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  • Writer's pictureLogan Wright

Scattered observations on starting as a new professor

Logan G. Wright


 

Disclaimers:

  • I can see this post being useful to someone who is contemplating becoming a professor, and who is relatively familiar with academic research (e.g., a PhD student or post-doc). On the other hand, I'd take any advice here - whether direct or implicit - with a grain of salt. I wrote this self-indulgent post because, whether or not any of the advice is particularly useful, I think it will at least capture the sort of adjustments and mental conflicts that go along with the post-doc-to-professor transition, NOT because I think I have necessarily identified the right path (for myself, nevermind anyone else).

  • (As a secondary disclaimer here, any actually good advice found here could likely be attributed to

  • The style of this post is designed to be easy to write, and - I hope - easy to read. Writing whose main purpose is to fulfill the needs of the writer is a classic error, a ubiquitous curse throughout academic writing. I am hoping this structure avoids that, however self-indulgent the content might be.

 

Observations:

  • Being a professor really is best described as running your own small business, albeit a strange business, and within a larger ecosystem. Despite pursuing this career path in large part because of the autonomy you can have, I am still (pleasantly) surprised by how much autonomy I really have. There are many good reasons these jobs are competitive, and at the end of the day any complaining here (constructive complaining included!) should be taken with a healthy dose of "But I wouldn't want to do just about anything else". Being able to do research in academia is a very, very lucky position to be in.

  • You do, to some extent, have control over what kind of business you run, including what the product is. Most academic research labs are producing "people and papers", but the style or relative importance they assign to producing new results/ideas versus education can vary a lot.

  • Some labs are small and the professor is involved in the details of the research. More often than not these labs do theory, but I have seen this with experimental groups as well. These labs seem to have an advantage for education, in that there is much more direct interaction between the most senior researcher and the other lab members. But this is also not always the case. 

  • Some labs are huge companies where the professor is the highest level of a hierarchy of management. More often than not these are the most famous labs, since they can produce vastly more output than smaller labs. In these labs education necessarily is about culture and peer support, which has plenty of merits. I find this frightening - controlling your lab members' experience and education through culture and management is obviously less direct than if you can constantly mentor each of them one-on-one. Luckily, however, virtually nobody runs a huge lab like this by accident, or immediately.


  • That being said, you are busy - busier than ever before, and to make it all the more difficult, most of what you are doing is both important and new to you. Overwhelmingly however, this busyness is within your control - I could choose to not meet a proposal deadline, or to push (most) things off.

  • What are you busy with? There are a lot more things you are suddenly doing beyond being a post-doc, such as:

  • Writing proposals (or more of them)

  • Hiring people, from interested undergraduates who have never done research, to experienced post-docs

  • Teaching

  • Designing a lab

  • Managing a lab, both the low-level details like when, where, and how (or IF) to hold group meetings, to the long-term high-level stuff like "What should I be doing long-term, and what should we be doing now to get there?"

  • One of the most insightful, if not precisely actionable, pieces of advice about becoming a new faculty member is that your schedule rapidly becomes your to-do-list. At some point, there are sufficiently many scheduled events and sufficiently many deadlines that your work is your schedule, rather than what you do in between scheduled events.

  • Right now, it seems like the skill I'd most like to build up to do better at this job is to be able to do deep work within short time windows (e.g., 30-60 minutes between meetings). As a PhD student, I'd routinely have periods of 4, 8, even 16 hours where I could afford to take hours working my way into a productive mental configuration. Such warm-up periods are almost impossible to come by now.


  • If you are looking for advice on how to attempt to manage your time, especially amidst the very wonderful/terrible diversity of tasks of a new professor, I would say:

  • Use your schedule as your primary to-do-list. I have not fully successfully deployed this to the extent where I can always actually do a task when I schedule time for it (e.g., "write introduction to proposal X from 10 AM to 11 AM Wednesday"), but the necessity of doing this is clear. I think the only alternative is to spend a significant amount of time in off-hours (e.g., after 9 PM, on weekends, etc.) 

