Monday, May 30, 2016

My Tenure Dossier

So I feel like I should write about my tenure process while I still remember it with urgency, hence the recent topic trend. While being on the TT and the run up to tenure currently forms the bulk of my experience as a professor, that won't always be true. I know I will eventually be one of those people who say "just work hard, publish, write grants, and tenure will come" to anxious new assistant profs, just like some of my senior colleagues told me. Or probably I won't say it (since it is a supremely unhelpful thing to hear), but I am sure I will think it.

The truth is that because the tenure decision is career determining, it will take over your life until after you are through it. But once you are done, you will realize how much of your efforts were spent in obsessing well beyond the point of usefulness over the relatively small number of things under your direct control vs. the many things that aren't. Kind of like the TT job hunt. Turning in the dossier was both anticlimactic (I just handed in a USB drive and signed my name on a list) and extremely stressful (because now all there is left to do is wait).

At ProdigalU (and probably most other places), a tenure dossier consists of a CV plus personal statement and then detailed descriptions of research, teaching, and service. We also submit appendices containing ProdigalU associated publications (including recent submissions) and every teaching evaluation from ProdigalU. If you are on the TT, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to see a recent successful dossier, preferably from your department. Seeing a complete dossier will primarily show you how it is supposed to look at your institution, but it will also remind you of things you forgot to put in yours on the first pass. Plus you can start early on the things that won't change, like your CV that contains everything you have ever done professionally ever (really!) and the list of your service contributions. I foolishly did not take a look at a tenure dossier until I started setting mine up. This led to many hours of combing through records and/or emails for specific details I wanted to add in that I could have just added to a file contemporaneously if I knew I would want them!

I started working on my dossier in June with 3 months until submission. At the same time, I was still pushing out my final manuscript (submitted manuscripts with manuscript numbers count for more than nothing, but less than a publication here). Since the dossier is literally a summary of everything I did at ProdigalU, it took a really long time to finish, even ignoring the hours spent on making the formatting look nice. It took so long, that I now keep both a "tenure format" CV in addition to a more normal CV so I don't ever have to do this again (like if I hopefully go up for promotion to full in the future!) and have a place to keep a complete list of everything my group and I do professionally.

Here is a partial list of things I forgot some details about and had to look up (usually exact title or exact date): panels I served on, every person whose supervisory committee I served on, every class I guest lectured in, every session I chaired at meetings, every presentation my students gave, every committee I served on. I knew I would have to discuss my research to bring out the novelty, interest, and importance for both experts and non-experts, but there was a lot of other writing as well. I also had to describe all of my collaborations and how they worked, discuss how I decided which journals to publish in along with a brief description of the journal's significance and audience for evaluators who are out of field, describe the contributions of all authors on all of my papers, and discuss my vision for the future of my research and my lab.

The teaching part also took a long time, as in addition to describing my courses and demonstrating my competence and vision for my teaching, I also had to extract out all of the teaching evaluation scores and put them in an easy to understand table for each class, as well as excerpt the comments. The evaluations had to be put into context of my teaching statement (this part was pretty easy). The number crunching was tedious and time consuming. The service part was the easiest--I just had to flesh out my list with a description of what each listed service thing meant, and describe any relevant committees. I spent the least amount of time on this.

There is actually a small amount of strategy here, since we can only count each item as either research, service, or teaching. There are some gray areas. For example, mentoring undergraduate researchers can count as research or teaching (or service, I suppose, but I never thought of putting it there). Guest lecturing in a class can count as teaching or service. There are lots of small things that can be assigned to one section or another. This could have become a timesink for procrastination, but I pretty much just decided where I wanted various items right up front and didn't revisit my choices. I don't think it matters much in the end, and I was able to see that during the process.

I spent the final week obsessively wordsmithing and changing the formatting in various ways over and over again. This was completely non-productive, but honestly, I was beyond burnt out on it, so why not relieve some stress via pretending that my font choice and/or header style was important to the decision? Turning it in was a huge relief, as it isn't like all the other work goes away while working on the dossier.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Conference Spam

What is up with all the conference spam? I think I get more of that now than predatory OA journal spam. Hitting the delete key is not that big a deal, but recently I spent a day with no email access and it struck me just much conference spam I get in a single day.

Does this actually work? Do people actually attend expensive random conferences in far away locations? I find I have more than enough conference travel attending well known meetings and/or workshops run by reputable societies or funding agencies. Certainly more than I can pay for with grants. Who attends these meetings? Someone must, or they wouldn't have proliferated so much...

Monday, May 23, 2016

The run up to tenure

ProdigalU is similar to most other research-intense universities in timing. So that means the contracts follow a 3 year/3year/final contract pattern. The final contract is tenure (if things go well), or a 1 year terminal contract (if things go poorly). I would have been a lot better off considering this from the start.

