Tenure Worth Wanting

Idealism, pragmatism, and meaning.


This guide is part of my advice pages.

Read This First

I wrote this guide for university faculty who are pre-tenure, work in a STEM discipline, and have strong research expectations as part of their tenure case. It is not comprehensive, as it focuses on aspects of the job that I haven't seen discussed elsewhere or that I wanted to share my thoughts on. I assume the reader is already aware of the importance of the standard triad of research, teaching, and service and has access to advice on them. Instead, I wanted to provide an experiential perspective, concerned with well-being, sustainable effort, and finding meaning in work.

My Guide to Professorspeak complements this guide with relevant terminology, and Inglorious Proposals provides some experential narratives about seeking research funding. I recommend reading those too. If you don't have a tenure-stream faculty position but you'd like one, read my Guide for the Tenure-Track Job Market.

Throughout this guide I offer examples from my work as pre-tenure faculty, spanning two universities and eight years, but there is more than one way to do many things I describe. My discipline is computer and information sciences, and some of the advice might be specific to that segment of faculty. Additionally, note this advice is unofficial and any errors are mine.

Luck and Circumstance

Things like a welcoming work environment, startup funds, freedom to choose your research direction, and a stable institutional outlook are not universal. This guide is written with the assumption the reader works in a generally supportive academic unit. Even within a college or department, the experiences of individual faculty may vary.

Additionally, good fortune is a barrier to many deserving faculty candidates. There are not enough tenure-stream jobs for the people who want them, and positions at R1 institutions are especially limited. I'm in a privileged position by being able to write this guide. Toward the end, I acknowledge several people who helped me take advantage of opportunities when I encountered them.

Contents


colorful post-it notes with hand-written messages from students about themselves
Post-it notes from a Penn State orientation activity. Incoming students are asked to write what they bring to the university community. Click or tap on the photo to enlarge it.

Getting Started

Recognize the Clean Start

[Smyke] "What is it, then?"
[Professor Kolibri] "Nothing."
[Smyke] "What do you mean, nothing?"
[Professor Kolibri] "Nothing of importance... I'd rather not talk about it."
[Smyke] "Come on, professor, out with it."
[Professor Kolibri] "It's, er, a doctoral thesis."
Smyke laughed. "That's a relief. I thought it was some frightful disease."
[Professor Kolibri] "So is a doctoral thesis, in a way."
— From Walter Moers' "Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures"

Prior to starting a tenure-stream faculty position, you may have had difficult experiences with earning a PhD, being a postdoc, or interviewing for faculty positions. You may feel impostor syndrome or a need to proactively prove that your past obstacles are behind you.

However, it's unlikely that your new colleagues know any obstacles you faced beyond those common to all new faculty. That's because they have no specific reason to know, and also because the expectations are roughly equal for those joining straight from their PhD, joining after a postdoc position (or several postdoc positions), or joining after time in industry. Similarly, a new faculty member who spent several years on the academic job market and submitted hundreds of applications receives the same onboarding and expectations as someone who spent just one year on the market and submitted very few applications.

When I started my first tenure-stream faculty position, none of my colleagues knew that I needed two application cycles to get into any PhD programs, that I finished my PhD without a job offer and was unemployed for three months, or that I had spent four years on the academic job market. When I started my second tenure-stream faculty position, none of my colleagues knew that I had spent a total of six years on the academic job market. At each new university I initially didn't talk about those things with colleagues, as I didn't want them to define people's impressions of me. However I gradually shared more, especially with students, as I realized my stories had pedagogical value. I share more about my path to a faculty position on another page.

Update Your Network

It's possible that you haven't spoken in awhile with some friends and acquaintances who are (or soon will be) in academic positions. Contact them and let them know you're faculty now too. There's a chance they're looking for a collaborator for a project, or they will need one in the future. Don't rely on them seeing the news on social media, if you use that. Direct contact is a good way to spark conversations about mutual interests.

I've had successful grant proposals with a college roommate and a postdoc labmate. I've also submitted a grant proposal with a graduate school labmate.

Make Faculty Friends

Faculty friends who are also pre-tenure will be helpful for relating to, confiding in, and comparing experiences with. It's best if you have an assortment of them in a variety of places: within your department, within your university but not in your department, and at other universities. University-wide new faculty orientation is a rare opportunity to meet faculty from different parts of the university who are experiencing the same surge of newness that you are. As always, recognizing boundaries is appropriate (i.e., not everyone wants to expand their social circle), but your chances of finding people to connect with personally are above average at early events.

