Early Career Faculty Advice – Carving out a time to keep up with the literature

You interviewed well, negotiated like a superstar   (based on the principles in my first book, Navigating Graduate School and beyond) and you have accepted the offer to become an Assistant Professor. You packed your bags and if you are single, loaded everything up in your car and headed to destination called home for the next several years. If you have a family, loading up all of your life belongings in the back of of the car will not work! Been there done that!

The first thing that you had to go through at your new University was new faculty orientation. You were forced into attending an arduous two day orientation session at your University where administrators and University lawyers told you all the things that you were supposed to do (and not do) and even before you left the campus for the day, you had forgotten every bit of information on plagiarism, proposal preparation, etc. Welcome to your world!

The next day, when you arrived at your department with grandeur notions of a huge window office with hundreds of square feet of space, executive desks, a printer, state of the art computer and a personal staff assistant at your service -you were greeted by the staff assistant who said, here’s your office key. You opened the door to what will be home, yes home, for many more years and a still small voice in the back of your head goes, “Did I make the correct decision”? Your office if anything like my first one had some used desks and things that were assembled together to merely get by. But these days I hear that start up packages include generous allowances for fancy ‘stand-up’ desks and state of the art computers. If you were able to negotiate these items, more power to you – as they say!

Levity aside, you need to reconcile with the fact that you are going to be busy and there are huge expectations of you. Everyone wants to meet the ‘newest faculty member’! You have to quickly settle into your new surroundings. But take this piece of advice that I am about to give you seriously – very seriously!

In giving this piece of advice, I will make the assumption that research will be a major part of your portfolio at your University.

You must carve out time to stay current in your field and read journal papers on a regular basis. In all the chaos this is the first thing that early career faculty neglect to do. Remember that you may be coming directly from a PhD or from a post-doc position where you continuously read papers to stay current. If you are good at research you did not even realize reading paeprs is part of the core strength. If you neglect this aspect of your research focus you will quickly become weak in your research.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines:

  1. You must put together  set of seminal papers in your field that you should print out and have them in a conspicuous place in your office.
  2. Print out journal papers on a regular basis. As much as I read using a tablet and a computer there is a certain discipline in reading papers and marking them with a highlighter. It is also useful to note ideas down in the margins of the papers that you read for later reference. At a later time you can also pass the paper with the ideas to your graduate students and encourage them to follow a similar reading habit.
  3. Do not read in your office with or without shutting the door. Interruptions are always around the corner. Take the papers and find a place (library, coffee shop, etc) away from the office and then read and study the papers (no computers, no smart  phones though). Even if you read for a few hours a week in this fashion, you’d be surprised as to how much you will progress.
  4. If you travel to conferences take some of these seminal papers with you as airplane reading to refresh your memory and also create some new ideas.
  5. Reading papers should generate new ideas constantly that you should try out and develop peer reviewed paper submission from these ideas.

Reading journal papers and staying current in your filed should be a fulfilling experience. This must be a rigorous discipline that you must build!

Early Career Faculty Advice – Departmental Politics

Having served as Department Chair for four years and now wrapping up the third year of my Deanship at UAH, I often encounter many early career faculty (notice I did not say young faculty) who are trying to juggle their academic and personal lives on the holy grail of tenure. But this article is not about tenure but a tangential and mostly neglected topic of department politics. As an early career faculty member, if you have not encountered department politics, a cantankerous department chair, an ugly faculty meeting, an obnoxious faculty member or a jealous colleague, consider yourself as lucky. I have encountered a range of situations and I have learned how to navigate these thorny issues, often without help.

It is impossible for me to know what ‘politics’ you might go through but I hear from early career faculty often, when I travel, about these challenging issues. I still remember this like yesterday, when a senior faculty member walked into my office, started a conversation in a benign fashion and when I did not agree with him, he became rude, raised his voice, banged his fist on my table to make a point to intimidate me and then stormed out of my office. That was a long time ago when I was a junior faculty member but it is still etched in my memory.