The intial Assistant Professor contract is for 3 years. After 2+ years, there is a brief but serious reappointment review. This reappointment review has some teeth, and I think ProdigalU is not that different from other universities here either. There definitely have been people at ProdigalU who were not renewed, since if the department decides you have no shot at tenure after seeing you in action for 2 years, they will not continue to invest in you. But for me, I had a long meeting where the Chair went over what was going well, what needed more work, and where I might have trouble when it was time to prepare the dossier. We also went over publication and grant submission plans, and then I was renewed for another 3 years.

The thing to keep in mind is that the tenure dossier is submitted in September of the final year of the contract. That means that the dossier goes in after 5 years on the TT, not 6! This is something I did not pay enough attention to until I was reminded of this fact at my reappointment. In my opinion, the final push to tenure begins at the reappointment. Two years is not much time to get everything done.

At this point, I was teaching a full load, and had a full service load too. The department hired someone else after me, so the newer newbie got the intro service stuff, so I had to do more than Admissions and Seminars. Since my department is fairly functional, my Chair told me exactly what I needed to do to fulfill the service expectations for tenure and gave me appropriate assignments. In retrospect, it is probably a good idea to think about what service is actually interesting to you at around year 2, so you can ask for it, but I didn't think of that ahead of time. Given that service wasn't going to get me tenure, I did exactly what I needed to do in the minimum amount of time I could. Since I try not to be a jerk, I did the best job I could do in the time I had to allocate to it, since service work has to be done by someone, and actually completing what you say you will complete is a good way to earn respect anywhere.

An unexpected service load came in the form of serving on supervisory committees and being a PhD examiner. Since you need folks to do this for your students, you need to do it for others. As a new prof, grad students seemed more interested in having me on their committees than other possibly tougher professors. Fortunately, I am a hard ass, so word didn't take TOO long to get around that I was not a rubber stamp supervisor or examiner. My first few PhD defenses took many, many hours to prep for (on top of the time spent at the actual defense). As an examiner, I had to read the whole thesis (duh!) and prepare questions for the defense. For defenses that were reasonably far from my area of expertise, the reading alone could take 3 hours. This is something I had no idea about before I started doing it. Unfortunately, this service obligation starts to really hit hard during the run up to tenure.

In terms of teaching, I was spending a lot less time prepping. I was lucky, and had the best sort of pre-tenure teaching assignment, which is the same thing (no matter what it is) for all 5 years. I was now spending about 30-45 minutes prepping per lecture. Also, after 3 years, I found a teaching style that was working for me so I felt more comfortable in the classroom. At ProdigalU, teaching evaluations are the main method of displaying teaching effectiveness, for better or for worse. By this point, I was above the departmental mean for all courses, and scoring highly in my grad course. Part of the improvement was my new comfort in the classroom, part was getting better with experience.

In addition, we also have to show some sort of curriculum development, which I did with my assigned labs. I started overhauling the labs I was assigned to, including developing some new lab exercises. I think this takes less time than developing a new course, even if the new course would be in my research focus area. Labs are actually a good place to put in some effort in course development. Most of the timesinks are right before the semester begins, the week classes start, and the end of the semester, especially after the first year (when all courses are a huge timesink). This is great, since I also had lecture courses I had to work on, but this way I could do a good job teaching while protecting time for research. It is also kind of fun to come up with new labs for the students. At ProdigalU, teaching will not save you if the research isn't there, but lack of teaching will kill your tenure chances.

The workload got insane in the run up to tenure. By now, I was out of startup funds, but had students that depended on my funding. I had to integrate new students into the group while pushing out as many proposals and manuscripts as possible. My first sets of students now needed support letters for various fellowships and awards, which take me an hour or more to write from scratch. In year 5, I also had to start planning for my first students to finish up and make sure no information was lost to graduation.  On top of all of that, I had to make sure that potential tenure file letter writers knew who I was. That meant lots of travel/networking. And now I had one less year than I thought, since I wasn't considering that it takes a whole academic year to process the tenure dossier. I'll admit I was completely overwhelmed.

