then I should be able to pay personnel to further develop it.

But I digress. Because there are not many agencies where a theorist of my ilk can get funding, every  three years I go through this cycle of despair: what if none of the grants get funded? What if I am completely out of money? What happens then?

I would not be as badly off as the people on soft money who lose their labs and their salaries (not common in the physical sciences, apparently common in the biomedical world). But not being able to have students would suck. I could still do some work on my own; but, in my department and college, how much you are worth locally equals how much money you bring in. I would suddenly become a lesser faculty member, and what I say would not matter as much as it does now.

My former postdoc is a junior faculty member elsewhere. He’s smart and overall just great, but has not been able to secure funding thus far in spite of writing grants continuously for a couple of years now. I can understand that he is panicked. If he doesn’t land a grant soon, he may never actually show to anyone what he would have to offer.

I never thought I would retire, ever. These days, I think I will retire when the time comes just to relieve myself of the need to stress about where the support for my students is coming from. As a full professor, I have A LOT of teaching and service. The time I have for research is spent on hunting for money. I wish I could spend that time advising students or writing papers or thinking about what we’ll do next.

It’s not the end of the world, and I am better off than many, perhaps most. Still lots of irons in the fire.
But I don’t think I want to spend all of my time this way.

When did it stop being important that we actually think and do science and instead what became important is scrounging for money to do the science?
It’s so exhausting and so effed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think scientists should be having completely free rein — it’s taxpayer money and stewardship is necessary. But we are at the extreme where considerably less good science is funded than proposed, which cannot be good.

I will lick my wounds for another day or two, but then it’s back in the saddle again, scouting new funding opportunities.

Professorial Nuggets: The Overcommitment Edition

I have been extremely busy, hence the scarcity of posts. I have been wanting to post on a number of interesting topics, but the time just isn’t there… And then I forget or the impetus to write diminishes for whatever reason (mostly due to sleepiness), and then there are more pressing things to tend to anyway…

I have been overcommitted. I say no to a lot of things, but I am still overcommitted. I need to implement even more stringent criteria as to what I do and don’t do. For instance, I make a point of reviewing for journals where I often publish, but not much outside of those unless it’s the work of authors I know. Well, it turns out that I can get 5-8 solicitations in a single week from the journals where I publish often combined with others that consider the work of some of the colleagues from the field. Before you know it, instead of writing papers in my precious no-face-time blocks, I am spending all this time reviewing other people’s papers.

A lot of people request stuff from me, and the problem is that many of these people cannot be entirely ignored  if  I want to be collegial (which I do, mostly because I may need stuff from them down the road). Even if I end up not doing what they want, I often have to spend some time reading something or participating in some meetings or talking on the phone before I can say no lest coming across as a dismissive jerk. I wish people would try to filter when and why they ask for stuff. But self-interest trumps consideration, as is understandable.

There are some service tasks that I committed to, but they turned out to be time-wasters despite having started as interesting or potentially impactful. I think really hard, but end up not being able to find a single saving grace when it comes to doing these tasks; I really resent myself for having taken them up.

I have been teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. It’s been fun and challenging for both me and the students. It’s a considerable amount of work and I have no TA (I do have a grader for homework). A large number of adorable terrified undergrads means I have to hold a lot of office hours and I always have someone in my office. None of this has helped with my workload.

I have been privy to the information about some people’s tenure cases. While I knew of the following issue from research and diversity training, after the experiences of this year, I can tell you firsthand that people sometimes write really weird $hit about women in external letters of evaluation (letters are solicited without the candidate’s input from roughly a dozen prominent people in the field). I have never seen anything like that written for a male candidate. It’s not even necessarily negative, but it’s weird, overly personal, such as analyzing the inner workings of the (mysterious female) psyche.

I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom? I have 2-3 divisions at the NSF where I can submit unsolicited proposals, and they are all due at the same time, once per year, in the fall. I wrote two different brand new grants in parallel for the fall deadline and could not recover for weeks. I recently (a few weeks ago) finished a massive renewal application of one of my large grants to a different federal agency. I don’t think I can write more than 3-4 new, different grants in a year by myself; first of all, there aren’t that many places to send to, and second, there are only so many good disparate ideas I can write up per unit time; I suppose I could do more if they were revisions, but with so few places to submit to and so few submission windows per annum, I am not going to recycle a grant with a low chance of success just pro forma. Plus I actually have to teach and advise students and write papers… And travel, and do service. So writing 10-12 grants per year, is this a biomedical thing? Or an experimental thing? How is it even pulled off amidst all the other work? I don’t know many of my physical science colleagues writing 10-12 grants per year, perhaps only the NIH or DoD-funded folks with humongous groups.

