Early Career Faculty Advice
CSUN Director Sybil Derrible is often asked for advice from new faculty members and post-doctoral researchers who are about to start a faculty position. The life of an academic is challenging and quite stressful. The tenure system is certainly not known to be an easy ride and being strategic can significantly help. We therefore thought we would share the list with everyone and we divided the list in two main categories: strategies to adopt and hierarchy of responsibilities.
Here, we list a few strategies that CSUN Director Sybil Derrible found important or wish he was told when he was a new faculty. Everyone is different, however, and these strategies may not apply to you. The list has no hierarchy to it, but the last point is probably the most important point of this list.
# Find Your Time and Do Not Get Overwhelmed: As far as we can tell, all faculty members are extremely busy. We quickly get overwhelmed with proposal writing, student advising, teaching, serving on doctoral committees, writing letters of recommendations, and attending meetings after meetings after meetings. Many also have children to look after and other family responsibilities. It is therefore absolutely vital for you to find your time, during which you can relax, read books that are non-related to your research, or perhaps simply catch your breath. In fact, exhaustion kills creativity, and without creativity and energy you cannot be successful. Finding your own time to relax and reflect will help you in your tenure as well. This also means that you do not need to follow this list of advice right away; take your time and use it as a checklist every once in a while.
# Mission Statement: Relatively early on, a colleague recommended the book Made to Stick by Heath and Heath (2006). The book is well written and offers compelling arguments on how to make an idea stick (which can be quite useful when writing a proposal). Beyond this aspect, the book also emphasizes the need to have a clear and specific mission in most of what we try to achieve in life. Coming up with a mission statement was probably one of the best things that we did at CSUN since it helped us focus in all of our activities. Many of the items below have a direct relationship to the mission you set for yourself and your group.
# Set Goals for Yourself: To ensure you are following your mission and stay on target, we recommend you set goals for yourself. You should have broad goals for the next 5 and 10 years. You also want to set goals for yourself every year and every semester. As time progresses, you may also want to set yourself goals every month and perhaps even every week to make sure that your semester and yearly goals are achieved.
# Pick Your Battles: Faculty are extremely busy people, and we are constantly being brought on projects and activities. You need to learn to say "no" to some things and make sure to focus on what matters for your career and your vision. You simply cannot do everything, so pick your battles and focus on your mission. The hierarchy of responsibilities section will help in that regard.
# Selecting a Research Area: Research is constantly evolving and it can be difficult for a new comer to make a name for herself / himself. This is especially the case for popular fields that have many "big names" (e.g., like your Ph.D. or post-doctoral advisor). As a new faculty, you start from scratch. No one will proofread your manuscripts and your first students will rarely be skilled in your technical area. You may therefore want to make sure you make a name for yourself in a specific – somewhat narrow – area, avoiding the big trendy areas at first.
# Leverage Local Research Resources: Most countries have their own research agency; in the United States, the main research agency is the National Science Foundation (NSF). Most of these agencies recognize the value of new faculty members and they offer resources to help them. Try to leverage them as much as you can. For example, the NSF organizes workshops and has new faculty members participate in panel reviews. Participating in these activities can be incredibly beneficial, so make sure to reach out to your agency.
# Grant Writing Tips: Having a grant proposal rejected quickly becomes a familiar thing as a faculty member. You should realize that there are techniques that can be used to write better proposals and tons of resources exist for that. The one tip we have is that no proposal will be funded if the idea being proposed is not excellent. Regardless of your grant writing skills, if the idea is not excellent, your proposal will not get funding. But here's the thing, coming up with a great idea is far from being trivial. In particular, as Ph.D. students or post-doctoral researchers, most of us focus on one single discipline, and research ideas that we get are often bound by this discipline. We may therefore think that we have a great idea, but chances are that if your idea fits narrowly within a discipline, it will be perceived as "incremental" as opposed to "transformative." We realize that this statement seems to clash with what we said above about selecting a research area, but it is not because your research area is narrow that the research idea cannot be important. Some faculty actually find that writing proposal outside of their office helps them be more creative and come up with great ideas. Another important point to remember is that writing a grant proposal and writing a publication are two very different things. In particular, proposals have to be easily accessible to people outside of your discipline. The idea proposed therefore needs to resonate with the reviewers, even if they are not in your discipline, and this means that the idea must be excellent (regardless of the research area). The best way to understand what we mean here is simply to review proposals yourself and participate in panel reviews.