Some academic environments constantly bombard new faculty with pressure to collaborate, and collaboration should be part of your work, but having relatable friends is part of your well-being. It's normal and beneficial to have social interactions with colleagues that aren't aimed at advancing your career.

None of the above is intended to detract from the importance of also having friends who aren't faculty.

Outside of my academic unit, among my closest faculty friends are someone I met during a research abroad program when we were graduate students, someone I met in the final minutes of our university-wide new faculty orientation, and someone I met in a very long line for food at a conference reception. We often talk about work, but we haven't collaborated yet.

Get Nice Things

If you have a startup fund that includes computing equipment expenses, you might suffer from decision paralysis or a feeling of not deserving to get nice things. However, it's appropriate to get the computing equipment you want. If it's (1) within budget, (2) something that will help your productivity, and (3) not wasteful, go ahead and order it. Your university expects a lot from you, and those funds are intended to help you succeed.

Remember human factors. If your shopping list includes a keyboard and mouse, get the ones you've always wanted. Also, check if you can order equipment early enough prior to your start date that it will be waiting for you when you arrive.

If you observe senior faculty members using old or outdated computing equipment, don't let that discourage you from getting nice things. Lack of interest or lack of time might be preventing them from upgrading.

I used my startup to purchase several items for my work: a desktop computer, a second display for the desktop, a laptop, and a wall-mounted display. My research advisees use the wall-mounted display to present slides during meetings. I also connect the display to a computer and a webcam so that students can gather with me to videoconference with remote collaborators. For my advisees and their lab space, I bought a GPU server, monitors that double as docking stations for laptops, a mini-fridge, and a coffee machine.

Explore Campus

The abundance of free time that you may begin with will disappear, but before it does, you can familiarize yourself with campus. Features like museums, art installations, lounges, and libraries contribute to the unique environment of a university.

Find alternatives to your office for when you want a change of scenery or need a retreat to concentrate. At the University of Cincinnati, I sometimes decamped to the poetry room in the library. At Penn State, there are nice lounges in distant parts of campus where I can work in relative anonymity.

I feel good knowing that I share the institution with museums, art galleries, and the performing arts: rather than mere decorations, they are artifacts of the university's core mission.


trees, buildings, and road with mountains in the distance
View from my office window during autumn.

Getting Organized

Document Your Professional Activities

Annual reviews, pre-tenure reviews, and the tenure application will expect you to list everything you've done. Even within a single year, remembering all your professional activities will be difficult. However, universities' record keeping systems for these reports tend to be cumbersome and don't encourage quick edits.

Have an easy way to keep track of all your professional activities. A CV is only a start: some items that are appropriate in professional reviews might not be CV-suitable. I use an update cache. It's a text document that contains to-do lists for additions or changes I need to make to each of my professional materials (CV, personal website, lab website, and faculty activity tracking website). The tasks are brief and informal, like "Add EMNLP publication about privacy QA corpus", "add grad admissions committee", or "move [advisee's name] to alumni". Some duplication of tasks between the lists is inevitable and fine.

Instead of updating my professional materials every time I have something to add or change, I accumulate these tasks in the update cache. Periodically I commit the cache by processing all the tasks at once. The cache makes recording accomplishments quick and easy. Editing the update cache ten times and then editing my CV once takes much less time and effort than editing my CV ten separate times.

Recognize Your Day-to-Day Work

Being busy for extended periods of time might not give you the sensation that you've made progress toward goals or accomplished many things. One way to reflect more accurately on your workload is to keep a log of your work activities and update it often. It doesn't have to be detailed or finely categorized, as long as it validates the time you've spent.

I keep a "work journal" that resembles a series of daily to-do lists except in the past tense. Whenever I send an email, teach a class, attend a meeting, edit a manuscript, or perform another similarly granular activity, I write a brief entry about it. I also mark tasks in a special way if I perform them after hours or on weekends. Reviewing the list at the end of the day, or over longer periods of time, provides reassurance that the passage of time had meaning and contributed to goals.

Make Teaching Notes for Your Future Self

You get ideas, both big and small, on how to improve a course while you teach it. However, by the time you teach it again you're likely to forget much of what you wanted to change. One way to avoid forgetting is to write to-do course improvements notes in places that you will easily find the next time you teach the course.

