~Wit and Wisdom~


A collection of early career advice from current SPR members

"Don't panic!"

I have found this the most relevant advice for my own career and also for my students. There are many things that can go wrong and that will go wrong - whether it is in the lab, in writing up your thesis, in applying for a job, when having the job interview, and of course when starting a new job.

It is important to realize that individual mishaps are normal and happen to everyone. By focusing on every little detail that can go wrong you are wasting your resources. By insisting on spending every last minute on preparing for your talk or other "big things" you lose the distance that you need to be truly ready to give your best. Your best will not depend on a single sentence or paragraph on a piece of paper, or a single point you are trying to make in your talk that perhaps does not communicate well - your best is a function of years of experience - even at the beginning of your career. If you make a mistake you will simply correct it. There are very few moments when there is indeed good reason to panic.

– Arvid Kappas

 

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Until I was approaching 30 I remained in the bright college student mode. It seemed very important to be intellectually competitive on virtually everything and to finish grad school before anyone else.  I didn't spend much time learning about what the faculty or other students were doing in the department.  Spending a bit more time exploring areas and learning the special skills of colleagues could have enriched my early career.  Time as a doctoral or post-doctoral student may seem hassled and too busy, but there is actually more time available for learning than there is later in your career.  Take advantage of the 'student years' (or minimally make the best of them if the job search leaves you in postdocs a bit longer than you thought advisable).

– Dick Jennings

 

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As national, state and local budgets continue to be in the red and taxpayer support of universities becomes proportionately less all the time, the importance of extramural funding continues to increase.  Grant support is important not only because it funds your research but because indirect costs provide vital support the department and the university.  Also, grant support is a quality metric that the university will use to evaluate your portfolio during the P&T process.  Publications are likely still the #1 metric, but in most institutions today, promotion and tenure are unlikely in the absence of grant support.  Some people love grant writing, others hate it.  Because it is so important, though, you should start the process during graduate school by writing fellowship applications to NSF or NIH, and this is true even if you are adequately funded by other sources.  The fellowship-writing process is a close approximation to what comes later.

– Robert Simons

 

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Tidbits from the search process have also led me to counsel job-seekers that jobs aren't about how good you are as a person or scientist.  They are more about how you fit into what a group of semi-rational faculty members think is their department and their image.  The semi-rational definitions of who they are and who you are remain murky to all.  Be clear about who you are, what you do, and how well you do it.  After that though, it's a crapshoot and don't base your self-evaluations on the outcome.

– Dick Jennings

 

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When an individual goes on their first job interview they have often prepared to ask questions related to start-up funds, lab space and tenure/promotion.  The answers to these questions are significant in one being able to make the right career decision.  What I wish I had known going into my first job interview was to educate myself on other topics such as benefits, the university’s raise structure or lack thereof, availability of course load reductions and sabbaticals, etc.  My focus was solely on the research and my ability to do my work at the institution.  So my advice is become informed about both research issues and those things we often consider secondary because both will have a significant impact on your future scholarship.

– Matthew Stanford

 

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When called for an interview, make sure you know the location of the nearest airport.  Our campus is located in Newark, DE, about 15 miles west of Wilmington. Our airport is the Philadelphia airport, however.  In one of our job searches, we received a call from a candidate on the day of his job talk.  He was calling from the Wilmington airport and wanted to know what he needed to do now in order to get to campus.  We thought this was strange because there are no national airlines that fly into Wilmington, DE. Unfortunately, he was calling from Wilmington, North Carolina.  Things only went downhill after that.

– Robert Simons

 

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Although you will feel incredibly happy and grateful to get a job, the department you will join feels even happier and more grateful.  Searches are expensive and time consuming.  It is important, therefore, to take advantage of your situation, because only a few people will get a better opportunity later.  You may feel like small potatoes, but you need to negotiate from a position of strength -- and you have one.  If you are made an offer, it's because someone really wants you.  Also, they want you to succeed.  If you fail, they have to do the whole thing over again.  In order to succeed you need resources.  The two most valuable and easiest for the administration to supply are time and start-up funds.  Negotiate hard for these.  The chair can make all kinds of deals that include drastic teaching reductions in the first few years and with college and university support, you can get a very nice startup package.  Psychophysiology is pretty expensive and most departments understand that.  You should have ready a detailed proposal for a laboratory that includes space estimates and an equipment budget.  The more vague things are left after an interview, the less successful the negotiations will be for you later. – Robert Simons

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From my experience most junior faculty spend the entire first year of a new job trying to obtain external funding.  What I mean by this, is that they lock themselves away in their offices and focus completely on submitting grant applications at the expense of all other activities.  As a former chair, I have found the most successful junior faculty spend their time and effort setting up a focused program of research and a fully functional laboratory.  This will ultimately lead to a greater ability to obtain external funding.  For those who are at an institution where they must teach, an increased emphasis on the classroom the first year tends to save a junior faculty member a significant amount of time and effort in later years that can then be put toward obtaining external funding.

-  Matthew Stanford

 

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For junior faculty, my advice is to prioritize, realize that it is likely impossible to do it all, so don't beat upon yourself when you fall short, and expect that some sacrifices will probably need to be made. Attempting to remain organized and focused can be amazingly helpful while also allowing for a certain degree of flexibility. There also will likely be moments of wondering if it is worth it all in which case, short- and long-term goals and consequences need to be evaluated. These musings are offered from the perspective of someone whose early career coincided with the births of her two children.  The intent of this advice is not to discourage, but to convey that it is possible to juggle a career while raising a family although it can be challenging

even at the best of times.

– Cindy Yee-Bradbury

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My grandfather was in Idaho during the gold and silver rush and gave up mining in favor of selling vegetables.  Similarly, studying beat by beat heart rate and cognition while studies of the brain and cognition exploded may be a bit like selling vegetables while everyone else is mining the new mother lode.  I have managed to survive selling vegetables---and the prices were very good for my grandfather until transportation improved.  Pete and I are now doing some brain imaging-as well as cardiovascular studies-so I would have to advocate both staying with what you know and being alert to new opportunities. 

– Dick Jennings