Thursday, 7 July 2016

My first (almost) six months

In February I became a lecturer, with all that it entails. I have a permanent contract, I have responsibilities, I have my own office, and I have undergraduates to teach. In short, things have changed. Given I am approaching the six month mark in my new job, I thought I would write a post reflecting on what I have done and what I have learnt. The short answer to both being: (subjectively) not very much.

First, what have I done? Or perhaps the more informative question should be: what should I have done? I am in the fortunate position that I have minimal teaching responsibilities until January 2017. I realise I am lucky in this regard. As such, I have been given the opportunity to set up my lab and get my research up and running unencumbered by the responsibilities associated with teaching.

I think my job at present broadly falls into three categories: (1) finish up postdoc work, (2) get new projects up and running and (3) apply for grants for future projects. As such, I have to balance demands from the past, present and future. Which one is more important? The simple answer is none. I have to try to make progress on all fronts in the long-run, but concentrate on one of these aspects in the short term to actually make some form of progress. I have tried to not make too many long-term “deadlines”, instead I simply try to come in everyday and get something meaningful done. If I’m feeling less inspired, I tackle easier jobs but still make sure I tackle them. If I’m feeling more inspired, I tackle harder jobs. It’s amazing how much you can achieve by simply getting stuck in. This approach has potentially worked. I have managed to resubmit a postdoc paper (now fully published), write and submit a short grant proposal, and collect some preliminary data on a more short-term research project. My hope is I can continue with this policy until the postdoc work tapers off over the next year.

One difficulty I found initially was actually getting started on a job. This was largely driven by the inevitable feeling of being alone relative to when I was a postdoc. I was accustomed to sharing an office with other postdocs and constantly discussing science. I was accustomed to having regular discussions with my PI about what I had done and what I was going to do. Despite the fact that I had relative freedom in my postdoc, the continual everyday input from other scientists shaped what I did on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t fully realise this at the time. Although my PI never directly told me what to do, I did not appreciate how much he steered me in the appropriate direction. I now have very supportive colleagues who I speak to regularly, but the onus is definitely on me to do what I think is best. Essentially I now have to fully rely on my frontal lobes to makes day-to-day decisions.

Although I am yet to fully immerse myself, the other stark contrast is the amount of administration involved in a faculty position. Again, as a postdoc I was relatively sheltered from the bureaucratic side of academia. Now, the small jobs, and associated paper work, are already starting to affect my day-to-day work schedule. No longer can I rely on my brain to remember all the small administrative jobs I am required to do and when I need to do them. This is before I have even been given a ‘proper’ administrative role in the department, such as contributing to a departmental committee. At present it feels a bit like the calm before the storm. I have the ominous feeling that things will only get worse. As such, I am trying to be much more organised, using Google Calendar to dictate what I need to do and when.

I sum, it’s been fascinating, overwhelming, scary, fun, boring, lonely, engaging, and many other adjectives. A bit like any other day in the life of an academic. Would I do anything differently? Probably not. It’s too early to tell whether I’ve made the most of my first 6 months, or whether I should have done things differently. Here’s a few thoughts that might prove useful to some though:

  1. Get stuff done. As academics we are prone to thinking things over and questioning ourselves. Don’t let this get in the way of doing something. Start a small experiment, analyse some old data. Just do something.
  2. Talk to others. Starting a faculty position can be lonely. Talk to as many colleagues as you can. Go for lunch, go for coffee, ask for feedback on a grant, discuss new experimental ideas. They went through the same process once, and know how difficult it can be. Ultimately, they want you to succeed just as much as you do.
  3. Act in the short-term but plan for the long-term. Think about big projects and grants. Mull over how different experimental ideas might fit into a larger question. Push ideas further than you have before. Thank bigger and longer-term than you did as a postdoc. But don’t wait around for grant money to start these projects. Don’t let (3) get in the way of (1).
  4. Don’t listen to me, I’ve only been in the job for less than six months.

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