Large center grants get on my nerves — specifically, being asked to participate in grants for large centers, which almost never get funded. These grant writing endeavors are always last-minute, dramatic, and not creative at all. I know all the cool kids participate in them, and I have done it a fair number of times, but I cannot make myself go through the pointless motions again. I am all for collaboration when it’s organic (first we realize we want to do something together, then seek funds), rather than how the teams are often assembled, which is scrambling in response to a funding solicitation.

I crave the time to work on my science. I reread one of my single-author papers from several years ago. It is really cool. I never get to do that any more.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you keep your workload manageable? What do you say no to? What frequency of grant writing is appropriate for your discipline? Center grants — yay or nay?


I think I might explode with anger and frustration. I have a proposal due next week and I cannot get to work on it because I have to finish two nominations (including writing letters) for colleagues (no, they could not have been done sooner because everyone, including the nominees, waits till the very last fuckin’ minute to send me their stuff) and I have to sit in a meeting for a university-level committee all morning tomorrow and then I teach in the afternoon.

And this is the service that is actually not bullshit. And don’t tell me to delegate, because I am the delegate.

Sometimes there is simply too much work for the time available. And the time crunch comes about not from sitting on one’s hands but from constantly having to put out fires; urgent always trumping important, until it’s too late. 

So please, don’t give me advice on how to optimize my time. I assure you I have heard everything and am aware of all the tricks. Most “tricks” involve dropping stuff or dumping stuff on someone else. Or simply being an asshole, like some of my colleagues, and not give a damn if service obligations go to $hit.
I have already cut all that could be cut; this week alone I refused probably 6-7 review requests.

Absent dumping my work on someone else, it is the issue of simple math: there is too much work for the time that I have. And no, it is not my character flaw, or my inability to get organized or whatever. So please refrain from giving advice.

Where will I be all weekend? Right fuckin’ here, in my office, non-stop. Butt glued to the chair.


Which reminds me: I received reports from a highfalutin journal. Of the three, one was very positive and 2 sentences long. One was blanket dismissive, also 2 sentences. One was misguided and factually wrong (an example of a little knowledge being a bad thing), but at least the person wrote several paragraphs.

To all my colleagues who can’t be bothered to read the whole 4-page letter-type manuscript and who can’t be bothered to write more than 2 sentences: screw you. I always write detailed reports, especially if I don’t like the paper. I do so even if I do like the paper, so the authors would have some ammunition to fight the potentially negative reviews.

Screw you all, lazy referees. You are crappy colleagues. I hope all you receive in the next 5 years are blanket dismissals conveyed through 2-sentence reports.
You don’t deserve my time or my effort to read and understand your papers and write detailed reports.
And neither do you, unbelievably slow editor who actually lets not one but two 2-sentence reports through as actual reviews. Screw you, too.

Ah, Meetings

I am very tired, it’s been a hellish week; but, something that happened last week remains with me, so I might as well try to purge it through writing, as I have been itching to do. I am sure I wrote about similar experiences before, but here it goes again.

I am very impatient and the people who speak slowly drive me absolutely nuts. I have a colleague whom I love dearly, and I would probably hang out more with her if her slow talking weren’t so excruciating to me. I hate it when a person takes 30 seconds to complete a sentence whose conclusion I saw coming in second No. 2. I often finish the sentences of slow talkers, in the hopeless attempt that they would get to the point while we are still young. Gaaaaah! My response is visceral and hard to reason away.

I was on a committee, not chairing it, joined by two colleagues. This small committee then reports back to a larger, super-committee if you will, with the findings. The meeting went way overtime because the chair, a painfully meticulous and slow-speaking individual, honestly spent considerably more time on certain aspects of the problem than reasonable, just because the rules say so. I appreciate that sometimes it’s important to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, but there are situations where common sense is perfectly acceptable to apply and where we should think why the rules were created in the first place, rather than follow the rules to the letter in a situation to which they clearly don’t apply. For example, let’s say the bylaws say that in order to work at a hair salon you have to have this many years of training at a beauty school, as evidenced by certificates; what we did was the equivalent of discussing ad nauseam why the certificates of a candidate are not what we expected them to be for a hairstyling position, which is really pointless because the job description does not involve cutting hair at all, but rather working at the reception, answering the phone, and sweeping floors.

Even though I had a hard time waiting for the committee chair to express himself while going over the many, MANY, quite unnecessary details, I think the small-committee meeting went well overall. But in the larger meeting I think I might have ended up getting on some people’s nerves. First, there are a number of prim-and-proper slow speakers on the large super-committee and in my university in general; that just seems to be the way and is related to the regional culture (faculty native to the region are very measured in their demeanor and eloquent and speak sloooooowly and drive me absolutely bonkers — SPITITOUTSPITITOUTSPITITOUTALREADY!!!) During the (again) excruciatingly long meeting of the super-committee, I had a harder time restraining my impatience and I ended up cutting in a few times into the slow-speaker’s monologue to clarify, correct, disagree, and generally be a douche (side-effect) but mostly in order to move things along. I don’t think I was coming across as very nice in those meeting, and being that I am female and have been socialized to please, it bothers me that I make people uncomfortable or that they don’t like me; on the other hand, I am felling bored and generally wanting to just burst out of my skin. I seem to have come across as a buldozer of sorts, never a good metaphor for a woman. The thing is, I know I should be quiet and let the meeting run its course and not interfere, but I just cannot stop myself. It’s physically unpleasant sitting there, listening to the slow-paced bloviating; I just want to fast-forward these people, make them get to the point already. Some people really like to listen to themselves, but I just cannot be a willing participant for very long, as I can hear my hair graying, my butt expanding, and my face wrinkling while they are laboring over that perfect spoken sentence, and then another, and another…

