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Jul 02

Memoir of a First Year Assistant Professor

by Kenneth Hanson | Categories: Uncategorized | (82754 Views)

As of July 1st I’ve been an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University for one year. It has been a roller coaster ride complete with exhilarating highs and crushing lows all occurring at a frenzied pace. The last year has been incredible though and I thought I would share some thoughts on my experience.

Life as the Boss and Mentor

Starting a research group as an assistant professor is a lot like starting a small business. I began with a certain amount of startup capital ($500 K – $1 mil) and then made decisions on how to best allocate the funds. Some of the purchases are obvious. Others are difficult because it’s a matter of differentiating between what I need and what simply would be nice to have. Another issue I continue to wrestling with is if I should spend everything right away or save a nest egg for projects that may soon take off.

The other tough decision is on which research projects to prioritize. My group only has a few people and our time is limited. Which projects are most promising? Most impactful? Or which will get funding, help me get tenure, or motivate me the most? Do I put several people on one project or should I diversify our efforts? Another question I wrestle with is how to best match up a student with a project. There are many variables to consider: interests, innate skill, research priorities, available projects and who will work the fastest.

On a lighter note, mentoring students has to be one of the most rewarding parts of managing a research group. It has been great to watch them master skills in real time. I wish I could stop them from making the same mistakes I did (everyone breaks off the pipette tip loading a column the first time), but then I remind myself that errors like these are unavoidable and actually vital to the learning process. I’m also sometimes struck by the bittersweet realization that, as their lab skills grow, mine will get worse and worse as my focus is required elsewhere (teaching, writing papers, writing proposals, etc.)

It has also been fun and fulfilling to watch them take ownership of their projects. They have transitioned from spectators to hands-on scientists who are genuinely excited to see their experiments through. They stay late just because they want to know the answer or stop by my office just to share an interesting observation. I look forward to hearing “I tried what you suggested and it didn’t work but then I tried…” Even better will be the day they tell me I am wrong and then show me the result that verifies it.

0 to Authority in One Week

One of the more profound changes has been the instantaneous respect and authority that comes with the title ‘professor’. I literally went one week from being a regular, everyday postdoc in the Meyer research group to receiving notable, deferential treatment from almost everyone. I’ve had a doctorate for three years but I wasn’t ever really called ‘Dr. Hanson’ until my first week at FSU. My wife, Debbie, noticed the change too. She’s known me since I was just an undergrad trying to figure out my major. One day on campus we walked by a student who respectfully nodded and said, “Hello, Professor Hanson.” I could see the look and her eye and practically heard her think, “Hmmm. This better not go to his head.”

The narcissistic part of me really enjoys the prestige associated with the title. If I am really in the mood of artificially inflating my ego I can just page through the one or two post-doc applications I get every week and read phrases like “Dear Respected Professor Hanson,” “your prestigious research group”, and “your research legacy.” It is clear that these messages are just generic spam emails that have probably been sent to a dozen or more professors. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite messages:

Dear Professor < http://www.chem.fsu.edu/bio-t.php?userID=1274>,
I am writing this letter in search of an opportunity of working in your group as a post-doctoral research fellow.

My guess is that they wrote a macro to automatically insert each professor’s name into the email’s introduction. Unfortunately for the author, the macro instead pasted my faculty profile link. As a quick aside for anyone searching for postdoc openings, if the email does not explicitly mention my research (i.e. I am particularly interested in your work on electron transfer at interfaces…etc.) I will not respond.

Automatic authority also has its drawbacks. Perhaps the most notable being that I am now “the boss.” I notice subtle responses from students when I enter a room. Sometimes the conversation stops, desktops are showing, heads look up and then are adamantly buried into books, papers quickly appear, etc. I responded the same to professors when I was a student so I don’t take it personally. But it is interesting to see it from the other side.

 Behind the Curtain

One of the surprisingly interesting aspects of my new professorship is seeing, first hand, the inner workings of a chemistry department and university. While many people might complain about faculty meetings, I have really enjoyed seeing the debates about hiring, budget battles, course content decisions, etc.

