Friday, January 18, 2013

SPSP 2013: Notes For Starting Your Academic Career

“There is no other job that allows you to pursue questions that interests you, and then pay you to do it. But, there are tradeoffs.” –Chuck Carver
In the second morning symposium session at SPSP this year, three hugely influential scholars in our field discussed some challenges that new faculty members must contend with early in their career. Having just started an academic job of my own at the University of Illinois, I found this symposium to be of particular interest. My hope was to get a bit of help and support regarding the murky waters of Assistant Professorship. I wasn't disappointed.

The first speaker was Chuck Carver, who discussed the challenges of navigating tenure decisions. The take-home point of this talk is that the expectations for tenure are murky, tenure is a moving target, and most people can’t pin down a concrete answer for when someone has earned tenure. What accounts for the murky tenure process includes that tenure decisions are determined by many people (e.g., faculty, the Dean, the Provost), change based on the context (e.g., the rock-star 40+ publication professor who was tenured last year), and depend on multiple markers (e.g., quality of publications, grants, teaching, service). Though Carver didn't offer any solutions for how one could obtain tenure, he did stress the importance of gathering information about the kinds of things that one’s university or department values more than others.

The second speaker was Douglas Kenrick, who spoke about rejection. Kenrick pointed out that academic life is interesting because it is full of “A” students who get nothing but positive feedback about their brilliance as undergraduates. Then, when these students move into the academic world they are faced with constant rejection from gatekeepers (e.g., grant reviewers, journal editors). Some researchers are unprepared for the rejections that they must face in academic life. To deal with rejection, Kenrick quipped that whereas in sexual relationships, “No means no,” in academic life, “When a journal editor says no, it isn't the same thing.” Kenrick stressed how researchers should take the feedback from hostile reviewers, set aside the anger or depression that comes along with those reviews, and address the important questions raised by the review in a revised manuscript.

The third speaker was Patricia Devine, who discussed her perspective on mentoring young scholars in the field. Mentoring, Devine argues, “is also something that is an enormous responsibility,” and I think it’s hard to argue with that. Devine discussed the sticking points in any mentoring relationship—including the power differences inherent in a mentoring relationship. I thought the most insightful point from her talk was that new faculty cannot assume that graduate students are identical in expertise, passion, drive, and interests. Instead, each graduate student has slightly different strengths, and in Devine’s wording, “yet to be developed strengths.” A realization that all students are not the same, I think, can help new faculty members to individuate their graduate students, and to focus on helping them develop more skills and positive attributes.

This was a very helpful symposium, and for me, it was nice to see that some of the questions I have about academic career life are shared by many!

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