Milestones toward tenure

One of the things I’ve been appreciating so far this summer is that the milestones for tenure are much more clear to me than the milestones for getting a job. When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time worrying that I would never get a job — in part, I think, because I didn’t have a clear set of goals to follow. All I knew was that to get a job I needed to publish “a lot,” but I didn’t know what “a lot” was, and all of my papers took a long time to get accepted. So I spent a long time feeling like I had a big goal (get a TT job) and not a clear sense of what specific things to accomplish to reach that goal.

I know that most institutions don’t spell out their tenure guidelines very clearly, either. My institution, like most, doesn’t say anything like “publish X papers and get Y dollars in grants, and you’re good for tenure.” But for some reason, I feel like I have a much better sense of the smaller goals I need to reach in order to be a strong tenure candidate down the line. In part, that comes from having conversations with mentors who gave me some sense of what a reasonable tenure case might look like, even though the formal guidelines don’t include any concrete numbers. Even more than that, it might also come from being more familiar with academia in general and from speeding up my own trajectory. I’ve produced more papers as a post-doc than as a graduate student, even though I spent more time being a graduate student than being a post-doc. So I feel like I have some kind of sense of what I can reasonably produce, and that amount seems to approach “a lot,” so I end up feeling like I have a better sense of how to make “a lot” of publications happen.

I might change my mind about all of this when I’m closer to going up for tenure, but for now, it’s nice to feel like I have a clearer path instead of wandering around in an amorphous mass of soup. (Not sure why a mass of soup was the image that came into my head just now, but it was quite the vivid image!)

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How do you buy things?

I don’t know if anyone is reading this, but if so, I have a question.

How do you pay for recurring expenses that are not tied to a particular project but are still necessary for your work? (“You” being an academic in this case.) Things like phone lines for your lab or pens/paper/staples? I get that these things can come out of start-up, but once that money is gone, it isn’t replenishable. What happens then?

I have small problems

I woke up to an e-mail that seemed like a Big Problem. It was from someone who had committed to doing something for me professionally and who had, in fact, sent me another e-mail the day before saying that I could count on him. Nevertheless, I woke up to his newest e-mail, saying that he wasn’t actually going to do the thing. This is after I’ve invested a bunch of time and some money in getting the thing done, and I can’t do the thing without this other person. Also, him pulling out like this can damage a relationship I’m trying to build with another institution. So it’s sucky.

All day long, while this was simmering in the back of my mind, other people kept doing other sucky things. Like not showing up on time to meetings and generally not doing what they said they would do. This bothers me.

Luckily, two things have happened to me in the last few years:
1) I started to learn that sometimes things seem hard, and then you leave them alone for a while, and when you come back to them they seem easier. Also, relatedly, I am learning not to respond to people right away when they’re making a problem for me.

2) I spent some time teaching incarcerated students. This taught me that nothing in my life is hard.

So here I am at the end of my day, reflecting on how small my problems are. Because, true to form, this thing with the person who cost me time and money and a potential institutional relationship is not actually the hugest deal in the world. It would have been better if it hadn’t happened, but it’s okay that it did. And I feel incredibly blessed to be able to take this view of my life and to really get at a gut level that these are tiny problems.

Waiting a year

In my last post, I mentioned that I deferred starting my job for a year, which is one of the best career decisions I’ve made.

When I was in graduate school, I didn’t understand deferring at all. The point of getting a faculty job was to be a professor, right? Why would anyone get that job and then spend an extra year not being a professor? And it definitely didn’t seem like a good idea to give up a year of faculty salary and benefits.

But then I actually had the opportunity to defer, and all of a sudden it started to seem like a much more attractive option. I could have a whole extra year to finish projects! And to set up my lab! And to get a head start on that whole tenure thing!

Part of what made my deferral year such a great idea was, indeed, the opportunity to do all of those things. I did finish some projects, and I started some new ones, which gives me some much-needed momentum. I think it would be harder to start an entirely new line of work in my first year as a TT faculty member; it seems slightly easier to continue something I’m already doing. I submitted a couple of grants, like I mentioned before. I worked with an entire team of people (from facilities at my new school, from an architecture firm) to design my lab, which is currently being constructed. Without my deferral year, I would have spent my first year on the tenure clock waiting for a place to do my science.

