Getting started as a new assistant professor
Got a tenure-track job lined up? Congratulations! Now that you have taken some time to celebrate and relax, check out these suggestions for how to get started and succeed on the tenure track. The fact that so many of them mention learning underscores something that was not salient to me immediately after my PhD: you are not supposed to have acquired all of your research skills yet (much less other skills experienced academics have). Your learning is just beginning. Which brings us to the first suggestion:
- Adopt the mindset of “my learning is just beginning.” Yes, you learned a lot during graduate school, but there is a lot more. And the learning is not limited to “here’s how to publish” or “here’s how to get tenure”. You may learn new coding languages, new estimation techniques, new mathematical tools, new research areas. You will learn a LOT on the tenure track, whether you want to or not, but being an active learner will make the process a lot more efficient and effective. Do not rule out learning in any aspect of your academic career.
- The best way to learn is as you go. Remember opportunity cost. Reading an entire textbook on econometric methods to brush up on the latest techniques will probably not be the best use of your time. Reading a few chapters on techniques relevant to your research may well be worth it. Don’t try to anticipate what you will need to learn, just do it on an as-needed basis. If you come across resources that look like they could be useful in the future but currently aren’t, save them to a folder/document for the occasion and move on. Most professors, including me, have such folders, which contain hundreds of papers and other documents we’ve never read. And I am very happy that I did not take the time to read them when I originally came across them. (I have, of course, also read hundreds of papers, and I am equally happy to have read most of them.)
- There should be limits to what you’re willing to learn. If you’re a theorist with an idea for a paper that has a substantial empirical component and you’ve never touched data, you are probably better off finding an empirical coauthor rather than trying to learn data analysis. If your project straddles two literatures, one of which you are clueless about, consider finding a coauthor who is active in that literature. Academia is a team sport!
- Academia is a team sport! Even though most job market papers are solo-authored, most papers more generally are not. Having a co-author or two makes the work more interesting and less isolating. It also gives you more motivation to get the paper out and at least one person who will think about the research about as hard as you. I could write a whole blog post on coauthor strategy (and probably will at some point), but the big picture is that having coauthored papers is penalized if (a) a lot of your papers are coauthored with your advisor, the same senior person, or (more rarely) the same junior person whose other papers publish much better than yours or (b) your best papers are all coauthored with a few of the same people and are unrelated to the research areas of your other papers. These are coauthorship patterns you want to avoid. By contrast, a reasonably diverse set of coauthors on your CV is healthy. It sucks that women are penalized for coauthoring relative to men, but my personal view is that even for women the benefits of a diverse group of coauthors outweigh the costs of writing solo-authored papers, especially if you follow the next suggestion.
- Don’t keep your head down. Consciously or subconsciously, many of us operate under the assumption that if we work hard, we will get what we deserve. I could do a whole blog post on how unfair academia is (this one is probably not worth my time though because it’s not productive), but the bottom line is that academia is not a place where the most successful people are just sitting in their offices writing and publishing papers. For many reasons, you want people to know you and associate your papers with you. Go to conferences, especially smaller ones in your field and participate in them. Ask questions. Meet senior and junior people in your field–broadly defined–and talk to them. Present your work often. Presenting is especially important for getting credit for papers: people in the room remember the presenting author, they have a much harder time remembering a name without a face! Organize a session for ASSA or a conference in your field that accepts session submissions, which will give you an excuse to reach out to people in your field. Be an active participant in your department seminars. Talk to your seminar organizers about inviting people who may write your tenure letters and make sure you meet with them one-on-one. Accept as many seminar invitations as possible (these will come as you present in conferences, publish, and get to know people). If you have good self-control, join Twitter.
- Treat productivity as a skill to be learned. Yes, some people have more talent, more resources, more connections, or fewer constraints, but far from all productivity is fixed. Here are tips on how to be a productive researcher (including how you should be prioritizing your research projects).
- Find senior mentors in your institution and in your field. Talk to them regularly. See a more detailed discussion on why this is useful & how to do it.
- Remember that your conduct will affect your reputation. People remember referees who are always a month or more late with their reports (many editorial systems have records for each reviewer); who write careless, rude reports (here’s how to write good ones); or who take a week to turn down a referee report request or, even worse, never reply to the request. People remember who asks thoughtful questions in a conference and tries to be helpful and who asks obnoxious ones. None of us is perfect, of course, but striving to be a good citizen in every professional interaction you have will not only make our profession a better place but also help you in the long run. If you find yourself too overwhelmed to meet your obligations in a timely manner, dive into suggestion #9.
- Learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. There’s no easy way to make a general statement about how many referee reports, PhD advisees, or service committees is too much (beyond the obvious “If you’re working 16-hour days 6 days a week, it’s too much”). This is why suggestion #7 is important. If you’re not sure whether you should agree, ask a mentor for their opinion. Find out how much service other junior people in your department are doing to see if you’re doing a disproportionate amount (my department publishes committee assignments each year, which I personally think all departments should do). Periodically take stock of what you’re doing and ask yourself if saying “yes” was a good idea. You shouldn’t back out of commitments you made if you can avoid it, but periodic reviews of your activities will help you better understand which ones you find worthwhile.
- Find ways to remember why you got into research in the first place. I’ll admit that the preceding tips are aimed at external measures of “success”: publications, reputation, fame, and fortune. But I would not be satisfied with my career if I didn’t enjoy what I do in the grand scheme of things (the day-to-day has its ups and downs, of course). Whether it’s by rewarding yourself by diving into a cool dataset (my favorite go-to), reading an interesting paper, or simply appreciating the freedom we have to pursue the intellectual questions of our choosing, find things that remind you of what you love about academia and connect with them regularly to stay intrinsically motivated.
- Don’t make academia your whole life. Some very successful people I know would disagree with this – they live and breathe academia and are perfectly happy. But mere mortals like me need to be happy with my life as a whole in order to truly enjoy academia. If academia is our whole life, the ups and downs will be much harder to ride out (see, it is all about academia at the end!).
- Don’t be afraid to leave academia. If your attitude is, “I must succeed in academia or else I’m a failure”, you will be stressed out at best and periodically paralyzed at worst. There are people who think leaving academia means you have failed. They are overwhelmingly academics. If you leave, you will find people who think leaving academia was the best decision of their life. To be clear, I’m very happy in academia and plan on staying in academia for the foreseeable future. But not being afraid of leaving academia makes staying in academia a lot less stressful because I know I have many options should things go south for some reason. So keep a broad outlook and you can be happy no matter what happens.
Despite its length, this post is deceptively short, partly because I cheated by linking to previous blog posts and partly because I want you to adopt the mindset of “there’s a lot more to learn” starting this minute. Read these suggestions right now (including the links to my previous blog posts) and save the link for future reference. Two other links you can save for the future are “What to do after a rejection?” (alas, such is academia!) and “When to give up on a paper“. You should also bookmark the Hidden Curriculum, “a podcast on all the topics you wanted to learn in (econ) graduate school”. In the spirit of suggestion #2, don’t try to listen to all of the archives, but do skim them for episodes that are relevant to you.
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