2 disclaimers before I start dispensing advice and whatnot:
(1) I have zero idea if I am going about this correctly. I may well end up fired in 3 years, or turned down for tenure in 5-9. I am not suggesting the below is what you do – I am just sharing my experience.
(2) It obviously differs situation-to-situation based on things like: tenure vs non-tenure track, whether you are bringing grants or data with you, the type of institution and so on. It depends on your field, on wet lab vs. dry statistics and much more. Again, this is just my personal experience.
That being said, my situation is that I am a freshly-minted ex postdoc, in the tenure-track stream as an Assistant Professor at an R1 institution. That means my main responsibility is research, with teaching ‘secondary’ : after the first year, my course load will be 1-2 courses per year. I am soft money: mandated to cover 20% of my salary from grants for renewal, but expected to cover much more (50-80%). I have a 3-year initial contract. I am in the Division of ‘Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences’, with my research / focus falling into the first two categories. I had a successful grant that I did not get to export. I do not bring data with me, but I do have excellent relationships with my very supportive mentors from my PhD AND my postdoc. They are very open to sharing data and advising / supporting me where they can (I am very lucky!). However, I want to change my research fairly substantially from my postdoc, so I am ‘data-free’ currently.
So – what have I been doing? Well, panicking quite a lot. But also enjoying myself.
First: I took a gander at my CV. I like to keep my CV ‘job ready’ i.e. in a state that if I suddenly needed to find a job, it might get me an interview. To my mind this entails: (a) a strong publication record, aiming for 3 first-author publications per year IN MY PRIMARY FIELD (a ‘lag’ for changing institutions / having a baby etc is allowed. Note: a lag not a gap), in decent journals; (b) a good grant record for your level; (c) Some presentations at conferences and other evidence that you leave your office occasionally (courses); (d) teaching activities relevant to your situation. Currently, on a purely CV level, I am good for publications for a while. This has bought me some time to focus on developing other areas (then I can play catch-up). I am aware this is not good for tenure: I need publications in my area, from my tenure institution (unless they have stated that previous institutions count, but as I was a trainee, they don’t). But – that is not my focus for now. My teaching is also reasonable, and I am not expected to teach in my first year. This leaves me time to focus on developing grants, and getting to conferences to present data. So,
Second: I am trying to write grants galore. It took me nearly 2 years to get my K99: I only have 3 years to get a grant here. Every deadline, I am currently aiming to submit something. Obviously: this has not always been possible, and will not be. I missed the first 2 as they were 20 days and 1.5 months after I joined, respectively. I am not pleased that I missed them, but I am pleased I got the ball rolling and my brain thinking. I am being much harsher on myself now. I have written before on how important I think it is to go through the grant-writing process; so my feeling is that it is worth going for something – anything – initially. I have had some criticism of this approach, and a wise senior investigator has pointed out to me that ‘you only get one first grant’ and it should be something to build on. My feeling on this is: yes and no, depending… a K, sure, you want it to be a good basis to build a research career. But in the absence of that, a foundation grant… a small R01, an R21, some pilot grants, some industry money – I think applying for these to get decent research done is beneficial, even if it ‘tides you over’ to gets you to your ‘real’ project. But I do appreciate that you want all your grants to lead into the magic R01 / K for which you will eventually apply… so some caution there. To achieve my dream of being able to submit a grant (but being data- and contact- free here) I am:
Third: Meeting people, meeting people, meeting people. Seriously, I am emailing people in my department, and outside, and outside my school, and my institution and my city. I am begging people for meetings, and broadly trying to find people in three or four categories:
-Someone with a clinical sample on which I can collect extra data of ‘my own’. This is kind of my main priority. Hopefully I can build a relationship with this person, and then build up to an intervention study with them.
-People with data in my area of interest (which is pretty broad) who have data which I can analyze and get papers out of. As above, papers are not my current priority, and I am focusing on grants. So I carefully ‘filing away’ (mentally) anyone in this category for the fourth activity below.
-People in my area of interest who may be interested in writing papers together, kibbutzing about ideas, and eventually putting a grant together.
-Junior people who can tell me about senior people who help junior investigators AND / OR just sympathize with the plight of new faculty 🙂 Sharing experience over a coffee is a wonderful thing
-A mentor. I am looking for that all-important person who can champion me, open doors for me, yell at me when I am going wrong. Who will kindly spend some time advising me on things like: which grant mechanism? Should I take a student? When should I hire an assistant? And so on.
This is actually taking up the absolute bulk of my time now: just getting out there and meeting people. Visiting everyone, writing notes from when we met, following up. Setting up long distance visits and so on. It’s tiring and hard! But it is helping me to:
Fourth: Planning some papers, to be written in the second half of my first-year. So hopefully, I will spend the first 6 months or so getting grants developed. Some submitted, and then these can be the basis for subsequent submissions. Then I can get to writing. So, I am hoping to my papers will be with people outside of UT, and some inside: which can be a neat bridge to starting get some collaborations open. So, I am contacting groups with publicly available data, and getting manuscript proposals in, contacting my old contacts and doing the same, getting some people here at UT with relevant expertise onto my new papers. Also looking for people who have ideas for a paper that I can get off the ground (e.g. I found an amazing woman on Psychology who had an idea for a G*E paper, but needed a geneticist. I am that geneticist 🙂 ). Finally, I am:
Fifth: Getting some conferences under my belt, so that I can start to hear about and present research in the right area (remember: I am changing fields). Start to meet people, and ‘tick’ that box off for the future, if I am lucky enough to get super busy. Finally,
Sixth: I am finding out as much as I can about this mysterious tenure process at UT, and following some advice I heard a while back: I made boxes labelled “service, published abstracts, conference presentations, teaching, grants”. Every time I do something document-able towards one of those (e.g. review abstracts for a conference, review grants, give a lecture at UT) I print out confirmation (asking for it, if I have to) and throw it in the relevant folder (or folders if I am lucky). This will help me 1: put together a really good tenure and promotion file but (2) start to see where I am lacking.
It’s fun, but exhausting. Maybe it is pregnancy, but running around, arranging visits, meeting people, desperately trying to get projects off the ground seems much more tiring (maybe it is nervous energy?) than sitting at my desk, quietly turning analysis into papers. I basically get home and utterly flop. I also eat an awful lot of snack foods! It is also strange to not feel like I am doing science: to be taking a hiatus from the propose-analyze-draft-publish cycle. Obviously, I am trying to maneuver myself into a strong position to do that better than ever before, but that is a weird place to be. I also have this “what if it doesn’t pay off?” fear. What if my meetings don’t go anywhere, and my grant idea doesn’t get off the ground? Well… in that case, I’ll have to come up with a Plan B. Sure, I could be going for safer plans now, but that is just not my style. I really am going out on a limb here and keeping my fingers crossed that it pays off.
Keep your fingers crossed for me 🙂
I am interested in other people’s experience of becoming faculty: tenure-track or no… did you spend months seeming like you were doing no science, and just meeting people? Did you feel you had a gap in productivity? Did it work out?