What I would've wanted to know as a 3rd/4th-year assistant professor

Here are my notes on what I think is useful to know as a 3rd/4th-year assistant professor at a research-intensive university, written at the start of my 5th year.

Two years ago (at the start of my 3rd year as an assistant professor), I wrote What I would've wanted to know as a first-year assistant professor. Now that I'm starting my 5th year, I want to focus on what I think would be useful for 3rd/4th-years. Years 1 and 2 are mostly about setup, which come with its own set of challenges. I think Years 3 and 4 are about sustained focus and execution, which come with a different set of challenges.

I'll focus only on high-level strategic notes here; I'm assuming you have the zillions of low-level logistics under control by this point. Check out Professoring Logistics: Mundane but useful ways to organize faculty work life if you want to read more about those.

Standard disclaimers apply: I don't have tenure yet, 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.

Here we go!

The sandwich

At this point, you'll probably feel like you're in the middle of a delicious yet densely-packed sandwich. The top bun above you include your senior colleagues (both within your own department and elsewhere in your academic field) who will determine your professional fate—most pressingly, whether you'll get tenure in a few years or not. The bottom bun include your students (both in your classes and in your research lab) and junior colleagues who depend on you for guidance, mentorship, and encouragement. You'll begin to feel the pressure squeeze in from both the top and bottom, and you'll need to figure out how to keep moving forward despite being in the middle of this sandwich. Otherwise you'll get eaten alive (OK really stretching the metaphor here).

Paradoxically, as you begin to rack up more successes in your early career, the pressures from the sandwich will tend to slow down further progress. As more and more colleagues recognize your work and thus want you to be involved in their related initiatives, you'll grow increasingly more busy, more overcommitted, and more overstretched. And you'll find less time and energy to come up with the sorts of original creative insights that have gotten you to this point so far. If this trend continues unchecked, then your career may stall as you spend all of your energies on what others ask of you and none on what truly drives you forward. To push back, you need to carefully prioritize.

I can't tell you what you should prioritize, but I can tell you that you need to prioritize. You will be far more busy as a 3rd/4th-year than you were as a 1st/2nd-year, because you'll have moved from being at the bottom of the sandwich to being right smack in the middle. You'll now have responsibilities both to those above you (who want you to serve on committees, to review papers/grants, and to participate in events they organize) and also to those below you in seniority (e.g., to be an effective teacher, to mentor your graduate students on their research, to connect your students and junior colleagues with jobs). You can't do it all, but you're also not (yet!) in a position to simply say “No” to everyone.

Some things need to wait until later

You're now 2 to 3 years away from tenure review. I'm sure you've been coming up with a bazillion ideas for exciting new research projects, new courses to teach, new outreach initiatives, or bold challenges to the status quo in your field. (In fact, if you aren't overflowing with exciting ideas by this point, then that could be a sign that things aren't going so well.)

Some things need to wait until later. Repeat after me: some things need to wait until later.

If things go well with your tenure review, you'll (hopefully) have 30+ years to implement those bazillions of creative ideas. But if you don't focus well enough on what's the most critical in these next 2 to 3 years before tenure review, then you'll be out of a job and won't be in a position to implement those ideas. So prioritize!

Again, I can't tell you what you should prioritize, but I can tell you that you need to prioritize. Some things you can do now before tenure, but some things need to wait until later. You don't have the time or energy to do it all right now!

Find your primary academic home

(This is mostly relevant for interdisciplinary researchers.)

As a junior researcher, you need a primary home field for the very simple reason that you'll need senior colleagues in that home field to vouch for you when you come up for promotions.

Senior researchers can more freely float between fields and sub-fields because their reputations have already been solidly cemented. But as someone who is just getting started, it's better to be known primarily for your contributions to one targeted field (potentially with secondary contributions to others) rather than as someone who dabbles superficially across multiple fields.

Start forming your pitch

By this point, your publication engine should be running at full steam. If it isn't, then seriously focus on this, because tenure review is coming up in 2 to 3 years. Publication norms vary enormously by field, so I obviously can't say what or how much you “ought” to be publishing; look to your peers for guidelines.

OK now you have a pile of publications on your CV; great! You've shown that you can publish novel work in your field. But when you apply for tenure, you'll ideally want to be known to your colleagues as the person who does X, where X is innovative, important, and unique to you. In short, you need a pitch.

It's OK if you don't have this pitch nailed down just yet; you still have a few years. But you should at least start thinking about it. I started forming my pitch when preparing for my mid-term review, which usually comes around Year 3. In addition, I've found that writing grants and papers, creating and delivering invited seminar talks, and informally chatting with colleagues to be immensely helpful for refining my pitch. Mine's still a work-in-progress!

I wouldn't stress much about this, since if you're doing innovative research and publishing consistently at well-respected venues in your field, then there will be some X that's well-matched to you.

Don't sweat the small stuff

By this point everything in your job has gone 100% according to plan, right? Yep, that's what I thought!

If you're anything like me, a whole lot of stuff hasn't gone according to plan. Don't sweat it. As long as the big stuff is taken care of well (e.g., is your research momentum strong? is your teaching moving along?) don't fret about the zillions of smaller issues, or else you'll get paralyzed by doubt. Keep moving forward.

Let Life Happen

Finally, let life happen. (What a weirdly vague thing to include here!) You'll probably be in your 30s during these early faculty years, which is a time of major life changes and unexpected events for many: your relationship statuses might be changing, there might be young children in your life, your parents are now getting older, you or loved ones may be facing more health issues, personal finances might get more stressed, etc. Life happens. Your career will probably be on your mind a lot during this intense period, but don't forget to still live your life the way you want to. There's enough work in this career path to fill up all of your waking hours and more, so ultimately it's up to you to decide when and how much you want to work. Let life happen.

Appendix: related links

Created: 2018-10-28
Last modified: 2018-10-28