With this preface, here are some guidelines:

  1. Remember that you are an early career faculty member and your number one priority is to focus on your teaching and research portfolio with adequate levels of service commitments. It does not matter how great your department is, there are always some underlying tensions and issues. Do not get embroiled in any of them. You need to set your tone very early in your career. When you first walked in to the department as a new hire, everyone was eager to meet you, involve you in research activities, show you the place and even share some best practices in teaching. Then, when that wore off, some faculty members tried to involve you in department politics.  You need to politely but firmly indicate that while these issues are important, you are too new and would rather not engage in these conversations. You need to reserve the right to figure out each faculty member for yourself, not listen to faculty member A’s opinion of faculty member B. That’s politics. Do not get trapped in this web.
  2. Keep your distance. In your eagerness to fit in, do not try to socialize with your fellow faculty and staff members too quickly (and too much). Then it will be impossible to untangle yourself when the politics in your department hit hard.
  3. As an early career faculty member, make sure that you attend faculty meetings, take notes, and learn from the dynamics and interactions among faculty members. There are bound to be many matters that will be contentious. For example, how to spend the research budget may be hotly contested, better still in which thematic area should a new faculty member be hired could get even worse. In all of these cases, take notes, and only weigh in if you truly know what is going on. Never take sides just because someone cajoled or coerced you. If you do not know the entire picture you can simply abstain from voting. The worst thing you could do for your credibility is vote yes (or no) for a certain topic when everyone in the room knows that you have no idea about the complete situation. Never be coerced into casting a vote at a departmental meeting.
  4. Trust me when I say this, you will and I mean you WILL encounter this situation. In comes a senior faculty member who is frustrated about a certain departmental/University situation, come into your office, shut the door and then proceed to rant and rave about the frustration. If you let it go on too long this session could go on for hours. In their frustration they could knowingly or unknowingly talk ill about other faculty member, staff or administrators. While an hour or two has gone without you saying a word, you realize that you are now trapped in your colleague’s web. You must be wise to these situations. Often times these are faculty members who have already earned tenure and who are set in their careers. They do not care about your aspirations or struggles. They have found someone to vent. If you have allowed this to happen, there is nothing you can do about it. But you can prevent this from happening again. When they walk in the next time and shut the door you need to politely but firmly draw some boundaries in this relationship. Tell them that you are not ready to assimilate all of these departmental politics and you are really busy and cannot afford the time. If they still persist, politely stand up, walk towards the door and encourage them to leave. Do this once or twice and they will get the message.
  5. The bottom line to all politics is this : Send the message very clearly and early in your entry point into the department that you will not engage in conversations that are unprofessional about other faculty members. It does not matter, who is correct or who is wrong, you reserve the right to figure out the department for yourself. Ignore the politics and then follow this up with solid research and impressive teaching portfolios. Write your papers, talk about your research and drown the negative voices with the upbeat nature of your career. Take charge. That is my ultimate message.

Here are some parting thoughts: Probably one of the best things that happened to me early in my career was that I was purposely in incognito mode. Other than my fellow faculty members in the department, very few knew in the University knew me. A few years later when I had built up my research and teaching portfolios and reasonably established myself I was able to venture into College and University Committees. I called it the phase approach. I learned about the University culture and the ‘players’ and was able t engage much better as an informed faculty citizen.

2017 Graduate School Goals

Happy New Year to the student and adviser.

First year students who started in Fall 2016 now have a semester under their belt. You probably took two to three courses and tried to figure out the differences between undergrad and graduate school. Hopefully your adviser started your research trajectory by providing some key journal papers to read. The first semester is usually a period of adjustment and most advisers do not except a whole lot of research productivity. Notice I used the words usually and most and not always and all. Some advisers are different in their expectations. You may have attended team meetings where other students in the group presented research results.

For those in the second semester the research portion of your life will and should intensify. This means you need to be making a different transition, one from focusing on courses alone with courses plus research. For those of you on research assistantships, remember that your adviser is depending on you to generate results and analysis from your research that will translate into peer reviewed papers. This is a major deliverable or a metric for your adviser. The funding agency needs to see progress in terms of research progress in quantifiable metrics – papers! As a student in the first year moving towards a stronger research portfolio do not shy away from learning the tools of the trade, whether it is computer programming, laboratory skills, statistics, specialized software, or whatever is needed, now is the time to get going!

As advisers learn to be patient with your student’s progress. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your student. Spend quality time with your student on a consistent basis teaching them the skills necessary for them to succeed in the long run. Do not concentrate only on short term gains since it will hurt the students’ progress in the long run.

Whether you are a student or an adviser you need to set goals.

