In May 2020, the EECS Comm Lab, in collaboration with Prof. Saman Amarasinghe, hosted a seminar series for MIT EECS PhD students and postdocs who wished to learn more about what it’s like to be a professor and how they can prepare for a career on the tenure track. You can find an overview of the event here, and a summary of each session is available:
Session 1: Being a Professor is the Best Occupation
Session 2: Getting Through the Junior Faculty Years
Session 3: Getting a Faculty Job
Session 4: Preparing for Your Own Faculty Application
Session 2: Getting Through the Junior Faculty Years
Session 2 focused on “getting through the junior faculty years.” This is particularly interesting, as we – those considering applying for faculty positions, often do not hear much about this topic. We are often too concerned with the application process to look and plan beyond it, which is why this panel filled an existing gap and shed some light on how junior faculty years look. The panelists were:
- Prof. Tamara Broderick, junior faculty member
- Prof. Aleksander Madry, recently tenured faculty member
- Prof. Max Shulaker, junior faculty member
- Prof. Virginia Williams, recently tenured faculty member
I’ll preface this blog post with a point that kept coming up in the panel discussion (and applies well to many things in life): Every piece of advice is a story of one, so consider it a seed or food for thought rather than a prescription. People’s experiences vary. In addition, the points of view included in this panel reflect “survivorship bias” – that is, they are biased towards those who “succeeded” at securing and keeping faculty jobs at MIT.
That said, there is much to be learned from the genuine individual and collective experiences of the panelists, who discussed what they like and dislike about being faculty, aspects of being faculty that they were unprepared for, what junior faculty should focus on, funding, the tenure process, and advisory style.
One of the core issues that was discussed is a professor’s goals – as many decisions and actions build on them. The primary goals of a professor are 1) working on research that is important and exciting and positively impacts the world and 2) mentoring students. Taking this into consideration, funding should simply be viewed as a tool to achieve these goals rather than the end goal. And preparing for tenure review should simply be a byproduct of a professor’s endeavors towards doing good research rather than a goal in and of itself. While there is consensus that funding and tenure may be considered sources of stress for some, some of the panelists mentioned that things work out in the end.
As Aleksander mentioned, some grants are accepted, and others are not. Do not compromise your research vision and what you think is important, useful, and exciting just because there is funding for it. But do be flexible and try to listen, too. Funding agency program managers and industry funders bring forth problems they are interested in, and it is useful to determine whether there might be projects that lie at the intersection of your interests and theirs. Developing good relationships with program managers – especially those with a lot of say in discretionary funds – will be useful. Do not take on a project you are not convinced by and give it to a student just because there is funding for it. As Virginia said, “Students are people too”; they don’t want to work on things they find boring or unimpactful. Tamara echoed this. Coming in, she had expected to bring a list of projects and ask students to work on them. However, she found that this wasn’t how it worked at all – students want to formulate their own projects and this is achieved after discussions, potentially with the initial list as a springboard for those conversations.
It’s also important to be active in your research community. This is not only important to determine what is of current interest to the community but also helps in disseminating your research and can lead to collaborations. Aleksander, who expanded his research and moved fields recommended that if you want to do the same, it should be once you are more established – as academia can be a rather tribal community at times. At the time of tenure review, the committee reaches out to individuals in your field to ask about your research. Therefore, it’s important that your name be known. The best letters come from individuals who know you and have built on your work. So, do network. This may include networking at conferences, or organizing workshops and inviting speakers and participants. In fact, Saman mentioned that if one of his students is inclined to become a professor, he will have them organize a one day workshop at MIT during their final year.
Management and mentorship
Time management and people management were aspects of being faculty that the panelists did not expect and were not initially prepared. These are skills learned over time. As for time management, weigh opportunities carefully and determine whether they are useful towards doing good, impactful research and mentoring the next generation. Be aware that having more students also means you’ll need more money and will spend more time meeting with them and applying for funding. Also, as many more exciting opportunities will become available once you become a faculty member, you may be tantalized to pursue many. But be careful what you commit your time to.
Mentoring students, a very enjoyable component of being faculty, comes with the task of being a manager. You will have a basic set of expectations for how your group will work and how you will advise students when you set your lab up. This will change with time and will be specific to each student, which stage they are at, and which project they are working on. The most important point here is to communicate very regularly with your mentees and determine what’s working, what isn’t, and how things should change. As a manager, you will also need to determine how best to keep each of your students motivated. Virginia has regular team-building activities with her group, and she mentioned that getting to know the students as people makes it easier to talk to them. As their mentor, you will sometimes become their friend and someone they can talk to. Early on, you may wish to get advice on mentorship from senior faculty or take courses on people management skills.
Potential of deferment
An interesting topic came up during the Q&A session: deferring a faculty appointment. Once you are junior faculty, you will have very little time to think and plan, so it can be nice to take the time and defer your offer to think and plan, and potentially look into other subfields -and to take a break before starting another marathon. This is a time when you can focus on research (or backpacking around the world) and don’t have to worry about grants or getting students.
Max mentioned that a faculty position is exactly what you think it will be because that’s what you’re going to spend your time doing. It will be what you make of it. If you think it will be mostly doing research, then that’s what you’re going to be doing. If you think it will mostly be applying for funds, then that’s what you’re going to be doing.
Finally, while some aspects of being faculty may be considered stressful, do “enjoy the process” as Max suggested.
Blog post by Samiya Alkhairy, MIT EECS Communication Fellow