Look whose essay just appeared in Chronicle Vitae!
Why yes, the author is yours truly! It’s an excerpt from Academaze, addressing credit on collaborative work, especially while on the tenure track.
Look whose essay just appeared in Chronicle Vitae!
Why yes, the author is yours truly! It’s an excerpt from Academaze, addressing credit on collaborative work, especially while on the tenure track.
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).
What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track?
Today, I read an excellent, poignant, and depressing post — “I have a vested interest” — discussing sexism and misogyny. Go read it.
Being that I am maturity-challenged, my contribution to this important and uncomfortable topic is, understandably… A pictorially presented pun.
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 recently spent some time with a very junior faculty member at my institution. Young, from a prestigious institution, male. Thinks he has everything figured out. When I tell him what some very explicit requirements for tenure at the university are, he pouts and objects that they are unreasonable (they are not) and that if he feels that doing things the opposite way is the way to go, he will do that instead. I have to bite my tongue and muster quite a bit of patience. Even if we forget that I have been been doing the job for a decade, so I might know a thing or two just from being a non-ancient and fairly successful faculty member, I am at this very moment on the effing university-level committee that reviews tenure cases; trust me when I tell you what is important. We may discuss why it is important if you don’t understand, but rest assured that the requirement is not stupid, and it is not going anywhere, whether you like it or not.
To get tenure in most STEM fields at major research universities, you need to show that you are capable of working independently at the level of leading and supporting a vibrant research group. That means you need to:
We are looking to tenure the people who can do this job at high productivity and without burning out for several decades; people who will clear the tenure bar without difficulty, not just barely squeak over it; an ideal tenured faculty member has an internal engine and will keep pretty much at the same or similar pace on his or her own past tenure.
Young faculty, especially male, who trained in prestigious groups tend to think they are destined for greatness. Perhaps they are; thinking they are is probably better than being crippled by the impostor syndrome, as the likes of me are. But there is a bit of a rude awakening that comes when your start realizing that papers without your famous advisor can’t easily get into Nature Progeny, or that you can’t get money from the program managers whom you know through your advisor and who you think love you, because trust me when I say that they love your old, established, National-Academies-member advisor much better and he’s doing pretty much the same stuff you propose; all the more reason to distance yourself from advisor, don’t you think?
I know confidence it the way of the American male academic, but I sometimes wish people would turn down the volume when they toot their horn. I was a complete ball of nerves when I started on the tenure track; I quickly realized I knew very little and I soaked all the information that anyone cared to share. I don’t know what it is with young men, especially pedigreed ones. Doesn’t it cross their minds that they might not actually know everything already, that they don’t in fact have everything figured out before they ever started, and that now might be a good time to shut up and listen? DH tells me that’s just the way of all men, always having to appear to know everything especially when talking with a woman, and that the young’un will go home and think about what I said. Well, if DH is right and it’s the way of all men, then all men are fuckin’ exhausting. The whole meeting was like talking to a petulant teenager. I already have a teenager to whom I gave birth and one is plenty, thankyouverymuch. I’d rather not have to deal with another one as part of my service duties.
I may or may not be en route to true Midwesternship:
I just finished “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. It’s excellent! Highly recommended for lovers of space-opera sci-fi. I just ordered the sequel, “Ancillary Sword,” and can’t wait for it to arrive. I am not going to spoil the book for you, but I will say this much:
I have had a very productive summer so far. Also, two very long papers, where I was dreading protracted battles with referees, came back with glowing reviews and requests for minor revisions, so I am feeling very positive about my job these days. For a change, I thought it might write about work when I am actually upbeat about it, as opposed to in my usual grouchy mood.
As a new PI, I’m feeling really sunk. I managed to land two grants this year but had only one pub, and I can’t get myself to move on my two really exciting projects because I’m paralyzed by fear that others are beating me to the results and that I’m not good enough to tackle the problems anyway. I don’t think I have the intellectual chops to be here. Where oh where can I get the courage? I’ve read Valerie Young, I’ve been trying in vain to get therapy, and meanwhile every day feels like an awkward performance where I pretend things are fine to my colleagues. I wish I could do research in a vacuum. Or be a confident guy.
My response, on which this post is based, is here.
Gasstationwithoutpumps also has a post on the same topic today, with links to some good posts from Medium and Slate, as well as some of my old posts (from Academic Jungle: Underachieving; Beer, Fries, and Impostors; The Sucky and Awesome of Academia; from Xykademiqz: Potential and Ambition; Tenure Denials; You Got Tenure, Now What?; The Tenure Track, Illustrated).
