10 lessons from my first year as a tenure-track faculty

July 05, 2021

It has been approximately a year since I started my journey as a tenure-track assistant professor in an engineering/life sciences department at an R1 university in the United States…in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. I just wanted to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned in case they may be useful for future students who embark on this same journey, or perhaps for me to look back on years later and cringe at how naive I used to be. My focus during my first year has been primarily in establishing my research program, so I have yet to start teaching. Thus, my experiences will likely differ a bit from tenure-track faculty who have already engaged with heavier teaching responsibilities. Here are 10 lessons from my first year as a tenure-track faculty.

Lesson 1. No one is entitled to your time.

Protect your time. Protect your students’ time. Know when to say no.

Side note: Know how to say no. When requested to consult with hedge funds representing clients interested in your field of study due to your expertise but not being offered compensation for your time (of course) because “it’s just a brief phone call”, send an invoice.

Lesson 2. Keep your CV updated.

Document every seemingly small and insignificant service or activity done that may be interpreted as in support of the university or your research. Speak at a diversity panel that you would’ve done as a part of regular volunteering anyway? Document. Attend a social event with students that you would’ve gone for fun anyway? Document. Attend faculty meetings? Document. When the annual reviews came around, you may be asked how many meetings you attended and what service activities you did.

Side note: Annual reviews are a thing.

Lesson 3. When it comes to grants, fail early and fail often.

Apparently, going from submission to funded can take over a year. So submit early and submit often because most submissions will be failures and that’s ok. So far, of 12 applications, 8 were failures, 1 was successful, and 3 are still TBD.

Side note: Your university’s department of Foundation Relations is a great resource. There are people dedicated to getting to know your research and presenting you with grant opportunities (especially those from private foundations) that may be relevant.

Lesson 4. Thank your admins.

Admins are the unsung heros that make the research enterprise go round. When it comes to applying, receiving, and administering research grants, not to mention spearheading the logistics of recruiting, welcoming, and overseeing the progress (qualifying exams, defenses, etc) of students who conduct the research, multiple admins are working behind the scenes to make this all possible.

Side note: Keep in mind that when a great admin does things right, you won’t be sure they’ve done anything at all.

Lesson 5. A slower paralleled process will still likely be faster than a faster single process that can only run for a brief period of time.

Even if you think you can do something faster than a group of students who are still learning, students will have way more time than you to tinker and explore. Your time will likely be better spent in the long run teaching students rather than doing it yourself.

Side note: Transitioning from “doing the work yourself” to “teaching students how to do the work” will happen way sooner than you expect.

Lesson 6. Surround yourself with successful but humble people.

Not necessarily because you need to directly collaborate with such people or directly benefit from their success but because their success and humility will make opportunities (appear) more accessible to you by mitigating your own doubts.

Side note: On the flip side, your time is too valuable to spend it in one-upping contests.

Lesson 7. Your peers can be your greatest allies.

Share grants. Commiserate. Support and learn from each other. Far from being like the blind leading the blind, peer support can be a great way to complement each others’ deficiencies.

Lesson 8. Senior faculty can be your greatest advocates.

Beyond presenting you with new opportunities (especially giving invited talks), senior faculty can be a great sounding board to help clarify “is what I’m experiencing normal?”

Lesson 9. Service-oriented meetings are a nice way to meet people and to people watch.

Perhaps this lesson is unique to starting a new job during the remote-work-only COVID-19 era. You can also learn a lot about how the sausage gets made by serving on more national-level grant review panels and local-level PhD program tasks forces. That being said, see Lesson 1.

Lesson 10. Even if it is not enough, do what you can now.

And what you can do is enough…for now.