Things I did that ended up working out for me:
  • Sent my students to higher profile conferences so I didn't have to go to as many. Not as good as me going to network, but at least got the work seen live by more people.
  • Scheduled one research day per week where I did no teaching, had no office hours, did no service (including meetings if possible), and scheduled no meetings that were not directly research relevant (and even those were kept to a minimum)
  • Stopped regularly scheduled one on one meetings with students (unless they requested to continue) and went to a daily drop in schedule, where I visited the lab at set times every day to speak with my students and had them drop in to my office if they needed to speak with me outside those times or at group meeting.
  • Set up one late night a week (the night of our departmental seminar in case I wanted to go out to dinner with the speaker) so I could work without distraction at home.
  • Met with every departmental speaker in my broad research area, and most outside of it to increase the low effort networking. I am actually surprised by how few people in my department do this. It is easy, and takes at most 30 minutes of the day (90 minutes if you attend the seminar, which I do try to do when I meet the speaker). 
  • Set my office hours for my courses for my convenience rather than worrying about the typical schedule for my undergrads. It didn't change office hour attendance or my teaching evaluations at all.
  • Sent my teaching related emails to a separate inbox. This made it easier to stick to a once or twice daily scheme for responding.
  • Forced the students in my courses to use the online message boards instead of mailing me for content-related questions. I posted questions sent to me along with their answers so I didn't have to re-answer the same question over and over again. I set up a pre-prepped response in my email client so I could refer students to the message boards with one key combo, which saved more time.
  • Got more picky with undergrad researchers. More hands in the lab is not necessarily better. ProdigalU values undergrad research, so we are expected to take some undergrads above and beyond honors students. I started being more selective based on interviews with potential students (I don't care much about GPA as long as it is reasonable. Like say above 3ish). A bad undergrad is a huge timesink.
  • Started keeping a file of parts of figures I often use for making cartoons in proposals and presentations. This was surprisingly helpful, since I could now cut and paste new figures quickly, rather than spending time searching for where I used various parts.
  • Set up a bookmark file of places to look for funding calls and set aside one day a week to look at it. No money = no results = no tenure.
  • Stopped blogging. No time to tend the blog. Barely enough time to read anything for fun, even things tangentially work related. :-( 
  • Continued to reserve the time from 5-8 pm on 4 of 5 work days and at least one day of the weekend (if not both) for family. In truth, tenure is not more important to me than my family. I don't care if that makes me not a "true scientist".
  • Protected some time for decompression. While I stopped blogging and reading much of the blogosphere, I saved some time every day for reading fiction for pleasure. I find this relaxes and de-stresses me in a way little else does, so it helped me keep my sanity.
Things I wish I did:
  • Pushed more on manuscripts starting in year 4. I did my paper push in year 5 right before I had to start prepping my dossier. It can take a long time to get a paper accepted, so waiting until 6-8 months before the dossier is due is a mistake. Submitted papers with manuscript numbers are better that nothing, though.
  • Gave more thought to project timelines when planning could be adjusted to generate results that can become a manuscript rather than have projects sit with several experimental stories at 80-90% completion. That does no good. Also leads to problems when students are finishing, but can't/haven't written up their results yet. It really sucks having to write up something AFTER the student has left. They don't care much, so you have to do more.
  • Had a shorter leash on the student who didn't work out. This was a large time and money sink, and I started having doubts after 2 years. It would have been better for both of us to deal with this more quickly.
  • Said no more often. I only started saying no the way I should have when I was panicking at the end of year 4.
  • Looked at other people's dossiers BEFORE I needed to start mine. I did look at some while I was doing mine, but it would have been useful to see what a tenure dossier looks like a lot earlier!
  • Invited myself to more talks. I didn't realize how easy it is to get invited to give a talk when traveling. During my sabbatical, I cold emailed some people I wanted to meet, and just said "Hi I am in the area. Want to meet for coffee or lunch?", and they responded with a seminar invite.
  • Paid more attention to the "this is the direction things are moving in long term" sort of departmental/University politics. In retrospect, I feel like I was so focused on making sure I would get tenure that I ignored things that might impact me and my future now that I have it.
Okay, this is a super-long post. It took a long time to recover from the final push. I did feel like I had to be working all the time, and the stress of that on top of the stress of the actual job situation was not sustainable. I definitely understand why professor blogs tend to be written by newbies and people with tenure already. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

5 years later

It is hard for me to believe that is has been nearly 5 years since I last posted on this blog. Since my last post, I have been granted tenure and promotion (yay!), graduated my first set of students (yay!), fired my first student (boo!), and taken a sabbatical (yay!). Mostly good things, happily.

I strongly admire those who can continue regular blogging in the late stages before submitting a tenure dossier. I know that I couldn't. Now that I am in a more stable position, I am re-evaluating how I allocate my time. I find I miss blogging--the venting was fun, as was the pontificating. I miss the conversations with my commenters (alas, scattered to the wind now). But mostly blogging is for me, really. It helps me organize my thoughts a bit, and lets me write in a low pressure, low stakes setting.

So I guess I am back for now. I'll be sending off my 2 cents into the void again. Thoughts on the final run-up to tenure to come.