As a student, depending upon the stage of your graduate career set appropriate goals. Otherwise things never get done. For example, if you are a student who has been hesitant to set a schedule for your qualifying exam and if it long overdue, this is the year you must resolve to complete this exam. Whatever these goals are, you need to write it down, communicate it clearly with your adviser and finish that goal. Here are some goals that you need to be thinking about:

  1. Of course, on top of the list is ‘Write a journal paper’. This will help you focus your research and experience success.
  2. Attend a conference to present a paper and create networking opportunities.
  3. Take the qualifying exam. Evaluate where you are in your graduate career and set appropriate deadlines and complete the exam successfully.
  4. Improve you skills in programming.
  5. Take a course in Advanced Statistics. This is useful for all STEM disciplines.
  6. Give a seminar to improve communication skills.
  7. If you are a senior PhD student ask your advise if you can teach a few weeks of a course. There s nothing that helps solidify research material like teaching.
  8. Develop advanced laboratory skills.

Have a productive fun-filled New Year!

The Wandering adviser

This is going to register so close to home for some of you since you may be in this situation right now.

Your adviser is a wanderer. Brilliant, full of ideas but never focused to stay on completing tasks. Let me make the assumption that you are a PhD student on a research assistantship that your adviser has worked hard to secure for you. Here’s what your life might look like: Your adviser assigned you a project of some sort and then two weeks later she walks in with another great idea and every few months or so, another idea emerges. You are so caught up in the fun of trying new things, 3 years go by quickly. You have very little to show for in terms of progress. You have moved from one project to another. Don’t get me wrong here: You are probably learning a lot on this journey! But, you have not written any of these projects into a paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal because you’ve been busy trying new things. Neither you or your adviser have paid close attention to the courses that you should be taking. You are merely taking research credits or the odd class here and there because every day is an endless ream of ideas. Can you relate to this? As I travel the country and provide Professional Development seminars, students explain such a scenario (in private of course!).

How do you navigate such an adviser. Enter grit, determination and sheer persistence.

First, make sure that you pay close attention to the courses. Fill out our program of study (POS), pick your committee members after discussing with your adviser and get the POS signed. Make sure that you complete these courses on time based on departmental guidelines.

Next, write your research proposal and get your adviser to review it and provide comments. Let your committee review this and finalize the research proposal. Now regardless of all the ‘side’ projects you are working on, you can focus on the main research project. You have to persist through this stage since your adviser will continue to veer into new ideas.

Next, make sure that if your department requires a comprehensive/qualifying/preliminary exam, you set up the time line and then proactively work towards completing the exam.

Here is the important part. Realize that your adviser is never going to stop being a firehose of information and ideas. Receive the ideas but prioritize them. If you show good progress on your main research project then you can continue to place the new projects as a lower priority.

This is also important. It is your turn to become creative and move towards your end goal. Write that first paper since nothing excites an adviser to see new results. Write your results section for the new paper and then wrap the rest of the paper around it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get on track. I’ve had to use some of these tactics in my graduate school days.

In this endless stream of ideas, chaos and research, your priorities for your research and career must come shining through. If you are not proactive you will end up staying too long for your PhD, worse still get disillusioned and may be tempted to quit the program.


Professional Ethics for the Graduate Student

Probably one of the most difficult topics to tackle is professional ethics. Why is that? In a world where there appears to be no one right way to do anything, everything appears gray.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “there is no black and white” or that, when the situation is rather gray, the right thing to do is to leave it up to the individual. As catchy as that may sound, that type of thought process will land you in trouble when it comes to doing research or engaging in graduate student activities. While this section is largely geared towards professional ethics for a graduate student engaging in research, I will also touch upon some generalities.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is pieced together from my years of experience as a student and an academic. I also have a unique vantage point as chair of a department.