Being on the ‘inside’ also includes being part of the hiring/graduate admittance process. While looking through CVs, letters of recommendation, etc, I can’t help but feel that it really wasn’t that long ago when I was a starting as a grad student and then searching for a job as well. One of my more important realizations is that you do need to pay attention to “the man behind the curtain.” The younger me wanted to believe that science was a bastion of objectivity where the best science always win. While this might be true in the long run, reality makes a lot more sense when you consider that students, coworkers, program officers, editors, etc. are people too. People that have their own motivations, make mistakes, have superiors to answer to, and generally just want to be treated kindly.

Personal

The transition from post doc to professorship has also been interesting from a personal perspective as well. As a graduate student and post-doc there was an automatic, built-in ‘social circle’ of people aged ~22-30 at similar places in their lives. The jump into professorship is very different. My new cross-section of coworkers represent a wide range of ages and career points ranging from National Academy of Sciences members to Assistant Professors struggling for tenure. They are also at very different life milestones. Some are searching for a first house and have newborns while others are traveling the world and looking forward to grandkids. Scheduling time to hang out can be very difficult and, despite coming into a great department with an amazing group of coworkers, it can be a lonely experience. Luckily for me, FSU chemistry department has a great support network and I joined the department just as two other young faculty were starting their careers. There is something great about having a few kindred souls to empathize with. We also have three new assistant professors arriving within the month to share this experience.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read through my musings. I’d like to conclude with a random list of surreal ‘firsts’ that blew my mind at least a little during the past year. ln no particular order, here they are:

  • The phone call that became a job offer.
  • The first time one of my current co-workers jokingly called me Professor.
  • Seeing my lab space and sitting in my office for the first time.
  • Seeing my faculty profile on the FSU Chemistry Web page (Quickly followed by my emailing the link to everyone I know).
  • Creating the Hanson Research Group webpage.
  • First email/letter on official letterhead with my formal signature.
  • The first day of class as an instructor.
  • The day I hired my first student researcher.
  • The day I realized I now had eight people working in my lab.
  • The moment we had our first clearly publishable result.
  • The day I realized I’ve been a professor for a year.

 

 

6 comments

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  1. anon

    great read, thanks for sharing over the past year, here and on reddit

  2. Sven

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    I wonder: If you could give someone starting his or her professorship one, single advice – what would it be?

    1. Kenneth Hanson

      Hello Sven,

      That is a tough question. I spent a few days thinking about it and could not come up with one definitive piece of advice. Here are several:

      1) Be willing to let go of lab work. We spend most of grad school and our postdocs in complete control of our projects and day-to-day measurements. It is basically impossible to maintain that level of control when supervising several people/projects. The sooner you trust your students and let go of lab work, the sooner you can dedicate to writing papers/proposals.

      2) Prioritize based on importance and rate-determining step. Prioritizing based on importance is easy. There are some things we want done first. However, in addition to importance you have to account for your reliance on other people that do not have the same priorities. Just assume that if you are relying on someone else for equipment/training/renovations that it is going to take longer than you think and longer than they say. Make the initiating steps and follow up on those projects a priority even if they are lower on the list. I won’t suggest that you hound people aggressively but friendly reminders will get you far.

      3) Be a good coworker but be willing to say no to senior colleagues. Sometimes you just can’t take on another project.

      4) Set up group meetings as soon as possible. It will likely start out as a regular literature review or you explaining an instrument/concept but at least it gets something on the calendar. This formalizes the schedule and gives you a venue to talk to prospective students even through your lab might not be up and running.

      5) Partition your day, in formalized time blocks, i.e. 8-10 course content, 10-12 proposals, etc. You cannot wait for those two open days to write a proposal, those days will never come. Instead you should rely on a few hours per day. It adds up very quickly.

      That is all I have for now.
      Good luck.
      Ken

  3. bad wolf

    Maybe you should help Frederich set up some safety guidelines for his lab. Looks like he probably didn’t get much training on that front.

    1. John Milligan

      Is “bad wolf” a reference to the first season of the reboot of Doctor Who? That’s the only other place that I’ve seen that. :)

      1. bad wolf

        haha, sadly yes. i guess i was doing some commenting that year and picked it up as an ongoing tag. A little out of date now, i realize, but my computer just auto-fills it anyway, so…

        i really did enjoy that season–Eccleston’s Doctor had a character arc that spoke to me at the time–probably related to my finishing grad school then.

  1. Tips from Ken for starting professors » Indianalytics

    […] few days back, Kenneth Hanson shared his experiences of his first year as assistant professor (read it!). I asked him if he could give one, single advice for someone starting his or her […]

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