# Professional Society: Find your "home" society and try to get involved. Not only will getting involved help you meet other faculty members in your field (who will often empathize with you about the tenure process), it will help you make a name for yourself (back to selected the right research area). Moreover, these people may very well become crucial for your success; for instance by reviewing your publications, by sitting on panel reviews to which you submitted a proposal, and perhaps more importantly by writing support letters by the time you go up for tenure.
# Teaching: Many research universities do not value teaching as much as research, and you may be told to focus purely on research. While this statement is partly true, you should take into account 3 + 1 arguments. (1) If you do not want to teach, you should not be a faculty member (take a research position instead, e.g., in a national lab). (2) Our contribution as teachers is actually significant and we need to recognize it. One way to view teaching is to assimilate a course to a publication, and the students who take the course are citations to the publication. Say one teaches 3 courses per year with 30 students each (i.e., 3 publications with 30 citations). After 10 years, this is equivalent to having published 30 publications with 30 citations each, thus contributing to an h-index of 30. That's quite significant! (3) Teaching provides many small continuous "wins" that help out the morale in the tenure process; it can easily take a year or two to publish your first papers as a faculty member, and even more to get your first grant, and having a student compliment and thank you can make a day and boost one's morale. Finally the (+1) relates to your mission. At CSUN, we strive to make the world sustainable. Therefore, ensuring that future engineers are equipped with the right knowledge to contribute to a more sustainable world is critical for us. We therefore embrace teaching as a fundamental part of our contribution as academics.
# Co-Edit a Special Issue: If you have no editorial experience, try to co-edit a special issue in a journal in your area. Special issues typically have 3 editors. From your professional society, find someone who is an associate editor of a relevant journal for you and suggest organizing a special issue. This will allow you to publicize the special issue to all your colleagues (thus helping getting you known in your field), it will help you get an associate editorship in the future, and it might help you publish your work as well.
# Meet Professionals: Depending on the discipline you are in, you may want to try to meet some professionals / industry people. These people will often tell you the biggest problem that they face, which may be significant as a research idea (for your proposals) or it may help you build a stronger case for your proposal (e.g., for the broader impacts section if you submit proposals to the NSF). Moreover, professionals have tons of stories that you can use for your classes and that are effective to encourage knowledge retention.
# Pavlov's Dogs: We would argue that one of the hardest skills to learn as a new faculty member is to be patient and to uncouple our value of self-worth from our daily accomplishments. To some extent, most academics are conditioned to success. Since we were kids, we had been doing very well at school, first with grades, then with papers, and other achievements. Put simply, we get addicted to success. This actually reminds us of the story of Pavlov's dogs. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist in the early 1900s. He famously conditioned dogs by ringing a bell each time he fed them. The dogs therefore associated the bell with food, and they would salivate each time the bell was rung, even if they were not fed. As academics, we are used to being congratulated each time we get a good grade or we publish a paper. Once you are a faculty member, however, you are on the other side of the fence, and you should not seek to be congratulated each time you do something good. In fact, you should congratulate others, especially your students. Although this seems straightforward, it is not. In fact, because it can take time before we get a grant or publish a paper (see teaching), we can easily get depressed if we constantly seek to be congratulated. The "conversion" process is tough and can easily take a few years. So keep working hard, submit proposals and papers, but try to uncouple your mood and happiness level from your daily success and make sure to find your own time (see the very first point).
At CSUN, we have come to view faculty members almost more like entrepreneurs than researchers. As an entrepreneur, a faculty member needs to get grants to pay students, manage a research team and a budget, hire students, do research, teach, get involved in service activities, and so on. We are constantly overwhelmed. Here, we tried to come up with some kind of a hierarchy of responsibilities, from what is perhaps more important to do, to what is less important to do. This hierarchy is highly subjective, and you may not agree with it, but it may you help you prioritize and organize yourself.
1. Serve as a Reference / Recommendation: We would argue that the most important responsibility of a faculty member is to serve as a reference, whether it is by writing letters of recommendation or by referring a student to an employer over the phone. Serving as a reference is likely the most immiediate and impactful thing we can do as faculty members. It should not take too much of our time, but it can truly change the lives of the people we refer.
