“Being an assistant professor is just telling other people you are busy until you get tenure”
I know I said I was going to write about Zombie Ideas next, but that takes a bit more effort and I have been busy. Instead, I want to write about that very thing, being busy. There are a couple of reasons I am thinking about this. First, I am about to start my second year as an Assistant Professor and I am writing up a “self-statement” for my first evaluation - in the UC system you have a review and go up for a merit raise at the beginning of your second year :-)
This last year, I started new projects in several locations, revisited old projects, started new collaborations, mentored students, taught, did some service, etc. etc. etc. On top of all of these work things my wife and I had our first child, bought a house, and moved. I’ve been busy.
Second, a good number of people I follow twitter have started jobs last year and this summer there was a chorus of tweets about how “My first year was busy” – several variations on “putting out fires left and right”, “surviving”, etc. – but few that gave a positive impression. I didn’t post anything because I was “busy”.
Third, I’ve had a couple of interactions lately that made me really re-think what I am really saying when I say I am busy.
Over the last year I have fallen into this routine
Other person: “How are you doing?”
I really started thinking about this more when I went to Oregon to do some field work. 5 years ago I started a project with Susan Harrison where we moved some Serpentine endemic plant species into cool microrefugia and tracked their population success (you can find the paper here). We found that one species in particular was doing better at higher elevations than within its current range, and was being facilitated by the resident plant species in these new locations. In 2012 we submitted a NSF grant to continue the project and to look at the role of soil microbes in the assisted relocation of plants – do they help or hinder? While our pre-proposal made it through, our full proposal wasn’t funded and we ended the project due to lack of funds. So, fast-forward 5 years and I am now a new Assistant Professor with start-up funds and I can do whatever I want! So, I emailed Susan and we decided to revisit the project with a microbial ecologist (the fantastic Krista McGuire who is now at U of Oregon). While we were in SW Oregon drinking some wine, Susan asked how being a new professor was and I told her the answer I had been telling everyone: “busy”. Being the wonderful and insightful mentor that she is, Susan asked me something that I hadn’t really considered “what are we telling people (undergrads, grad students, post-docs) when we give that answer?” I have a terrible memory, so I am not going to remember the conversation exactly, but what she generally said was that we all are busy, but we are doing a disservice to the future of our field by always highlighting the negative parts of what we do. She suggested that instead of saying you are busy, talk about an exciting project that you are working on. We want to encourage the best and brightest to be researchers, not just the people with the most time. The more I thought about this the more it hit home. By saying we are busy all the time are we discouraging people that may have more familial obligations? By saying we are busy all the time are we contributing to the idea that you have to work 60+ hours a week to be successful? By saying we are busy all the time we are diminishing the fun and exciting parts of this job?
So, I took Susan’s point to heart and decided to try to not say “busy” anymore. The impact of this really hit me when I went to ESA in Portland this year. I was in the poster session one evening and I was introduced to a post-doc who asked how it was being a new professor. This person was visibly taken aback when I didn’t say “busy” but instead talked about how great it was to be starting my lab and getting new projects going. I had to explain myself to them and say “sure, I am busy, but being a new professor is great, I have the money and freedom to do the projects that excite the most… you get to do what you want!” It seemed that this part of being a new professor didn’t hadn’t occurred to this person, probably because everyone they had talked to about being a new professor had responded with some version of “busy”.
Like I said before, we are all busy, but instead of telling people (especially students and post-docs) how busy you are, try telling them about the awesome, fun, rewarding projects you are doing. Think about what you are saying when you tell people you are busy. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t forget that this job is fun. As John Marron always says “You should be having fun while you are doing research, if you aren't you should re-evaluate what you are doing”.
My next post will be about the biggest zombie idea of them all: zombie ideas.