1st Semester as a VAP

18 Dec

For those of you who might be new to our blog, Fall 2013 was my 1st semester as a faculty member (a Visiting Assistant Professor; “VAP”) in the Department of Biology at Allegheny College. I’ve been trying to blog about my experiences as not only a new professor, but a VAP at a liberal arts college committed to teaching excellence and research productivity. I blog primarily about how I conduct research in this setting.

I have about 80 students in front of me taking their final exam (my 1st final) and once they are graded, I’m officially finished. Here are some comments and pieces of advice, followed by my story, primarily targeted at those of you who are new faculty and/or VAPs.

Departmental Rapport

New faculty members are at the mercy of junior- and senior-faculty for everything, including institutional knowledge, advice, help purchasing equipment, thoughts on where to go to conduct field research, inspiration, criticism, and everything in between. I think that I’m generally perceived as a nice person, but I made it a point early on to purposefully visit faculty members to do things other than ask them questions. A quick office visit with a 1/2 cup of coffee can go a long way in building a relationship. I’ve found that this has actually lead to more meaningful conversations about research and has helped direct my research path.

Follow Through with Your Research Plan

Remember that research statement that you wrote to get your job? Stick to it! By all means, make modifications as necessary, but that document should serve as your template for what your research program should look like. It was reviewed by the group of people that hired you and they obviously think that it is doable at your university. Given all the other time sponges that you’ll encounter your 1st semester, this document is gold. Start early and write out the specific steps that you need to accomplish to actually carry out your research plan at your university.

Hitting the Ground Running

Although you have a million other things on your plate as a new faculty member, I’m already seeing the benefits of starting my research program my 1st semester here. Taking a new project w/ undergraduate researchers from start to finish at a new university can be a lengthy process. Purchasing equipment, completing scientific collection permits, your IACUC review, scaling the project to fit the resources at your university, and finding interested undergraduates all need to be completed before you can even start the project, not to mention the time it will take to conduct the research, analyze the data, and write up the manuscript. For those of you who do any sort of research with a field component in parts of the world where there is snow, your research season is already cut in half and further limits what you can do. Make it a priority to start your research program and start it early. Your 1st publication at your new institution is often critical during your pre-tenure review (when/if that happens at your university). If you are a VAP with hopes of being converted to a TT line, this is even more important. Demonstrating that you can excel at multitasking all these things and produce publication quality research will go a long way.

At the same time, if you are a faculty in a liberal arts setting, you need to carefully balance this with teaching expectations. I’ve heard a couple of cautionary tales from friends who were told that they were focusing too much on research and not enough on teaching.

My Experience at Allegheny

I did a good job preparing an institution-specific research statement as well as detailed lists of equipment needs (including product #s from my postdoc lab) and I found that this lightened up my to-do list. I was thus able to immediately target a small group of undergraduate researchers and start recruiting students into my lab. I obviously wanted to find students with interests in ecology, but I targeted students in my class that I thought were good critical thinkers and I recruited 2 sophomore biology majors to join my lab. In addition, through casual conversations with a departmental colleague, I was able to recruit a junior global health/biology major who will do his senior comp project with me. I found that this mix of sophomores and juniors was important because there is a degree of peer knowledge that Allejandro can pass along to Alex and Joe. I am in the process of writing my first NSF pre-proposal with Travis Wilcoxen (blogger here at LiberalArtsEcologists) which is essentially an expanded version of my research statement for Allegheny. Although I wasn’t able to start a research project that was part of my specific planned research program, I developed a project with a collaborator that fit in the broader picture of host-parasite interactions. This was key because I was able to register my 3 undergrads for some independent research, which not only looks good from an administrative perspective, it provides me with an opportunity to get some undergrads trained on research techniques and hopefully get my first senior authored paper.

Overall, I’m happy with my 1st semester and I think I made good progress in establishing my research program. There are things that I wanted to do better (e.g., have more regular lab meetings with my students, spend more time with them on the primary literature, and found more ways to collaborate with my departmental colleagues) and I would encourage our readers to consider those things along with the many other things they need to multitask their 1st year.

Here’s to a great winter break for all of you. Happy Holidays.

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