Often just after I teach a class session with slides, I create a "post mortem" hidden slide at the beginning of the deck. I like to do this immediately after I dismiss the class, while I'm still standing at the podium. I write what went well and what I should change next time I prepare for the lecture. I also keep a "next time" to-do list for the overall course.


tails of jetliners representing many different airlines at an airport
Brussels Airport, en route to a conference.

Leading a Lab

Declare a Lab

Some faculty like to refer to their research group as a "lab", and some don't. If you want it to be thought of as a lab, you can name it and start referring to it even before you have advisees. If it seems presumptuous, think of it like naming a small business you just started: the organization exists even when it's just you. Check that no one else at the university already claimed the name you want, and avoid "center" or "institute" in the name, as universities often regulate those terms.

Your lab name can serve as a side channel for communicating your expertise. In other words, it's a way to signal to people (e.g., students, colleagues, potential collaborators) what kinds of research you're interested in.

I had just one research advisee when I began referring to my group as the "Human Language Technologies Lab". I remember it seeming strange that the lab existed solely because I referred to it, but that's typically how academic labs exist: because faculty speak as if they do.

It's also fine to avoid referring to your research group as a lab, but be prepared for people to instinctively refer to it as your "lab" anyway.

Deconstruct Advising

People often describe advising styles as "hands-on" or "hands-off". A more nuanced way to think about advising is to separately consider each possible role in an advisee's development. These include:

Among these roles, advisor is formally recognized through a student's degree program and manager is formally recognized through a research assistantship. The rest are informal but also important, and all are interrelated. Note some of roles can be served by multiple faculty, including those beyond a student's advisor and manager, but it's a sign of a good advising relationship if the advisor has some presence in multiple roles.

You're a Manager Now

Many STEM faculty delegate significant research activities to their research assistants. Your success will depend in part on their productivity, which depends in turn on your ability to give them directions, resources, and a supportive work environment.

Recognize the need for manager skills when working with students. Don't dismiss management and related administrative activities as outside of your obligations. Although they are a step removed from what many people think of as the activity of research, they are essential for research to happen. Instead, devote time to finding ways to manage compassionately and efficiently, and remember that good management sets the stage for many of the most satisfying interactions you will have with research advisees. Here, efficiency means spending less time on rote activities and more time on the things that you and your advisees specifically value.

Check More Reading for learning resources on effective management.

Students working for you may have limited experience with workplace norms. Be patient with them, but note whether they improve when you coach them on professionalism. (If they don't, it could be a bad sign for their work.) Also remember that they will model some of their workplace behaviors after yours.

Track Lab Resources and Activities

Your lab will start small, but later it will become difficult to mentally keep track of many aspects it, such as manuscript statuses and funding requests. Repeatedly searching for information when you forget it is inefficient.

Keep spreadsheets or other records for things about your lab that you want to remember quickly, and update them often. The following spreadsheets are important for how I run my lab:

Use Email Wisely

Email is useful for documenting informal agreements with research advisees. During a meeting at the beginning of a project, I sometimes write an email as I talk with the student, documenting our conversation about priorities and parameters. (I explain what I'm doing, so they don't think I'm distracted by unrelated emails.) I ask the student to read over it to confirm it matches our conversation, ask them if there's anything more I should include, and then send it just after the meeting ends.

"Schedule send" features of email clients are helpful. If you work over the weekend or late at night, you can schedule an email to go out early the next business day; this avoids giving the recipient work to do outside working hours, and it also elimintes the possibility the recipient will quickly reply with more work for you outside of business hours. If you find specific email threads to be time-consuming, schedule send is also a helpful way to slow them down. In general, remember the pace that you send emails affects the pace that you receive them, and delaying yours (within reason) can help you focus on tasks or take a break.

If you find yourself writing a long, delicately crafted email that draws you into extended editing sessions, consider whether a conversation could be more time-efficient and better for communicating tone.

Working Well

Find Your Teaching Strengths

If your prior teaching experience is limited, teaching will be difficult at first. If you have no prior materials for a course, preparing it de novo will compound the difficulty. You may wonder whether teaching is easier for everyone else and whether you are doing something wrong.

Keep in mind that there exists variation among instructors' strengths: some approaches to teaching that come naturally to other faculty will be time-consuming for you, and some approaches that seem effortless for you will be difficult for others. It's OK if you're not equally good at all things teaching. The things you're good at may be difficult to notice, because you deftly do them. Once you realize what they are, though, you can use them for all they're worth.

