A reflection of my first year on the tenure track

I have now officially lived in Chicago-land for over a year, and I’m beginning my second academic year at Loyola University Chicago.  After one full academic year, I can say that I still absolutely love it:  I love the department, I love the students, I love Chicago.  I’ve also learned quite a bit in the past year both academic and non-academic.  So here it is.  My advice to someone and thoughts on the first year of the tenure track:

  • Find out who can help you with administrative stuff.  Every university everywhere is going to have some arcane system of paper work for getting reimbursed or when you want to purchase something.  Then you have to send it to the right person.  And you’ll always send it to the wrong person.  I’ve worked at two state schools (Umass and UConn) and, while it’s better at a private school, you’ll never escape the paper work.  So find out who knows what they are doing and let them help you.  We have an amazing administrative assistant (I love you Agnes!) who helps me with all of my reimbursements and purchasing paperwork. I didn’t realize this for about 6 months, which is why (at least in my mind) I got nothing accomplished the first semester.  Paperwork is the worst.
  • Advertise what you do for research to students.  No matter what you do, some student will be interested in it (well maybe not all areas of research, but most).  And the good ones will come ask if they can help.  Just because they are interested.  Let them help.  It’s a win-win for everyone as long as the student is good.  The real keys are (1) figuring out which students are good and (2) picking an appropriate project for the level the student is at.  These are skills that you won’t learn in grad school or at a post-doc.  You just sort of have to figure this out as you go along (like so many other things in academics.)
  • Go to as many department/college/university events as you can.  Even if you think some of these events are corny (and some of them will be), just go.  Go and just meet people.  You never know who you’ll meet at these things.   Or who you’ll be introduced to.  In my day-to-day life in the department there are countless professors who I never get to interact with for whatever reason.  They may have a totally opposite schedule than me, they may be in an entirely different field (i.e. analysis, number theory, any of the other math fields), they may just be trying to avoid other people.  But this might be your only opportunity to meet the really interesting people in your department.  And everyone likes meeting really interesting people.  I met a collaborator who I am currently writing papers and a grant with at a joint math/anthropology department event called “bacon and booze”.  (Science seems to be based on booze.  Data and booze. Quote me on that: The two most important ingredients in science are data and booze.  Is there an event called “Data and Booze”.  If not, I’m starting one. #ramblingOver)
  • Where ever you end up, find the local R/python/etc. users group and attend meetings.  For me, this is the Chicago R Users Group (CRUG or ChicagoRUG).  I’ve been to a handful of meetings and I’ve met a bunch of really interesting people from both academics and industry.  And I’ve learned a lot about R.  I’ve even been asked to present twice (#linesForTheCV).
  • #lifeAdvice “I can’t do that, I’m not [blank]” This doesn’t really have to do with my job, but it’s something I learned in the last year.  I remember when I was a kid, I’d always think “I can’t do that, I’m not [blank]”.  The blank could be a baseball player or a musician or a skateboarder or a programmer or a business major.  But the thing is, no one IS anything.  If you want to be something, just do it even if you aren’t that thing.  For me this is most relevant in my art in the last year.  Since I’ve moved to Chicago I’ve been submitting my art to shows and I keep getting accepted.  I was even invited to do an entire show of my work, which was up for a weekend this past summer.  So I’m an artist because I say I’m an artist.  And whatever you want to do, you are that just because you say you are that (I mean don’t be delusional about this, you’re not the president of the USA.)  But if you want to be an author, don’t let the fact that you aren’t an author stop you from being an author.  If you want to be a musician, don’t let the fact that you can’t play music stop you.  If you want to be a statistician, don’t let the fact that you don’t have a statistics degree stop you from doing that.  The internet will teach you everything you need to know.  You just need to practice.  Everything is made up.  Be whatever you want.
  • I had the opportunity of being on two search committees my first year.  I probably wouldn’t advise this if you had a choice, but I was grateful that I was able to participate on two search committees in my first year.  I was on a computer science search committee and a statistics search committee.  Being involved in such important decision making in my first year really made me feel like my department (and the CS department) valued my opinion.  I also cherished the opportunity to be involved in having input into the direction the department would move in in the next decade.  There are currently 4 tenured/tenure track statisticians in the department and three of them have been hired in the last two years.  This is an incredible opportunity for me to really have a lot of input in the direction that a statistics program will move in next few years.  (I hope I don’t screw it up.)  But I immediately have the chance to try and fix all of the things that I thought were wrong or not perfect about my undergraduate/graduate experience (which overall was excellent!)  Usually a new professor does not have these opportunities to change a program untiul many years into their academic careers.  I’m really excited to have this much influence at the beginning of my career.  (And again, I’ll try not to blow it.)
  • Your are going to be tired on Friday night.  When I was a grad student, time was absolutely unlimited.  At least that’s how it felt.  Want to spend a week learning about web scraping?  No problem!  That dissertation can wait!  As a post-doc, I had a little bit less time as there was a project that always needed to be worked on, but I also didn’t have any teaching or service related responsibilities.  Now, as an assistant professor, I still have to do research, but just throw teaching two classes a semester and departmental service (like two search committees!), and you can see that time is not on only no longer unlimited, it’s almost non-existent.  (I’m writing this in a rare free moment during the semester).  Mike Lopez (a.k.a @statsbylopez) had this to say about being tired: “My major issue was getting enough rest, especially the first semester. If I had to do things over again, I would’ve recognized that you can’t keep up the same research pace you had when you were in grad school or a post-doc. As a grad student or a post doc, you have the time nearly every day to devote to major projects.  That time just doesn’t exist when you also have to teach and advise. Time for faculty should be a zero-sum game; roughly fix the hours, and let things fall where they fall. To interrupt sleep, social life, or family responsibilities is a major mistake that many make in their first year (me being one of them).”
  • Finally, students have lots of personal problems and sometimes you might need to help.  Remember what it was like being 20?  It’s not easy.  Girl problems, boy problems, family problems, money problems, school problems, life problems.  When you are 18/19/20/21/22, you’ve got these problems.  And sometimes you might be the person that a student feels comfortable talking to about it.  Or, because a student either misses class or assignments, you may end up  hearing about their troubles.  I was not prepared for this, and I’m still not exactly sure how to deal with it.  I guess my best advice is to just sit and listen.  Sometimes that’s what people need.  Just someone to listen.  Other times students tell me about problems that they are going through, and I went through the exact same thing.  Without going into details here, I think it’s really helpful to know that someone went or is going through what you are going through.  I know it made me feel better when I was in college, and I hope that I can do that for someone else.

Cheers.

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Posted on August 31, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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