  • Try to keep track of tasks as "high mental energy" and "low mental energy". Often I'm in the mood to be productive, but am just too drained to really make progress on something deep. Having a go-to list of little chores I can work through is nice for these times.

  • Lastly, the advice I most mean to follow, but have mostly failed to follow, is to schedule a regular working time for those activities that build long-term - deadline-free things like reading widely and coming up with non-obvious ideas, or doing research yourself. In a way, this blog is one attempt I'm making at training myself to do this sort of thing - converting it from a nebulous, fun and probably useful task with no clear deadline, to one I can see at least some short-term output from.


  • One of the best and worst things you can do as a new professor is to compare yourself to your peers. My advice is to do it, but be precise about it. When we look at our peers, we tend to not keep track of time in the same way we experience ourselves - I always had the sense that my colleagues who started as faculty were publishing and winning grants regularly within a year or at most two. Some do - some people seem to immediately have everything happen. But most do not, and take a year or two before things with their lab and fundraising appear to be moving at a finite velocity. Although relinquishing competitiveness and embracing the human enterprise of science has been one of the most beneficial mental paradigm shifts for me, it has still been valuable for me to use others as guidelines for my ambition, not to mention to plan my time.

  • One of the more valuable exercises I have done has been to deconstruct timelines for publishing and proposal-winning from colleagues who have started in the last 3-5 years*. What awards did they receive? (and thus, what were they applying for and when?) What sorts of publications were they pursuing? (I.e., small theory papers or just big, comprehensive papers?). While this sort of detailed accounting does provide some pressure to "keep up" (or to summarily exceed), I found the reality was much more achievable than what I had naively estimated - the timeline for what people had actually accomplished was a lot more reasonable than the timeline I had imagined in my mind. This exercise was also crucial data I build on in forming a strategy for what to apply for, when, and to some extent how I should think about planning my group's projects.

  • Many of the more encouraging and helpful interactions I had with young faculty in the past year have been to remind myself that, amidst the feeling of very high-speed urgency and excitement of starting a new lab, it is also OK, if not even preferable, to take time to think, and to mindfully make it through each new type of task. It takes a lot of confidence to approach things slowly and diligently. 


  • Proposals and writing are huge parts of this job. I enjoy writing proposals and found that the steady stream of rejections has been relatively easy to adjust to. In the US at least, there are so many opportunities (albeit of widely varying success rate and value) that one rejection tends to quickly fall away as I focus on the next opportunity.

  • One part of proposals I enjoy is that many opportunities bring me together with colleagues I can learn from, or that can push me into new areas. There are many opportunities where I can imagine recycling rejected material, but intellectually the opportunities that require new thinking and ideas have so far been the most fun.

  • The omnipresence of proposals changes some of the calculus of doing science in that one not only wants to produce scientific end results, but may also care about preliminary results or demonstrations of capabilities. I like that these "intermediate" outcomes have a clear value. In starting a new lab with a bunch of new colleagues, it's a dramatic gear shift to need to go back to the beginning on everything. You need to build everything from scratch, which takes a lot longer than adding a twist on a pre-existing infrastructure - It's nice that some of those pre-publication steps can be viewed as important.

  • There are many sources of science funding in the US (which is not to say there is more than enough money to go around, just that its sources are diverse). In my field, sources from the US Department of Defense - Office of Naval Research, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Army Research Office, DARPA, IARPA, etc. - occupy a substantial fraction of these, and maybe even a larger fraction of total funding. Often when science funding is discussed, it is framed in terms of NSF, or perhaps NIH. The DoD receives a tremendous amount of money in the USA, but it is covering a rather astounding range of investments and infrastructures beyond just the latest fighter jets. Many, many people are employed in DoD-derived research, much of it quite basic research, and the people who are distributing this money are taking this basic research mission seriously, often with historically well-justified rationale. We often hear about specific technologies developed in this manner, e.g., through DARPA, but if you consider the integrated impact of all the people whose education as researchers was supported through DoD-managed funding, it's a huge impact on society.

