Lessons for the New Professor

A new academic year is just around the corner, which means new beginnings. If you are starting your first faculty position, congratulations! This new role will demand your time, as well as skills and responsibilities you may not have tapped into before. I found the transition to be exciting and somewhat overwhelming. Any feelings of unease can be managed with careful planning and realistic expectations.

The internet offers a plethora of advice for new professors, which can be overwhelming in and of itself. Search for the phrase “advice for new engineering faculty” and you will get over 40 million hits. To help focus this advice, here are some of my experiences and takeaways from the past four years. 

Create and cultivate new connections

 It can take years to establish good working relationships, so it is best to start as soon as possible. The earlier you start reaching out and asking for help, the easier it gets, the better equipped you will be, and the more you will interact with your colleagues. Although teaching a core course may be new to you, it has been taught year after year, so ask the previous year’s instructor for their course materials. I spent the summer before my first semester of teaching reviewing the textbook and creating lecture notes from scratch — work I could have minimized.

Once on campus, make connections with faculty outside your department. At my new faculty orientation, I met a computer science colleague, which sparked a new research collaboration. You can meet other faculty through proposal writing and teaching workshops, other departments’ seminars, and committee meetings. Contact with potential collaborators and sponsors outside your university is also important. In addition to attending workshops and conferences, consider being active in a division or forum of AIChE. Through service to AIChE’s Sustainable Engineering Forum (SEF), I made new contacts and gained insights into the practices of established faculty. Building relationships takes time, and it is up to you to moderate how much time you choose to spend on making connections.

Manage your time wisely

Organization and accountability are key to striking a balance between teaching and research. This may seem obvious, but it is something I found challenging in practice. Students will hold you accountable for the time you allocate to class and office hours. Think twice before choosing an open door policy, because students will come and the interruptions will be frequent.

Structure your research projects through objectives and a schedule that includes deadlines for completing experiments, manuscripts, and proposals. It took me a while to realize that a good idea and feasible approach are not enough — a structured business plan is also critical to making a proposal competitive. Even when you have a plan, you are often the only person holding yourself and your group accountable to sticking to that plan. I established some external accountability by finding a writing buddy, attending campus write-on-site meetings, and joining an online writing group.

Focus on your goals

For most new faculty, a goal is to earn tenure. Depending on the institution, emphasis may be more on funded research or effective teaching. Advice on proposal writing and teaching is readily available, and reviewers and students will also provide critiques. Determining how to selectively act upon this feedback is critical to ensuring any changes you make will help you progress toward your goals.

One of my goals is to have an externally funded research program. In my first year, I submitted around one proposal per month and each one was denied funding. It was demoralizing, and instead of writing it off to inexperience in grantsmanship, doing a little polishing, and resubmitting my proposals, I took the critiques too seriously and began to question the merit of my research. If you find yourself doing this, stop. Just because your proposal was rejected does not mean your research is meaningless.

Be proactive in your communications

As a new professor, I thought it was best to keep my head down and my mouth shut and get my work done. In fact, it is quite the opposite — communicate, communicate, communicate! It is important that people know what you are doing. My department chair and I meet every two weeks so I can let him know what I am working on, what my objectives are, and what help I need. I wish from the start that I had followed up each meeting with an email reiterating the points we discussed, and when meetings got canceled, sent an email update instead. Your colleagues should also know what you and the students in your group are doing. Department culture will determine how much time you need to dedicate to communication within the department.

Proactive communication also improves your odds of recruiting talented students to your lab through referrals by students and colleagues and your personal recruiting efforts. As a junior faculty member, your budding research program depends on the quality and continuity of your research group.

Balancing the various responsibilities of a professor is challenging and I am still learning the ropes. Seek advice from successful, tenured faculty. But, also remember to enjoy the journey. It is truly an honor and privilege to be entrusted every year to educate our future chemical engineers. Everyday, I am thankful for the opportunity to pursue my lifelong research goals and introduce my passion to future generations.

This article originally appeared in the Technical Entity Trends column in the July 2018 issue of CEPMembers have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.