Cutting Edge > Manage Your Career > Early Career > Previous Workshops > Workshop 09 > Participants' Wisdom

Workshop Participants' Wisdom

Prior to the 2009 workshop, we invited participants to share their wisdom with their colleagues, based on their experience. Here's their advice for other early career faculty members about time management or work-life balance and for graduate students and post-docs about the academic job search process.

On work-life balance:

  • I read somewhere that one should approach pre-tenure years sustainably - not as a race toward tenure, but as a lifestyle that one can and would want to continue past tenure. I try to keep this in mind as much as possible (though I find it difficult sometimes!). I think it's important to live life and to continue to do the things that make you happy (sports, travel, whatever it is...) despite the demands on time and energy that come with a new faculty job. In my experience, maintaining a balance allows me to be much more efficient while at work, and I find that I am more productive (and happier) when I take extra time for myself.
  • The best guide I found for balancing my life and avoiding letting my work life swallow every other aspect of my life has been to block off certain times for work and for personal time, and then to respect those boundaries. For example, my first year I decided that I wouldn't work past 9 PM, so I'd work up until that time, and then I was done and the rest of the evening was mine. My second year, I moved it up to 8 PM, and next year I'm planning to move it still farther forward. Likewise, I block off Saturdays and don't do any work on Saturdays. I've found this approach both helps fight the tendency to put infinite amounts of work into my teaching, with diminishing returns (because I know how much time I have to do whatever I need to do so there are some better boundaries and deadlines), and allows me some room for the other parts of my life that matter to me. I still worked way too much my first year (though this second year has been MUCH easier), but I don't think my teaching suffered at all, and I felt much less like I was drowning in work since I had some time dedicated to other aspects of my life. Likewise, during the semester, I block off time for research and try to avoid doing any teaching tasks during that time. I've found that's about the only way I can get research done while teaching. It does feel like incremental progress, but at least I'm making some progress.
  • Before having a family, my personal and work lives were interspersed and I liked that arrangement. With a young family, I've found that separating the two spheres (not taking work physically or mentally home and not doing family related activities at work) has been the only way to not short change my family or my job. As an added bonus, it makes me happier at home and happier at work.
  • To speak first practically I would advise all new faculty members with children to build a strong support network; think not of domestic perfection, and delegate, delegate, delegate. And to all but single mothers in particular: rebel against reality as it is supposed to be in order to realize it as it is—or could be. It has been said that we live in a mediacracy—in the double meaning of mediocre and the lowest common denominator spread by the advertisement-centered media. Although you are partially determined by your environment you can also choose the environment that helps determine you. This is a lesson against sloppiness in favor of free play and dreams of self-creation and self-sufficiency of independence combined with society the good poetry of the each against the too-easy prose of the all.

On time management:

  • I have only recently decided to take advantage of our university's on-line technology. Many universities use programs for the students to access their class notes and grades etc. One function of the one we use is that we can store question banks and the system will create random quizzes for the students. The system will also grade the quizzes, or the students can use the question banks as practice. I am adopting this function to keep the students in my large gen ed Physical Geology course thinking about Geology outside of the classroom (2 mandatory quizzes per week), and giving them an extra study guide, all without adding extra work (besides the initial set up) to me.
  • I find it useful to schedule "unscheduled" work like writing on my daily calendar, because I find that I will tend to do (and prioritize) things that are on my calendar. For me, this works better than a "to do list" because it's harder to ignore a scheduled task.
  • Be realistic about how much you can get done in an hour, an afternoon, a day, or however long you have to work on something. One of my biggest challenges was being overly-optimistic about the number of things I would expect myself to get done in a free afternoon, and then instead of being satisfied with what I did get done I would focus on tasks I hadn't finished. Once I became more realistic I was more satisfied with my work rate.
  • I think the best advice I ever got was to write a little bit each day. If I hadn't done that, I don't think I would ever have finished my dissertation and published my papers!
  • When I have many projects going on at once and I am having trouble concentrating on one before I jump to the next project I set myself a time limit and then set a timer. It helps to know that once the timer goes off I can decide if I am going to keep working on one project or if I am going to move on to the next project.
  • During my first year as a professor, one of the main difficulties that I had was over-committing to things that were outside of teaching (e.g. serving on committees, outreach activities, etc.). A tendency for me was to want to be involved in as many things as I could. I wanted to be a "team player," so when I was asked to be a part of something, I was initially very hesitant to say no. As a result, I quickly found almost all of time outside of the classroom consumed by various meetings, appointments, and other commitments that left me with very little time to work on my courses while I was on campus. This of course led to many late nights and early mornings, and I was constantly in a state of trying to get caught up on prepping for classes, grading, etc. I'm not saying that it isn't good to be an active participant in service and other activities, but it is important to prioritize your commitments in terms of what is important to you, what is important to your department, and what is important to your institution. It is also important that you have enough time to do perform well on the activities that you are a part of. While your colleagues may think it is great that you are showing a willingness to be a part of so many different things, you don't want your performance to suffer as a result of being overcommitted. As a new faculty member, I really was not prepared for the amount of time that I would be spending doing service activities. Another by product of not learning to say no early on is that you develop a reputation for being someone who will say yes (as one of my colleagues put it, you become a "usual suspect"), so more and more people will ask you to do things. This can be a vicious cycle that usually ends up with you being way overcommitted (for instance, I ended up on two faculty search committees at the same time in my second semester!). So I guess my advice would be definitely be involved in activities outside of the classroom, but don't stretch yourself too thin. Learn early on that is ok to say no, and say yes to the things that interest you or that are of value to your department or institution.