  • Within this complex web of spending, the most encouraging thing for me is that, while military spending is a game-theoretic inevitability (The Game Theory Of Military Spending | Economics Explained), it is definitely feasible to use this spending to advance society - in many regards the DoD's support of basic research and education exemplify this. We should be grateful for this, and vocally so! The US's strategic advantage has long been scientific and technological innovation - while there are many other things that DoD funding should and/or will be assigned to, spending a large chunk of it on advancing the pool of new ideas, technologies, and educated people is something I would hope most of us can agree is worth celebrating.


  • Money is a big part of the job too. I do spend a lot of time "worrying" about money. "Worrying" is a loaded term however. Let me be more specific:

  • Possibly the most valuable exercise* I have done in starting my lab has been to create a master budget sheet that, including all the overhead and other "hidden" costs, identifies roughly what/when/how much I need to fund-raise, what I can spend on X, Y, or Z. Getting these money matters straight is one of the practical prerequisites to figuring out the scientific plans for the lab (e.g., How many directions can I afford? How many group members can I afford?). (Of course, one might also need to budget time and effort as well - this is something I have not, at least not yet, been able to do formally)

  • It IS a lot of work to put together a proposal, only for it to not be funded. On one hand, it "feels" obvious there are things which could improve basic research productivity when it comes to the proportion of time researchers spend writing proposals. On the other hand, what those things are is less obvious. An important long-term skill is, I expect, to be able to maximize the amount of research value the proposal writing process creates (i.e., in the form of literature review, evaluating new ideas, being forced to identify important opportunities) while streamlining the chores. 

  • One PhD student at an institution like Yale costs around $400,000-600,000 from start to end of PhD. The impact of highly educated people in sciences (i.e., where I have enough experience to keep track) is certainly worth it, but when you are the one in charge of raising this money, it is a lot.

  • Similarly, post-doctoral researchers, frequently unsung heroes of science, are even more expensive. When a typical large grant is 500,000 USD, and one year of a full-time post-doc is 140,000 USD or even more (this includes overhead, benefits, etc.), it is difficult for me to see how to sustainably and significantly raise the salaries of post-docs without a major change in funding. My naïve hope would be to see a lot more funding directed towards directly supporting ambitious post-docs - in that regard I see funders like the Schmidt Foundation, which allocate seemingly the majority of their support directly to post-docs, as encouraging.


  • A major benefit of being a professor is the diversity of trajectories one can take within the job. It reminds me of an RPG where you have a certain amount of skill points to distribute. I have a difficult time seeing myself specialize in anything but research right now, but this diversity of trajectories is still encouraging, and I appreciate my senior colleagues who have specialized into all these trajectories. At this point, I have met tenured faculty who:

  • Have fully optimized on the research track

  • Have almost fully optimized for teaching

  • Have almost fully optimized for service - either to the university (provost, dean, etc.) or to a professional society

  • Split their time with a non-academic position, such as a start-up

  • Of course, then there are many (most) who are somewhere in the middle of this high-dimensional distribution


  • On that front, teaching is pretty cool and so far it has not at all been the chore I’d worried it would be. 

  • Selfishly, teaching is kind of a secret weapon in a professor’s complicated arsenal. After years of focusing purely on research, it is undeniably, purely enjoyable to just be able to engage deeply with a subject, and to learn. Being a student – literally having as your primary purpose in life to just learn cool stuff – is a privilege many students don’t appreciate until after they are out of school. Luckily, teaching has many of the same luxuries (except I certainly do not have the luxury of having it being my singular top priority). For the most part (i.e., I’d say so far >95%), students amplify this, since they contribute not only enthusiasm, but also perspectives and pressure. This is certainly a biased sampling: At Yale, I am pretty lucky to have a relatively light teaching load, and am so far teaching a pretty free-form, open-ended graduate course I have nearly absolute intellectual control over. Yale also has a mission – at least according to the verbiage from high in the administration – to connect research and teaching. This is a liberating concept that in most cases I think will greatly benefit the students, and certainly benefits me, allowing teaching to at least in small part provide an opportunity for me to dig deeper into topics I’ve always known I need to understand better, but never had the privilege of “having to” do so.

