Friday, March 25, 2016

My Advice for Young Faculty

Hindsight is 20/20, and the gift of a retake is rare. We do our best with what's in front of us.


I met with a new engineering faculty member this week, and he wanted a run-down of my top advice as he got started. Here are the four big points from what I told him:

1. Limit your teaching time. If you're at a research university, you need to be a good teacher, not a great one. Teaching a new course is a serious, serious time sink. You can easily spend 5+ hours prepping for a one hour class, particularly if you're teaching a difficult core subject. The thing is, as much as you'd like to be 100% prepared for every lecture, there is a law of diminishing returns here. The students usually can't tell the difference - you are the expert; they are not.

In order to limit my time, the strategy that has worked best for me is to leave teaching prep until the last minute - and it's only having to physically go to class and lecture that keeps me from prepping longer. For example, both new classes I've taught met twice a week from 1:30-2:50pm. I spent the first part of my day preparing, so I was capped at 4-5 hours per 1.5 hour lecture. Of course you'll need to grade and do administrative stuff on top of all of this - so my estimate for a new course with 3 hours of class time per week is ~20 hours of your time.

2. Submit a blend of collaborative and solo grant proposals. I didn't do this, and I think it's kind of bitten me in the ass. When I started, I thought, hey I have lots of my own solid ideas. And I was worried about not getting "credit" for collaborative work with a senior PI. Well, these concerns are moot if you can't manage to bring in your own money. You need $$$$ to do your research. You need $$$$ more than you need pride or credit in the beginning, because everything else can flow from the monies. I hope you have better luck writing your own, single PI proposals than I have. But hedge your bets by riding some coat tails. Many senior PIs like working with junior PIs, anyway, because... enthusiasm. It can be a win-win.

3. Learn to say no. Oh, this is a big one, folks. Requests on your time in the first year won't be so bad, but it will gradually get worse. Remember, everything you do is at the expense of something else. You no longer have a job in which you can "get everything done". So, you need to choose very, very carefully. Here are my strategies:
  • When I'm asked to do something, I consider whether or not I'd be willing to drop everything to do this task tomorrow. The thought being that if I don't want to do it tomorrow, I won't want to do it 3 months from now. Don't say 'yes' just because your schedule is free. Think in terms of opportunity cost.
  • I have a 1 day waiting period before I allow myself to say yes to requests. I allow myself to say no at any time. 
  • Now that my students are getting "older", I delegate when I can. This is tough to do in the beginning if you are working with 1st/2nd year grad students.
  • Don't give specific excuses. They are an invitation for the requester to invalidate or attempt to work around your reason for saying no. I almost always say I am overcommitted (which is true), and I leave it at that. Sometimes I will acknowledge the importance of their cause and say that I wouldn't be able to lend it the time and attention it deserves. 
  • Do not give into feelings of guilt! STAY THE COURSE. Each and every time you say yes to meeting with a prospective undergrad and their parents, every time you agree to meet with some random seminar speaker from a different department or guest lecture in someone's class because they're traveling or talk to students from the college of business that want to start a cloud lab service... you are prioritizing other people's needs over your own - which is to do research. No one is denied tenure because they are an amazing researcher but just didn't do enough service. And don't even get me started on how being a woman or underrepresented minority increases the numbers of requests we get to sit on panels or other such stuff. Because... diversity! No, no, no. My research and my grad students come first. Yours should, too, if you want to keep your job.

4. Let go of your perfectionist attitudes for your publications and PUBLISH EARLY. In the field of drug delivery, the utility of our engineered systems is often unclear until we demonstrate effectiveness in an animal model. These types of studies can take years, even when you're working with postdocs. In a new lab with young Ph.D. students, animal work is even more daunting. And yet, I didn't want to publish until our experiments lived up to some "standard of excellence" that I had concocted for myself while working in a $ and resource rich, incredibly privileged lab as a postdoc. So, I held off on publishing my first couple of years.

And the grant proposal rejections rolled in. Plenty of comments about not demonstrating my ability as an independent investigator. I often felt like I'd started from square one, like no one believed I could do work since I hadn't published as corresponding PI. So I got off my high horse about what constitutes "publishable work" and we started writing, submitting, and publishing papers. Check. I'd better not see this issue come up again on my proposal reviews. I also FEEL better, having done it. There is now irrefutable evidence that we have our *!$# together and can publish solid work in solid journals.


So, there you have it. My four top pieces of wisdom. Take them with the grain of salt that this advice is based on my personal experiences. Your path will be different, and there are many "correct" paths.  Just remember to turn on your navigation system, leave your pride in the driveway, and be willing to course correct when need be. You'll get to where you're going.