Friday 16 December 2016

My first year as a lecturer (actually 11 months)

A few months ago I blogged about my first 6 months as a lecturer. This is the (almost) one year since starting follow up. Last time I confessed to feelings of loneliness as I was tasked with writing grants and setting up a lab before the teaching and administrative load started to ramp up. Well, the latter has now happened. I have been given a relatively substantial administrative position (though certainly not the most arduous) and although I am yet to deliver lectures, this term I have dedicated a significant amount of time to activities related to teaching. This means I have had virtually zero time to do research, but all is not lost on this front (see good news below).

Administratively I am now “strand-leader” of the neurosciences strand of the Natural Sciences programme at York. This does take up a reasonable amount of time, but certain aspects of the job are actually quite fun. I have spent several afternoons interviewing incredibly bright A-level students (most are expected to get straight A/A*s), asking them about their scientific interests and trying to get them to think laterally about topics/questions they may not have encountered before. The sheer enthusiasm of many of these students is tonic for the soul. On the other hand, I had to sit through a 3 hour board of studies meeting the other day.

Teaching this term has consisted of supervising “literature surveys” – talking to final year students in small groups (~7) about their topic of interest, helping them frame their specific question/topic, and providing feedback on their plans. I have also started to supervise 3rd year empirical projects, though the bulk of that occurs next term. Finally, as I am teaching two modules next term, I have spent a considerable amount of time reading around certain topics, and preparing lectures. This can be rewarding as it forces you to go back to basics in a particular area, but it is hugely costly in terms of time and is relatively open-ended. As a new lecturer how do I know when I have read “enough” to teach the topic to 2nd or 3rd year BSc students? My conclusion was if I care enough to worry about it, I’m conscientious enough to do a good job, but time will tell.

Finally, although I currently have very little time for research, I am fortunate in that I managed to secure a (smallish) grant to employ a postdoc over the next 2 years. That, alongside a PhD student who started in October, means data will be accruing whilst I am teaching next term. It could be a lot worse, and to be honest it couldn’t get much better.

The contrast between the first and second 6 months has been stark. The increased administrative and teaching load has been a shock to the system, and for a 3-4 week period I really felt like I was drowning. I am just as busy now, but I seem to be learning to deal with it a bit better. I am getting better at trusting that I can get things done relatively last minute if necessary (this goes against my innate nature, so has been difficult to learn). The upside to this increased stress has been a sense of increased belonging. The negative way of putting this would be “siege mentality”, but I feel these is a sense of camaraderie with colleagues that I haven’t felt before. Alongside this is an increased awareness of the “big picture” - understanding how the university and department function and how the nitty-gritty of day-to-day teaching/research/administration works. This helps in generating distance from the minor setbacks one receives. As with last time, a few possible words of advice:
  1. If you have time before teaching starts, get grants in ASAP. Smaller ones in particular that have a faster turnaround time and potentially have a higher chance of success. Concentrate on getting money for personnel – having individuals to collect data will reap rewards when you’re teaching; an expensive bit of kit that you have no time to use won't.
  2. As I suggested last time, talk to colleagues as much as possible. Get their advice when you’re struggling. Ask questions about the department and how it functions. Turn up to meetings and talks. Become part of the academic community.
  3. Realise that your first lecture isn’t going to be perfect. Cover a sensible amount of material as clearly as possible. Don’t worry too much about whether the students walk away thinking you’re amazing. Make sure they have learnt something in the 1-2 hours you have with them.
  4. Accept that you won’t have control of everything at all times. Allow some things to slip if you have to. Prioritise your time as effectively as possible. It may feel like you’re constantly putting out fires (that’s certainly how I feel), but as long as nothing develops into an inferno then I count that as a success. 

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.