What I would've wanted to know as a first-year assistant professor

Here are my notes on what I think is useful to know as a first-year assistant professor at a research-intensive university. I wrote this at a unique time when I just finished my second year at one school and am about to begin my first year at another school.

You're about to start your first year as an assistant professor at a research-intensive university? Congrats! You've worked super hard to get here, and you're gonna have an awesome time.

I was just in your shoes as a first-year assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester (starting in 2014). And very soon, in July 2016, I will once again be a first-year assistant professor, this time in the cognitive science department at UC San Diego. This article is like my past self talking to my future self, recounting what I would've wanted to know back when I started so that I can do even better the second time.

I'm purposely keeping these notes at a high level, so I won't go into nitty-gritty details like “use this cool to-do list app or time management technique to maximize your effectiveness!”

Standard disclaimers apply: I obviously don't have tenure, so I have no idea what it's like to go through tenure review. But since I'm still in the midst of junior faculty life, my perspectives on this topic can hopefully complement those of more senior faculty.

My first realization: enormous time freedom

When I started my faculty job in July 2014, the first major thing that struck me was the enormous amount of freedom I now had in how I spent my time.

When people talk about “freedom” in academia, one major facet is time freedom. Academic freedom doesn't mean you can do whatever the heck you want without consequence; but it does mean that you have an unparalleled amount of flexibility in how you choose to spend your own time.

My first post-Ph.D. job was as a software engineer at Google, back in 2012. I accepted that job because I had an unbelievably cool setup and much more freedom than many of my peers. But even in the most optimal of industry work environments, I realized that your time is externally structured by your teammates, your boss, and the near-term requirements of your current project.

In contrast, as a professor, you're required to be somewhere specific for maybe only six hours per week. e.g.,:

  • 3 hours of teaching
  • 3 hours of department and committee meetings

The teaching part is mandatory; it's horrible if you don't even show up to your own class! In theory you could skip department and committee meetings, and people often skip when they are traveling for work. But if you skip too many, that will probably piss off your colleagues (see section below about tenure).

Of course, professors work far more than six hours per week, but my point is that how you structure the rest of your time is completely up to you. Besides having to show up to class and a few meetings each week, nobody is going to tell you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, or even where to do it (I spent most of my two years in Rochester working from Starbucks).

As long as you're present for those six or so hours per week, nobody cares what you do with the rest of your time. But this freedom also means that nobody will tell you if you're using your time well or not. Thus, the central challenge of being an assistant professor is figuring out how to spend your time well. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • How many hours should I work this week?
  • What should I spend my time working on?
  • When should I say “No” to work requests?

I can't tell you the answers to these questions. Your colleagues can't tell you the answers to these questions. Not even your department chair can tell you the answers. You need to figure this all out for yourself. The most I can tell you is that these are important questions. In the rest of this article, I lay out some ideas that can hopefully guide your thinking about them.

The Five-Year Road To Tenure

Given that you have tremendous freedom in how you spend your time, what should you do when you wake up every day? One big factor that will affect your planning is the T word: tenure.

From the day you start this job, you have about five years to build up your portfolio of work, submit it for review, and hopefully get tenure. Some departments have longer tenure clocks, but in general you submit your materials in your sixth year, which gives you five full years of pre-tenure work time.

The T word is something people don't seem to like talking about out in the open, since talking about it somehow makes one seem too obsessed with bureaucratic details of the job and not sufficiently focused on the magical wonders of scholarly life. People (usually with tenure!) sometimes say, “Oh you shouldn't get into this job for tenure, you should get into it for the love of research, teaching, etc.” Well, I do love research, teaching, etc., but I'd like to keep doing that for the rest of my life instead of getting fired after five years. So in that light, tenure is important.

If you ask ten people in your field about what it takes to get tenure, you'll get twenty different and sometimes-contradictory responses. It can be super confusing and overwhelming for a first-year assistant professor. So here's my attempt to break it down in super-simple terms, obviously omitting a ton of nuance.

To get tenure, you need to:

  1. Convince a dozen well-respected full professors in your field to each write a detailed recommendation letter arguing for why your research is amongst the best in the world in your field.

  2. Be well-liked and well-respected enough by tenured colleagues in your department so that they will interpret those recommendation letters in the most positive way.

