Pre-tenure stratigery

Oct 02 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Submitting my tenure packet this week and talking with a number of pre-tenure colleagues has got me thinking a bunch about how I got here. And by "here" I mean "in a position to feel decently confident about my tenure portfolio". Two or three years ago I was in a very different place - I felt like we had 10 different projects all headed in different directions. It was uncomfortable and I didn't see a point at which things would come to a head on anything so we could publish something major.

It felt more like this:


(source. h/t to @drugmonkeyblog)

There was pressure to get things published - from my department, myself, my science community - but you can't publish a bunch of half experiments! Worse yet, people in the lab were making silly mistakes! There's nothing worse than watching your new lab stumble through the learning curve. But you know what? You have to.

Everyone is going to have a different take on how you keep things moving in the pre-tenure years. I decided early on that I would take on a few students at different levels so I could pursue short and longer term projects, but that I would let the students make their mistakes along the way. As a football fan I reasoned that I had two choices: I could let the rookies make their mistakes and support their development or I could sign an aging vet (i.e. me going into the lab) as a stop gap for production now while the rookies develop. The problem with that is you can stunt their growth if rookies don't get a lot of meaningful reps. So I chose to let them figure it out.

In some cases it worked well and in others we had to go in another direction, but we got what we needed. Maybe it took an extra year than it could have, but I think the pay off was that all of them were really driving their own work after some initial struggles. The difference between being handed a solid draft manuscript versus having to write most of one is huge - especially when multiple people are writing up different things at the same time.

But more importantly, that early feeling of having too many half started projects is normal. Yes, ideally you would like to have things lined up that get you publications at multiple intervals, but that may not be how it works out. You are setting the stage for the years 5-10 portion of your career and that may not result in 5 manuscripts in the first three years. For my lab, the bolus has really come in years 4-5 - later than I would like, but not too late for tenure. However, it is what lays ahead that has me truly excited. Our hard work to this point has laid a solid foundation for several projects that are really looking good.

Remember that year 3 sucks, it takes longer than you expect to get your lab fully running and that you need to worry more about deadlines that matter than arbitrary goal posts.

6 responses so far

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Good to know that you feel confident about your packet. Good luck!

    Btw, if your experience was like that guy on the bike I think only you are to blame for a terrible ride! 😉

  • KateClancy says:

    Did you stop the tenure clock with either or both of your kiddos? I have two rollbacks (one for a kiddo, one for other reasons) so I'm just on year four. How time has flown by, I didn't even realize you'd be submitting this year! Congratulations on your effective strategery, and may your department and university be smart enough to recognize what they have with you.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I didn't take time with kid #2 (kid #1 was pre-job, barely), so I am on my original schedule. We'll see what the university thinks in a couple of months. At the stage I'm firmly in the "I've done what I can" zone.

  • Joshua King says:

    Pub rate seems such a squirrelly metric in gen Bio departments. What is your yr 4-5 "bolus?" 3 papers? 25 papers? Seems to me that the pretenure grant applications are more or less constrained due to the new NSF structure (and existing NIH structure), but the paper output, and how reviewers assess "impact," is more scattered and harder to interpret. I fear that the measure of publication rates and impact is more problematic for many people, including those who review packets these days.

  • Psycgirl says:

    This is super helpful and encouraging, thanks

  • proflikesubstance says:

    JK, is there anything is the tenure process that couldn't be interpreted as a "squirrelly metric"? The broader a department's research interests are, the harder it is to pin down decisive metrics. That's exactly why tenure criteria a loose - so they can accommodate a wide range of "norms". The downside is that interpretation can be applied unequally.

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