Transitioning from Graduate School to Academia: Advice from Early Career Scholars

September 13, 2017

By Ethan Van Norman, Georgia State University, with panelists Stacy-Ann January, University of South Carolina; Dave Klingbeil, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Wesley Sims, Wichita State University

Previous blog posts described how to navigate the application and interview processes to land an academic job. Whether you are starting at your new position this year (Congratulations!) or plan on entering academia in the near future, the process of transitioning from graduate school or applied practice to academia presents a unique set of challenges. In this blog post we have asked a panel of early career scholars to offer their advice on transitioning to a faculty positions. We will hear from three faculty members who each took different paths to obtaining their current position and are at different phases in their academic careers. Without further ado let’s meet the panel.

1.  Please introduce yourself and provide a brief overview of your path to obtaining your current tenure-track position.

Hi! My name is Stacy-Ann January [SAJ] and I am an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina in the school psychology Ph.D. program. Prior to beginning this position in August 2016, I completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences. During my postdoc, I worked on a variety of projects from secondary analysis to ongoing intervention efficacy trials. In addition to an emphasis on publishing manuscripts, I focused on developing skills related to advanced methodology and statistics as well as grant writing and management. I am a proud graduate of the school psychology program at the University of Georgia.

My name is Dave Klingbeil [DK] and I obtained my PhD from the University of Minnesota. I completed my predoctoral internship at the Louisiana School Psychology Internship Consortium. I started in my current academic position, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in August 2013.

I am Wesley Sims [WS], Ph.D., NCSP and I am an Assistant Professor at Wichita State University. My path to my current position began in 2002 when I entered my practitioner level training program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I was a practicing school psychologist in the St. Louis for several years before returning to graduate school in 2012 at the University of Missouri. While at Mizzou, I continued to work as a practitioner and consultant before beginning an APPIC accredited pre-doctoral internship in New Orleans, LA. Upon completion of my internship with the Louisiana School Psychology Internship Consortium (LASPIC), I accepted a 9-month appointment as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama. I joined the school psychology program at WSU at the conclusion of my time with Alabama.

2. What have you observed as the biggest challenge in transitioning to your current tenure track position that you wished you had known before you started? What advice can you offer to the readers of this blog to address those challenges?

SAJ: The biggest challenge in my transition to a tenure-track faculty member was the shift from being in a position where 100% of my time was devoted to research to one that required a balance of research, teaching, and service. Although I had some experience as an instructor of record as a graduate student, I knew being a tenure-track faculty member would be a different experience. After having conversations with others who made a similar transition, I developed a plan to help. It involved doing a lot of course prep in the summer before starting my position. Still, I was surprised at the amount of time it takes to prep and manage a course. My advice to readers is to start prepping a course soon after you know you will be teaching it. Don’t underestimate how much time it will take. If you are in a position where research excellence is emphasized for tenure and promotion, then be careful not to spend too much time on teaching. Yes, you should be a good instructor. But it is important, especially during your first year or two, to have an appropriate balance of research and teaching activities, so that you can demonstrate research productivity.

I would also suggest that readers seek out their institution’s Center for Teaching Excellence (or similar entity) as they will likely have great resources that you could use. This is especially relevant if you have not taught a class independently before. Finally, if possible, don’t reinvent the wheel. If you are teaching a class that has been taught before, find out who has taught the course previously and see what materials (e.g., syllabus, presentation slides) they may be willing to share with you. Even if you don’t do exactly what they do, it would be a great starting point.

DK: I think the biggest challenge for me was balancing the demands on my time. In graduate school, my time felt more structured. Starting at UWM, I felt I had fewer concrete demands on your time. Teaching two graduate level classes requires approximately 5 hours per week (face-to-face time) but figuring out how to balance preparing for class, ensuring you have enough productive time for research, and any other demands your first couple of years was certainly a challenge. I would guess most people receive the advice to “focus on research” but that wasn’t all that easy for me to operationally define. I think it is important for people to take the first year and try different things in your classes. Assigning a short (~2 pages) reflection paper on the readings each week may result in you reading the same number of pages per student as a 25-page term paper. You may prefer to grade everything all at once and spend that time on research during the semester, or to spend a couple hours reading things (preferably when you aren’t able to be productive research wise) weekly so that you don’t lose a larger chunk of your time grading. Structuring peer feedback activities (i.e., making this a graded class component) can also help you save your own time dealing with editing and grammatical issues. I have also found that I prefer to teach in the evening because I can spend the morning/afternoon preparing for class (or honestly 4 hours the day before, plus most of the next day during Year 1/2). And, when I am finished teaching I rarely feel like doing much else. So grading quizzes or reading reflection papers is something palatable. The next day is then yours to do with as you wish (at least theoretically).

