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As a Tenured Full Professor and given your long experience in Academia, what valuable lessons have you learned over the years that you wish somebody had shared with you earlier when you started as an Assistant Professor? Given these experiences what would you do differently if you had the chance?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 40 down vote accepted

Learn how to say NO.

It is very easy to say yes to every PC invitation, every paper collaboration, every committee, every this and every that. But this spreads your time too thin and means that you perform far less than optimally at everything you do. Ultimately, work encroaches too much on family time, and life becomes less enjoyable.

Also, learn how to teach properly. Take a teaching course or two. It will make your job easier and increase the amount you enjoy teaching.

See also: What is expected of a postdoc?. Many of my comments there are applicable.

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What do you mean by "follow courses"? –  David Ketcheson Feb 15 '13 at 13:14
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Take courses. Attend courses. –  Dave Clarke Feb 15 '13 at 13:19
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I was going to answer with exactly the same first sentence. –  JeffE Feb 15 '13 at 16:28
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I always tell my department chair "No". Then I have time to prioritize the requests and decide what to go back and tell him, "You know what, I do have time for ...". –  Ben Norris Feb 17 '13 at 3:06

You do not have to accept responsibility without appropriate authority.

It's a classic problem in any organization, and it's related to Dave Clarke's answer. Some concrete examples:

  • Rather than extend the deadline for homework when the bookstore doesn't have enough copies of the course textbook, give the students the email of the manager of the bookstore so they can write him directly about their situation.
  • Rather than ask meekly for a bigger classroom when there aren't enough seats for the 47 students enrolled in your class, give the email of the department coordinator who's responsible for assigning classrooms and say this is the person to whom you should vent your unhappiness.
  • Rather than teach a course that is watered down because it has no prerequisites, teach to the higher level students and explain clearly in the syllabus what you expect people to know. If students complain, explain to them your predicament (if you teach the basics, half the class will feel they wasted their experience). Students have more power to change an academic program by organized, constructive complaining than a non-tenured professor.
  • If the department chair doesn't involve you in selecting TAs for the course you are responsible for, and students are not happy about the quality of the TA (or the TA hounds you for a lot of help because he wasn't qualified to teach the course), encourage the chair to allow you to be involved in the selection process (refer to the principle of authority and responsibility).
  • If you're asked to be on a committee, insist that the committee have a clear mission that's feasible within the authority of its members. If a mission cannot be clarified or you can't identify with the mission, then minimize the amount of time/energy you put into it.
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Yes! This general dynamic/concept deserves much more emphasis. I have spent far too much time arguing/negotiating to compose documents/policies that are ignored completely, for example. Don't allow yourself to be "set up" to take responsibility for other peoples' decisions. Do not repeatedly show that you can "do more, with fewer resources". Avoid "advisory" situations where you have no control over the final decision, but will be blamed for it nevertheless! :) –  paul garrett Feb 17 '13 at 18:54

Can I give advice as a former Assistant Professor who did not get tenure? Here is where I went wrong:

  1. Be quick to change. It takes a lot of time to change into a new field. If you feel you may need to do this to secure more funding, don't delay. Make time to continually evolve. Sticking to one thing may have taken you to where you are now, but successful academicians are continually branching into new fields and collaborations.
  2. Collaborate early and often in your career. Do not isolate yourself (and be careful going to a department where you are the only person doing what you do). You will need collaborators to get consistent funding.
  3. Hire the best graduate students and postdocs. It's tough when you're new, because you feel like you have to grab the first student that expresses any interest. The problem is you may waste more time and money training a bad student than it's worth in the end. The difference between a success and a failure in academia often hinges on getting the right trainees. Do not underestimate the importance of this.
  4. Don't worry about teaching for your first few years. Do as little as possible. Same goes for service (i.e. committees). Most departments will give you a break your first few years anyway, but some make the mistake of volunteering time they really should be spending on research and securing funding.
  5. Learn how to play the game. A lot of the effort to getting funding these days is about marketing yourself and your projects. Figure this out early. Why should people care about what you're doing? Why do you deserve this million dollar grant? Not everyone is trying to cure cancer, but you need to be able to justify your research to anyone. You need to be able to generate excitement about your research.
  6. Think long-term in addition to short-term. There are short-term goals everyone has to accomplish, but make sure your long-term strategy makes sense for your chosen career path.
  7. Figure out what you're good at. Before you become a professor, everyone is always patting you on the back, but that's before there's real money at stake. When you start to apply for $1M grants, you need to be an expert in your field. One of my biggest issues was I tried to do a little bit of everything, but in the end, I wasn't a true expert in anything.
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+1 for a honest answer based on hard won knowledge! –  Cinco Sauces Jul 24 '13 at 12:21

While on the interview circuit I ask this question of almost every faculty member I meet with: "What advice would you give to a new assistant professor who's starting up?"

Here are some of the universal, non-conflicting advice I've heard.

  • Put enough time into your teaching to do an adequate job, not an excellent job. Save the rest of the time for research. It was emphasized that you want to teach courses that involve the minimum amount of preparation as well. You can have a tenure case stopped in its track for poor, unacceptable teaching, so you want to ensure that it's maintained to a minimum standard, but it is rare to have a weak research program that's propped up by teaching excellence. (Yes, it's somewhat unfortunate that this is the state of things in the United States's higher education, but that's the culture).

  • Develop your research program so that it is deep, rather than spreading out into too many research areas peripheral to your main research. Stay focused and specialize first.

  • Be aware of how you select students and especially how the department selects students. This varies from department to department, but in general I was given advice to be reasonably careful when choosing students, and to consult with other faculty members to see if others know the student who's looking for an advisor.

  • One faculty member I spoke with mentioned concern about getting all of the hardware set up (for computer science), and mentioned that was something that took a little longer than expected, so have a contingency plan to continue research while your own hardware's going through purchasing. This faculty member used another faculty member's cluster until he got his own up and running.

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Put enough time into your teaching to do an adequate job, not an excellent job. — Or, you know, you could take some pride in your work. –  JeffE Feb 19 '13 at 5:57
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I've heard that advice given as well, and while it's cynical, it does reflect the underlying realities of the evaluation process. Of course one would like to do one's best, but there's only so much time and so many choices. –  Suresh Feb 19 '13 at 6:14
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@JeffE An excellent job in teaching never makes up for lackluster research performance. I agree with the pride comment, however. It's a tough balance pre-tenure. –  Fuhrmanator Feb 19 '13 at 6:17
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My university has started shooting down tenure and promotion cases for lackluster teaching, not just for lackluster research. Our assistant profs are expected to do both well. –  JeffE Feb 19 '13 at 6:28
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Well, lackluster suggests "below adequate". As the advice I received mentions, you need to spend enough time and energy to ensure that your teaching is adequate. –  Irwin Feb 21 '13 at 1:16

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