Don't panic!

Aug 23 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted on Monday August 23, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

So yesterday Gerty-Z had this little panic attack. She's concerned about making tenure. One could make fun of the fact that she's only two months into tenure-track (TT), but that wouldn't be fair. You see, she's not alone. I, and I suspect many others, have gone through the exact same thing.


Generally some time in the first year of TT. And again later in the process. Maybe more than once.

G-Z has a list of things she's anxious about in her post - "The Gerty-Z list of tenure clueless-ness-es.*"

I was going to write about some of these in a comment, but quickly realized this would make for a very, very long comment. So I wrote this post instead.

The Gerty-Z list of tenure clueless-ness-es.

1. I am sitting here, writing a grant and paper. It is not going well. If I can't even do this, how am I not screwed? I feel like I'm not a very good writer in the best of times. These are NOT the best of times.

Say what?!?!? You have stuff to write a grant AND a paper on? And you're only two months in? That puts you well, well ahead of the curve. Even if it's all based on work done as a postdoc. That's something to celebrate!

And writer's block happens. Everyone has their ways of tackling this. I set aside certain blocks of time to write. And that's all I do in that time. Just get something down - forget about silly things like correct grammar or complete sentences. Get your thoughts down. It'll all come together. Outside those blocks of writing time I do things that are unrelated to the writing. Putz in the lab. Terrorize my trainees. Play with my kids.**

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA's most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey's repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Don't believe everything you read on the internet.***

Tenure requirements are deliberately vague in order to give promotion and tenure (P&T) committees flexibility. If you're unsure about the requirements, start asking. Ask your chair. As you get to know them, ask your senior colleagues. Do some research. Apparently your department hasn't tenured many people recently, so look up what people in related departments at your institution had when they went up.

Also pay attention to the feedback you get from annual reviews. If they say you're doing fine, great. Try to do better. If they say you need more of something, make sure you get it. Don't have annual reviews? Ask your chair if you can. You want as much feedback as you can reasonably get.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

Does she look happy to see you? Or does she look like she's constipated when she catches sight of you?

Don't sweat it. Your chair will let you know if you've become a pain.

4. I'm still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get "advocates" that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people's offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don't even know what I would say. I don't want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Dr. Becca's comment on this one hit the nail on the head. Attend seminars. Volunteering to give lectures is also an option, but be careful - you don't want to end up with a whole bunch of teaching that won't count in your department. Volunteer to give a seminar in your department - you never know who'll attend.

And yes, cold-calling faculty in other departments is something you might want to do. Identify faculty who are working in the same general area as you and drop them an email saying "hi, I'm new on campus, do stuff related to what you do and would like to chat about your work sometime." Putting the emphasis on you being interested in what they do is never a bad approach. We all like having our egos stroked.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don't want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

Postdoc PI's approach SUCKS!

Think about what a rotation student needs to get out of the experience. They are trying out your lab for fit. They need to interact with you. Choosing the right dissertation mentor is potentially more important than the actual project they end up working on. They will also benefit from learning a new technique or two. And they need a well-defined project to work on. One where they can easily see how it fits within, and contributes to, your research program. Whether or not they actually get the project done is almost immaterial. But don't assign a dissertation's worth of work to a rotation student!

6. Am I spending my money too fast? or too slow??

Gotta spend money to bring in the money. You need to spend your money to get the work done. If you project that at your current rate of spending, plus what you hope to spend on new grad students, you'll have money left in five years, you're spending too little. If it's going to run out in less than two years, slow down.

7. Am I doing too little benchwork? or should I be doing MORE benchwork?

You have more time now to do benchwork than you will next year. The year after that you will have even less. And so on. If you can work at the bench yourself, do as much as you can. But, training the people in your lab to do the work takes precedence. Always. They are at the bench far more than you can be and have the potential to get far more done. Yes, the time needed to get them up to speed can be incredibly frustrating, but it is absolutely essential you get them up and running. You cannot make tenure without them.

8. How do I "pick mentors"? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

Talk to your chair. Be candid about it.

9. I don't know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so - but how does that work?

Collaborations will happen. As you get to know more people at your institution and in your field (you are attending meetings, aren't you?), collaborations will form. You'll have something someone else needs, or they'll have something you need. It'll happen. Don't try to force it.

As an example, I was recently at a meeting where another PI was presenting a poster. Turns out he's developing a technique that would be incredibly useful for probing the systems I'm studying. While chatting with him he made the off-hand comment that he needed more systems to show the usefulness of his methodology. Ding! Ding! Ding! Pick me!!!! And there you have it. New collaboration. And the data coming out of it IS. SO. COOL!

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

Forget the rock star. As I said in number 2 above, look up what people in related departments at your institution had when they went up. Ask your chair and senior colleagues. A single blip from seven years ago makes not the standard.

I am SO FUCKED. *sigh*

No. No, you're not.

Welcome to TT.

*This is a word 'cos G-Z says so.

** There's nothing like playing with kids to put the whole TT thing into perspective. Another option is drinking. Just don't combine the two. 🙂

*** Unless DrDrA wrote it.

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