  • A little less selfishly, the opportunity to have impact on what talented young people end up doing – and how they do it – is kind of stunning. Teaching is an awesome responsibility. Often in the rush of getting a position in academia, the privilege of doing research gets such a strong emphasis that one of the best parts of the job ends up feeling like it’ll be a chore: it really is not, it is at least as much a privilege as the research (and yet also even more of a responsibility). It’s a little difficult to compare the impact possible with students in a course to graduate students you mentor and work with over many years, but it’s a very serious form of impact, and it makes my mind feel a little soft and mushy to imagine what is possible to achieve as an educator: You have the almost unequaled advantage of being able to (in theory) add value early on to people who are growing exponentially in many respects, converting whatever few percentage points you could add to their abilities or knowledge into something potentially much bigger.


  • Being a new professor is -- socially -- very different from being a PhD student or post-doc. In a typical case, as a new PhD student or post-doc, you have many similar-aged colleagues to interact with, who can (and often do) help you get up to speed, both in your scientific pursuits as well as in your surrounding life affairs. As a new professor, you are hopefully well-supported infrastructurally, but your colleagues are typically much older than you are, and even if they are not, they are few and very busy. So far, I've been lucky: due to many forms of social and professional support, this has not bothered me. But it is something I know has caught many new faculty by surprise, leading to a potent combination of pressure and loneliness.

  • One (small) element in this is that being a professor is considered a "prestigious occupation" by some, or something approximating the inverse of that by others. In some cases I think this creates a little bit of a barrier socially, though ultimately most people in academia are respectful of faculty while also being respectfully aware of their limitations and humanity. In general, if the prestige of the position is a big draw for you to become a professor, consider it a caution that I have so far found this to be either completely absent or annoying. Even when someone (likely from outside academia) is impressed, it'll only resonantly excite your impostor syndrome and/or make it difficult to have a genuine interaction with them, since many people then immediately distance themselves from you by announcing they could never understand what you work on…


  • Relatedly, I know that all new faculty at some point (or points) experience a sense of being overwhelmed, of underperforming, of generalized impostor syndrome. A useful statistic I learned is that nearly all faculty at "top" institutions in the US hover around 20-30% success rate with proposals. Rejection is very common. This can be tough especially when you are suddenly doing a lot of new things you may not yet be particularly good at (teaching, writing proposals, mentoring students) - it's like a learning problem where you can sometimes feel like you're stuck with a vanishing gradient of inadequacy in all directions. Fortunately I find that there are enough deadlines that any one inadequacy is hard to dwell on very long. This is a welcome change from being a post-doc, where rejections tend to be spectacular and much rarer (e.g., the 1-2 papers you submit per year). I think it's also an underappreciated plus of the US system - it seems like many other countries have a much more singular funding arrangement and if you fail to get the "big one" you have plenty of time to feel bad about it afterward.


  • On the topic of the USA: something institutions like Yale do, which they actually receive too little credit for, is recruiting exceptional people from all over the world to not only be educated in the USA, but also to make contributions to the USA and/or the world through science and technology. There is a lot of controversy regarding the selectivity of schools like Yale, but the value these schools bring to the US by attracting brilliant minds is quite possibly the single most important societal contribution they make to this country. Some of those people will leave the US for good reasons, but even in those cases they will be slightly more citizens of the world than they were before - I hope citizens of the international community of science! Unfortunately, some will leave the US because of friction staying here. Politically, this is the most frustrating thing to me in the US - anyone of any political persuasion can look at their heroes, now, or in the past, and count among them many, even mostly, immigrants who came to the US for opportunities, like the opportunity to attend Yale. Yet, even as an "American adjacent" Canadian, I find the process of immigration into the US bewildering and alienating - at least where it has interfaced with the US government directly. Immigrants have made this country, and they have made science and technology as we know it. While I have little control over the broader context, I am delighted and incredibly privileged to be in a position to at least provide a warm welcome, as part of Yale, to brilliant young minds from all over the world. So far, my sense is that Yale takes this very seriously, providing not just an local epicenter for such people, but also what appears to be a variety of forms of genuine support as they make their way into the US.