  1. If your research involves data, the first thing to remember is to not alter, fudge, or change data. This is especially true if you own an instrument and make measurements. You have a professional responsibility to report the data as it was measured.
  2. It is imperative that you report your results with all of the methodology so your results can be duplicated if necessary. This is definitely a professional responsibility since you have to allow others to learn from your research and build upon your work as well. For those of us who receive federal grants and contracts, it is important to remember that these research dollars were funded largely from tax payers.
  3. The same situation applies for the data that you collect that were funded by grants and contracts. It is your professional and ethical responsibility to make it available to everyone. Therefore, hoarding data for personal gains is not conducive to research.
  4. We are all creatures of perception and preconceived ideas. We may all claim to be open minded or broad minded. We may have the highest degrees possible – a Ph.D. But when it comes to research, I have seen a many a researcher who desperately hopes to fit the data to the preconceived conclusion. Bad idea.
  5. When plotting results in figures from the data, it is critical to show all data not just the ones that fits the best correlations. Often, it is in those outliers where some interesting research findings exist.
  6. Plagiarism is a difficult issue. I often tell this story to the students in my Professional Development course. An eye opener. When I was in the first semester of graduate school, I became friends with an international student who was also new to the program. As young Graduate Research Assistants, our job was to work on research topics with our advisors. Our advisors gave us state-of-the-art research papers to read and helped us through the process of doing leading edge research. My friend’s advisor was a no-nonsense, top notch researcher in his mid to late career. He had a prolific publication record and was well know in his field. As students, we not only did research but also took courses to bolster our understanding and strengthen our foundation.  In January of that year, just at the beginning of that semester, my friend’s advisor gave him a journal paper that had just appeared in print. In my field, there are a lot of papers that appear on a weekly/monthly basis and not everyone is aware of every new paper the week it appears in print. As you go through this story, the key thing to remember is that my friend was an international student. My friend carefully read the paper that his advisor had given him and treated it like every other paper on his reading assignment in his class. This class  was taught by a professor who encouraged his students to write project reports. My friend now made a huge mistake that he thought was not a major issue. He wrote a project paper for the course with several paragraphs and words that were taken from the paper that his advisor had given him. To make matters worse, the professor was excited about my friend’s project paper and ideas and upon reading the paper promptly walked to my friend’s advisor and exclaimed, “Take a look at this amazing project paper.”  You can already sense that trouble was just around the corner. My friend’s advisor took a quick look at the project paper and not only proceeded to explain the problem but gave the professor the same copy of the paper that he had given my friend. Upon learning that the student had copied a lot of material from the paper, both the advisor and the professor were upset. The student was confronted and was quickly dismissed from the program on grounds of plagiarism. Some of you may feel that this was the right decision, and others may think that the decision to dismiss was rather harsh – especially since the student was not “aware” of plagiarism issues. It is, therefore, imperative that all students at the beginning of their research career, and at the beginning of every course, be reminded of plagiarism issues. It takes less than 5 minutes to do this, but it eliminates a lot of heartache for everyone involved.
  7.  Often faculty (and therefore the students) are asked to review papers that were written by other researchers. Remember that when you accepted the responsibility to review this paper – I emphasize the word responsibility – you accepted the conditions set forth by the journal for reviewing this paper. An important clause is that you will not take the methods outlined in the paper and use it for your own gains. This means that you cannot reject the paper and then turn around some of the ideas in that paper and publish it in another venue. This is certainly unethical. Granted, that these things do happen in real life. My advice is to practice professional ethics and stay above board and guess what? You can sleep well at night knowing that you have not stolen someone else’s ideas.
  8. Whether you are reviewing a paper or proposal it is important that you review it for its merits and move on.
  9. Here is a potentially explosive situation that I heard recently. “My wife’s advisor did not allow her to publish her data because it went against the grain of his theories. He, therefore, delayed her graduation and frustrated her progress.”  What does one do in this case? As much as your advisor may be the world leader in his field, the first thing that you have to determine is whether the advisor asked the student to falsify the results. If that is the case, then I suggest that you find another advisor somewhere and distance yourself from this person as far as possible. No compromise. On the other hand, if all you are having are disagreements in the way the analysis is being conducted or the methods that are being used, then make sure that you are not over-amplifying the problem. Your advisor has a lot more experience than you. Create an atmosphere for discussions and arguments that are productive.
  10. Another source of conflict that is an ethical issue is the order of authorship on papers. Here is another story. A friend of mine while in graduate school was asked to write a paper to a major journal. His advisor let him believe that the student was going to be the first author. At the very last stage of submission, the advisor placed his name in front of the student’s name. The student was upset, but the advisor indicated to the student that it was an executive decision on his part. As sobering as that story sounds, I have heard other instances of this lack of professionalism. Advisors should be in the habit of building a student’s career not frustrating them. Having said that, it is important to note that the rules of engagement regarding authorship should be outlined early on in the student-advisor relationship and reinforced at crucial junctures.
  11. When collaborating with other scientists, most of the issues outlined above are still true. Establish rules of engagement upfront so there are no misconceptions on authorships or responsibilities. Communicate effectively!