Briefly, the impostor syndrome refers to feeling like a fraud (despite objective evidence to the contrary), felling like you have no idea what you are doing and don’t deserve the job/award/promotion/congratulations/cookie, that you instead lucked out and stumbled/dropped/slipped on a banana peel then fell into the undeserved coveted “it”, that any minute now someone is going to discover your true “shouldn’t-be-there-anyway” colors and and take it all away.
The impostor syndrome seems to be quite common in highly competitive fields; in fields with drastic overrepresentation of a certain race and/or gender, people from underrepresented groups suffer from it virtually by default. I believe (based largely on blogosphere anecdata) that the impostor syndrome it is quite common among academics, and you can pretty much count on women and minority academics in STEM fields to suffer from it. This is not to say that white dudes (and, in some fields, also Asian dudes) are not susceptible to it, it just means that if there’s anyone who does not suffer from the impostor syndrome, or suffers from the opposite Dunning-Kruger effect (grossly overestimating own competence largely due to actual incompetence), your chances of finding those specimens are highest in the dominant cohort.
The point of today’s post is: You have impostor syndrome. It may lessen but it’s probably never going away, so instead of wishing you didn’t have it, it’s best to focus on finding ways to be productive nonetheless. How to go about it differs with career stage.
I have been a professor for a decade now. I feel less like an impostor now than I did while I was on the tenure track. The feeling was initially sort of justified, in that I really didn’t know how to do the job; nobody really does when they first start out. But that’s not being an impostor, that’s just being a baby academic. The tenure track at research institutions is brutal (I’m not saying it’s not at other types of institutions, I just have no first-hand experience) and the learning curve is pretty steep.
At some point I realized that I would never be rid of feeling like an impostor, but along the way I have learned to muffle the nagging voice and not let it block me, not let it prevent me from doing what I wanted to do for extended periods of time; I still have very down-in-the-dumps days, which are best dealt with by going home early. The impostor syndrome likely impedes my achievement somewhat; without it I’d likely do more or do better work or whatever, but the point is I don’t think it will ever go away, and I have accepted that. I think we spend a lot of time online discussing how it’s unfair that some people feel it and all the ways in which it hinders them. But I realized there is no point in lamenting what would happen if I didn’t feel like an impostor. I do feel like one, and that’s that, but with experience I have found ways to work around it and just get stuff done. We get hung up on this romantic ideal that a person should feel free and unencumbered by doubts while doing their academic work, otherwise they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something else instead. Yet, most adults do boring and uninspiring jobs for a living, and I would take my academic job, with big dollops of self-doubt, over pretty much any other job in the world any day of the week. So I just focus on getting stuff done, really hard. Feeling happy about myself is not a requirement for getting stuff done. I know how to do this job, so I can do it even when doubting myself. Doing leads to accomplishments, and then I feel good for a millisecond, or three. Then it’s on to the next thing anyway.
For me, working with students really helps with the impostor syndrome. Sometimes I get a really nasty paper or proposal review, then feel down and ask what the point is and who cares and whether I am really stupid or uninspired. And I feel like shit for a few days. But then I have students and I cannot be too down for them. They expect me to have my shit together and to know what we will do next and to tell them that we will revise and resubmit and that things will work out really well. And for them I act as if I have my shit together, I go through the motions, imitating someone who does have their shit together, and in going through the motions, in faking it, I actually do get things done and things do eventually work out.
However, this is me after years of experience. How do you fight feeling like a fraud while you are still new and relatively inexperienced, while you are on the tenure track?
So you fear you don’t have what it takes, that you shouldn’t be in your tenure-track position, that you have somehow managed to fool numerous astute people over many years about your abilities. (Of course, in reality, all the people who have been writing recommendation letters for you, and all the people who interviewed and hired you are not stupid. Nobody is into charitable hiring. If you don’t believe yourself, believe in their judgement. They would not have hired you if they didn’t think you had what it took.) But let’s say you did fool everyone, what’s the worst that could happen? What is it that you fear? That somebody, everybody, will discover you are a fraud? Well then, since you are headed for certain ruin and disrepute, you could curl up into a ball and not do any work and ensure that the doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or you could make the time before they inevitably find you out count, right?