On the job search process:

Choosing a focus for your job search

  • Explore any and all options. Before applying, I did not think that I really wanted the job that I currently hold. I didn't know much about the institution and wasn't sure it was the right fit for me. Nonetheless, I applied, worked my way up the candidate rankings, and found out that the institution was the perfect match for me.
  • It's OK to choose a non-traditional career path; in fact, it may be vital to your mental health to do so. Choose a place where you feel happy, at ease, and welcome. No amount of prestige can compensate for a job you hate.
  • I am a very slow and careful decision-maker. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a professor, but I thought it was one good option. What worked for me was to start putting together applications towards the end of my PhD and applying to one or a few jobs every year... ones that that looked really good. Over several years, I was able to refine my application, and it helped me develop my ideas of what I wanted to do. I also read a lot of job ads (and corresponding departmental websites) to see if I could imagine myself in that job, in that place. After my postdoc, I spent a year as a visiting professor, which helped convince me that I could indeed see myself as a professor (and enjoyed it). Last year I interviewed at 3 universities and one just felt right–good thing they made me a good offer! It was a long process, but I was patient with myself, and I also know that if I don't end up liking or succeeding in this job, there are other jobs I can and would like to do. You won't know for sure until you try!
  • I was burned out on research when I started looking for a career. So I started looking at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs). Not only have I been able to focus on teaching, but there is still plenty of opportunity for me to start my own research program (in fact, it's still expected that I conduct scholarly work). However, the research is on a very manageable scale and I'm not fighting for grants just to get tenure. It's a perfect fit for me.
  • After graduate school, my husband (not a geologist) and I decided that we wanted to move back to the upper Midwest because we love it there and we could be near our extended family. Therefore, I began a location-based job search, which was very different from my friends and not well understood by my advisor. My goal had always been to work at an undergraduate state institution where I could teach future science teachers and so I was not bothered by the fact that there were few PhD-granting institutions and I would have to teach much more broadly than my specific research discipline. The thing that I did that worked better than I could have hoped was to ask my grad school professors if they knew people who taught at institutions within my region of interest. Invariably, they did and were able to give me names of professors in the area whom I could contact. I accumulated a list of contacts and nervously sent out emails asking if I could meet them for coffee briefly the next time I was in the area. To my surprise, every person I contacted was willing to meet with me! I spent a week traveling around the two-state area that I was most interested in, meeting with people at universities, museums, and educational organizations. At each place, I introduced myself and said that I was hoping to move to the general area – did they know of any places that excelled in geoscience education, might be looking for a geophysicist, might be hiring soon, etc.? I didn't show up expecting to get a job at their specific institution, I was just educating myself about the different possibilities in the region. Everyone I met with was exceedingly helpful and I was able to hone in on some institutions that I had never heard of before. One year later, I was able to land a job at one of these institutions on a yearly contract that then turned into a permanent position. While my job is demanding, I find it incredibly rewarding and I really love my colleagues and the place that I live and work. My advice contained within this story is two-fold. First, don't let anyone convince you that a location-based job search is impossible. If you have a strong desire to be in a certain part of the world, then you can make it work. Second, contact people and just ask if they will take a few minutes to help you learn about the area or their type of school or whatever kind of information you feel you need to help you make good choices for yourself. I was astonished by how many people were interested in helping me learn about the opportunities and types of geologists in the region. The fact that I asked these questions is why I am where I am today – happily employed in the place I most wanted to live.
  • Your JOB is your LIFE. It has to agree with you, your family, your life style (location), and all aspects of everything which makes up the rest of your life. Do not rationalize one part of your life for another (e.g., the money is good so I think my family can live in the box and be happy, or my kids can live on the oil rig because they love me and I will change jobs when they get older). You can not be content, fulfilled, complete, engaged or challenged in your career if you make too many sacrifices in the remainder of your life. In short, "Pursue a life with a great career, not an income to pay for life."