Professional ethics is a lot more than simply the examples and discussion points that I have presented. When confronted with ethical dilemmas, my recommendation is to carefully evaluate the situation rather than reacting to the situation. Apply common sense principles and learn how to think about another’s vantage point. If you are a student, think about your advisor’s vantage point. If you are struggling with what you perceive is an ethical issue and you do not know what to do – do not stew over it. Seek out a mentor and work through the problem. Finally, most people that I know and work with are ethical and are genuinely interested in their profession. Therefore, do not make a mountain out of a molehill.

Finishing your Ph.D. dissertation – The final stages and preplanning

You’ve labored through courses and preliminary and qualifying exams. You’ve read a lot of papers, prepared a proposal for your research and travailed through reading, writing, coding, analyzing and the myriad of details needed to complete a Ph.D. dissertation. The only thing that is left to do is to get your written work to be approved by your adviser, mail the dissertation to your committee members and then stand up and defend. Sounds simple doesn’t it? This last stage requires a lot of planning and some careful thought.

This is what a forward thinking graduate student should do

1. Policies. Before you go any further find out the departmental policies for submitting a dissertation and the deadlines. It is also important to read the graduate school hand book to make sure if there are additional procedures and policies in place.

Common misconception : When the time comes, I’ll just ask the department staff assistant or my adviser. Better yet, I’ll just talk to a fellow student.

My answer : Wrong! Wherever you find a place of employment or life in general there are numerous policies and procedures in place – all with deadlines. Know these policies and write them down on your calendar/organizer. You should know all policies such as : How many weeks before my defense should I send my committee members (CM) my dissertation? It is important that you send your CMs the entire dissertation – complete from title page to references/Appendices. It is poor practice to send CM portions of your dissertation.

A dissertation should never ever be sent out to CMs unless the adviser has worked through the various drafts and approved (the complete dissertation).

2) This could be costly! Most Universities require the PhD student to be enrolled anywhere from 3 credits during the semester that you are defending. Let’s say that you are planning on defending your dissertation during the summer semester. Make sure that you adhere to the deadlines. The Graduate school will not process your dissertation of you do not submit it on time for the summer semester. This means that you will become a Fall semester graduate and guess what? You have to pay 3 credits of tuition even if it means that you will only need part of the Fall semester to finish your dissertation. Rules are rules and most Universities will not make exceptions. There is no sense in getting frustrated at the University or for that matter your adviser or the department. If you do not plan the sequence of events carefully leaving adequate time for the various steps there is no one else to blame but you!

Poor time and project management will lead to frustration and less money in your bank account.

3. Your Committee members have other responsibilities as well. If you have 5 committee members you may think that they will be there every step of the way. Some CMs are very involved and others are less so but it is your job to navigate the process of writing and defending your dissertation. Engage our CMs in meaningful ways and tap into their expertise. In other words, make them work for you!

It’s time to move on

One of the hardest decisions for both the student and the Professor is to know when to end that relationship. There are so many dynamics in this complex relationship between student and mentor, or student and adviser.

When do I know that it is time to let a student go?

  1. When the trust factor breaks down completely between student and the adviser. Here is an example. I had gone for a 6 week research project to another country. I had talked with each one of my students in my research group about my expectations for their research during this very important summer time. I had mapped out research plans and goals for each one of them before I left and I indicated to them that business is as usual since it is easy to keep in touch via email and other means. For most of my students except one this worked very well. My emails always were promptly attended to and work was being done even in my absence. But for that one student it meant freedom. He never responded to my emails and when I returned back to my office I went to his office and my questions were met with a cold stare. Days later I found out that the student left on vacation for 6 weeks while I was on a research trip. Mind you, that this student was being paid through a Graduate Research Assistantship at that point. As you can imagine it only took a few days for him to leave my group and the University to never return again.
  2. Some cases are even harder. One of my students that I recruited from another country came with excellent credentials but soon after he landed in the United States he began to miss home and could not adapt to a new country and a new place. He failed in all of his courses and he made the decision to go back home. He still keeps in touch and a few years after he returned home, he took some time to adjust and then went to Europe to finish his degree. He is doing extremely. Wrong time at the wrong place.
  3. This situation is even harder. The student simply does not grasp the work required for a research project and complete it according to the expected standards of the community. despite training and mentoring the student simply is not a good fit. As an adviser try to find a landing place for the student rather than simply terminating them. After all you recruited this student.