WS: I believe the biggest challenge in transitioning to my current position has been the limited amount of time I have to do what I want to do, primarily writing. There has been a steady stream of new class preps, committee meetings, orientations, trainings, program meetings, department meetings, new faculty meetings, college meetings, kick offs, student meetings, getting to know new coworkers, mentoring meetings, etc. I’m grateful that my immediate coworkers, particularly my mentor, were understanding and supportive of all the different directions I was being pulled. As uncomfortable as it was initially, I have learned to close my office door and dedicate specific time to my work. My recommendations for others is to get to work as early as possible (before everyone else), schedule writing time as if it were a class, and learn to be okay closing your door to limit distracting conversations. If it’s really important, they’ll knock.

3. At most institutions, the decision to grant promotion and tenure is based upon an applicant’s accomplishments in the areas of research, teaching, and service. Many would argue that research accomplishments skew that decision. Further, many participants at ECF events frequently seek advice to remain productive with their research. Do you have any recommendations for early career faculty to ensure that they maintain active research agendas particularly in the first few years of their new position?

SAJ: First and foremost, you should know your institution’s (and unit’s) Tenure & Promotion guidelines well. Then, spend your time in accordance with those guidelines. You can also consult with trusted individuals at your institution about how best to proportion your time.

I have a few recommendations for maintaining research productivity. First, make time for it and engage in self-management of your time. I cannot underscore the importance about being intentional about it. Each semester, I create a list of research tasks I want to complete and by when. Each week, I make a general plan for my time, when and how much time I’m going to spend doing research, teaching, and service activities. I also keep track of my time using a program/app called Toggl (many other programs are available). I started with 3 broad categories (research, teaching, service) and then kept track of everything I did related to those categories. Each week, Toggl sends me an email with a breakdown of how I spent my time during the previous week. I review it to make sure I stay on track with my goals and adjust as necessary. It is also reinforcing when I see that I met or exceeded my research goals.

Second, create short and long-term research goals, and take steps to move towards them. You may have to write a research statement when applying for a faculty job, revisit that statement, and revise it if necessary. Likewise, find a way to easily keep track of your study ideas. For example, there are programs/apps (e.g., Endnote) that like you write down your ideas on the go, and sync them across your devices. Then, follow through with your ideas. When working on one study think about what the next study would be, and then go for it.

Finally, I think another key to being productive is to develop and maintain collaborative relationships with other researchers in your area. When at conferences or other events, meet people. Follow-up with them and find ways to collaborate. One great way to do this is SPRCC. I was involved in the 2017 SPRCC and would highly recommend that early career scholars apply for the next one, which will be in 2019 before the NASP convention.

DK: My advice is to figure out when (and where) you are the most productive. At the end of my second year, a mid-career scholar recommended the book How to Write a Lot (Silvia, 2007), which I found to be helpful. A helpful recommendation was to experiment (as well as set behavioral goals with clear operational definitions) which really helped me increase my productivity.

I write best late at night, when there are far fewer distractions. I also tend to be more productive when I write almost every day for 1-2 hours (not always attainable), rather than trying to protect two full days for “research time”. For others, the most productive space may be completely different. You may write best right away in the morning, or (for folks with children) when the house is quiet because everyone is napping. Experiment until you find something that works for you. I can write more between 10 pm and 1 am than I could between 9 to 5. Now I fill my days with things that will help me be productive at night such as clearing other stuff off my plate, preparing for class, or making time for the necessary research support activities (e.g., data cleaning, statistical analyses, reading other articles for a literature review). I also found that your calendar will fill up with stuff during the day (despite our best efforts to keep things clear) so writing in the morning before you come in or in the evening may allow you to keep that time protected.

