I officially finished my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. I must say that the first year was ROUGH! I am still trying to figure out how to balance teaching, research, managing personnel, writing grants and countless meetings. I became a scientist because I loved being in the lab and I enjoy asking questions and
figuring out the best way to answer those questions. When you become a Principal Investigator, it is extremely difficult to spend time with your first love (SCIENCE). I often asked myself, why would any sane person sign up for this? I thought I was busy before, but I didn’t really know what busy was, until now! I always took pride in being extremely organized and on top of things, but now I know why I was so organized… I was managing my own schedule!! When you suddenly find that your time is not your own and that you are not only responsible for your schedule and productivity, but also others… well, that’s a whole different ball game. Despite my best efforts to stay on top of my “things to do” list, I often ended up having more tasks added rather than deleted from the list. Oh, how I miss the enjoyment of seeing check marks by the accomplished tasks on the “things to do” list. How did I suddenly morph into a fragmented and hurried person with no time to read, write or even think? Is this normal, can’t be?
Now that I have decided that academia is the path for me, I have to find a way to make this new normal of ripping and running, a healthy normal.
Here are my nuggets of wisdom for helping me to navigate through my second year in academia.
1. Find a short term goal and long term goal mentor
I can’t tell you how much time I wasted trying to figure out who does what in the department and the university. My affiliation with two departments made navigating academic life even more difficult. I was determined not to bug people with my countless questions. To my detriment, this stubborn, “I can do it myself attitude”, was extremely counterproductive. Just ask someone who has been there before you; chances are someone helped them too. Most people are more than happy to help you get acclimated to your new environment. I have found a short term goal mentor. This short term goal mentor helps me navigate through the day to day ancillary tasks that are not directly related to helping me secure tenure (i.e., copy code, best time to teach, nicest and most resourceful person in the department). Believe me when you are up against a deadline or you have worked a long day, even the smallest detail like knowing the location of the cleanest bathroom, matters ALOT. Because mastery of these day to day tasks frees up your time to focus on those duties that are critical for tenure, (i.e., teaching, mentoring, securing funding, service) they are indirectly related to the goal of securing tenure.
I have also identified long term goal mentors; that’s right mentors.
I have about 7 people sprinkled all over the USA who have active roles in helping me reach my full potential as a behavioral neuroscientist. My mentors are at various stages in the academic pipeline ranging from the assistant professor to full tenured professor levels. These are the people who help me determine whether I am on the right track both personally and professionally. My mentors give me frank and sometimes brutal feedback about what I should do. The constructive criticism pushes me to step up! I appreciate being surrounded by wise people who are not afraid to hurt my feelings!
2. Hire for personality, train for talent
I can’t say it enough, I LOVE my laboratory. My laboratory is EVERYTHING! I am very big on creating a nurturing and positive environment where students enjoy learning. Yes, I have put much thought into where I want to place certain signs and equipment to create the perfect scientific ambience, but I have also put just as much time into who I hire. Many times people hire for skill, but being highly skilled is not necessarily my top criterion for a job candidate. Don’t get me wrong, I get why people hire solely based on skill. If a person is highly trained then the odds are that productivity will increase! I don’t care how talented a person is, if that person has a personality like battery acid, then what good is he/she for your research team. A bad personality can be a cancer to your lab which is counterproductive! Luckily, I have assembled a talented and friendly research team. In a hectic academic world, my laboratory is my safe haven and my safe haven needs to have friendly, talented and hard-working people.
I once heard a hip-hop artist say that "hard work trumps talent, when talent doesn’t work!" I believe that if a person has a strong desire to learn, is willing to work hard and possesses a high degree of intrinsic motivation then he/she can succeed.
3. Harness your emotions
This needs no explanation! We have to learn to be good stewards of not only our time, but also our emotions. When people constantly look to you for guidance, you must act like a leader who can function under pressure! This does not mean that you will not have your breaking points; you just have to know the appropriate place and time to have those “breakdown” moments!
4. Learn to say NO!!!!!
I had to figure out quickly that if I said yes to everything then I would not be able to maintain sanity. Junior faculty are considered “fresh meat.” “Fresh meat” means that you are pure and haven’t been seasoned. In other words, you are vulnerable! I was asked to serve on countless committees and invited to give many talks. At first, I felt compelled to do everything, but you can’t do everything and be on the right track for success. I say no more often now and if I don’t feel comfortable saying no, then I have mentors who are more than willing to say no for me!
5. Allow people to do their job
The University of Cincinnati is stacked with talented people who have been doing their jobs for a long time. I don’t need to worry myself with trying to do their job and mine. You have to trust that people know what they are doing and are going to look out for your best interest. Again, most people are more than willing to help you get acclimated and genuinely want to see you succeed.
6. Don’t lose your scientific mind
I literally thought that I was going to lose my mind, my scientific mind. Every time I checked my email there were at least five new duties for me. None of these duties were beneficial to my research program. It is very difficult to engage in the process of strong inference and design experiments when your mind is cluttered with all of the other tasks on your “things to do”list. I had to designate days that were solely devoted to my research program. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between, but I am determined to not lose sight of why I pursued a life in academia. Luckily, I have an understanding spouse and we have worked out a deal where I will have at least three days a month (I know that is not a lot of time at all) that are allowed for my “ work vacation.” On my “work vacation” I get to do only science stuff (i.e., writing papers, designing experiments, writing grants), no cooking, no cleaning and no talking! I get more done in those three days than I do in two weeks at work. These “work vacations” ensure that I maintain some semblance of scientific normalcy. It is critical for young faculty to establish their research program in the first three years. My husband is very understanding of this, so we know that for the next three years, I am on the grind.
7. Know why you were hired
I felt the need to take on tasks that were not directly related to why I was hired. I was trying to figure out how to balance a budget for my research program, and one of my mentors said “you were not hired to do that, that is not your job!!!” She said, “Quit trying to do someone else’s job!” Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things that you will have to do that are not directly related to why you are hired; but don't allow those things to preclude your ability to complete your primary job responsibilities. If you are hired as a teaching faculty, then you need to make sure that you excel at teaching and do everything to ensure that this happens. Likewise, if you are hired as a research faculty, then establishing and maintaining a thriving and well-funded research program should be your top priority. No, this does not mean that if you are a research faculty member that you should neglect other duties (i.e., teaching, service etc). However, knowing why you are hired can help you to determine how you allocate your time.
The first year as an assistant professor was indeed a roller coaster of lows and highs. What we have to remember is not necessarily how we started out, but how we finish. If you are determined to finish strong, then you can do just that! I can say that I am getting adjusted to my new normal!!