Reflecting on Year 1 on the Tenure Track

It’s halfway through July now, and I feel as though I’m just catching my breath. (How poignant is that colloquialism amid the COVID pandemic?)

Well, I wanted to write out some of my thoughts as I begin Year 2 on the tenure track. Before I begin, I should add some clarifications. My position as an Assistant Professor in a public health school entails research, teaching, and service obligations. The tenure and promotion guidelines weigh research more heavily than teaching (which is counted as 20% of my time in the semesters that I teach), and I am working toward having continuous grant funding to cover my research time. This is different from the norms in the field in which I am trained (Geography), where most positions are 100% hard money, with heavier teaching loads.

My first day on the job was July 1, 2020, and I was rather quickly immersed into projects as a co-investigator, including two projects within two research centers. At the time, I was also collaborating on multiple projects with researchers at other institutions and working to submit my dissertation papers. On top of that, my first post-dissertation first-author submission was rejected by the target journal (my first rejection!). It was a hard one to shake, too. I found myself questioning whether I- a medical geographer- even belong in a public health school.

In terms of grants, I had already begun working on an NIH grant with a tight deadline a month prior. The window for eligibility was narrow, and I figured it was worth a shot. Later, though, I was crushed to find that I was not actually eligible for the grant mechanism, and my efforts were for naught. (That grant was repurposed, and scrapped).

It seemed that I was already off to a bit of a rough start.

Fast forward to July 2021, and things look a little different:

  • 6 grants written (2 in progress)
    • 3 grants submitted
  • 9 manuscripts submitted (10, if you count a book chapter)
    • 6 manuscripts accepted (7, if you count the book chapter)
    • 1 manuscript rejected
  • 8 manuscripts in progress
  • 4 conference presentations
  • 11 invited talks
  • 1 course designed (coming Spring 2022)

In an objective sense, that was a productive year. However, I also know that I worked at an unsustainable pace and veered into burnout. It wasn’t just the work. It was… everything. I went into academic public health during a public health emergency- a pandemic! And I watched aghast as millions died preventable deaths globally (including over half a million people in the U.S.). The crushing sense that my work was not attending to the urgent need of the moment made me question what I was doing. My work centers on access to care, and all of the solutions are of a structural nature. This is out of step with the piecemeal nature of policymaking, where incrementalism and tweaks at the margins are the rule.

… but I digress…

Now, I think I understand what people mean when they say that “rejection is part of the process.” It really is part of the process! I understand now that the rejected article was a blow because it challenged my self-perception as someone who communicates effectively. The rejected article was my first attempt to translate my work as a medical geographer for a health services research audience. The rejection felt like failure- however illogical that may be.

In terms of lessons, I think there are several. First, the transition from PhD student/candidate to Assistant Professor is momentous. In my case, it did not feel like it was, because we moved amid a pandemic, and the was no clear temporal marker between my dissertation defense and my start date because the in-person graduation ceremony was (rightly) cancelled due to the pandemic.

With regard to time, I also found that my role as an Assistant Professor requires thinking about time as a finite resource that must be accounted for. If I have 25% effort on a project, I need to make sure that I am not averaging more than 10 hours per week on that project. If teaching is 20% of my time, I have to figure out how to make sure that my course prep and grading doesn’t exceed 8 hours per week on average.

The finite nature of time was on my mind a lot as I considered the constant tension between short-term deadlines & long-term goals. For example, grants vs publications: you need the latter to get the former. BUT, grant-writing is typically time-limited with uncertain payoff, while working on publications can be more indeterminate, with a clear outcome (placement in an academic journal). Perhaps the most difficult part of navigating the trade-off between the short-term deadlines and the long-term goals was the unshakable feeling that the short-term work may be wasted effort. For example, artificial deadlines create urgency (late nights spent drafting a proposal that way not get selected) can crowd out the slow and steady work on what matters for tenure and promotion. I had to get to a point where I asked myself, “does this align with my goals? If not, why am I doing this?” That’s where outlining my career focus statement came in handy. It forces me to distill my work into 3 focus areas and think of my body of work as a narrative whole.

In that vein, I should have said “no” more often. I was accustomed to asking myself, “why not?” rather than asking whether the opportunities aligned with my long-term goals. Fear of missing out is not a good enough reason for me to be unfocused and stretched thin. It just isn’t.

On Monday 19 July 2021, the university is re-opening the campus, and I’ll see my office for the first time. We’ll see how that goes (and I’ll be sure to post a photo of my office).

Take care-

Best,

A

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