What I wish I'd known one year ago when I started as a professor

Eva Lantsoght
2 Apr ’15

This semester is my third semester of work as a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Since my first semester, Spring 2014, I've been in charge of 3 courses per semester - each course of 3 hours of lecture per week. The courses include midterm exams, homeworks, projects and more fun stuff that needs to be graded.

I'm not going to lie about it - the first semester was really tough. I had a hard time preparing all the material for these 3 new courses; I set up 3 courses entirely from scratch, and it was a ton of work. On top of preparing and teaching the courses, I also had to grade, hold office hours for questions of students, and reply the massive influx of email that comes with being a professor. Oh, and set up a new lab and write my papers. And find time for having something like a life too. And get adjusted to a new country.

With a few semester of teaching in the pocket, there are a number of things I wish I knew when I started as a professor. Here are my 10 best pieces of advice for new professors (especially those who skip the post-doc and roll straight into a faculty position).

1. Slowly move your papers forward

Even with a heavy teaching load, the most important aspect of your academic life is still your publications. If you did not get to write the papers from your dissertation during your post-doc, you need to do it while getting settled into a new job, new university and maybe even a new country. Try to carve out at least 2 blocks of 2 hours every week to work on your papers. Have a planning for which papers you want to write and where you need to submit them.

2. Prioritize

What's important: writing papers, research projects, having class prepared before the actual hour of class, setting up the lab, technical committee work.
What's not important: e-mail, meetings, review requests.

Learn how to set up an urgent/important matrix, and prioritize. Learn to accept that, as long as things move forward, you are making progress. Things will start to move forward much more slowly than before (I recently booked 70 hours on a project between September and March - as a full-time researcher I'd have done this work in 2-3 weeks' time).

3. Make self-care a priority

If you have a lot on your plate, you risk getting sick if you don't take proper care of yourself. Hear your mom's voice telling you to sleep well, eat well and take some time to relax every day. Getting more work on your plate does not mean that you need to start inflating your working hours. You are not more productive if you work more hours. Cut down on the dead-end tasks and focus on what really matters - and yes, you, yourself are something that matters.

4. Tell others when you need time to arrange paperwork

If you are one of the few foreigners in a given university, your colleagues might not even be aware of how hard the people at immigrations are being on you. Tell your colleagues when you need to go and sit in a government institution for yet another entire afternoon. Explain them how complicated simple things become for foreigners. Ask them to give you a little break when your in the middle of sorting things out.

5. Hide when you need to

Set up a home office, and work from home if you can't be undisturbed in your university office. I use two early-morning blocks of time for writing my papers, or doing research-related work. When I need to concentrate, I make sure I can't be found. Yes, this attitude might sound egoistic, but you have a lot on your plate and you need to learn to be ruthless: if you want important things to be able to move forward, then take that time off from being available to colleagues and students and work from home.

6. Minimum preparation

Having class notes is enough. There's no need to develop notes and slides and a handbook and examples and everything in one single semester. I developed the basic notes in my first semester, and from then on have been focusing on a single course each semester that I am improving. These improvements might include the development of additional examples (future work for me) or making slides instead of writing everything on the whiteboard (my project for one course for this semester).

7. Take matters into your own hands

So you need a lab? Start making a proposal, and once you have permission, start bugging every single person to move things forward. You can't just send a document to somebody and expect them to get back to you (the mistake I made several times, and still tend to make). You have to continuously remind people to look at your proposal, to ask for money even though you might have received the approval, and follow up with the flow of the budget as much as you can. If possible, hire a lab assistant right when the first equipment starts to arrive - you simply won't have enough time to do everything so you need to learn to delegate.

8. Keep reading papers

Whatever happens, reading papers is very important to keep up with the recent developments in your field. I'm currently trying to schedule two blocks of an hour every week to read papers, and I plan in advance what I need to read. The time you sit in supervising exams is also a great little window of time to catch up with reading. Remember that reading sparks creativity - learn to read papers hunting for possible thesis ideas that might help your research move forward.

9. Set up a grading system

Don't fret too much over how you will grade exams. I simply subdivide every answer into different steps, each with an assigned number of points. If a student reaches to a certain step in the answer, he/she might get the points until that step of the answer (provided that he/she developed the work correctly until there, of course). Just sum the points, and move on. Grade per question, not per exam - this technique helps you to keep in mind what the previous student wrote and how much points you are taking off for standard mistakes (such as: missing units, calculation errors, and the like).

10. Have a schedule

If you need to fit in many different tasks, you can benefit a lot from having a standard schedule. I ran a series about academic schedules on PhD Talk previously, in which guest authors talked about how their days look like. My schedule is a general blueprint of different tasks I need to get done in a typical week, and I fine-tune my schedule every Friday night for the next week. Meetings might move my time around, or I might need to book a time slot to grade an exam - so I move the blocks around and see where the pieces fall.

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