Rooting for the machines A Blog by Chris Baldassano

Death by puppies - tenure-track year one

The end of this month will mark the end of my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor. I don't know if I have much helpful advice to give, since I'm still new enough to the job that it's hard for me to know what I've been doing right or wrong, and I'm very grateful to my collaborators and colleagues in my department for bearing with me as I've bumbled my way through my new responsibilities this year. But I do think I can shed some light on what junior faculty life is like, especially for grad students or postdocs who are, like I was, spending a lot of time trying to figure out whether academia is a career path worth attempting. (Though I admire those who were able to easily make up their minds - in grad school I asked a fellow student whether he wanted to pursue a tenure-track job, and he responded with a string of profanity that I will just translate here as "No.")

I think this video sums up pretty well how this year has gone:

Almost all of the responsibilities in this job are things I love doing - there are just a lot of them, usually way too many to possibly be completed by one person. Being buried by tons of great things is quite a nice place to be, as long as you don't mind the chaos:

Puppies Static

Mentoring trainees

I devote the biggest chunk of my time to working with the trainees in lab, which basically means that I get to brainstorm experiments, debug analyses, and talk about science with super-smart people for most of the day. Recruiting lab members seemed like a huge gamble when I started last year (can I know if I want to work closely with someone for 5+ years after meeting them for one day?), but I'm amazed at how much my mentees have accomplished: two were accepted into top PhD programs, we developed multiple new experimental paradigms from scratch, submitted abstracts, drafted a review article, and set up half a dozen pieces of new equipment.

Teaching

Groaning about (and trying to get out of) teaching is a favorite pastime for research-oriented faculty, but honestly I've loved teaching more than I expected. I've been able to design two of my own seminars and modify an existing course, so most of the time I get to talk about things that I care about, and I've been able to convince students to care about them too! Also, positive teaching evaluation comments are some of the most meaningful and validating bits of praise I've ever gotten in my career.

Faculty/trainee recruiting

As a well-known research institution, we get bombarded with applications from prospective PhD students, postdocs, and faculty, and I've spent a great deal of time interviewing candidates and attending job talks. Speaking with all these enthusiastic current and future scientists is bittersweet, since more extremely-well-qualified people apply for positions than we could ever accommodate. This is especially true for faculty searches - multiple times this year I've been interviewing candidates who are objectively more accomplished researchers than I am, and most didn't end up with an offer.

Grants

Writing grants was always presented to me as the major downside of a faculty position, and there is certainly a lot of stress involved - suddenly I am responsible for running a small business on which multiple people depend for their salaries, and the process by which grants are evaluated is unpredictable at best. But I've found putting together grants to actually be quite useful for thinking more long-term about my research goals, and for providing opportunities to build new collaborations and connect with other faculty members.

Research

I'm still trying to carve out some time each week to do at least a little of my own research, writing some analysis code or testing out ideas that I could pass on to trainees if they seem promising. Looking at senior faculty it seems like this will probably gets squeezed out of my schedule at some point, but right now I still look forward to spending some time with my headphones on fiddling with python code.

Talks and writing

At the end of the day, the primary way I'll be evaluated is based on how productively I get my lab's research out into the world in talks and papers. Effective speaking and writing is a hard, time-consuming process, and even as I've become much better at it over the years I still don't know how to do it quickly. It is some consolation to me that even professional authors haven't found any other way to communicate ideas aside from repeatedly writing the wrong thing and crossing it out, until finding something that works.

Administration and departmental service

Not having a boss in the traditional sense is great in many, many ways, but the downside is that it means that a lot of paperwork tends to flow in my direction. There are also a bunch of advisory and committee jobs in the department that need to get done, but which no one particularly wants to do - luckily my department has been pretty good about insulating junior faculty from these, so I haven't had much of this dumped on my plate so far.

Back to the dog pile!

Comments? Complaints? Contact me @ChrisBaldassano