The biggest benefit, though, is probably the psychological boost I get from having done all those things. As ridiculous as it sounds to be thinking about tenure before my official start date rolls around, I feel more prepared for the long haul as a professor because I had this head start. I’m less stressed about having enough time to do everything I need to do.

Ironically, given the stance my graduate school self had on deferring, I’m a little nervous about my deferral year coming to an end. It’s been really helpful to have all of this unstructured time where anything that I accomplished was icing on the cake, and I’m a little sad to give that up. But also, super excited to start being a professor for real.

Talking with Program Officers

I had some extra time this year. This is probably the last time in at least a decade that I will write that sentence, but this year I had a job offer that I deferred while finishing my post-doc, so pretty much anything I did during the year was bonus. I didn’t need to be doing anything in particular to get a job, and I wasn’t on the tenure track yet. It was glorious.

One of the things I did with my extra time was apply for a grant. I figured that it would not be funded the first time, but I would get feedback that would help me submit a better grant next time. Also, I thought that revising a grant would take less time than writing a new one, so I put the part that would take the most time into my deferral year and the part that I thought might be a little bit easier into my this-actually-counts-now-and-I-will-probably-be-very-crazed year.

As expected, I did not get the grant, and I did get useful thoughts from reviewers. I had heard or read somewhere that when your grants don’t get funded, you should call the PO and see if they have any additional feedback. So as soon as I saw that my grant didn’t get funded, I wrote to my PO to set up such a meeting.

Then the day of the phone meeting came, and I was a little nervous because I am not used to talking to POs. But it was actually straightforward and super useful, which is why I’m writing any of this in the first place. (Maybe someday other junior people will be reading this! And maybe they too will be scared of talking with POs! And then they will read about how un-scary it is and that will be useful!) My PO was very friendly, answered all my questions, and even threw in some affirmation at the end. I mean, most of our conversation was spent talking about how to make the grant better for the next submission. But she also mentioned that there was a lot of enthusiasm for my ideas (just not, you know, the way that I framed them or how I proposed to actually test them — not that those things matter for a grant, or anything) and that the panelists thought that I myself was accomplished and such. So that made me feel all warm and happy for the rest of the day.

The entire call was less than half an hour, and it gave me a much better sense of how I can improve my grant for the next round (or actually, the round after the next round … I don’t have so much free time that I can write a good revision in a few weeks). And I also got some good news about things the panelists liked. So overall that conversation was an excellent addition to my day.

More about me

In addition to all the things I put in my previous post (like being a person who likes balloons and lists), I am also a post doc in a STEM field. I’m actually transitioning out of that job and into a faculty appointment, which I will start this summer/fall. My new position will be at a research-intensive school, and also it will be my first year and everything, so I’m not sure how much time that will leave for blogging. But also, if I’m going to start a blog, doing it at the beginning of a career stage could be a useful thing. That way, it can be a record of what it’s like to go from being a super new assistant professor to being a … whatever I am when I stop writing here.

Hi!

So the title pretty much says it all . . . hi!

Also, a few more things about me:
1) I’ve been thinking about writing a blog for a long time, as in years. I haven’t done it yet out of concern about how public it is (even if I don’t put my name anywhere on here, it’s relatively easy to figure out who I am) and because social media is not my thing. But I do like communities, and mentorship, and blogging seems good for both of those things. So I figured I would give it a try and then delete everything if it turns out that this isn’t working for me.

2) I know that regular people got done being excited about starting new blogs circa 1995, but I’ve never done this before, so my excitement is new and fresh.

3) In general, technology and I are not friends. I have a flip phone and don’t understand twitter. That means that I will be spending the next several years of my life trying to figure out how this platform works, even though I think it is intended to be extremely simple and straightforward.

4) The blog is called Balloon Parade because balloons are among my most favorite things. Also, this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtXLAKwssPQ.

5) I like lists.

6) Based on all the information above, if you know me, I guarantee you have already figured out who I am. Please don’t use my name if you decide to leave comments, though, or link my identity to this blog in any other way. I will try to stay mindful of the fact that my writing can be easily connected to me; at the same time, something just feels more comfortable about not explicitly linking my identity to this writing, at least initially.

I’ll be playing around with settings and such in the next few weeks, and probably writing more actual content as well. I’m curious to see where this adventure ends up going.