The first requirement is a must: If you can't convince a dozen or so full professors that your research is amongst the best in your field, then you're toast. This definitely affects the kinds of research you can attempt as an assistant professor. If you try to go off on a wild tangent and invent a brand-new field or something, it's hard to get tenure for the simple reason that there aren't a dozen full professors in this new field you just invented to write you recommendation letters. I clearly can't tell you what research to work on, so it's up to you to figure out how to tread the fine line between creatively pushing the boundaries of your field while still staying “mainstream” enough to get compelling tenure letters.

What about the second requirement? While in theory you make tenure on the basis of your work alone, in practice your colleagues need to like you enough to want you to stay in the department for the next 30 or 40 years! No recommendation letter is going to be perfect, so the more the department likes and values you, the harder they are going to try to interpret your letters in the most positive light. And if people don't like you, then they can always choose to view your letters in the most critical possible way.

This second requirement is also where the non-research parts of your tenure case come into play, such as teaching, department service, and university service. Doing well in these facets of your job won't get you tenure, but if you do them really badly, you will piss off your senior colleagues. It's also where “bean counting” may take place in some bean-loving departments: If you don't have a least X publications and Y grants, for some mysteriously ill-defined values of X and Y, then the department might feel embarrassed to give you tenure when your C.V. looks too thin. But don't sweat this part; if you're at all self-aware and communicate regularly with your department chair, then you'll know if you're in danger on this front.

Important! You have only five years to make tenure, but the habits and values you develop during these first five critical years on the job will stick with you throughout the rest of your 30+ year career. So even though the T word is important to consider, I think it's unhealthy to develop bad habits and values for the sole purpose of making tenure and think to yourself, “Oh things will get better post-tenure ... I'll do what I really want afterward.” Rather, I think you should do what you really want right now and be true to your personal and professional selves, while keeping in mind the pragmatic constraints of the five-year tenure clock.

Back to the time issue: great freedom but also great demands

Now let's get back to the other T word. Even though you have enormous freedom in how you spend your time, you also have lots of demands on that time. An assistant professor has at least eight independent sources of demand on their time:

  • Teaching – developing course materials, administering and teaching courses, grading, responding to student requests, managing a team of teaching assistants

  • Primary research work – developing new ideas, doing hands-on implementation work, writing and revising papers

  • Research advising – meeting with students to advise on research projects, running and managing a research group, critiquing student writing and presentations

  • Funding – writing grant proposals, managing funding-related logistics, reviewing other people's grant proposals

  • Academic community service – reviewing papers, organizing professional events, writing recommendation letters, doing professional outreach

  • Department service – department-level committee work, hosting and meeting with visitors, interviewing job candidates

  • University service – university-level committee work

  • Travel – to academic conferences, to give invited talks at other universities, to meet industry partners, for fundraising

(This list was adapted from Why academics feel overworked.)

Although this list seems daunting, with a bit of practice and trial-and-error in your first year, you'll quickly gain an intuitive feel for how to prioritize. Finding the right balance for yourself is key, while keeping in mind that you have a five-year window to build up your tenure case AND that you're a human with limited time, energy, and stamina. A pace that works for your colleague may not work for you, and vice versa.

How much time should you spend doing each kind of work? Since your time is limited, time spent in one category means time not spent on another. And since nobody is there to set a schedule for you, it's super easy to fall out of balance. For instance, do you spend most of your time on teaching and neglect everything else? Do you volunteer for too many paper and grant reviews and have no time for other work? Do you accept too many travel invitations and find it hard to manage your teaching and research? Do you spend all of your time writing grants only to realize that you haven't made progress on publishing papers? Do you find yourself writing too many recommendation letters and organizing outreach events at the expense of advancing your own research?

Unfortunately I don't have any easy answers for how you should split your time. I just know that this is one of the most important problems that first-years must learn to handle. In short:

Without amazing time management skills, you can't even begin to carve out the focused attention and energy needed to make the sorts of creative research innovations that will build your early faculty career.

You're being paid to be a creator, communicator, and educator in your scholarly field. It's an unbelievably awesome and privileged job. However, if you don't get on top of the basics of time management in your first year, then it will start to feel like all you do day-to-day is shuffle papers, attend meetings, triage requests flying at you from all directions, and write an endless stream of emails ... not what you got into this profession to do! Once you master all of these low-level daily routines, though, then your brain can start focusing on the much more fun and fulfilling higher-level acts of creating, communicating, and teaching.

Anyways, I could fill up many more bytes with thoughts on my first year, but these are the memories that stick out the most.

