As I prepare for my 4th year review, I have time to reflect on my first 3 years in a tenure track position at a primarily undergraduate university. For those of you just joining the ranks of TT, I thought I’d pass on advice that helped me the most these first two years. As an under-representative minority (URM) and woman, much of this advice will be shaped by those experiences.
- Your first semester will be spent ordering things. If you have funding in your start-up, hire a good lab manager to handle ordering and negotiating deals from reps.
- Go to conferences and make the most of them. Call/email your funding org (NIH or NSF) ahead of time and find out if your PO will be there. If they are, set up a meeting time, and have questions ready to ask. Set up meetings with potential collaborators and potential mentors. I have gotten a lot of great advice from both. If you aren’t great at meeting people for the first time, ask a mentor or outgoing friend to introduce you to people. Don’t be afraid to talk to folks in your field with more experience or expertise than you. The good ones will be open to talking; the ones that blow you off are folks to cross off your list of potential collaborators.
- Find collaborators who will be supportive and who value your expertise. Steer clear of those that want you on their grant because they believe it will improve their chances of getting funding if they include an URM or PI with early investigator status.
- If your University has a heavy research requirement for tenure, make sure you protect your research time. This means learning how to say no.
- If offered, attend grant writing and/or manuscript writing workshops. I attended GUMSHOE through the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN; https://nrmnet.net/) and found it extremely helpful.
- If your University offers teaching assistance, use it. My University provides workshops in effective teaching styles, student assessment, etc. I wish I had spent more time my first two years attending those workshops.
- If you are teaching a class that was previously taught at your university, get as many of the previous year’s resources as possible. You should design your own syllabus/lectures/exams/etc, but it helps to have a starting point. If you are designing a class that has never been taught, talk to people who have taught a similar class at other Universities.
- If you are URM, be prepared with a response for students that question your qualifications to teach. I run through my qualifications my first class (almost 20 years’ experience in microbiology, classes I’ve taken, quick rundown of my studies) in a 2 minute summary, and restate that summary when challenged by students. My qualifications were challenged my first four semesters.
- Have a teaching mentor. Have them come to one of your classes to watch you teach, and get feedback from them in person and in writing. The written comments should go in your tenure track portfolio.
- Get advice on how to best use teaching evaluations. Few students (5 out of a class with 130 students) responded to the on-line evaluations my university uses, so I get feedback from students during class. I used Google Surveys these last two classes and feedback went down again. It’s more laborious to get in-class comments, but you get higher quality comments that way.
- Figure out how many people you can handle. I have ~15 people in my lab currently. I started with one postdoc my first year and that was about all I could handle at that time. My second year I added a tech, master’s student, and 5 undergrads. I think that was too many undergrads. I added two postdocs this year, who will help mentor the undergrads, and two part-time techs.
- Have weekly meetings with the people in your labs. I have a group meeting weekly and one-on-one meetings weekly for people in my lab 40 hours a week, and every other week for the undergrads.
- Get feedback from your mentees. Remember that each person is different; some will require more supervision than others. Be upfront with your mentees about how much time you can offer, but also be generous with these folks.
- If your University offers mentoring for you, take advantage of it. I have a mentoring committee that meets with me yearly to give me feedback. More importantly, those are three people that I can contact with questions almost any time.
- Keep track of who has been in your lab and what their major accomplishments were for letters of recommendation and for grants. I started a spreadsheet with every person who has ever worked in my lab, when they started, what they worked on, what their major accomplishments were, and where they went after their time in my lab.
- Be protective of your time. This is especially true for URM, LGBTIQ, and women. Figure out which activities are going to make the most impact, both in terms of encouraging up and coming scientists, and in giving you satisfaction and do those.
- Choose your university service wisely. Find out which are related to your research and passions and serve on those committees.
- Learn to let others lead. You likely became a PI because you have exhibited leadership ability. It’s easy to want to lead the committees you’ll be on, but that can be time consuming during a time when you should be focused on teaching and research.
- Learn to say no. I said it before, and I’ll say it again because it is so. Very. Important. Also, learn when to say yes.
- Put all your outreach/service/leadership activities in a master CV so that when you are writing your annual report and/or your workload, you are given credit for all the service you do. It’s also a good way to look back on your year and figure out if you have spent your time wisely.
- Keep a master CV with ALL the things you do. This will be used for activity reports, updating NIH biosketches and NSF CVs, completing just-in-time documents for grants, etc. Mine has a table of contents so that I can find each section easily.
- Keep a folder for every academic year that breaks down the tenure requirements. For example, I have a master folder called “Tenure Track” with subfolders for each year; within each of those are the subfolders “Teaching” “Research” “Service” “Other”. Teaching has evaluations and syllabus for each class; research includes the submission and acceptance letters for each grant; service includes letters for each committee; other includes mentee information etc.
- Figure out what calendar/to-do list system works best for you.
- Keep notes of the weekly meetings with your mentees (if you have weekly meetings) or updates on their projects.
- Find a communication tool that works best for your lab. We use WhatsApp for day-to-day conversations, email for formal things, and online shared folders for documents.
- Read an email but didn’t do the thing that was asked of you? Mark it unread and keep an unread folder or to-do folder in your email box.
- Find a way to organize your other stuff. I use spreadsheets galore. I have spreadsheets for everything we’ve ever ordered in the lab, every collection we’ve done, every sample we’ve processed.
It’s so easy to lose yourself in the first year or two. Make sure you maintain good self-care. These are some steps I took; you’ll need to find what works best for you.
- Exercise! For me that was running. I have a running buddy who makes sure I prioritize a long Sunday run. Releases tension, clears my head, and gives me an outlet. My running partner my first year was also another first year TT in the department, so we used that time to support each other as well.
- Prioritize family. I have a standing lunch date with my spouse and keep (or try to) 6-9pm for my kids.
- Don’t let health issues slide. I didn’t get a sore shoulder checked out and ended up with over 1.5 years of physical therapy trying to get a frozen shoulder back in working order.
- Reward yourself. It’s easy to not celebrate an accomplishment. They can be few and far between…make sure you acknowledge when you and your mentees have done well!
- Find what work/life balance works best for you. I take each Saturday off, for example.
Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list, just a quick jot-down of the things that I’ve found helpful. There are SO many great resources out there for new PIs. Take advantage of the Slack NewPI channel, twitter, read books on teaching and mentoring, and remember to take all the advice (even mine!) with a grain of salt. Find what works for you, and reevaluate once in a while. Remember to breathe, not to take it all TOO seriously, and realize that this is a job, but it’s also a part of your life. If you aren’t enjoying it, find a way to make it enjoyable.