Let’s say you don’t really deserve to be here. So what? That’s life, people get things they don’t deserve, good and bad, all the time. Are you going to give your job back? Of course not, don’t be stupid. You don’t actually owe it to anybody supposedly more meritorious to give up your position, no matter how many schmucks on the internet say that women or minorities have is soooo easy because they only have jobs owing to quotas and affirmative action. Even if what the schmucks are saying were true, that still doesn’t mean that any of them are in fact entitled to or even worthy of your job, no matter what they think and what they want you to think. This is your tenure track job now, you got it, end of story.
You have this amazing opportunity to be your own boss and do science with smart young people, pursuing any direction you like (for the definition of “like” being “can get extramural funding for”). Yet you feel unworthy, apparently believing that the job belongs to someone else, someone more worthy? So then ride that tenure track job like you stole it, because you sure feel like you did; hold onto it with both hands, scream loudly so everyone can hear you about how fuckin’ ecstatic you are to have it, and work as hard as you possibly can because it is such an amazing gift. Work with wild abandon, because if it’s true that you are not meant to be there, they will come and kick you out, so you might as well make what little time you have count.
And in working like there’s no tomorrow, you will accomplish things, and the accomplishments will slowly but surely loosen the grip that the little voice has on you, even if it never goes away.
A colleague once told me this great Chinese proverb:
“Time is like water in a sponge; if you try really hard, you can always squeeze out some more.”
So very true. People will always find the time for the things they want to do, end of story. If you can’t find the time for something, that just means you don’t actually want to do it. At least, I am like that and I assume others are as well; after all, it wouldn’t be a proverb for nothing.
In professional communication, saying “I’m too busy” is often a perfectly fine euphemism for “I don’t really want to do this thing right now (or possibly ever), sorry.” After all, a lot of academic work is work for free (refereeing papers, partaking on conference program committees) or for absolutely minimal compensation (e.g. serving on NSF panels, proposal review), and just because I ask for something doesn’t mean that you have to care enough to try to find the time.
But when you are too busy to look at a paper on which you are a coauthor, to which you contributed infinitesimally yet don’t have the courtesy to take self off the author list?
That’s just being a pub-blocking douche. Know that I hate your guts for it. Either $hit or get off the can — comment promptly or say it’s fine to go as is.
I hate the people who go around bolstering about how busy they are and who generally busy themselves with the business of out-busying everyone. For some, it’s a way to show that they are superior and more in demand than you. Maybe for some it’s a way to hide the fact that they are not actually all that busy. And I am sure for many that means they don’t have their priorities straight and/or are inefficient; working with them drives me bonkers.
There is a guy I know from graduate school who has for years now been going progressively more and more on my fuckin’ nerves about his busyness.
A few weeks ago he sent me an email devoted entirely to how unbelievably busy he was; it was a full paragraph, multiple-sentences long,
but without a single punctuation mark. Apparently, when you get to be really truly busy, punctuation has to go. Before you think he had some unusual crunch at work, he didn’t. The email content was the same as ever. He works for a company, as do many other people, but he works from home, has no kids, and is part of a dual career couple; when he’s not whining about how much busier than everyone else on Earth he is, he takes long vacations in exotic places. So waaaaah, waaaah, cry me a fuckin’ river.
When I was in grad school, my PhD advisor had a big group. He and a few other faculty had an administrative assistant, C, who was the most efficient and organized person I had ever met in my life: Whatever any of the students or faculty needed, she did impeccably, never needed to be asked twice, and she never actually looked busy. In contrast, the department chair’s secretary was ironically one of the worst assistants in the department (so said everyone), and was constantly dying under the piles of paperwork; you routinely had to ask her twice or three times to get anything done, and things were often wrong. This was a perfect example of busyness being anti-correlated with doing anything useful.
I have some collaborators who are very difficult when it comes to scheduling anything, nominally willing, but each meeting requires me to endlessly wait to hear back from them and people exchanging numerous emails. If I say what everyone is thinking “You know, you don’t actually want to schedule this, why don’t I do it without you as I see fit, and you do whatever it is that you prefer doing,” then I am too impatient, too emotional, and generally not academic-politics-savvy. Some friends are like that too; it takes many weeks so schedule a dinner. WTF? Why is it such a big deal? Just pick a night and come over, why does it have to be so complicated? Or should I again assume you don’t actually want to do this, ever?