Teaching math and proofs requires a lot of slow, arduous preparation for me. However, guiding a conversation on assigned reading is easy for me; typically I can get an interesting conversation going regardless of class size or composition. My impression is from students' and peers' reviews is that I'm unusually good at that, so I make conversations, audience participation, and small group discussions frequent in my teaching.

Get Value From Modest Proposals

Universities sometimes have seed grant programs for their faculty. These tend to be much easier to apply for than major external grants, and the benefits of applying extend beyond the possibility of funding. Writing a seed proposal collaboratively with another faculty member is a good way to get comfortable working with them and to lower the barrier to future collaborations with them. Even when working alone on these, they can be a good way to organize your thoughts on research problems, making it easier to apply for larger grants in the future regardless of seed proposal outcomes.

Smaller seed grants can be infeasible for supporting PhD students, and faculty sometimes question how they can get research started with so little money. Hourly-wage undergraduates or MS students are cheaper to support. Note those alternatives incentivize you to develop skills for working with students who have no prior research experience and a limited skillset. Undergraduates and MS students can make meaningful contributions: during my pre-tenure time at Penn State, two second-year undergraduates in my lab first-authored conference papers.

Similarly, some private foundation and industry awards are relatively easy to apply for, and applying serves multiple purposes: idea incubation, collaboration development, and the possibility of funding. However, be aware of rules about simultaneous submission of grant proposals that overlap. Some funding sources are fine with simultaneity, and some aren't.

I used a proposal to a private foundation to develop ideas for my NSF CAREER proposal. The private foundation proposal was rejected, but the CAREER proposal was awarded. Seed grants preceded both of the successful proposals I wrote about in Inglorious Proposals.

Recognize Staff Are Your Colleagues

Respecting staff goes beyond knowing that you depend on their work. They are your colleagues, with their own professional trajectories, areas of expertise, and accomplishments. Even when their work supports yours, recognizing their careers as significant is part of recognizing the significance of yours.

Faculty sometimes blame staff for bureaucratic obstacles. Remember they and you work in the same sociotechnical system. They're likely to be frustrated with the bureaucracy too, even if their specific frustrations are different from yours.

Faculty sometimes understimate the skill or depth of staff work. For example, grant proposal specialists must navigate a myriad of regulations from the university, the government, and funding sources to ensure that proposals are compliant and well-formed. Academic advisors for undergraduates must commit to memory complex degree requirements, and the demands of advising tens or hundreds of students require them to be disciplined about workload and throughput. Financial officers have vital responsibilities to ensure that money is spent properly and accountably.

Get Press for Your Achievements

Universities are motivated to publicize achievements by their faculty. Many parties look favorably upon faculty achievements, including administrators, prospective students, donors, the research community, potential collaborators, and the general public. Determine whom at your university you should ask for press releases for grants, publications, awards, or other achievements. If it's unclear what counts as newsworthy, just ask. These press releases are sometimes useful for attracting new collaborators, and occasionally they lead to news pieces by external media, which count as outreach.

Unless you already know the venue has a strong reputation, press opportunities that you must pay for are unlikely to be worth the cost.

When being interviewed for a university press release about research that an advisee led, encourage the press office to talk with the advisee too. You lose nothing by mentioning that a student is the technical lead on a project (assuming it's true), as their work is still part of your lab's portfolio. Students are typically excited to be quoted, and some may use press releases to promote their careers.

As a student, I assumed the faculty who appeared frequently in university press releases or magazines were the most successful ones. As a professor, I quickly realized that only a modest level of success was necessary, and what often distinguished those faculty was that they responded to requests from the press office and notified them of newsworthy items.

Defend Lunch

The [compost] heap swiveled and lunged toward the Bursar.
The wizards backed away.
"It can't be intelligent, can it?" said the Bursar.
"All it's doing is moving around slowly and eating things," said the Dean.
"Put a pointy hat on it and it'd be a faculty member," said the Archchancellor.

— From Terry Pratchett's "Reaper Man"

Your calendar may begin empty, but within a year or two it will become crowded with meetings, seminars, teaching, and other events. It's easy to fall into a pattern of giving away all your time during the workday, including lunch. Breaks are important, but those for meals are especially important and (unlike Pratchett's professors) you may need to defend yours. Allocate time every day for lunch. Once you cede lunchtime, even for an event that you expect to be once only, it may be difficult to reclaim.

Some meetings allow people to bring their own lunches, but be careful about eating in a room with people who don't have food. Chewing noises may aggravate those who have misophonia, a sensory disorder. Don't rely on people to speak up if they are bothered.


silhouette of a tall pile driver and trees against a sunset in the background
Construction silhouettes and sunset on Penn State's campus.