Navigating the job search process as part of a dual career couple

  • I'll encapsulate "wisdom" here as general expectations and qualities you should have as you go into the job search process rather than any particular tactic. There's more than one way to skin a cat and there is no wrong way to eat a Reeses. If the end result is a happy you and a happy partner, then you are successful. Above all be prepared to be flexible and creative. Some universities deal well with this issue, others deal poorly, some don't deal at all. You may need to provide the flexibility and the options; your potential employer may not have the foggiest idea what to do. You should also be prepared to move, a lot. Don't take lip service. If it's not in writing, it's not going to happen. Even if it is in writing, it may not happen. Single career friends and colleagues may be in tenure track positions, they may even have tenure and you are still on the job market, leaving "good" positions before they are over, staying in "bad" positions longer than you otherwise might. Ultimately perseverance will pay off, but you need to be prepared to persevere, and you need to have your definition of what success is. Two incomes, two stable jobs is different from two tenure track positions etc. etc. Finally, while people have different opinions on this, I have found it best to be up front about the situation (once you have an interview, no sense wasting time before then). If a place is accommodating and flexible, this gives them more time to be that way. If a place is unsupportive and unlikely to work with you, you'll know that sooner rather than later. And everyone will be happier if you know that up front. Waiting for a job offer and then springing the partner on your employer (a) doesn't give them enough time to respond in some cases and (b) can leave a bad taste and bad blood for all involved. Even if you end up with two jobs, they could be in an unpleasant climate and you don't just want any two jobs, you want two successful careers.

