As described a couple posts ago, there is a lot to do in this job. In my experience, it doesn’t all come at you at full force right at the beginning. For instance, when I got to my new position, I didn’t have a lab. So, although I was stressed about teaching and other new things, I didn’t have any people to manage or a place work to on research yet. Instead of lamenting the lab, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I didn’t have a lab. My solution was to spend time just writing grant proposals for the first two semesters while my lab was getting together. After this, I realized that spending committed time focusing on just one aspect of the job allowed me to get really good at it, so that it became second nature. After that committed time, I didn’t have to focus on that thing as much, and could use my new skills to save time. This is just another testament to the idea that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Since you cannot really multi-task, why not focus on one thing at a time and get it right?
When I started my tenure track job, it worked out best for me to focus on grant proposal writing for 1 year. A lot of the grants I wrote were horrible, but I got feedback, and I got better with practice. After writing more than 10 proposals, I actually got one my first year!
The second year, I focused on making my teaching better. After my teaching went just OK the first year, I decided to focus on making it great the second year. I re-wrote my lectures, offered evening office hours, and really worked to learn the names of my students. In our department, they have a good policy that you get to teach the same courses three times in a row. This is great because a class is always the worst the first time around, but once you get the hang of the material, the second and third years can be great.
By year three, I finally had reliable people in my lab, I had some grant money to hire people to work on specific projects, and we were getting results. In year three, I finally came back to research, which was super fun after my hiatus. I spent significant time with my students, gave myself my own projects to get good preliminary data for new work, and we wrote our first papers.
Although this timeline for focusing on proposal writing first, teaching second, and research third worked well for me, it is highly personally dependent. If you step into a beautiful lab that is fully functional with people who can work on day 1, maybe work on getting papers out first. Some people I know had this, and they got their first papers out a year before me. Most people I know had to wait 1-2 years for their lab situation to get working well. Why waste time and energy working on something out of your control that you cannot fix? Instead, refocus on other things that you can succeed at first. Get those things taken care of, so you can focus on other aspects later. By the fourth or fifth year, all the important aspects of this job are under control – tackled one at a time.
I want to mention that at no time did I focus on service. My advice is to perform adequate, or just good enough, on service to your department and college. Doing a good job doesn’t buy you anything and is a big waste of time for the other stuff you have to do. Once my grants and research got going, I got asked to do more service to my scientific community, such as reviewing grants, reviewing papers, and organizing conferences. I did not say no to those opportunities, and I did a good job on them, because they helped my research. These opportunities led to more invited lectures for seminars and conferences.
Do you have some helpful information about what to focus on first when starting an academic job? If so comment or guest post!