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) 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 (hopefully) read papers to stay current. If you are good at research you did not even realize that reading papers 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 or a pen. It is also useful to note ideas down in the margins of the papers that you can revisit for later reference. At a later time you can also pass along 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 progress you can make.
  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 field should be a fulfilling experience. This must be a rigorous discipline that you must build upon!


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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