Who do you work for?

Aug 12 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I was recently discussing my first two years on this job with a colleague and mentioned my frustration in not having landed some Fed $$ just yet and how I could have approached the first year very differently. The colleague listened and basically told me that I'm doing fine and then added "No one thinks you are slacking, in fact many feel you are going above and beyond."

Wait, what? That doesn't even make sense. It would be one thing if everyone was like "Oh, do you really need another grant? I mean the three you have should keep you busy enough... and that chair your sitting on is actually made of money and accepted manuscripts!" But that isn't exactly the case.

It made me think. Am I setting too high a standard for myself? Is the department expecting too little? Then I realized that I don't actually care what my department's standards are, as long as I exceed them.

When it comes right down to it, what motivates me isn't checking the boxes that should lead to tenure, but rather proving myself to people in this order:

1. Myself. I have a bunch of ideas that I want to work on and to see funded and the desire to answer the questions I see as exciting are the reason I am doing this job instead of getting paid a lot more to do another job with my skills.

2. The colleagues in my field and especially the labs I have worked in. Every conference, every invited lecture, every month that goes by where we are not making  a big splash I can feel the people who know me waiting to see if I can deliver. Yeah, I was able to pump out a lot of papers as a postdoc, but now what? Can I launch my own program and make it successful? Luckily I feel like we are on the verge of making this happen.

3.  The people who hired me. No one wants to let down those who have given you an opportunity and turned down others who may have been similarly qualified. That new faculty smell wears off after a while and what lies beneath better not stink like bad cologne and BO.

If I can perform up the expectations of those groups, then I should be checking all the right boxes for tenure without setting out to do so explicitly. I know what I need to have on my CV by the time my fourth year review comes around, but I am not pushing to get those things done because of the specter if tenure, per se. I am also not particularly motivated by how my effort is viewed by those around me, since at some point the person who tries really hard and never gets over the hump is just that person who couldn't cut it. There is no A for effort here.

11 responses so far

  • “No one thinks you are slacking, in fact many feel you are going above and beyond.”

    Strangely enough, I get a similar reaction even though I haven't got any external funding or published any papers from my lab. Maybe it's because anything looks good when it's compared to the immediate surroundings!

  • Glfadkt says:

    Personally, I am most motivated by the folks who work in my lab. I am responsible for their jobs, and if I cannot successfully compete for grant support, they will be placed in a very precarious position (through no fault of their own). I will have failed them!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Glfadkt - Good point. I left that off by mistake but I should have included them as well.

  • rknop says:

    Hmm. I used to get a lot of positive feedback about how great things were, but I wasn't getting funding. And, six years in, I left, because even though a couple of years previously I'd won the Chancellor's Award for Research at my University, my chair told me that if I didn't manage to get a grant at the level of an NSF grant (which were being funded at the rate of 1 in 5 or 6), I had basically no chance of getting tenure.

    Don't believe all the people who say things are going great. Believe those who know how these things are really decided, and believe those who know which check boxes are going to be checked.

  • rknop says:

    Er, by which I mean, "which check boxes are going to be inspected".

  • melissasbench says:

    I don't think the colleague is saying that hard work will count for tenure, but only that of the four motivations (including the once from Glfadkt about doing riht by your trainees), #3 is something not to sweat about. That is, your bosses often have a sense of the standards you've set for yourself, and thus don't feel the need to push you because you are pushing yourself harder than they ever could...

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I feel the same way you do. The K99/R00 has been an incredible boon to my initial productivity, but we still only have one paper fully finished and published. Everything always feels like it's on the cusp of being there, but not quite. I really need to prove to myself in the next year that we can leverage this stuff into present and future outcomes...

  • antipodean says:

    Point number 2 is the one giving me the shits currently, too.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    In today's climate, you are not doing great unless you are pulling indirects in to the university. Our university is firing good asst profs 4 years after giving them a big startup if there are no indirect dollars. Papers and private grants don't count.

    Please do not take comfort in the fact that a senior colleague tells you you're doing fine. I've seen this play out. Get your grant $$$ ASAP.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    PhysSci, I am not saying that their assurances give me comfort at all, but rather I am motivated less by departmental standards than by those I set out for myself to compete in my field.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    I have found #1 to be my harshest critic. She is a tough, tough mistress to please.

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