Reflecting on the first two years on the tenure-track: Part I
Tomorrow will be my two-year work anniversary as an Assistant Professor of Statistics at the University of South Carolina. I decided to write a two-part series of posts about what I have learned over the past two years about teaching, supervising PhD students, research, grant writing, and service. In this first part, I will focus on the first two aspects: teaching and PhD student supervision (read Part II here). My hope is that this post may be useful for new faculty who are just starting out on the tenure-track or for aspiring tenure-track faculty at research-oriented universities.
First of all, I strongly recommend that all new Assistant Professors become familiar with their department’s tenure and promotion unit criteria. These unit criteria should clearly outline what is expected in terms of research, teaching, and service. Knowing these expectations will allow you to plan your teaching activities.
Roughly speaking, to be rated as “good” or “excellent” in teaching for my department, the teaching expectations are: average/above average student evaluations, good/excellent peer review evaluations, and at least one additional contribution in the area of teaching. For my department, the additional contributions could include things like developing a new topics course, supervising Masters and undergraduate senior theses, and participation in teaching workshops organized by my university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. In order to satisfy the additional contribution aspect, I developed my own graduate topics course and attended a series of New Faculty Academy workshops so that I could get a certificate of completion.
Every faculty member has their own teaching style, but I would say that there are a few good practices to follow for teaching.
- Familiarize yourself with the classroom and classroom technology before the first day of classes. During the pandemic, due to mandatory COVID-19 testing and quarantining, instructors were strongly recommended to livestream and record their in-person lectures. I asked a colleague to show me how to do this through Blackboard. I also found that some students really liked being able to rewatch the lectures anytime they wanted (e.g. to prepare for exams or because they were particularly interested in mastering certain course topics). Thus, I decided to record all my lectures going forward, pandemic notwithstanding.
Before the first day of classes, I also always make sure to familiarize myself with the classroom in which I am going to teach. This allows me to get acquainted with the technology in that room and ask the IT team to fix any issues if there are any (e.g. equipment needing to be replaced).
- Give students frequent reminders and spell out your expectations of them explicitly. I found that students respond positively if you frequently remind them about upcoming deadlines or exams, both in and out of class.
In addition, try to keep in mind that some things that you may think are obvious might not be to the students, unless you spell it out explicitly. For example, if you think that using sites like Chegg constitutes cheating, then you may need to be very explicit about forbidding their use. If you are teaching a class that includes a coding component and you want all students to submit their own individual code, you may need to specify clearly at the top of the assignments that while students are allowed to discuss “general concepts” with their peers, the code they submit must be their own work and that copying any snippets of code word-for-word is not allowed.
In short, it is perfectly fine – and even appreciated – to repeat important reminders to students and to state/reiterate expectations to ensure that your students are on exactly the same page as you.
- Be receptive to feedback from peer evaluations. Your department may have senior faculty sit in on one or a few of your classes to give you feedback about your teaching. These peer evaluations are meant to help you improve. I think that every educator could always stand to find ways to improve their teaching practices and effectiveness. So be sure to thoughtfully reflect on the feedback that you receive.
PhD Student Supervision
One of my favorite parts of this gig is being able to supervise my own graduate students. However, this is something that takes time to learn how to do well. Every faculty member has their own approach to this, with some being more hands-on and others being more hands-off. Some PhD mentors meet with all their advisees as a group, while others prefer one-on-one meetings (I personally do the latter). I am still learning how to be an effective PhD mentor, but I did find that there were a few general strategies that worked for me.
- Be clear about your expectations with your advisees, including what milestones you want them to meet. For me personally, my expectation for my PhD advisees is that they write three papers, two of which should be submitted by the time that they defend their dissertation and the third one nearly ready to submit (or in the best case scenario, also submitted). Of these three projects, I expect at least one of them to be mostly/completely the student’s own idea (though I may suggest a general direction for them to explore and help them to refine their idea so that it can be feasibly completed in a reasonable timeframe).
In addition, I expect my students to have submitted their first paper and have the second one nearly ready to submit before they do their PhD proposal.
- Try to adapt your approach based on the needs and strengths of individual advisees. Every PhD student is different. Some students may be very independent from the start, while others may need more “hands-on” guidance and more structure in the beginning. I try to determine each student’s needs and adjust the amount of structure accordingly. For example, if needed, I may outline more specific directions and give more specific instructions (e.g. what papers to read, what algorithms to try to implement). Or I may write up a short note that explains key concepts, so that the student can gain a better understanding of the foundational material.
- Supervising students takes a lot of time, so bear this in mind if you are still not tenured. I meet with each of my advisees one-on-one once a week. But beyond this weekly meeting, I also spend time reflecting on our meetings and planning the “next steps.” This includes thinking about what potential issues or challenges may arise, what other simulation studies we should do, and what other ideas we should test out as a proof of concept in case one of our initial ideas failed. Sometimes I may type up a short note for the student as a ‘quick’ introduction to an important concept needed for their research. A few of my students are just now writing their first papers, and it also takes a lot of time to come up with the basic paper structure and the contents to include in the paper, to proofread, etc.
If you are not yet tenured, then you might still need to do your own research and get at least a few first-author publications. Or you may need to successfully get grant funding in order to sustain your research after your start-up funds run out (Note: the grant requirements differs widely by department and discipline – in math and statistics departments, many students are supported by department teaching assistantships). Writing/revising your own first-author papers and writing competitive grant proposals also takes a considerable amount of time, on top of teaching.
This academic year, I am preparing to submit grant proposals to both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It may take at least six months of preparation for these proposals to be considered “competitive.” I am also considering having my mid-tenure review. Therefore, I will need to revise several manuscripts and hopefully get them accepted.
Given the enormous amount of effort required for the aforementioned things, I decided to tentatively not accept any new PhD advisees for this upcoming academic year. If I am very confident about the progress of my current PhD advisees and we are able to submit two new papers by Spring of 2023, then I will reconsider taking new advisees in spring 2023. However, at this time, I do feel that in order to guard my time and complete several other things that I hope to accomplish this year, I should put a pause on accepting new PhD advisees.
I am somebody who has a hard time saying “no.” But depending on how much bandwidth you have, it may be prudent – or even necessary – to limit the number of PhD advisees at times when you are especially busy. You can always reconsider at a later time depending on how well things are going. But make sure that you are protecting your time for your own research and teaching.