What's it like to be a young professor? Is it miserable? Is it worth it? Do you make an impact on the world?
Recently I had a chat with Joseph Redden about his happy life as an assistant professor, and he provided answers to many of these questions. So I asked him to do a non-traditional interview I would play the role of a Stress-Out-Student (SOS) in graduate school worried about the future and ask him many paranoid questions with the hopes of enlightening everyone about what it's really like to be a young professor.
SOS: Hi Professor Redden, I am a Stressed-Out-Student (SOS) in graduate school. I feel I'll never make it in the field, and even if I do get tenure, I am worried my work won't matter and that I'll just be miserable every day. So if you don't mind, I have a bunch of questions ...
Professor Redden: Alright then. Shoot.
SOS: First. I know this might sound weird, but do you ever have any fun?
Professor Redden: Of course. Otherwise, what is the point? In fact, I explicitly carve out time for fun. As an example, I often teach on Wednesdays until noon and then often go catch an early movie. I have also found this increases my productivity as I come back Thursday morning refreshed and ready to work. I think everyone should carve out some of these hobbies to take advantage of the flexibility academia offers. For me, this is movies, tennis leagues, my kids' sports teams, etc.
SOS: What do I really need to do to get tenure?
Professor Redden: The answer to this question is both ambiguous and varied across schools. At my university, the guidance is centered on achieving distinction in your field. Of course, this could mean something very different for everyone. Personally, I tried to make sure that two things would hold true.
First, that there was a topic (satiation in my case) such that I would be one of the first few names mentioned if one asked who was doing research in that area.
Second, that it worked the other way such that when asked what I researched, I would have a consistent answer and other people would consistently know me as that answer. I think if both of those are true then you will have achieved distinction in your field.
SOS: I am worried that only the best of the best will make a difference and I know I am not a future Nobel Prize winner. So I am thinking, what's the point, what will I ever do that has a real impact?
Professor Redden: It matters how you define making a difference. If you consider yourself a success only if you make a difference for an entire field, then that is a really high standard for nearly anyone. I like to think of making a difference at a more micro level.
Think about how your presentation at a conference may affect how listeners write their papers, how a conservation may lead a doctoral student to a thesis idea, how teaching a topic may spark a student's interest, and how seemingly minor coverage of a paper may affect a person at a company (and hence millions of people). I believe that many of these unknown differences are happening -- as long as we work on interesting problems.
SOS: How do you manage your choice of projects?
Professor Redden: That is a great question. I found that early in my career I tended to work on anything I found interesting. This led me to jump from project to project chasing after the "shiny new object". You can imagine how this hampered my productivity. I now try to decide what enters my portfolio in three stages.
Number one, I make sure that any new idea leverages an area of my expertise. I want to avoid one-off projects that require me to learn an entirely new literature each time.
Number two, I go ahead and write a potential contribution paragraph to flush out whether this idea could be in an A-journal. The worst outcome is for an idea to work perfectly yet have no chance to be published.
Number three, I try to run a quick study to see if the idea seems promising at all.
I've found this approach has really helped me weed out effects that will be difficult to establish and understand.
Joseph Redden is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, and he is an emerging expert on the topic of satiation.
Troy Campbell is Ph.D Student at Duke University.
If you liked this post, you my also like Troy Campbell's casual approach to serious science on Why Science Must Be Fun and How to think like a logical moderate - even if you're not one.