On the transition from postdoc to Assistant Professor

It has been about six months since I made the transition from postdoc to Assistant Professor (more on my experience on the academic job market here). I figured that it would be a good idea to write a timely blog post about this transition. I should note that I did make this move during a global pandemic, so some of my experiences are probably not “typical” of a first-year Assistant Professor on the tenure track. For example, I will have spent my entire first year teaching graduate courses completely online rather than in-person. Nevertheless, there are perhaps still many things about this transition that are universal and broadly applicable, which I detail below.

  • As a new Assistant Professor, you have a lot more responsibilities, and it can take some time to figure out the “optimal” way to balance priorities. In my third and fourth years of graduate school, I was supported by a fellowship so I had no responsibilities except for my dissertation research. After finishing graduate school, I did a postdoc where research was also my only major responsibility. However, after starting my new career, I suddenly also had to teach and advise PhD students, in addition to a few service requirements. Needless to say, it can be tough to juggle these additional responsibilities.

    It took me awhile to figure out how to go from spending most of my work hours on research to adding teaching and service on top of that. After a bit of trial and error, I realized that I am most productive at research-related tasks in the morning. That is, if I have to write code, conduct data analysis, write/revise manuscripts, or work through technical details and proofs, then I am most “focused” in the morning.

    Because of non-research responsibilities (and partly because of pandemic fatigue), I find it somewhat difficult to sustain this concerted effort towards the above research tasks past a certain hour of the day. Therefore, I requested to teach my classes in the afternoons. This way, I am usually able to get five to six hours of solid research done every weekday before lunch. Then in the afternoons, any “research” I do is not so much focused on the nitty-gritty aspects of research, but instead, it mainly consists of meetings with collaborators/PhD students and e-mail exchanges between me and research collaborators. However, outside of these meetings and e-mails, I focus the majority of my effort in afternoons on teaching — both on actual teaching (delivering lectures) and doing other course preparation, such as preparing lecture notes, grading, etc.

    Of course, this is not a “strict” schedule. If I have upcoming revisions or research deadlines, I might devote an entire day when I am not teaching to research. Or if I have a lot of grading or lecture notes to prepare, I might devote an entire day’s effort to teaching. But in general, I find that devoting my mornings to research and afternoons to teaching helps me strike the right balance. Depending on what time of day you are most productive on research, I would recommend that junior faculty schedule their teaching around those hours.

  • Try to make teaching part of your research. Related to the first point, you can also help move your own research along by incorporating aspects of your research into your teaching. My first semester on the tenure track, I taught my department’s graduate-level course in Linear Models. I spent a good deal of time reviewing matrix algebra, which is a very useful tool for my own research. This semester, I am teaching a special topics class on modern high-dimensional data analysis. Since some of my recent research has focused on methodology and theory for non-Gaussian generalized linear models (GLMs), I included a unit in my topics class on classification and GLMs.

    Teaching these classes has really helped me to reinforce important concepts and make sure that I stay on top of the relevant work in these areas of statistics (which is of course helpful for my own research). In addition, this has also enabled me to get to know some of the graduate students in my new department. I would highly recommend that new Assistant Professors at research universities volunteer to teach graduate courses and topics courses related to their own research. This can be very helpful in getting to know some of the graduate students in your department and getting new PhD students to work under your supervision (if they really like your class).

  • Be kind to yourself the first semester. Everything can seem a bit overwhelming the first semester. It definitely takes some time to get acclimated to a new environment. Moving to a new place, buying new furniture, getting a new driver’s license, and all that kind of stuff takes a lot of time that can really eat into research time. Moving during a pandemic also presented its own unique set of challenges. Therefore, I had to be realistic about how much work I was really going to get done the first semester, besides teaching. While I was successful in fulfilling my teaching duties, I did often feel as though I was falling behind on research during my first semester. You just have to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that it can take some time to adjust to your new environment and new responsibilities. After a couple of months, I was able to catch up on research and figure out the optimal balance for myself personally (as noted in my first bullet point).

  • At the same time, don’t struggle by yourself in silence. Be sure to reach out to your colleagues for help if you need it. I have great colleagues whom I regularly consult for help on things such as university computing resources, using my startup funds, and other things that I have no prior experience with. For example, I plan to apply for my first research grant as a Principal Investigator (PI) this year. To this end, I asked my colleagues who had gotten their grant proposals successfully funded in the past to share their successful grant proposals with me. These examples will help me to craft my own grants this year. I also plan to ask my colleagues for feedback on my proposals in order to maximize their chances getting funded. I have found that everyone is very warm and willing to help out. So don’t be afraid to reach out to others if you need help.

All in all, I would say that my first six months on the tenure track have been pretty successful. It has been quite a learning experience for sure, but I have gradually gotten the hang of it.