Hard Times

Self-Doubt

"Up or out" (i.e., the requirement to advance in your job or find a new one, as with tenure) is practiced in relatively few professions, and it creates unique pressures. Problems that otherwise might be merely annoying assume greater significance. If you have limited experience with failure, competition, and uncertainty, it may be difficult to distinguish temporary setbacks from truly devastating ones. Vague requirements for tenure make it more difficult to accurately self-assess.

Some universities publish statistics on tenure rates, or alternatively, faculty sometimes try to calculate them from anecdotal evidence. These statistics could be less useful than they seem. Make sure you're aware of all the possibilities before taking them seriously. Without private knowledge, it might be impossible to distinguish between departures because of tenure denial, departures because the faculty member didn't expect to get tenure, and departures because the faculty member wanted a different job. Additionally, sometimes these distinctions aren't meaningful.

In a small informal poll I conducted, two-thirds of tenured faculty (11 of 16) responded that at least once they had little or no confidence that they would receive tenure. Naturally, some of the pre-tenure faculty who have crises of confidence don't get tenure, but it is revealing that most of the faculty whom we would consider successful had a time when they seriously doubted their trajectory. Determining whether a setback is a tenure-scale problem might not be as important as finding ways to cope with uncertainty while continuing your work.

Fear of Missing Out

Press releases, media mentions, intra-departmental announcements, and word of mouth provide an incomplete picture of your peers' activities, leaving out all the rejected manuscripts and grants. For some faculty, the fear of missing out in the professional realm can be even more discouraging than in the social setting. Being successful as pretenure faculty means having some congratulation-worthy accomplishments, but remember that not everyone has them at the same time.

Faculty sometimes speak about certain special achievements, like NSF CAREER or awards from top-tier conferences, as "guaranteed" or "automatic" paths to tenure. The firmness in those statements is a figure of speech or an illusion. These special achievements are helpful, but there are other more common achievements that still amount to a good tenure case.

In the months after I submitted my first batch of tenure application materials, my lab received our first publication awards—four of them. Those were actually the first publication awards I had ever received, as a student, postdoc, or faculty.

Mistreatment and Related Problems

In a properly functioning academic unit, coworkers are helpful and friendly, and the administration promotes an atmosphere of belonging for all faculty. One of my favorite aspects of working in a university is the people I meet and interact with on a regular basis. However, ancedotes about bad behavior are common in academia and bullying is a well-documented phenomenon. Everyone experiences some risk, but the risk is unevenly distributed: pre-tenure faculty are especially vulnerable, and those who are part of underrepresented populations are even more so.

When a colleague or administrator (or a student) becomes a serious problem, it is appropriate to report their behavior and to expect a fair resolution. However, some problems are not actionable, and some purported remedies are infeasible. Institutional politics may stop people with authority from taking action, even if they are sympathetic. Because of power dynamics and risks, these difficult situations are likely to be more common in an academic unit than any one person is aware of.

You might be unable to prevent bad behavior toward you, but you can maximize your chances of shutting it down if an opportunity arises. Keep detailed notes on the behavior, how you reacted, and how people responded to your requests for help. These notes will reduce self-doubt later and help you to maintain perspective. Seek advice from a senior colleague, or if possible, an administrator whom you trust. Empathy is a good sign; if you don't sense it, seek advice elsewhere. It is reasonable to want to be listened to and to defend yourself.

Remember It's a Job

The pressures leading up to a tenure-stream position encourage faculty to think about it as a calling that transcends normal employment. What the job means is up to you—it might mean a little, or a lot—but remembering its status as a job is healthy and productive for navigating obstacles. All workplaces come with tradeoffs, but it is reasonable to expect a supportive environment for your work. When that expectation isn't met, you can try to improve the environment, speak with people who are better positioned to make changes, tolerate the status quo, or seek options elsewhere. It's also possible to be satisfied with a workplace while searching for somewhere even better, or to be unsatisfied but continue to work at a place because it's best for personal constraints. The paucity of tenure-stream job openings makes moving difficult, but it's normal to be uncertain whether you will stay at your current institution for your full career.

I made a pre-tenure move from my first university as faculty to my second, but it took two search cycles while at the first university to receive any offers. The first of those cycles produced interviews but no offers. Also, my second tenure-stream university had rejected my applications twice before, both times several years prior to making the offer. When I negotiated the offer to move, I had the option to ask for credit (years) toward tenure, but I chose to reset my tenure clock to zero. In retrospect, taking credit for at least one of those years would have been fine, though I would have experienced greater stress.

