For the Early Career faculty member : The biggest picture

I was recently asked by a graduate student from a discipline that is not even close to mine about the the big picture view for a early career faculty member. It got me thinking seriously. Most early career faculty members have been taught to how to interview well, do good research, write high quality papers, proposals, present their material well and teach well. More over they are asked to be collegiality and serve their communities well and with respect. Don’t get me wrong, these are indeed good and usual pieces of advice. Faculty who succeed at earning tenure and even beyond are often times left wondering, there must be more.

Early career faculty struggle with many issues. Fitting into a new University and an academic system that is supposed to be freethinking, yet rigid beyond reason is not an easy task. They are thrust into teaching situations with very little training, let alone mentoring. The pay check is a consolation either every other week or monthly. The only thing that may seem like a security blanket is the research that the faculty member finished up as part of their dissertation. Their mind wanders back into that success story.

Most departments pay no attention to deliberate mentoring, others do a perfunctory job a, while others realize that a properly mentored faculty member is not just a successful one but a future leader.

What I am about to say next is not meant to be a noble statement or a standard cliche. It is important for you as an early career faculty to develop a set of core values or a driving mission statement for your career. Nowhere will you find more satisfaction than being a mentor to a student. Taking the best of the best practices and pouring it into a student to see them do better than you ever did is sheer magic. That’s why I believe that you need to take a look at your graduate student as a future peer and an extension of yourself. If you grab a hold of this is as a process and not just events filled with exams and research mile markers there are several things that will begin to fall into place.

So, how then can you accomplish this paradigm of student to peer and beyond. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Think of the first day that you walked into your adviser’s office for the first time. May be you were recruited over the phone or email or at a conference. But here you are, at the doorstep of an adviser with whom you will spend almost 3 to 5 years to get a graduate degree. Do you remember being nervous? I was!

It is important to realize that not all students come to the same set of knowledge, skills abilities and other characteristics. It is impossible to know how motivated they are, their work ethic and the skills that is needed in the long run to help them succeed. Having a strategy on training and mentoring students to succeed is your responsibility.Of course it is a partnership but you have the experience of having gone through graduate school, research and the joys and travails of graduate school that they don’t. Therefore this should be an opportunity for you to set the stage for their success.

Looking at incoming student as a responsibility is a good one but it is much better to view the student as a future peer. With that in mind it becomes easier to mentor and help your student succeed.

A graduate education is a blend of courses, research and it should be fiilled with professional development opportunities.

As an adviser you must pay close attention to course selections for your student. Make sure that you know how your program’s curriculum is structured. Help the student select courses. I’ve always tried to have my students have a lower class load in the first semester, very much like where you are now. Most Universities give you a lighter teaching load for the first semester or so, so you can acclimatized to your new surroundings. The same principle holds for students. A slightly lower course load for the first semester will help them get settled in. This is especially true if your student is from another country. The adjustment period is critical and it is your responsibility to help with the transition the best you can.

Keep the big picture alive. Remember that this is a long term relationship that you are building with the student. Start well and finish strong. Hell build the students’ career and it is probably the most rewarding thing you will ever do!

About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and was awarded tenure in 2002. He became a Full Professor in 2007. From August 2007-May 2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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