The thing is, the proverb above definitely works for me. When something is important, I will make the time. I have a small number of very high, ironclad priorities, and I will make time for them at the expense of a whole bunch of other $hit, probably more so now than before tenure. I have colleagues who have some sort of priority-insensitive pipeline; things just get into the pipeline and then get tended to when they get tended to. Nope, not here. Submitting grant applications is an intermittent but very important and time-sensitive priority, it bumps everything else. Not so time sensitive, but no less important, is editing papers to submit sooner rather than later; it bumps a whole bunch of other stuff down or off the pipeline. Seeing my students when they need to talk to me is a very high priority. In general, anything that’s instrumental to the careers of junior people whom I support is a high priority [e.g. promptly writing letters of recommendation for my trainees; promptly responding with my availability (or lack thereof) when someone else’s student needs to schedule PhD defense]. During the semester, teaching is a very high priority (emails, homework assignment and solutions postings, exam grading).
Also, I don’t procrastinate with the stupid $hit that is key to getting the important things done and off the table, like returning proof corrections. It drives me crazy when people sit on them for a week — just read through the damn thing and send it in! In general, our job offers plenty of busy work that is necessary to complete in order for the harder, intellectually demanding work to get done. A good example is doing the proposal boilerplate (biosketch, budget and budget justification, data management statement, equipment description, etc.); I kinda enjoy working on the boilerplate, as it’s like foreplay before getting to the hard stuff (see what I did there?).
The tl;dr version of this post is — I kind of hate you if you constantly complain that you are busy. I think you are either not busy but lying, seeking to get the upper hand/admiration, or just don’t have the guts to tell me that you don’t want to do what I asked. In the off chance it’s none of the three, you need to get shit together and get your priorities straight and get organized. Especially if other people’s education and careers depend on you.
A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.
There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.
The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)
I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.
I work with a young male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.
I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)
I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.
I am now at a position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field. I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.
According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work. For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do. (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )
Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence. When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.
Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.
Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.
I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.
I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.
(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)
So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:
Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT, people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.
Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’ Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.
What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)
As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is someone out there who looks out for their careers.
Over the decade that I have spent in my home department, I have witnessed several faculty colleagues retire. A number retired in their 60’s or 70’s; they had been active in research and faculty governance till the very last day, but were forgotten soon thereafter and are hardly ever mentioned today. Their labs were given to others and the department life went on. Each such retirement reminds me that, no matter how much you give to your work, your work will take it all, scoff at you for not giving more, then turn on its heal and walk away without so much as a thank you.
Then there were a few who retired much younger, with 10 or more good professorial years remaining. Their academic stories are not happy.
There are people in the department for whom no one among the colleagues seems to care. Everyone considers them deadwood, inactive researchers, generally someone most wish they could get rid of. These people wield no power in the department political arena. In whispers, they are described to junior faculty as irrelevant, so the younglings would learn not to mind them either.
Among these tenured-but-disenfranchised academics, some are a real net drain on the department as they don’t do research, teaching, or service well at all, so it’s really hard to find any redeeming qualities. These extremes are very, very, VERY rare, and ironically show no interest in early retirement.
But most simply run low on external funds, while remaining good and engaged teachers. They often take on a heavy service load, doing laborious tasks that benefit the whole department. These people deserve more gratitude and respect than they are given.
One such colleague recently retired. My guess is that he’s no more than 55 years old. I never got to know him well, but he must have been a quality researcher once upon a time at least, or else he would not have gotten tenure. In recent years, I watched him try — and fail — to get some more meaty service and administrative roles; the writings on the wall was that the department had given up on him. At that point, his main flaw was that he did theoretical work for which there had never been a huge amount of funding available, the well had since run dry, and he hadn’t been able (or willing) to successfully switch fields to a more lucrative one. A few other “shinier” faculty were brought in from the outside into his area, so he slowly became wholly marginalized. Over the past couple of years I can’t say I ever saw him in faculty meetings. The department gave up on him, communicated it loudly and clearly, until he gave up on the department, too, and left.
I wish him well in whatever he does next.
It’s sobering to see what can happen in nominally harmonious departments. Sure, nobody quarrels, everything is very civilized and outwardly friendly. We just shut people out of the decision-making process, and take away their abilities to contribute or advance in ways that don’t involve external cash precisely because they don’t bring in enough external cash. No need to abolish tenure; we can’t formally fire them, but we are apparently very good at making them want to leave.
We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.
My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.
I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.
One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.
I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.
Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all. Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance. I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.
Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.
Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?
Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.