Regardless of how you feel about your workplace, remember you may have colleagues who feel very differently about it, and they might not want to disclose those feelings. Being aware of that possibility can help you understand what motivates your colleagues or how they react to changes.

I think it's natural for some people to intensely want difficult things like an academic career, and an appropriate response isn't denial or rejection of strong wants. Instead, it's helpful to reflect on the tradeoffs you're willing to make and what the wanting does to you. No one else can dictate what a career goal is worth to you, but you can think carefully about how it fits into the larger scope of your life.


room with ornate furniture and family crests on the wall
Meeting room in Dagstuhl, where I attended a research retreat in 2022.

Strategy

Your University's Identity

A university subtly communicates its personality to its employees and to the general public. That personality may include varying amounts of confidence, prestige, exclusiveness, openness, tradition, innovation, permanence, humility, or unconventionality. Also consider: a university's aspirational roles in the state, country, or world; its civic profile; its success in intercollegiate athletics; how it handles growth (or contraction); and how it juxtaposes teaching and research. When you meet with people external to your university, part of their impression of you may come from those messages. As an employee, it's easy to adopt those messages unaware.

When you attend internal and external events, take note how your university portrays itself. There may be times when you can use that portrayal to your advantage, and other times when pushing back against it is appropriate.

I've been a student, employee, or visiting researcher at nine different universities, and comparing and contrasting them is an engaging exercise. Internally to each university, its personality becomes a lens for evaluating new ideas or changes to established norms. Externally, especially at conferences, it's a factor (unfortunately) in how much attention people associated with a university receive.

Quantity and Quality

An excessive focus on publishing quantity is a common criticism of academia. Bibliometrics and vague expectations create pressure to publish as many manuscripts as possible, with a reduced focus on research fundamentals and the creation of knowledge. When I listen to people evaluating researchers' works, I observe a pattern: quality without quantity receives moral praise but little attention, quantity without quality attracts attention but also criticism, and having both quality and quantity forgives their respective shortcomings.

Quality and quantity are often portrayed, even if implicitly, on a one-dimensional scale with tradeoffs between them. I've found it more meaningful think of them as a joint maximization problem and to pragmatically examine the obstacles. Sometimes this leads to more work, but importantly, sometimes it leads to less. In some situations the wisest choice is not to proceed with an option (e.g., working more on the manuscript before submitting it will produce only minimal gains, or adding another project isn't feasible), and the tension between quality and quantity is an illusion.

Depth and Breadth

Similar to quantity and quality, depth and breadth of a pre-tenure professor's research portfolio are often spoken of as if they oppose each other, implying that you can only have one at the expense of the other. Pre-tenure faculty are generally told to prioritize depth, yet they are sometimes criticized for failing to "branch out" beyond the research topics that they started with. Rather than thinking about breadth and depth as a balance problem, it could be helpful to find ways to jointly pursue both. Skills for depth are familiar to recent PhD students and postdocs, who focus on relatively few projects. However, breadth requires new skills.

One of those skills is the ability to manage several projects at once. This is related to your ability to manage student researchers, as you must trust them to run projects while you run the lab. What qualifies as "running" a project may vary by student and project, but finding ways to delegate sophisticated tasks is important.

Another of those skills is the ability to build—or derive—a cohesive narrative for your research. How do all your projects fit together? The answer is a form of messaging: it should be brief and easy to understand. Over time I came to describe my research as a combination of natural language processing, privacy, and computational social science, all in service of social good. Making the Venn diagram below was helpful for thinking about my research and communicating it during talks.


Venn diagram with circles labeled natural language processing, privacy and security, and computational social science; brief descriptions of research projects inside each area of the diagram
A Venn diagram of my resesearch that I made for an invited talk during my sixth year at Penn State.

Maximalism and Sustainable Effort

It can be difficult to know when to say no to an opportunity or when to set aside your work to rest. Pre-tenure faculty are often given maximalist advice, to do everything possible to advance their careers. Determining a sustainable but sufficient pace of work is one of the most difficult problems that pre-tenure faculty face: How much is enough?

