Getting Essential Core Skills, with Tenure at Stake


Dear CareerDoctor,

I have been an assistant professor for 3.5 years now, having built my own lab on a generous grant for returning postdocs, but the academic life doesn't seem to fit me: the administrative and teaching load keep me away from the bench in the years when my hands are still worth something. I am forced to supervise grad students whose natural inexperience results in few publishable data. In other words, it's a complete disaster: poor track record, long hours in committees and classes, and little spare time to read the literature and think.

I have an opportunity now to change to a private research institute. They pay much better; there are no teaching or administrative responsibilities, but there is the constraint of not being able to choose your own line of research.

Is it better to get some research done even if it's not exactly an idea that you came up with, or is it better to pursue your own ideas but in such a slow motion that you get scooped on a daily basis?


Dear "Frustrated":

Why be negative when you have two great options to choose from? Not many people are free to choose between a tenure-track faculty job and what sounds like a very good research position at a private institute. The fact that you were offered these opportunities tells me that you are a very capable scientist. The question, then, is: why are you underperforming? The answer, I suspect, is that you lack some key management skills.

Leading your own research group may feel bittersweet at first. On one hand, you have reached what was probably your holy grail during all these years of research training. On the other hand, setting up a new lab comes with many new tasks that don't have much to do with your knowledge of science, and the learning curve is steep. To succeed as a faculty member, it isn't enough to merely meet these new challenges; you have to learn to meet them efficiently, in the time left over after you've done your research.

It may help to realise that many new faculty members feel overwhelmed during their first years largely because they have so much to do that has little to do with science. I have found your very words in other scientists' testimony on Science's Next Wave.

What concerns me is your implication that in 3-and-a-half years you've progressed very little. You should have started to settle in to your new role as team leader, and your lab should be functioning well. The students you took on in those first years should be producing work that is publishable, even if you need to provide feedback on manuscripts. Ideally you should have one or two postdocs, and they should be able to do much of this work for you. By now, your research should be on track for recognition, and you should expect your grant proposals to be successful.

So far it isn't happening, apparently. So what is to be done? First, you have to decide whether there's still time to turn things around: by consulting with and examining the productivity of your colleagues, decide whether it's realistic to think that you can close the gap in the time that remains before your tenure decision. If you decide that it's possible, you then have to decide if you're willing to put in the effort that will be needed to turn things around. If you decide it's not feasible or that you're not willing, your decision is simple: take the job at the private research institution where you can start fresh.

If you decide however that you still have enough time, resources, motivation--and desire--to meet the mark for a tenure position, then by all means give it a go. But what you will have to do first is dramatically change the way you manage yourself and your lab. I've outlined some strategies below that should help you in this process.

Let's start by taking a wider view of the skills essential for academic life. Academic success is often defined by papers and funding, but these achievements are based on other skills such as time management, networking, negotiation, and the management of lab personnel. The Research Career Builder (RCB) has illustrated this really well in their skills matrix, which lists both research and core skills. With the help of this matrix, identify the current level of your skills and determine which need to be strengthened. I suspect that you will feel a particular need to improve your time management and people management skills.

Time Management: Time is a precious commodity. Tasks that are important--even essential--to your professional future either are not being done, or are being done in haste or when you are most weary. The first step in improving your time management is to make a list of the key tasks you need to be doing -- reading literature, preparing papers, writing grant proposals, etc.--and to identify milestones you need to achieve in the next 6 months.

Bearing those new priorities in mind, the next step is to keep a record for a week or so of where your precious minutes, hours, and days are going. At this stage, it is crucial that you determine whether the burden of your administrative and teaching duties is reasonable. Talk to those who have managed to achieve the next step--a tenured post--and to those who do not appear to be struggling as you are. Find out how many hours they spend each week sitting on committees and teaching, and compare their answers to your own.

If your administrative duties seem unreasonable, you now have tangible information to present to your head of department. Show him or her the breakdown of your week. Explain what you intend to achieve (these should be things they want to see, like new papers and grant proposals), and suggest a solution (perhaps being relieved of some responsibilities).

Even if your workload turns out to be standard, I would still encourage you to have this conversation. This approach may seem risky--you may fear a negative impact on your progression to a tenured position--but if your research outputs are suffering to the extent that your message suggests, on balance it is better to negotiate a fresh start if it then allows you to demonstrate the productivity that is expected of you. Just freeing up an afternoon a week or fortnight for the tasks that are essential for your career progression should make a difference.

Now that you have pruned your schedule of unnecessary and avoidable tasks, it's time to design a brand-new schedule, putting in the most important things FIRST. Once that schedule is made, you will still need to stick to it, which will only happen if you believe in yourself and your own work sufficiently that you are willing to fend off inappropriate demands on your time. A good tactic is to create deadlines using other people for those really important tasks (i.e., agreeing to show a manuscript to a colleague on a certain day), which will help you delay those tasks that are less essential ("I can't make a meeting this afternoon, but could come tomorrow.").

This is only a very basic introduction to time management and I would encourage you to enquire into a time management course. Alternatively, you'll find some basics in Next Wave's Career Development Centre toolkit; on the Business Balls Web site; and on GRAD.

Managing People: The second area in which I think you need to improve is people management. After 3 years, your students should be developing into mature researchers. They may well have more to offer than you can see in your current jaded state. Have a talk with each of them and ask for feedback on your supervision; you may find new ways of encouraging them to become productive, independent scientists. Lab members should also work as a research team, supporting each other and working together to push your research forward. So encourage the more experienced researchers to take responsibility for new students, and involve them fully in the development of your research strategy.

Again, you'll find specific advice and links to resources from the Career Development Centre toolkit and the Research Career Builder. You may also find that holding a retreat, in which you take your lab members away for a day, could be very effective in reinforcing the foundations of your team. You may want to ask a professional to run some sessions for you; your Human Resources department may be able to help you set this event up.

Ponder your situation carefully and be realistic in your expectations. Be assured that you have the potential to make an impact and gain personal satisfaction from your work, whichever environment you choose. I would also urge you to work to improving your management skills even if you do decide to leave academia, as old bad habits are all too easy to take into a new job.

Good luck in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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