  • "Support staff" in academia are undervalued, at least to outsiders. There is a lot of talk about the explosion of administration in higher education, often in the context of so-called bullshit jobs. I can't count myself as having direct interaction with most administrators at Yale, nor can I claim a deep appreciation for the scope of administrative positions here or elsewhere in academia (there are many administrators who rarely interact with faculty). But, exactly like my experiences at Cornell, Stanford, Queen's and University of Waterloo, those local administrators in the department/school, working alongside me directly, can provide a tremendous amount of value to the institution. In some cases, these local administrators do exist to shield faculty or other research staff from the bloating bureaucracy of an institution, but they are also performing a quite wide range of tasks as the glue that makes a department a department - managing facilities, keeping track of admissions, deliveries, purchases... Departments are naturally predisposed to trying to bring in superstar faculty, but I wonder how much a department could amplify its efforts by taking a similar approach to non-scientific (or not-primarily scientific) support staff. Most department chairs I know are keenly aware of this, but I think it's more or less invisible to outsiders. If you happen to have a non-scientific background (or even a BS/BEng.) and you think working to advance a local community of scientific research and education could be appealing, I can guarantee you can have a serious impact by working in an "administrative" role within an academic department.


  • Another huge benefit of being a professor is working with other scientists, across the spectrum of experience from students to senior colleagues.

  • Working with students, post-docs, and other faculty and senior staff to learn and do research together is the best thing about being a professor. This deserves its own longer contemplation, but what an amazing privilege to be able to "help" brilliant, enthusiastic young people find their place in the broader scientific enterprise. (I put "help" in quotations here only because I think it is an insufficient word to describe the best-case scenario). Working with people like this is surely a key reason faculty have a tendency to postpone and postpone retirement. I loved being a PhD student, and being a post-doc. So far, I love being a professor and one reason is that I can still participate, albeit a little less directly, in the wonderful parts of being a PhD student or post-doc. The trade-off for indirectness - being a mentor - is however one I'm happy to make. To think I'll be able to help people develop as scientists in the way my mentors did (or better!) is deeply inspiring - it’s a fuel that is easy to use when I need energy for any of the less-fun parts of being a professor.

  • Many funding opportunities require you to work together with someone else, or many other people. I find this to be a fantastic encouragement for collaboration, and although it does not always work out as such, it's very common for these pairings to force new ideas, since all parties can't just do what they were doing before, at least not precisely or usually. The DoD's MURI (multi-university research initiative) is one such program, but NSF also has many opportunities like this. You would think that being part of a great team would make it more disappointing if your proposal is rejected. This is true, but some comradery in defeat helps to balance it out.

  • If you are not an extrovert, you may want to think carefully about being a professor. I don't view myself as an extrovert, but in the context of science and research, and the intellectual space surrounding those pursuits, I find it very easy to become one. This reminds me of how children can often play with "stranger" children they have never met before, diving into seemingly elaborate play-constructs often with surprisingly little friction or worry about social constructs. This is something that can still be alive for adults doing science (though admittedly, there are social and societal factors that can create friction, especially for people who have not traditionally been well-represented in academic research).

 

*I don't want to share these materials; in part I think the act of deciding what to include was much of the value, and in part there are inevitably private considerations in these. I will say that (a) many young professors list their grants with dates on their websites or CVs, and (b) when it comes to budgeting, the important number is figuring out how many proposals you ought to be submitting each year, given some realistic success rate and your plan for lab size and equipment.


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Fun links for the Month of May

Obituary for Andrew M. Weiner (1958–2024) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41566-024-01429-8 Andrew Weiner was a seminal figure in ultrafast optics, whom I regret never having had the chance to meet in person

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