Sustainable effort—doing work at a pace that you can maintain and having a work-life balance—is important, but the meaning of that effort varies by person. Platitudes like quality over quantity or depth over breadth can be satisfying in the abstract but unsuitable for making hard decisions. In absence of concrete guidance, it's reasonable to trust your intuitions and to maximize the likelihood of outcomes worth wanting. Tenure is one of those outcomes, but having lived and worked in ways that reflect your values is a worthwhile outcome, too.


young woman with brightly colored hair sitting on a the back of a pickup truck with a US ROTC colorguard in the background
Penn State's Homecoming parade.

The Vocation

Higher Education's Vast Landscape

In 2021 the National Center for Education Statistics counted 3,931 institutions of higher education in the USA. Out of those, roughly 150 (4%) are R1s, the universities with the highest levels of research activity. Most faculty in the target audience for this guide work at R1 universities, and most earned their PhDs at R1s too. Being acclimated to a research environment sometimes encourages faculty to make overly coarse judgements about universities that lack strong research missions.

R1s host the greatest resources for academic research in the US, but remember the paramount goal of any university is education. An R1 university's research mission supports thesis-driven degree programs, and the centrality of students unites all universities and distinguishes them from other types of research institutions. Most undergraduates at R1s are not engaged in graduate-level research, and other activities determine the quality of their educational experience. In contrast with R1s, small liberal arts colleges build their reputations around providing high-quality teaching and personalized attention to all students rather than relying on students to seek them out. Regional colleges and universities lack the reputations of R1s and SLACs, but their geographic distribution and their lower tuition enable them to educate a large percentage of the US workforce.

Some things about being tenure-stream faculty at an R1 are widely envied (e.g., comparably high salary, resources, public attention) while others aren't (e.g., publication- and grant-driven tenure expectations, research administration tasks). Some faculty who work at non-R1s wish they worked at R1s and some don't, depending on their interests and goals. Be mindful of how you discuss universities: it's difficult to defend a context-free claim about one university being "better" than another. If you're inclined to make that kind of claim, consider why, and you might find a more specific claim to make instead.

Freedom to Make Decisions

The pressure to build a portfolio of activities for tenure and the vague requirements for tenure are frequent sources of stress. Tenure-stream faculty have abundant day-to-day freedom and limited supervision. The responsibility to do the right thing for your career in absence of a clearly defined path can seem daunting and oppressive. People sometimes refer to activities that aren't optimized for tenure as "distractions" from it, implying that pre-tenure faculty possess only a modest ability to judge what is good for themselves.

Remember that success on the scale of tenure doesn't come from a perfect record on everything you try, or a research agenda finely tuned for trendiness; instead, it comes from meeting the expectations for an assortment of things (research, teaching, and service) done well. For your work to be sustainable (i.e., interesting and motivating for you), it's likely that some of your activities will be personally significant to you but not maximally optimized for tenure criteria.

I spent time mentoring undergraduate researchers when I could have performed other tasks with greater payoff, like submitting more grant proposals or working directly on research. However, mentoring undergraduate researchers is something I enjoy, which gives me energy toward other tasks. Similarly, writing my advice pages is substantial work but they had little representation in my tenure portfolio. (During my fourth year at Penn State I discovered these pages had exceeded the word count of my dissertation.) However, I enjoy writing them, they help my work, and they have brought me recognition in my research community. Additionally, I've received more gratitude for them than everything else I've written combined.

Professor in Progress

It can be intimidating to realize that your impact on students begins immediately when you begin advising and teaching. There are no simulated advisees or simulated courses that you can train on before the real people. Instead, your earliest students will get a different experience than those just a few years later, as your skills improve.

You should work with students in a way you can be proud of, but forgive yourself when you make mistakes. You owe it to the next advisee and the next course to approach them without baggage.

Students may think of professors as unchanging over time, and prior to joining the faculty, you may have unknowingly thought of them that way too. It's easy for students to underestimate their reciprocal impact. This applies both on an individual basis (e.g., the mentees that you remember most vividly) and in aggregate (e.g., the dozens or hundreds of students you may speak with in an average semester). Recognize that the education you provide will always be a work in progress.

Interacting with students is one of my favorite parts of being a professor, which I would have been surprised to learn as an introverted, self-conscious graduate student. I sometimes think about whether my difficult path to becoming faculty had a lasting impact on my personality, or whether finally arriving at a comfortable stage in my career uncovered abilities I didn't know I had.