Another thing that helped me was collaborating with peers. My productivity rate significantly increased when I started collaborating with peers from graduate school, internship, folks you meet at NASP, etc. Personally, I think it makes the entire process more enjoyable and hopefully will lead to better research questions and stimulate future research as you and your collaborators think through things together.

WS: In short, make research a priority! Beyond the strategies mentioned earlier, I have found activities to promote accountability have been extremely helpful in maintaining my research work. More specifically, I borrowed an activity that was modeled by my mentors at Mizzou. Shortly after arriving at Wichita State, I started a paper writing power hour (PWPH). I invited faculty and students from my department and some faculty from other departments to attend. Each Friday our PWPH group meets to set new weekly writing goals and check in on goals set the week before. PWPH is a set time each week for participants to report progress towards research writing goals. There is some accountability (stating I will do something out loud in front of others), but it serves primarily as a support system and organization tool. It also allows participants to bounce ideas of one another as well as networking and collaboration opportunities. In my case, as the organizer of the group, I believe it served to help establish my reputation as a respectable, contributing, and motivated member of my department.

4. Related to the previous question, service is often viewed as an important component of one’s dossier but not as essential as research. How have you approached service at your current (or former) position so that you demonstrated you engage in service, without letting it consume all of your time?

SAJ: I have been largely protected from departmental and university service at this stage of my career. The service that I have engaged in has been primarily on editorial boards and with Division 16. My strategy has been to engage in service that is enjoyable and beneficial and/or engage in service that is time limited. For instance, last year I served as a poster session rater for a university-sponsored student research conference. The time commitment was about an hour and a half and I was able to have a record of service to the university during my first year. Also, having a mentor or someone in your department that can help protect you from service is a great thing. These individuals can give you advice about how to respond to requests for serving on committees, and, if you must serve on committees, which ones would be best to serve on.

DK: The senior faculty at my institution definitely kept me protected from service my first two years. Unfortunately, that may or may not be the case for everyone. If that isn’t what you are currently experiencing, my suggestion is to find a mid-career or senior faculty member (perhaps via the ECF), external to your University, that you feel comfortable asking questions to. I feel like productive senior scholars say to “just say no” to service but that is much easier said than done (at least for me). If you can get a second opinion from someone you respect, it might be much easier to say, “I’m good on committee work for now.” Your university may also have something similar (UW-Milwaukee has a confidential faculty mentoring program where I was assigned to a tenured faculty mentor during my first year).

Outside of that, try to find service activities that are at least marginally related to your research. If you serve as an ad-hoc reviewer, you may find yourself reading manuscripts that are at least related to your own work (but obviously don’t overdo it). Depending on your university requirements, community service activities may include things where you can get your students in local schools providing free services under your supervision (e.g., conducting screenings, providing evidence-based interventions for struggling students). If you that leads to a relationship with the school that will allow you to conduct research in the future, then even better.

WS: First, my approach to service has been to trust the advice of my department head and mentor. I have sought their input about which and how many service activities are manageable. Also, I have only involved myself in service activities that are necessary. I also recommend picking selectively and strategically if possible. If there’s a committee working on something you’re passionate about or is important to you, target it for participation. As the only tenure track faculty member in the program currently, I have been forced to attend committee meetings to represent my program. Although I have attended several committee meeting physically, I have managed to avoid leaving with any major responsibilities. Don’t hesitate to play the “new person” or “still learning” card. Thus far, my passive participation has allowed me to serve on the committee without taking on terribly taxing responsibilities as a result of this service.

5. A previous ECF blog post discussed the issue of imposter syndrome. A faculty member at my (Van Norman) current institution told me when I started that in many ways I was more similar to my students than the other faculty in the department. Do you have any recommendations for new faculty members dealing with imposter syndrome, particularly as it applies to interacting, instructing, and mentoring students?

SAJ: I think the blogpost on imposter syndrome has some great recommendations. It may be helpful to remind yourself that you have the knowledge and experience that comes with having a Ph.D. There is a lot that students can (and should) learn from you. For the courses you are teaching, remember that you are the expert in that topic area. And if there is something you don’t know, admit it and get back with students on the appropriate response. As for mentoring and interacting with students, I think it is important to maintain appropriate boundaries. One way to do this is to be friendly, but not be friends with your students. You can be effective in mentoring them, teaching them what they need to know without becoming a friend.

