Monday, February 28, 2011

Teaching on the TT

Prof-like Substance had an interesting post on teaching while on the TT at a research university. I am late to the discussion, since life has been kicking my ass lately, but I left a lengthy comment there that I decided should be a post on its own.

My first time teaching a large undergrad course was pretty demoralizing. The second time through was much better, and not just because I did a better job with more experience. The first time through, I had to spend a lot of time on prep and course mechanics. The second time through, I spent a lot less total time on the course, and a lot more of the time I did spend on stuff I found more interesting (how to convey my enthusiasm for science, how to incorporate modern research into a course on fundamentals discovered a long time ago, finding relevant short demo videos, etc). My students really enjoyed the videos a lot, and I was really happy to discover that there were a core group of students who got really excited that this required course turned out to be somewhat interesting, and let that 5-10% or so give me energy to deal with the 90+% who don't care at all about the material.

I want to be a good teacher for myself, and to fulfill my obligations to my students. I do what I can in the time I can allot to it, just as I budget my time in the other aspects of my job. I agree that as a TT prof, I can’t afford to spend the time to become truly outstanding in the classroom. To be honest, I am not that interested in being truly outstanding, otherwise I would be at a different type of institution. Students who want a truly outstanding classroom experience don’t (or at least shouldn’t) come to research universities in the first place. My undergrad course has 200 students in it for me and one TA to work with. There is no way to have a meaningful interaction with that many people.

I do the best I can to inspire the students I have, and I cheer for the small victories (the student who switches majors to my subject after my course, the students who come looking for research opportunities, the students who I have great conversations with about the implications of the material we cover in class). I try to let the demoralizing parts and the “is this on the exam” kids roll off of me. Good luck–it is a hard thing to balance, and you are not alone in struggling with it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Strategic publishing

I am entering a phase in my career that I always dreaded on the outside looking in at the TT. This is the phase of strategic publishing. At this point in my career, I need to think about how, when, and where to publish in terms of the impact to my tenure file. So now, in addition to the science, the target audience for the work, and the impact factor of the target journal, I also need to think about the time to publication, my rate of publications (will there be big gaps? a feast or famine pattern?), and the possibility of someone either scooping us or publishing very similar experiments before we can (much more likely).

I was largely shielded from this reality at National Lab--we needed to have 2 papers a year, but that isn't too hard with appropriate levels of collaboration. Merit increases were definitely tied to having high impact publications, but since the timeframe was year to year, I just published when I was ready in the "best" journals that would publish the results.

I am finding this kind of depressing. I was always the type of researcher who mocked the "least publishable unit/slicing the salami" style of publication, but now I can really see the temptation. I can see the changes in my own work already--there is some data we have now that we are writing up as a communication. If I were still at National Lab, I would probably hold it back for some additional experiments, but I am too worried about other groups working in this area publishing first to let it go longer. It is too risky to me to hold on for more data, since we have a full story already. I really wish this weren't the case, but there it is.

I need to have a good publication year this year, and that is starting to trump other considerations. This is one of the realities of the TT that I knew was coming, but is still upsetting. I am still in a good place, after all, I have data that is good for publication in excellent speciality journals, but it is harder than I thought it would be to make the call.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Surviving the TT

This exchange about a month with someone starting out on the TT at Dr. Becca's, continued at DrugMonkey got me thinking about how much difference a year makes. This truly inspired post by Prof-like Substance got me writing.

There are many things that are much easier the second time around (and yes, teaching tops that list). It is also easier to write talks, abstracts, and parts of papers/proposals now that I have some already worked material to draw from for background. Doing slides for talks takes half the time, since I have my cartoons done (for the most part), and can just tweak and update the data. I am much, much faster at reviewing stuff, since I have less time to do it in. I am much better about declining to review the truly crappy papers (now that I am better at spotting them from the abstract alone). This is more thanks having to grade students' written work, than to more experience with reviewing, since I did that too at National Lab.

There are also many things that are harder. I am teaching a full load now, and have more service obligations, so time management is an issue. I am finding it really hard to balance being a good mentor to my four students with all the other demands on my time. There is a HUGE difference between two students and four students. I know I need to take one more next year (especially if one of my proposals in a new area for me comes through), but I don't know where the time to mentor them will come from. Happily, my "senior" students are really strong, and can take on much of the nitty gritty training stuff, but that only buys so much time... I am freaking out about money, since I need more and it is hard to get. I worry about what happens when my "starter" grants run out, since it is even harder to compete with the full pool (rather than the newbies).

Things that ended up working better than expected:

1. Taking undergrads over the summer. Not only were they very productive in the lab, but they let my grad students get their feet wet with training and mentoring in a low stakes, controlled way.