Bearing Witness

Being faculty is a commitment to bear witness to students' academic successes and failures. Within classes, meetings, and casual conversations, students may also share news of their personal joys or obstacles, or you may observe indirect signs of them. How much or little they share is up to them, but remember many things will remain beyond your knowledge and possibly beyond your understanding. Even the students with the greatest composure and poise are likely to be dealing with hidden obstacles, and what's hidden may contribute to the perplexity of what you witness.

The knowledge that you are watching students' progress will itself have an impact on students. With careful mentorship, you can try to make that impact positive regardless of whether they meet their goals. It's not always possible to provide a second try at something, but if a student senses your support, they are more likely to use future opportunities well.

The vast majority of students will take one trip through college, which limits their perspective on it, while you will witness the process repeat many times. Similarly, nearly every graduate student who completes a thesis will do that only once in their life, but graduate faculty may participate in dozens of defenses over their career. The asymmetry is remarkable, and remembering it is important for empathy.

Privilege Worth Wanting

Many have written about the perils and pressures of seeking an academic career. Graduate school forces students to make tough decisions about finances, geography, and personal relationships. Postdocs face enormous uncertainty in where they will live next and what their lives will be like. Tenure-stream faculty positions are some of the most difficult jobs to get in their respective STEM disciplines. For some candidates, positions at AAU institutions evoke levels of thirst and envy akin to opportunities in show business or major-league sports. If you're in the target audience for this guide then you've already been through the gauntlet, and you may feel embarrassed or guilty about your good fortune. You were lucky when others around you weren't. Messages about academia in the news and in social media might make it seem inappropriate to admit that you enjoy your work.

However, the best response to the privilege of a tenure-stream job isn't denial or admission of guilt; instead, it's to recognize the privilege as a tool and use it well. Can you help undergraduates discover enthusiasm for your course topics? Can you make graduate school a more equitable and humane experience for your advisees? Are there ways to help non-tenure stream faculty feel at home in your academic unit? In general, are there things that you wanted on your career journey that you can help junior people find in theirs? If you're helping people, enthusiasm supports your work.

Remember being a professor gives you the ability to inspire. Your position traces its lineage through millennia of universities and institutions of learning around the world. Some professors are heroes in fiction and in real life, and regardless of the distance between your activities and theirs, you share the title with them. Your position is symbolic of knowledge and discovery, and you have humanitarian and diplomatic roles, too. When your work supports student inclusion and belonging, you are an advocate for young people. If you travel abroad for conferences or live outside of your homeland, you are a cultural ambassador.

The gulf between you now and the undergraduate you once were, regardless of its size when you start working as a professor, will grow over time. That is a testament to your work, and stories about the obstacles you overcame are now assets. To the extent that you're comfortable sharing, those stories can help students discover their own resilience.


big wide tree with sunset behind it
Tree in Penn State's arboretum.

Afterword

Acknowledgements

I thank several university faculty who helped me during my education and the pre-faculty stages of my career:

Jack Dudley (1941-2019), Professor of Sociology and Director of University Honors at Virginia Tech, inspired me to pursue an academic career. I continue to borrow from his style of pedagogy that intensely valued students' unique perspectives and intellectual contributions.

Don Perlis, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, was my PhD advisor. He gave me the freedom to explore my interests and was a patient listener with students.

Jon Oberlander (1962-2017), Professor of Epistemics at the University of Edinburgh, hosted me for a year-long visiting position. He was a model for compassion and intellectual curiosity as faculty in computing. He passed away soon after submitting a round of reference letters for my faculty applications, and I did not get to thank him properly or tell him the successful outcome of my search.

Alan Black, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, hosted me for a year-long visiting position. I reflect on his willingness to entertain far-fetched ideas and his sense of humor.

Norman Sadeh, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, was my postdoctoral supervisor for three years. I learned from him how to manage a lab, how to build collaborative teams, and how to run large projects. I also owe him for his unwavering support through my many years on the academic job market.

I also thank several colleagues at the University of Cincinnati and Penn State for their mentorship and camaraderie.

More Reading

Some books I've read and can recommend:

To continue improving your management skills and your workplace skills in general, I suggest Alison Green's blog Ask a Manager. I suggest it to my advisees too, as it covers workplace issues not only for managers but also for people who work for them. The archives can be helpful to search when you're dealing with a new problem.

My approaches to leadership and teamwork are partly inspired by crew resource management, a set of training procedures originally from the airline industry. I can recommend Crew Resource Management (second edition), edited by Barbara Kanki, Robert Helmreich, and José Anca. Your university library may have a copy.

Finally, to learn about current events and issues affecting higher education, I recommend The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

About the Pictures

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.