Over at The Molecular Ecologist, Jeremy Yoder asks a great question: Knowing what you know now, what career advice would you give yourself at the career stage immediately preceding the one you’re currently in? He’s organized a blog carnival for the answers, submission deadline is Dec. 8, instructions on how to submit your advice are in the linked post. Advice can be for any career path, not just academia.
My advice is below. There are two sections because I wasn’t sure how finely divided “career stages” are supposed to be. As a tenured associate professor, am I supposed to be giving advice to untenured faculty? Or to postdocs? I’ll hedge my bets and give some advice for each. I’ll also cheat a bit; not all of the advice is stuff I only learned after I’d left the career stage in question. Some of it is things I didn’t know at the beginning of the career stage in question, but learned during the course of it.
All of my advice assumes that your long-term goal is an academic career. Purely because that’s the only career track I know enough about to look back and give sensible advice about.
Branch out for your postdoc, but not too much. In retrospect, I didn’t branch out enough during my postdoc as compared to my PhD. I picked up some modeling skills during my postdoc, but on the empirical side I was running the same sorts of microcosm experiments I’d run for my PhD (and continue to run today). I think this led to an understandable perception during faculty job interviews that I was something of a narrow, one-trick pony. But conversely, there is such a thing as branching out too much. If you use your postdoc to totally change directions and drop your previous interests in favor of new ones, you risk being seen as a dilettante. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not uncommon for people to change direction in fairly radical ways when going from PhD to postdoc–but ideally I think there’s some strong common thread linking your PhD and your postdoc. Attacking the same basic problem or question, just in a very different system or using very different skills and techniques. Taking transferable skills learned during a PhD (say, modeling or programming skills learned as a physicist or computer scientist) and applying them to ecology. Etc.
Be realistic about your small chances of eventually getting a tenure-track faculty position, and have a back-up plan. I talked about this in my best post ever.
Seek out postdocs that will let you take a true leadership role in the direction of a research program–your own, or a key part of someone else’s. Something where you get to make big decisions as to what gets done. I think that was a big plus of my postdoc, to an extent I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I was a free agent, able to pursue whatever research I wanted (as long as the director of the institute approved it, so I could spend money on it). It showed that I could think of my own questions and run my own research program.
For assistant professors:
Ok, this is something I knew at the time, but I know it’s something other folks learned only after it was too late, so I’ll share it anyway. When negotiating startup, do your homework (e.g., by having a quiet word with other new faculty in the department you’ll be joining) and find out about how much money you can expect. But then don’t just ask for that amount of money. Instead, give the Dean or whoever you’re negotiating with a detailed budget that adds up to roughly however much money you know you can expect, or a bit more. You basically want to say to the Dean, “We both want me to succeed. Here’s what I need to set up a successful, sustainable, long-term research program, and here’s how much it costs.” The Dean won’t necessarily give you that much money just because you’ve backed it up with a budget. But now you have a basis for negotiating (e.g., can you make do with sharing some equipment, etc.). If you just ask for $X, and the Dean offers $X-Y, you can’t just reply “No, give me $X” (well, unless you have multiple offers, I suppose). That’s not negotiating, that’s just making demands.
Teaching your first class will be terrifying. It is for everyone. You’ll be fine as long as you put in the effort to prepare (and to improve over time). Ask your colleagues for advice, ask to sit in on their classes, ask to borrow their notes if they’ve taught the class in the past, consider a short course on instruction techniques if your university offers one (and you haven’t already taken one as a postdoc), think back to the techniques of your best profs when you were an undergrad, etc. At Calgary, where many courses are team taught, in my first year I sat in on every single lecture of the profs who were teaching before me in the two classes I was assigned to teach, and took detailed notes. Not only was this great training, and a great way to ensure that my teaching “meshed” with theirs, later I was actually able to teach from those notes when assigned to teach other parts of those classes.
That kind of leads to a broader point: it’s not a sign of weakness to ask colleagues for advice. On anything. They’re your colleagues, and they were once in your shoes.
When teaching, remember that, as a student, you almost certainly were an extreme outlier in terms of your academic ability, background preparation, interest in the material, study habits, everything. You can’t just aim your teaching at the few students who are like you were.
When looking for grad students, meet every prospective grad student face to face, ideally via at least a full-day visit to your lab. Any money you have to spend flying in promising prospective grad students is money well spent, and is chump change compared to the amount of money, time, and effort you’ll be putting into training the students you choose to take on. Taking on a grad student is a big commitment for both of you. It’s to the benefit of both of you to be as sure as you both can possibly be that you’re a good fit for each other. Do not rely solely on letters of reference, no matter how positive, perhaps unless those letters come from close colleagues whom you know very well.