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Working at a Major Research Institution, Part 4: On Being Junior Faculty

In academia, as in national defense, Michael Ibba told American Society for Microbiology annual meeting attendees that "there are ... unknown unknowns" — that is, things "we don't know we don't know," he said, quoting the former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. During a special session on career preparation, the Ohio State University's Ibba discussed some of the personal "unknown unknowns" he uncovered empirically during the course of his time as an assistant professor on the tenure track. The first, he said, is that junior faculty should avoid taking on and teaching obligations during their first year, if possible. "You've got to use that first year to get your lab fully running," Ibba said. He also realized that it's important that a newly hired assistant professor "take full advantage of the grant honeymoon period" — the short period of time after his or her last postdoc, in which he or she presumably published several papers. "Get your grants in early," Ibba said. By waiting to submit grants, a new hire might make funding agencies wary of his or her productivity and abilities, he said. "For me, a big experience was not having a support system anymore, and actually putting everything into a ... paper and getting it out of the door and getting it published," he said. "It really gets your lab moving [and] energizes your new graduate students. You feel a great sense of accomplishment. It's an important thing to do right off the bat." (At Inside Higher Ed, the University of Texas at Austin's Daniel Hamermesh shares a similar sentiment. "Send your thesis and post-thesis articles off to journals quickly," Hamermesh says, adding that "it takes on average more than 18 months from submission to final acceptance of an article (and at least another year until publication). … With a tenure decision during your sixth year, submissions after your third year are unlikely to be accepted by tenure time.")

Further, junior faculty ought to give talks and host seminars, Ibba said, as "people have to know you're not a postdoc anymore." (Here, again, Austin's Hamermesh agrees, saying that "aside from the direct intellectual benefit to you, your attendance [at seminars, conferences, and workshops] signals to your colleagues that you are interested in developing your skills.") When it comes to service activities, Ibba put it frankly: new assistant professors must learn how to distinguish good service projects from bad ones — those that are ostensibly a waste of everyone's time — and "learn not to be a sucker," he said. "Learn not to be the junior faculty member that gets all of the useless duties put on them." (At Inside Higher Ed, Hamermesh delves into service specifics. He suggests to "avoid service on university-wide committees," as it is "not valued by the department members who will decide your tenure, and it takes time away from activities they do value," he says.)

It's most important that, despite the pressures of the job, a new assistant professor does not abandon his or her personal life, Ibba said. "Lots of people think that they can compensate for anything as a junior faculty member by working 26 hours a day. It doesn't work," he said. "Keep balance in your life — you'll be more successful in your research because of it."

Stay tuned for the final installment of this series on working at a major research institution for more of Ibba's advice for aspiring academics, and for tips for navigating the tenure track.

See also Working at a Major Research Institution, Part 1: Reflections, Part 2: The Application, and Part 3: The Interviews.

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