From the Other Side: Update on Post-PhD Life

Well, I’ve been in this role (Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management) since July 1, 2020. In a nutshell, the first 3 months went well, given the circumstances. I enjoy working with my colleagues, and it is amazing to take advantage of the research and teaching infrastructure here. I feel that I am being set up to thrive. There have been some challenges- and I discuss them below.

[Image description: photo of a tall, brown-skinned Black woman in jeans and a Cal t-shirt standing in front of a sign that reads “Rosenau Hall – Gillings School of Global Public Health”. Behind the sign is a red brick and stone building with reflective glass windows.]

First, starting amid a pandemic meant that virtual research and service-related meetings began in earnest. Beyond the meetings, I was utterly unprepared for the sheer volume of emails that faculty members receive on a day-to-day basis. I had NO idea, and now I am in awe of the professors who responded to my emails when I was a graduate student. In retrospect, I recognize that my typically succinct emails with the t/asks highlighted are probably still too long.

My role as Assistant Professor is heavily weighted toward research, and going forward, teaching will be at least 20% of my time. I’ve been very fortunate to have protected time for research in my first year in this role. I am grateful for that time. At the same time, I am acutely aware of the fact that it is unlikely that I will ever have this much protected time, unless I secure a K01 within the next 2-4 years. So, there’s some anxiety about my research output. In my head, I ask, “if you can’t do more when you have more time, how can you succeed when you have more on your plate?” (Yes, my inner voice isn’t that great at pep talks. I have to remind myself that I am in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s expected that my prior “normal” isn’t working).

As for research, I’ve been fortunate to have several ongoing collaborative projects that are nearing completion. However, most of my collaborators are at other institutions, and I need to work toward building collaborations with people here at UNC Chapel Hill. That has- admittedly- been difficult amid a pandemic. For faculty with teaching duties on top of research, the pandemic has meant a lot of uncertainty about the teaching format (“hyflex” “face to face” “online”), as university administrators try to toe the balance to stem revenue losses and potential budget shortfalls. This uncertainty has meant tight turnaround times for course prep, and increased time demands for teaching. Despite the popular refrains, teaching online is not an inferior service. It is more demanding and resource-intensive, in a time when faculty are asked to do more with less.

So, in that context, it’s been hard to connect with people beyond standing meetings.

Work in Transition

Possibly the most jarring realization has been the recognition that my needs have changed quite a lot since I transitioned from being a PhD candidate to being a junior faculty member. What worked before does not work now, because I have to adjust to the norms of a new institution, and navigate the administrative structure to get things done. That’s harder still, because the pandemic means we- at this institution- are all working remotely. That means that it is harder to gain incidental knowledge of how things work internally. Specifically, it’s no longer a simple matter of going down the hallway to ask a quick question that the organizational chart didn’t answer. That “simple matter” becomes an email request that adds to the heavier burdens of the administrative and support workers who keep the Department running.

Another big change has been thinking about my research agenda as something that has to be coherent or legible to reviewers or panels that would evaluate my potential. Previously, as a grad student, that mattered less until I was on the job market. Having projects spanning a range of topics and methods was evidence of my potential as a researcher. Now, it seems, my potential is judged on the basis of the narratives that I can craft about my prior work, and the narratives that I can craft about my ongoing and future work. “How does this project build on your prior work?” That’s a very different question from, “do you have sufficient training and expertise in research?

Further, because I have changed fields (transitioning from a Geography program to a Department of Health Policy and Management within a Public Health school), I am also learning how to break projects into smaller “least publishable units.” In Geography, journal word limits were as high as 9000 words, while health services research and public health journals have word limits as low as 2000 words. My questions have to be sliced and trimmed down to fit these “least publishable units.” It’s a challenge, because I’ve fallen into designing projects that can fill up 4-5 years, and now I need to have more shorter-term projects. Fortunately, I have a few “side” projects in progress that can serve as pilot studies for future studies.

I’d still say that I’m at a crossroads, because my current research output is suggestive of someone who is a methodologist, and not necessarily a subject matter expert. The onus is on me to make the case that my work is part of a broader research agenda.

Is this work becoming more integral to my self-concept or self-identity?

The answer to that question is “no.” I see myself as a worker, but the work is not who I am. The job title or status is not core to my self-concept. In fact, I went to the grad school with low expectations about staying in academia. My barest, most stripped down intrinsic motivation was to attain a level of education that would enable me to get well-paying work, regardless of the sector (public, non-profit, private, &/or academic). I never envisioned myself as a professor until I had a job offer.

During my time as a graduate student, I observed a tendency toward thinking of academic work as a vocation or calling. In this way, “I am an academic” is a stand-alone sentence that implies completeness. The collapsing of job titles or status with core identity becomes a basis for anti-solidaristic attitudes that elide the non-meritocratic nature of the selection/filtering process that produces the ranks of the tenure track (and beyond), while differentiating its members from those who are more precarious within the neoliberal university. It becomes easy to be lulled into the belief that we are where we are in the pecking order because we deserve it- a sort of Parsonian structural functionalism that normalizes and naturalizes the hierarchical nature of academia.

Bottom line: I am who I am, and if I didn’t do this work, I’d do something else. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my work! On the contrary, it allows me to enjoy the work without losing sight of the fact that there is more to this life than work. There is always more work to be done, but there isn’t always more living to do. And my job title or degrees won’t be engraved on my tomb stone. (Don’t mind me- the pandemic has me reflecting a lot on mortality).

Do you have any advice to offer?

In the spirit of humility, I am going to say “no.” I’m not in the business of offering advice.

In my prior blog posts, I shared tips and habits that helped me when I was a grad student, along with all of the requisite caveats. A lot of the things I talked about before still apply, but the stakes are so different at this rank (tenure track Assistant Professor). That said, I’m not interested in adding to the deluge of academic advice-giving that typically accompanies job market season and grad school application season. I want to be quite clear that survivorship bias is real, and anyone giving advice needs to foreground it with a recognition of their positionality and the specific contexts of their lived experiences. As with all advice, it should be taken with a grain of salt and triangulated between trusted parties.

Having just started out, I’m finding that the transition from a “hard money” environment to a “soft money” environment requires thinking differently about time. If I have 20% effort on a project, that means that I should allocate an average of 8 hours per week to that project. And if I have 5% effort on a project, my time use should reflect that, because how I use my time is a statement of my priorities. And more broadly, my time use should align with what I am evaluated for at a research-intensive institution: research, teaching, and to a lesser degree, service.

Aside from that, I’m learning to let go of habit of giving quick answers to requests for my time and work. I’ve started by allowing myself to make decisions over 24-48 hours, rather than immediately make commitments that quickly become unwieldy. I am finding that I have to plan my time in daily, weekly, and monthly increments. It’s easy to schedule everything for the last week of the month, assuming, “Oh, I’ll make time!” Yes, I can make time, but would I be better served by being more discerning about what I say “yes” to? The answer to that is nearly always “yes.” It’s my job to protect my time. That task does not fall to anyone else, and that’s just as well, because no one knows my priorities like I do.

I’ll end there. I do hope you are as well as can be, given the circumstances.

All the best,

Arrianna

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s