As the friend from above said, I don’t have the personality for any kind of administration. I am probably not liked in that committee — or many other places, for that matter, which don’t recognize that I am really a force for good: annoying colleagues with incisive comments and fighting collective time-wasting since 2004.

Being liked mattered more when I was younger. I was also able to tolerate people’s narcissism, disrespect, and generally wasting my time better. With age, I am turning into a curmudgeon. Ah, the little inevitabilities of aging.

But perhaps that’s another aspect of the impostor syndrome: I would like to be respected, liked, and listened to, but it seems the first two aren’t happening. So I at least try to not be bored quite as much.

WTF Editor and What Professors Do All Day When Not in Class: A Two-Parter

I have submitted a paper to a journal that prides itself in rapid turnaround. It’s been a week and no action; it’s sitting on the editorial desk (well, metaphorically; rather in an inbox or a folder of some sort). I am getting really antsy, because they often send out for review within a couple of days from submission.

I have told myself I would give them 2 weeks and then nudge them. But I might have serious problems waiting that long… It’s a journal that does desk rejections, btw.

A few months ago, I had a Glam Wannabe journal sit on a manuscript for nearly a month and then desk-rejected.  I could have received a full review other places in the same amount of time. I was unbelievably pissed that they wasted my time like that. It will be a long, long time before I review for them again, I will tell you that. A$$holes.

What say you, blogosphere? How long do you allow the editors to sit on a paper before you nudge them to ask “WTF is going on? $hit or get off the can!” (Well, the polite version, anyway.) Do your actions depend on the typical or perceived or processing time for the journal? On how badly you want to publish in there? On how much coffee you’ve had?


What do we profs do all day when we don’t teach? Well, here you go.

Smurf the Little had an owie ear, was taken to a doctor and then to daycare this morning by DH. However, Middle Boy puked repeatedly and quite grossly yesterday evening and last night, so I stayed at home with him today, as I didn’t have to teach. The Puker will be 8 this spring, so he’s not high maintenance, and he was also starting to feel better, so I was able to work. What I did today:

  • reviewed 2 proposals for two different federal agencies (one US, one Canada);
  • reviewed 1 paper (revision, didn’t take very long);
  • wrote 2 letters of recommendation;
  • edited a full-length conference paper a student is submitting;
  • edited a colleague’s paper, which I promised to do even though I also asked to be taken off the author list because I didn’t do much for the project;
  • hastily submitted belated paperwork and a report for an existing grant that I hope to get renewed and I really should be behaving better towards the program manager;
  • filed paperwork for a no-cost extension of a grant;
  • organized and submitted paperwork for a recent trip;
  • filed justification for airfare for an upcoming trip;
  • booked yet another upcoming trip;
  • emailed pretty extensively with two grad students on technical stuff, and talked over the phone with one of them;
  • emailed lightly with three or four panicked undergrads, who realized the reign of terror is upon them as they are taking a class with me;
  • emailed w/ some 20 or so other people about various upcoming meetings or scheduling midterm classroom for my huge class etc;
  • prepped class for tomorrow;
  • scanned some pages for student HW I had assigned yesterday because the library doesn’t have the undergrad text on reserve yet;
  • organized and submitted paperwork to establish an undergrad’s research position  and a add a grad student’s MS to a PhD in another department;
  • read/skimmed two papers that a colleague sent me as of possible interest (they were);
  • worked on my annual report that’s due in about a week;
  • worked on the figures for a manuscript that should be submitted likely by Feb 1;
  • obsessed/fumed over the fact that the stupid paper from part 1 hasn’t gone out to review (or come back desk-rejected) yet. Okay, this is not work, but it takes energy. Even though it’s only dark energy… BWAHAHAHA.

Not bad for a lazy overpaid layabout academic on sick-kid duty, huh? As you can see, I make a great secretary. Who dabbles in teaching and research.

I still haven’t done the stuff I need to do for the awards committee I am on, and I have yet to write the paper to accompany the invited talk I am giving in February (I really shouldn’t have accepted the invitation, I don’t like to publish conference papers — too much time on something people don’t read or cite). Two journal papers are nearing submission by end of February, and a grant too; I am chipping away at those as well, but didn’t today.