Reflecting on “Advice for New Faculty Members”

boiceI recently finished reading the book “Advice for New Faculty Members” by Robert Boice. It was recommended to me by Jeff Hancock during his visit to University of Minnesota and it was so helpful that I would be remiss if I didn’t pass along the advice to others. Some of you will be starting your faculty positions in the Fall (I wish I had read this book when I started), but I certainly found it helpful even though I’ve already been at this for a year.

This book is different from other sources of advice in that the insight comes not from Robert Boice’s own experiences, but rather from a series of empirical investigations of “quick starter” new faculty members. While there are several places you can find reviews of the book and summaries of some of its lessons, I wanted to focus on three pieces of advice in this book that I’ve found most surprising and most helpful (so far) in integrating into my own work practices:

  • The power of 15-minutes daily. As a new faculty member, many people gave me the advice to make time for writing. I did my best, trying to squirrel away entire afternoons or days for writing. However, I always found that other things came up, eating away at that time. When planning for a whole afternoon but ending up with only thirty minutes, I felt dejected and that it wasn’t worth attempting to get any serious writing done in that period of time. Instead, this book recommends planning to spend 15-30 minutes on pre-writing (e.g., outlining, brainstorming) and writing practices daily. This also mirrors great advice on making use of workable “bits” that I had previously read from Nick Feamster’s research practices blog. I was dubious as to whether this would work for me (“Isn’t there a cost in switching contexts in writing?” I thought), but trying it for a month, I found myself producing more consistently (in July: co-writing a 12-page grant, rewriting a journal paper that needed major revisions, and co-writing significant revisions for a CSCW paper) and less painfully.
  • Asking for feedback early and often. Boice recommends this practice for teaching, research, and service. I had already heard this advice for teaching during my orientation at U of M. Indeed, asking students and visiting faculty for feedback early and often led me to change my class to be more useful to students. Coincidentally, the advice counseled me to limit the amount of material covered each class, which also meant less time that I spent preparing for each session (which is a practice this book encourages for new faculty). However, in research, I have had a harder time asking for early feedback on in-progress papers and research ideas. This coming year, I am committed to finding at least two people to serve as a sounding board on each of my major projects. I suppose this piece of advice is not actually that surprising, but for some reason I never thought about extending the value that I got from getting frequent teaching feedback to the potential value I could get from getting frequent research feedback.
  • Stopping or pausing as a way of increasing productivity. This seemed really counterintuitive to me — how could stopping when I’m “on a roll” lead to more productivity? Previously, when I wrote and I got going, I’d try to really get as much as I could, squeezing every last word out of the moment. However, I failed to realize that this would inevitably lead to not wanting to write the next day and having a hard time starting next time I write. Of course, I didn’t want to start again: I was rewarding each start with a grueling 12-hour workday and I was ending when I was completely out of momentum! This lesson also mirrors Al Franken‘s advice to writers to “Park on the down-slope,” to make it easy to start again. During the past month, I’ve made an effort of stopping each writing session after 30 minutes, even if I am in the middle of a sentence, this has really helped me maintain the practice of daily writing and led to overall increases in the amount of writing I have done.

I’m sure others may find the bits I pulled out obvious but find value in other aspects of the book. Regardless, I definitely recommend this book to others (if you’re at U of M, I have a copy to borrow) and would love it if you could share the bits that you found to be most surprising, interesting, or useful to your work practices.

Reflecting on the Academic Job Hunt

I wore a suit, like a real grown-up!

I wore a suit, like a real grown-up!

My last post (seven months ago!) proclaimed that I was thinking about going back to academia and contemplating going on the job market. Seven months later and mission accomplished — I have accepted an offer and I will start in August as an Assistant Professor in Computer Science at the University of Minnesota! I am back to blogging (aiming for every other week). This week, I will be reflecting on the job process for all those who are thinking about going on the market soon. So, here are four insights:

  1. The job hunt takes a lot of time. This may be obvious, but it’s not to be underestimated. I tracked my time: 40 hours spent writing my general materials and preparing the job talk, 2 hours spent preparing each application (21 places, so more than 40 hours total), additional 30 hours on preparing and doing phone interviews and general follow-ups to application, and each on-site took an average of 40 hours when accounting for preparation, travel, actual meetings, and general logistics (so, my 8 on-sites took me a total of 320 hours!). Most of the prep happened in October and November, most of the followups in December, and the on-sites were in February and March. In those 5 months, the job hunt was basically an additional half-time job, on top of my actual full-time job (thank the powers that be for AT&T’s generous vacation package!).
  2. I’d rather be myself and not get the job than get it while pretending to be someone else. You may know me: I’m loud, I’m in-your-face, I have a weird sense of humor, and no fashion sense at all. If those things are not a good fit for a place, then I’d rather find that out by not getting an offer than come tenure time. So, I made the explicit decision to act as I would and hoped for the best.
  3. It’s better to identify than compare. One of my friends who did this whole thing two years ago (the wonderful Sarita) advised me early in the process to not look at where other people were getting interviews. I also figured out that when I began comparing myself to others, I only made myself envious, insecure, and miserable. Lots of my friends were also on the market and I made the explicit decision to be happy for them and look for ways to share happiness and provide support, instead of stalking their Google scholar pages. By making this decision, other people who are on the market became a wonderful source of insight and support instead of a source of stress.
  4. Have fun! Yes, it’s ultra stressful. And all the travel gets exhausting. But, it’s also incredibly fun to be traveling to new places, getting wined and dined, sharing my research, and hearing about all the awesome research at the places I visit! There’s something magical about getting the opportunity to imagine my life at each school! Holding on to that feeling made the whole process a lot less stressful and a lot more beautiful.

One of the things that my Ph.D. lab does really well is sharing resources like everybody’s application packages, job talks, etc. I think others may be able to benefit from this sort of an archive, so for what it’s worth, here are all of my materials: research statement, teaching statement, cover letter template, and video of job talk. Though do take these with some caution, I don’t actually know how good they are: I didn’t get all the interviews/offers and the ones I did get may have had more to do with my letters of recommendation than anything I wrote (I am forever indebted to Gregory, Amy, and Tara!!!). But, I did get 6 offers from the 8 places I interviewed (and more importantly, I got the offer that was perfect for me!), so at the very least, these were not terrible deal breakers. I hope that some of this can be helpful to others who are about to undergo this process!