Final thought: If you talk to any successful professor, chances are they will remember totally screwing something up in their first year. So if you find that some parts of the job aren't going as well as planned, don't sweat it. As long as you learn to improve and avoid repeating the same mistakes, you'll be fine. Remember, it's much easier to get tenure than to get hired as faculty. You've already crossed the biggest hurdle by getting hired. Now you just need to show that you can, in fact, do the job that your department already thinks you're fully able to do. Good luck!

Postscript in Feb 2021

Here are some messy notes that I added in Feb 2021, nearly a year after I got tenure. Now I'm starting to see things a bit from the other side. These notes can complement the above article, which I wrote during my pre-tenure days.

Who to get advice from ...

  • The best sources of advice are near-peers in your field – people who are your peers but just a few years ahead. They are well-attuned to the unique challenges of making tenure in your field, so they will be able to show you what works in practice and what common traps to avoid. And best of all, they are much more easily approachable since they're your peers and not super-scary-senior-people.
  • The inverse of the above point is that the worst sources of advice are ultra-general advice guides/seminars/workshops/etc., since those need to be so general that they are not too useful. (Yes, I realize the irony here since you're reading one of these right now!) For instance, a new assistant professor in literary studies trying to get a book deal is going to face a very different set of challenges than a new assistant professor in experimental astrophysics fighting for shared telescope time. So again, trust your near-peers.
  • Somewhere in between: senior faculty in your department or field can be good sources of advice for some things but not-so-good for others. They are good for telling you what's important for getting tenure, since they serve on tenure committees and write letters for their junior colleagues' tenure cases; in other words, THEY are the gatekeepers to tenure, so they know what's up. However, they may not be as good for advising you on the nuts-and-bolts of how to start up your research group in the first few years, since it's been so long since they've had to do so, and they probably came up in the field during a very different era. And they probably run their research groups/labs very differently than how you should run yours in the first few years.

Getting bombarded ...

  • When you first arrive on campus as a new hire, you will be bombarded with tons of people reaching out to you for various things. You'll be astounded that universities have so many different people working there in administrative roles you've never even imagined. Anyhow, you have a big target on your back since you're just freshly-arrived. It's OK to take meetings with people as a matter of social etiquette and to just generally get oriented to your university. That's useful. However, do NOT commit to working on anything with others unless you've carefully vetted the pros and cons. Most of the time, these so-called opportunities will be major distractions to you early-on, since they are not going to advance your core research agenda.
  • Related to above, you will also get bombarded with students wanting to work with you. Some of these will be Ph.D. students who don't get along with their advisors and want to “jump ship” to finding someone new (you!) ... and some will be grad students who are meandering and lost without a committed advisor to guide them. And yet others will be undergrads or masters students who want to get work experience and/or research funding. Again, you have a big target on your back since you're new here ... they've already tried contacting other faculty and gotten either ignored or rejected. I suggest saying No to them as a default unless there's a compelling reason to say Yes. I think new faculty take on too many students too fast since they're flattered by so many students approaching them (I was guilty of this myself!), but many of these cases don't work out so well.
  • A third form of bombardment happens online, especially if you're active on social media. You will begin to see posts pretty much every month of some colleague or other of yours getting hyped-up popular press coverage for their work, giving “thought leadership” types of TED-like talks, or being featured in magazine or newspaper stories. Don't get distracted by this bombardment of news in your social media feed. None of this stuff matters for your career advancement; by far what is more important is traditional academic publications. Everything else is a nice bonus but not a must-have. So don't spend your time trying to chase, say, press coverage for your work if the opportunity doesn't arise. You'll soon discover that some universities (especially top-ranked ones) have well-oiled PR machines that connect faculty to well-known reporters ... unless you're at one of these places, you're at a severe disadvantage. But don't sweat it, since your core research and publications matter a lot more than news coverage.

Publish and/or perish ...

  • This is field-dependent, but in general the thing that matters most for your eventual tenure case is published papers that are either led by you (you as first author) or led by one of your own students (you as the last author). Everything else matters much less. This means that if you get roped into collaborations with senior faculty, those papers may not really contribute as much to your portfolio; of course, it can be fun and fulfilling to collaborate with them, but don't get too distracted from building your core research agenda.
  • Try to make every single feasible paper submission deadline, or if your field doesn't have discrete deadlines, then make up an ambitious deadline schedule for yourself to keep on track of consistently submitting papers. I'm not saying to submit tons of low-quality sloppy work (don't!) ... but you should aim to turn everything you're working on into a pipeline of strong paper submissions so that you always have something moving through the review process all the time. As you already know, it can take months or years of lead-time before papers get accepted for publication, so there's no time to waste. The (tenure) clock is ticking!
  • Again this is field-dependent and your-department-dependent, but in general (see, this is why you should really find near-peers for advice instead of reading my ultra-general notes!) the hardest part is already done once you get hired into a tenure-track position. Your department doesn't want to fire you, so if you do your job, publish consistently, and be a good citizen, then you'll probably get tenure. And if after a few years you're still struggling to hit the right marks, then you probably want to switch careers anyhow, since even after you get tenure (surprise surprise) you're expected to continue doing the exact same job.

