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. :-)

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