2. The burn the ships strategy with my startup funds. We have all our essential equipment up and running, and I have enough money to cover (barely) operating with four students for next year. My students are looking quite productive lately, so it looks like sprinting will pay off in publications. I don't have much of a monetary safety net, so perhaps the jury is still out on whether this was good long term.

3. Serving on a review panel. This really, really helped my proposal writing, in ways I never expected. I always knew, but never really appreciated fully, how important clarity is in grant writing. Clarity beats everything else (except for good ideas).

Things that didn't work out as well as I'd have liked:

1. Taking undergraduates during the academic year. I am not sure that the effort we put in is worth the productivity we got back. It takes a lot of time to train and mentor someone, and students taking courses have a LOT more pulling on their time than summer students do. It is really hard for them to balance time in the lab vs. their academic work, especially since the academic work comes with deadlines, while the research does not.

2. Relying on collaborators to provide essential materials. Some of these collaborations had been ongoing for years, so it certainly wasn't malicious or deliberate. It is just that no one else cares as I do about making sure we have materials in a timely manner. A minor glitch in a collaborator's lab might lead to a 3-6 month delay for them. Not a big deal (or at least it wasn't when I was at National Lab, with lots of resources). In a limited resource situation (like when starting up a lab), this could have been fatal. My students sit idle, no work gets done, and that means no publications!

3. Being an accessible professor. Ate up a bunch of my time, didn't improve student outcomes OR my teaching evaluations. Next year, I will stick strictly to my scheduled office hours for helping students outside of class, and I will limit the time I spend on emails for the class.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on interviewing: student vs. colleague

In my last post on interviewing, I suggested that candidates should "act like a colleague, not like a student". There have been a couple of requests for clarifying what I meant, so here are some thoughts on the subject.

1. Address people by what they call themselves when they introduce themselves. Nothing says "student" to me like someone who calls me Dr. Academic after I introduce myself as Prodigal. My colleagues (and research group for that matter) call me Prodigal. My students call me Dr. Academic. If someone says "Hello, I am Dr. Pretentious", by all means call them Dr Pretentious. And definitely DON'T do the starstruck thing, even if you are meeting a personal hero or Nobel laureate.

2. When you talk about your research, own it. It is YOURS. Not your advisor's, not your program officer's, and not your university's. Also, don't refer to your advisor all the time. The interview is about you not her/him, and talking about him/her all the time will reinforce that you are a student/postdoc.

3. When you do talk about your advisor (and it will come up), don't act deferential. Be respectful, but it seems strange to me when interview candidates call their advisors "Dr. Advisor". Don't call your advisor "my boss" either.

4. When you meet with your potential colleagues one on one, and the topic turns to research, they want to have a discussion with you. Even if the person you are meeting with is a giant in your field, they do not want you to just accept their suggestions as the "word from on high". When a candidate does that instead of engaging in the conversation, it makes me feel like I am having a one on one with one of my own trainees, not discussing science with a colleague. Bonus points if you can offer something constructive about their own research!

5. When meeting with students and/or postdocs, remember that you are interviewing to be a faculty member. No matter how tempting it is to talk about stuff you got away with in grad school, or how annoying your advisor is, don't.

6. While "I don't know" is a perfectly valid response to a question (and certainly better than trying to fake it), another response is to try to think things through, or offer your thoughts about the topic (obviously, this isn't true of questions about factual things!). People who can pull this off definitely seem more scientifically mature.

I'm sure there are other things, but this is what comes to mind from my (admittedly) brief experience on the other side of the interview.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading the literature

Since January, I have been making a stronger effort to keep up with the literature. Since joining the TT, I've had less and less time to just sit and think about research. One of the easiest things to do is to let reading new publications slide, since there are no deadlines and no immediate rewards. In the past, I've used emailed Table of Content, which I would skim over when they came in. I now find that email is way too easy to ignore these days, especially in the volumes I now receive.

I have three proposals in preparation right now, and I am starting to plan a fourth. I've noticed that it is harder for me to think of new and interesting projects lately, but not all the time. After attending a meeting, I am bursting with ideas. I just need that exposure to new ideas and new experiments to get my own creativity flowing. I know some people rely on their students and seminar attendance to keep themselves current, but that just hasn't been working for me. I clearly needed to make a change, and I think I found a solution (for now).

Using an RSS reader to read journals has been a revelation. It is much, much easier to skim through and click on what I want to look at in small time blocks, since I don't need to get through the whole contents in one sitting. Now that I am "caught up" in the feeds, I mostly see the ASAPs, which come in a few at a time instead of with a firehose of new stuff all at once. To anyone else who is struggling with this problem and hasn't tried RSS yet, I highly recommend it.