Money money ...

  • Papers matter more than grants for tenure. That means if you spend too much time chasing money and not enough time working toward papers, then you may be in bad shape. Similar to the “getting bombarded” points above, you will likely get bombarded with all sorts of funding opportunities to apply for (and senior colleagues will try to rope you in as a collaborator too since they like to apply for larger multi-PI grants) ... I've found that most of these opportunities are, again, distractions, because they are low-probability-of-success events that draw your attention away from your core work. The only times when grant-writing doesn't feel like a distraction are those where the writing process actually helps you make intellectual progress on your upcoming papers. I've managed to turn some failed grant applications into successful papers, which felt great!
  • Another field-dependent thing (do you sense a trend? everything is field-dependent!) is that you should mostly aim for grants where you're competing against other assistant professors. Usually these are called early-career or young investigator grants. That's the most level playing field you can play on. Otherwise if you're applying for grants where you're competing with senior faculty (or, worse, teams of senior faculty) then you're toast. Once you get tenure and rise up through the ranks, then you can muscle around with these bigger grants and squash the youngins. For now, lie low to avoid the Goliaths.
  • Don't go out of your way to apply for grants that are too far beyond your core area of expertise, since it will just sidetrack you and take your momentum away from your core research. If you're not careful, you can just be applying for grants non-stop left and right, and most will never materialize. Fundraising can be a HUGE distraction from advancing your core research.

Staff staff ...

  • It's critical to have good working relationships with your department's administrative staff, since they are the ones who keep everything running smoothly behind-the-scenes. Staff often remain in a department for a long time and may even switch roles, so you'll often be working with them for a long time in different aspects of your job (e.g., grants management, Ph.D. admissions, teaching allocations, department budgetary issues).
  • What often matters to staff is that you do things fast and on-time; faculty often care more about doing things “optimally” ... but for most administrative paperwork, it just needs to get DONE by a certain date, it doesn't need to be a masterpiece worthy of being framed at the Smithsonian. If you get things done quickly and communicate with staff clearly, then they will like working with you. It really annoys staff when faculty are late in submitting necessary paperwork, since it delays their own workflow.
  • Staff members talk amongst themselves about which faculty are good or not good to work with; you definitely want to be known as someone who's good to work with, since it will make everything go easier for you logistically. Also, you are not their “boss” so you can't be too demanding. They don't work for you, they work for the department; so be respectful of those boundaries.

Don't overcommit too early ...

  • Resist the urge to grow your group/lab too fast too early. You can get an incredible amount of work done by yourself or with just a few undergrad or masters students (again, field-dependent!), so don't be in a rush to get many Ph.D. students. Even if you do manage to get a few Ph.D. students right away, it will take them 2 to 3 years to ramp up and get productive (remember how long it took you during your Ph.D.?), so in the meantime you'll still need to fill those gaps with your solo work or those of shorter-term undergrads/masters students.
  • Related to above, don't be in a rush to turn into a full-time “research manager.” You'll often see senior faculty who are now full-on managers and not doing any hands-on work; that's because they've already reached a steady-state in their careers. However, you're just ramping up, so you don't need to abide by the same conventions as your senior colleagues. It's very possible to be scrappy and hands-on early in your career with you doing more of the technical work yourself. It's more fulfilling as well, since you'll be closer to the action and better able to hone your intuitions about how to eventually grow your group/lab later if needed.
  • Finally, try hard not to overcommit to external responsibilities outside of your core research and teaching. Even though it can be tough to say “No” to senior colleagues when they ask you to do stuff with/for them (since they can influence your tenure case!!!), you have a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card that you can always play: Just tell them that you're super-nervous about getting tenure and need to focus 1000% on your own research for now. That will trigger flashbacks in their minds of when they felt super-nervous about getting tenure back in the day, and they will empathize. If they don't empathize, then you don't want to associate with them anyhow :) Now, I'm not saying you should turn down every request, since it's important to be a good citizen and do your fair share of service. But when you start to feel overwhelmed, you always have a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.

Created: 2016-05-29
Last modified: 2016-05-29