DK: I myself am still learning to mentor students (particularly with research) so I’ll stick to the first two. Again, I think connecting with other assistant professors who you know might help you design courses and activities (and let’s be honest, deal with student situations) that help you decrease the negative effects of imposter syndrome…whatever those effects may be.

Also, shamelessly borrow good ideas you recall from your experience as a graduate student. Think about what you liked in your classes or things your previous mentors did that you liked. Then apply your own spin to make those things yours…if it doesn’t work try something else the following week. Sometimes class doesn’t go well…I try to figure out why, adjust what I can, and move on. I also learned quickly just how different/important cohorts in your program are. So things you try Year 1 may not work nearly as well as Year 2. But, if you’re doing the best you can, in the face of all the competing demands on your time, I’m not sure what else you can do.

With the exception of completing all of the coursework, completing hundreds (or more) of hours of practica in multiple settings, completing a 2,000-hour internship, potentially working in the field for some time or completing a post-doc; conducting research, and finishing your dissertation…you are more similar to the students than the senior faculty. I am not sure that’s always a bad thing. I think the challenge is more about how to convey your experiences to students in a meaningful way, rather than not knowing enough information.

WS: Fake it ‘til ya make it! Unfortunately, I completely understand this feeling. Something I have struggled with, but now appreciate has been maintaining formality in student interactions. It felt pretentious to continue to have students call me “Dr. Sims.” While initially awkward, erring on the side of formality has helped me develop a new sense of identity and tamp down the uncertainty and self-doubt of imposter syndrome. I hope to get to a point when this level of formality can be abandoned with some students, particularly those that work with me outside the classroom more regularly (e.g., teaching and research assistants).

6. Thank you for your time in answering these questions. Please feel free to share any parting thoughts/advice that you didn’t have a chance to discuss earlier.

SAJ: One more thing I’d like to mention is that I think it is important to have strong mentorship as an early career scholar. I have been fortunate to have received great mentorship, and is part of the reason why I have been successful. As opposed to having a single mentor, I encourage readers to have network of mentors both inside and outside of your institution. They should also provide mentorship in a range of areas, for instance within and outside of your area of research. This way, you can receive mentorship from individuals with a variety of perspectives and areas of expertise.

WS: Each system or organization will have its politics. Inevitably, you will find yourself in a situation that will pull you into the politics of your new program, department, college, or institution if you let it. Do all you can to steer clear of getting involved in battles between people or competing agendas that likely started long before your arrival. I will pass on some of the best advice I’ve received about the politics of a new to you job. I was advised to keep my head down, work hard, and don’t get involved. This approach has paid off. On a more positive note, find faculty friends. In your program, department, or beyond, find people that you can socialize with at and outside of work. These relationships will be invaluable over time.

Thank you to the panelists for offering your insights! In concluding the blogpost, I would like to turn our readers attention to previous posts that hit upon much of themes brought up by each panelist. Namely, previous blog posts that delve deeper into the issues of politely declining requests from colleagues and administrators (i.e., giving yourself the power to say no) and managing class prep time (hint: do not spend so much time prepping for class) should be particularly helpful.

The responses from the current panel offer several new insights, particularly in regards to maximizing ones time to conduct research. First, service (particularly within your university) should not be the foci of one’s efforts early on. Hopefully the faculty in your program are protecting you from time intensive commitments during your first few years. In the event where service is required beyond service to the profession (i.e., editorial board membership, state/national organizations, etc.), one should try to at least choose a task that one is passionate about and has the benefit of being high visibility/low effort. Relatedly, do not feel compelled to volunteer for additional tasks once on those committees, particularly larger college of university committees, when playing the “new” card is forgivable this early on in one’s career. Second, determining when you are most productive at writing and protecting that time is paramount. It may be reinforcing to check off an administrative or grading task from a to-do list, but adds nothing to one’s research dossier.

In closing, it is important to highlight that impostor syndrome happens to almost everyone. At this stage in our careers we do not have to have every answer to every question that comes our away. We should not be afraid to seek out advice from mentors and other assistant professors to handle challenging situations as we set out on the long road to promotion and tenure.

Do you have other pieces of advice? Or are you seeking advice on a topic not covered in this post? Feel free to comment below or on the ECF Facebook page!

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