2. Advise and Support Graduate Students: As most of us know it first hand, doing a research master or Ph.D. can be emotionally draining. Most students doubt their intellectual abilities at some point or another, and as their advisor, we need to be there to help them grow up and realize their full potential. While this task is relatively easy to implement when we are in a good mood, it becomes more difficult when we just heard that one of our grant proposals was rejected or whenever we hear bad news. Referring back to the point of Pavlov's Dogs, we need to learn to be advisors, congratulate and support our students. Every group has a different strategy, but as a new faculty member, remember that your students are human beings with emotions. They are not faculty members who are used to getting a paper / grant rejected, and they can be quite vulnerable to what you tell them. This is especially the case for new students (i.e., roughly within the first two-three years of a Ph.D.), before they publish their first paper. Incidentally, the first two-three years of the tenure process can be the hardest, filled with grant rejections, so be careful and make sure to care and support your students, and try as much as possible not to transfer your stress to them! And when they do well and they graduate, make sure to write letters of recommendation for them.
3. Write Grant Proposal: As a faculty member, you will soon see that one of your most important responsibilities will be to submit grant proposals. Coming up with a great idea and writing a grant proposal is far from being easy (and necessarily pleasant), but it will take a major place in your life as a faculty. Because it will be part of your academic life throughout your career, try to enjoy the process. At CSUN, we see grant writing as an opportunity to come up with new research ideas that will direct our research direction for the two-four years to come. Moreover, for collaborative proposals, grant writing allows us to meet new colleagues and build a research community in our own institution and across multiple institutions.
4. Review Proposals: As a natural follower to grant proposal writing, make sure to serve on panel reviews. As mentioned in the strategies to adopt section, serving on panel reviews will give you a feel for what a great idea is. It will also help you meet people in your research community. The process can be time consuming, but it is rarely time wasted, in particular at the beginning of your career.
5. Do Research: Although time becomes rapidly limited with all the responsibilities of a faculty, try to keep doing research yourself. This is relatively easy at the beginning, because as a Ph.D. student or a post-doc, doing research is the thing you do best, but you will soon see that other responsibilities, including grant writing and teaching, will soon take most of your time. So make sure to be still engaged in research directly, whether it is by doing some coding, by doing some statistical analysis, or by designing experiments. This is particularly relevant to ensure that you keep up to date with novel technologies. Naturally, you should always be writing papers as well. This last point is particularly important since you might want to write a book at some point, so keep improving your writing skills.
6. Teach: Unless you are a teaching faculty, teaching comes after research. Nonetheless, coming after research does not mean that teaching is not important. In fact, if you do not like to teach, you should not be a faculty. We would even go further and argue that excellent researchers tend to be excellent teachers as well. Don't take our word for it, if you are not convinced, ask some of the big names in your field what they think about teaching. Moreover, teaching has a direct impact on the lives of our students and we must realize that we may play a much larger role than we think in their lives. In the United States, this is particularly the case in public universities, where many students come from a background in which getting a college education is not a given. Veterans also attend public universities, and we owe it to them to teach them properly for having served their country. For more on teaching, and how important it is for our morale as faculty; see the teaching point in the strategies to adopt section.
7. Review Academic Publications: Make sure to keep reviewing academic publications. Although you will soon start to decline many invitations (and you should decline many), try to review the publications that are related to your field. This will notably help you keep up to date with the research going on in your field. Reviewing for a journal might also help you get an editorial position.
8. Get Involved with Professional Societies: From chairing a session to being the communications director of a committee, get involved with a society. This should not take too much of your time, and although it is not a top priority, it it is one of the important responsibilities of a faculty. Plus, it may help you in your tenure process; see the society point in the strategies to adopt section.
9. Get Involved with Service Activities: Within or outside of your university, you need to get involved with service activities. Your service activities should be comparatively small as a new faculty member, but do not underestimate them. Getting involved in your university will help you get known in your university. Getting involved in activities outside of your university (e.g., for outreach events) will help you build a network that might be useful, especially when writing grants and partner with outside organizations. In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) evaluates proposals based on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. Getting involved in service activities outside of your institution may help you with your broader impacts.