Interviewing

  • For interview preparation, make careful study of the department in question. Read through some papers of each faculty member so that you can see how you might work together. Prepare your own materials for interviews, and not just for the [research] talk. For instance, you may wish to discuss a future project with a particular faculty member. If you come armed with figures, your discussion will be much more fruitful. Outline a start-up budget based on your needs and an optimistic expectation of the school's funding abilities. Be detailed for big ticket items, general for lesser costs. Discuss your start-up hopes with the Dean and/or Dept. Head/Chair, and leave a copy of your outline with them.
  • I think the greatest challenge, at least in getting a tenure-track faculty job, is to get the interview. [....] Keep in mind that if you are, say, an igneous petrologist, the people that will be on the search committee will be outside your field (since they are looking for an igneous petrologist).
  • The week I interviewed, my husband was in Brazil and I was doing the full-time mommy thing. It was crazy. The night prior to the interview, I spoke with a colleague regarding the topic of the short presentation. He told me that what I was going to do was not what the committee would be looking for and that I should approach the presentation in a different way. Ugh. What could I do? I'd been practicing the talk the way I had it... it was late... I was tired. Well, I decided to keep my talk the way it was. I guess my words of wisdom are: Trust yourself, go with your gut. It may just work out!
  • In preparing for an job interview, you likely have all the information you need to be one step ahead of the folks at the interview. For instance, if for an academic faculty job, have a full start-up request list with you at the interview. That way, when asked, you have a good and quantitative answer. Next, research all the folks you are meeting with and know a bit about what they do. I even had notes on their research in the notebook I had with me during the interview (to check in with throughout the day). Use bathroom breaks to your advantage. Ask for these often, and take 2 minutes in the bathroom to take a deep breath, look back over your notes on the next person you are meeting with, and regain your focus. Finally, no matter what they say, you are always being interviewed. I went out to dinner with faculty and staff during a lot of my visits and folks would encourage me to relax, stating that this is "not the interview." Although I think that most of these people were being quite genuine, you are always under the microscope, so stay on your game.
  • The advice that someone gave me on interviewing was to give it everything that I had, and that was good advice. I went into the interview with the attitude that this was the job that I really wanted. That is not to say that I didn't ask lots of questions, and even have some questions in my own mind about whether I would take the job, but I went in with the attitude that I wanted to be there, and I think it showed. I thought about what I could offer the department and really made the case for it. I had researched a lot about the school and the department. I think that helped to demonstrate that I was interested in the job and the school. I knew a lot of specifics about the program–such as the fact that there were Saturday classes–so when the interview committee asked me about teaching Saturdays, it didn't catch me off guard. Do your homework. It took me probably a week to prepare for the first interview, and another week to prepare for the second interview, but it worked. I think the school wants someone who really fits into their program–by taking the time to figure out what the program is, you set yourself up to play to your strengths. Practice asking yourself some basic questions (e.g., what is your research about, how will you fit into the department, what would be your ideal class). Practice your research talk with an audience–I used my husband, a grade school teacher, and an engineer, so that my talk would make sense. It's a good thing I did–the Assistant Dean came to my research talk and he is a physicist so I was glad that I made it intelligible. And practice your teaching talk. Practice them all with the idea that this is your dream job. At least, it worked for me, and I got this job, even though it was the very first one! I'm so excited, and by the way, after talking with everyone in the department, I decided that it really was the job that I wanted, hands-down, first choice!
  • One thing I've found is that in many cases, if you are not the candidate accepted, you can find a friend or colleague on the committee that wouldn't mind giving helpful advice about aspects of your interview that could be improved–especially if you put the question in terms of how you could improve your interview.
  • An academic job interview is likely to consist of a long series of interviews and at least one presentation. Having been through the process eight times now with varying degrees of success I have concluded that an academic job interview is the sum of the following parts:
    1. at least two meals with large groups of faculty and students
    2. an iterative series of interviews with potential colleagues
    3. delivery of a research wish list to an administrator and
    4. at least one hour-long presentation.
    Be prepared for at least one or two meals at the university club or in the campus food district. While the topic of conversation may remain focused on shop-talk, don't feel as though you have to artificially keep it there. If your potential colleagues are interested in your outside interests, engage in that conversation too. You will spend most of your visit in a series of meetings with faculty members. You should be prepared to discuss the courses you are prepared to teach and your plans for developing a research program. I made a list of the classes I had experience with and those that I hoped to teach in the future. I also made some very simple syllabi for the classes on my list so I would be ready to talk about course content. You should also be prepared to give a vivid description of what your research program will be like. I prepared a list of my most current projects and made a plan for implementing similar projects at the new university during the next 2 years. Once I finished making all of these plans for my 2-year program I did the same thing for my 5-year plans to demonstrate that I knew how long the tenure track was going to last. At some point you are also likely to meet with the Dean. During this meeting you will hear about benefits, salary structure if it is a union campus, and teaching and research expectations. It is also highly likely that he or she will want to hear about your research plans too. I used to try to learn something about their academic background before I met with them to avoid blinding them with science if they came from a humanities field. The job talk should be a well-rehearsed but lively presentation of your most recent research that is customized for the audience in the room. One version won't work for multiple interviews. For example if you are at a university that largely serves undergraduate students, speak to them without condescending; if you are at a research institution, speak to your colleagues and their graduate students. If you are required to do a teaching demonstration sometimes they will let you pick a subject and sometimes they will give you one that they think you should be able to manage. I have given three such demonstrations and each one was slightly different. In one case I was given a subject and a target audience and both were changed one hour before my talk. Instead of teaching about riparian vegetation to upper level geologists I found myself teaching about floods to first-year elementary education majors. I would have to think that this sort of thing is the exception to the rule.
  • There are three things that I believe have helped me succeed at interviews:
    1. Preparation: I prepare very carefully, paying attention to little details about the place I will interview, including people, and preparing for as many local examples as possible.
    2. I don't try to pretend about who I am: with me, generally, if you meet me for 30 minutes you will learn, at least, about 75% of me.
    3. I am always relaxed, knowing that it is my potential colleagues (not superiors) that are interviewing me.
  • Don't take a rejection personally.

Deciding whether a job offer is a good fit for you

  • The most helpful thing I found when considering a job offer was to contact the union representing professors on campus. They provided my with salary information for recent hires and helped me evaluate whether I was getting a good deal. I felt like I could bargain with authority.

Negotiating your contract

  • Be very clear about what you need. (For my lab, I wrote a sort of mini-proposal to explain the features I required and the type of work that would go on in it.) Get every detail (that you think might be important) in writing. Part of the administration changed between the time I accepted my offer and started the job. I was surprised to see that I was given different, smaller lab space than promised. This is in the process of being fixed, but it is only because I insisted on a relatively detailed description of the lab in my offer letter (room numbers or some quantitative measure is advisable).
  • The most helpful thing I found when considering a job offer was to contact the union representing professors on campus. They provided my with salary information for recent hires and helped me evaluate whether I was getting a good deal. I felt like I could bargain with authority.


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