The first year as an Assistant Professor finally ended. Grading the final exams and papers was tougher than ever. I have to confess that I submitted the grades 20 minutes before the deadline…ya, just like many students. This is something that never happened when I was a visiting assistant professor (VAP hereafter). I was a VAP for two years at the current institution before I became a tenure-track faculty last year. So I didn’t have to go through hustles about getting used to the college, department, and the courses that I taught. Was I getting lazy then? Scientifically speaking, I can’t reject this possibility. But I think that there were a few factors that made my life, especially toward the end of the semester, somewhat out of control.
How many research students?
An obvious difference between a visiting and tenure-track professor is whether you are expected to do research or not. Although I was not expected to do research, I did have four research students when I was a VAP, which I recommend to any VAPs. If you can do research on top of your heavier teaching load (I assume this is the case for most primary undergraduate universities), you can make a convincing argument about your aptitude and readiness for a tenure track position. With this experience, I was pretty confident about making a balance between teaching and research. I was also very excited about the job and having my own research lab. Throughout the year, however, my energy and excitement have been drained out a little by little. Right now, I feel pretty tired, already, leaving five more years to go…I guess that this is why we have summer.
The lesson I learned was “don’t be too ambitious.” I underestimated how time and mind consuming it is to start your own lab and new research projects. I had 10 research students and 9 hours per week teaching this semester. I know that 10 sounds ridiculous but only 5 were credited students while the other 5 were training students. Out of those 10 students, I made 4 teams working on 4 different projects. I carefully thought about this team research plan and thought it would work.
Because of the long and cold winter, amphibian breeding season was delayed this year. In addition, we could not find predatory insects (caddisfly larvae) in any of the ponds that were full of those insects in the past years. So there were some random factors that field biologists have to deal with. But, anyway, I ended up with spending so much time in the field, with or without students, to get the multiple projects going since most undergraduate students have little field experience. I do enjoy being in the field so much and felt like I became a grad student once again (I sometimes ate fast foods while driving to the field sites). But when I came home, teaching prep, grading, and numerous emails from other research students and my class students waited for me.
Now I reduced the research group size to 5 in the fall. I hate to say “No” to those who are passionate about ecological research as research is among the most valuable undergraduate experiences. But we have to learn to say “No” in order to maintain an optimal group size. If I were a starting assistant professor at a new institution, I would probably take 2 or 3 research students. While having too many is suicidal, having none is the same. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by teaching and not doing any research if you don’t have research students.
Setting up a laboratory
Most Liberal Arts schools probably do not expect any publications from your first year research (it is good to have some definitely if you can). But they do expect you to set up your laboratory and start a new research project(s), which is the most critical research expectation for the second year review. I was fortunate to have an own lab space, a small animal room, and an experimental field + greenhouse. I’ve been ordering equipment and tools as the research projects have progressed. My lab is almost fully equipped. This of course took some time, but predictable amount of time. Getting a greenhouse and experimental field ready was a hustle. A local greenhouse company was supposed to finish building one for me by the end of the last year. It turned out that they finished it this April. I was pretty nervous as we needed the space for the spring research. What consumed my energy was to coordinate the construction with this Greenhouse Company and also facility people on campus. I am sure that being a foreigner made it a little more challenging for me. But I had to constantly monitor the progress and talk to people. Then, we had a few unexpected (expected?) issues such as temperature control of the greenhouse and rain. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with these issues any more. But these were the challenges that I didn’t experience as a VAP and took a lot of my time and energy.
Finally, I would like to make a comment about how family development influences your job. This is nothing new and everybody knows that getting married and having kids change a lot of things. We recently bought a house, which has been great. What I didn’t expect was how much time I am spending mowing, planting trees, and gardening (and talking to our neighbors and making sure everyone is happy with us). I also made a garden pond last year and one male American toad found it home so far (he’s been calling for more than a week solely). I enjoy all of these and think that this is one of the important happiness factors in my life. But these garden works suck up my time easily and it was very hard to do grading while watching spring sunshine warming my garden!
I love my job, teaching and research with undergrads. But frankly, I am so glad that the first year ended. I am enjoying the quiet campus and spring weather. I have two summer research students who already started working with me. So I am not in a vacation mode completely. But I still have time to drive my son to his kindergarten, playing with my daughter, and working on the garden (without feeling guilty). I need to start fishing and mushroom hunting soon. I want to enjoy the summer without pushing research too much so that I feel recharged and refreshed in the fall. With the lessons I learned from the first year, I am hoping to manage my second year academic life better. -MT