Reflecting on Year 2 on the Tenure Track

Hello! I realize it’s been a minute since I last wrote here. It is now February 2022, and I’m in the midst of the Spring semester here at UNC-CH. I am currently teaching a course entitled, “Conceptualizing and Measuring Access to Healthcare” (HPM 756). The goal of the course is to teach a way of thinking that bridges theory and methods to ask bigger and better questions that are attentive to contextual factors- beyond policies. In that sense, my course includes both a survey of methods survey with complementary GIS labs and reading responses/in-class discussions. I’m still figuring out the right balance of assignment formats, because students in the school of public health come from a broad range of backgrounds, and I cannot assume a base knowledge of GIS or spatial analysis. So, I also have to cover the basics of spatial data, data management, and data analysis as I teach the methods. So far, it’s going well.

Photo of a colorful mural under a bridge, which depicts social life and the urban form in Hyde Park, Chicago. Photo by Arrianna Marie Planey (Spring 2012)

Aside from that, I’m still doing research and writing grant proposals. Since I began this job in July 2020, I have:

  • Written 9 grant proposals (mixture of NIH, NSF, and private foundation grants)
  • Submitted 6 grant proposals (including 3 R01s, 1 R21/R33, one private foundation grant, one NSF)
  • Received a Diversity Supplement Award
    • This grant enables me to address research questions that are complementary to an existing R01 (with a focus on financial toxicity, travel burdens for cancer care, and health-related quality of life among rural-dwelling cancer patients in North Carolina).
  • Submitted 13 manuscripts
  • Published 6 papers
  • Published 1 book chapter
    • Published in: ed. Berger (2022) Health for Everyone: A Guide to Politically and Socially Progressive Healthcare. Rowman & Littlefield (if you’d like, you can pre-order it at the link)

I was able to be this productive, in part, due to a teaching release in Year 1. Though, Year 1 wasn’t purely focused on research and grant-writing. I did design HPM 756 in Fall 2020, while writing my first grant proposals and finishing up papers from ongoing research collaborations. I’m grateful to past me for doing that work, because Spring 2022 would have had a much rougher start otherwise.

Now that I am teaching, my time is more structured by necessity. I take my weekly planning very seriously, and it helps me feel less anxious about my time use. Mondays and Wednesdays are teaching days, and I hold office hours on those days, in addition to completing course prep and grading on those days. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are set aside for writing and standing meetings for ongoing collaborations (projects and grant proposals). I try my best to have one work-free day on the weekend, and that usually ends up being Saturday.

So, I thought I should write out a few thoughts here. First, pertinent to the learning curve of being on the tenure track as a first-generation academic, I cannot stress how important it is to have clarity regarding expectations for Tenure and Promotion. It’s true that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” but it’s important to ask for more clarification, because the written guidelines likely do not capture the “hidden curriculum” of academia. Typically, guidelines will have expectations broken down into 4 broad areas: 1) research, 2) teaching, 3) mentoring, 4) service. And if you’re in a Department that has expectations for external funding: 5) grants. Some criteria are easier to measure or quantify than others (e.g. publications), but that does not mean that there isn’t bias embedded in those expectations (e.g. qualitative researchers cannot be expected to have the same output as quantitative researchers who do not collect their own data). Moreover, in terms of grant funding, the expectation may be expressed in terms of percentages (“average of 50% coverage/effort over the first 5 years) or in terms of a specific outcome (first R01 submitted by the time one goes up for Tenure, with a demonstrated history of external funding through other mechanisms). It’s good to be very clear about those expectations.

One source of stress for me was not knowing exactly when my tenure packet would be due. I was laboring under the assumption that I had one year less than I actually did, so I was stressed about getting enough publications and grants. Now, it didn’t hurt that I worked at the pace that I did, but having a realistic sense of the timeline makes the workload seem feasible. I no longer feel like I have to sacrifice my personal life for this job.

Now that I have nearly 2 years under my belt, I want to add that there are certain things that are necessary for early career researchers in “soft” money positions or hard money positions with expectations of externally-funded research.

  • Protected time – protection from service work that can make it difficult to get research projects up and running
  • Teaching release – At least for Year 1
  • Research Funds
    • This typically takes the form of a “start-up package”
    • Many grant mechanisms for ECRs do not allow funds for Graduate Research Assistants as a budget line
    • Yet, in order to do research efficiently and effectively mentor students (maximizing research opportunities!) as an ECR, one needs RAs
  • Senior faculty who actively connect ECRs with researchers who have similar or complementary interests to help build up their networks at their new institution
    • This is especially important for ECRs from historically excluded groups, who may be eligible for NIH Diversity Supplements, which require the support and mentoring of a more senior researcher who has an eligible award (parent grants can be R01, DP5, R03, R18, R21, R33 awards) with at least 2 years of funding remaining.
    • The earlier one can connect with potential mentors, the better, because it takes time to build relationships (with both the PIs and the NIH Institute Program Officers (POs). Also, it takes time develop the materials for the proposal (including the Mentoring and Career Development Plan.
    • The supplemental project timeline should align with the parent project timeline (including the budget).
  • A Mentoring Team – or some other formal mentoring process to ensure that you- as the ECR- receive the mentoring and guidance that you need as you navigate the tenure track

In terms of grant writing, I personally have not had issues finding collaborators. This is due, in part, to the fact that the skillsets and knowledge base that I bring with me as a medical geographer are very much in demand for public health (PH) and health services research (HSR). My challenge has been finding my niche and navigating the trade-offs of contributing primarily as a methodologist, versus being engaged in the process of defining research questions from the start. I remain agnostic about the specific topics of study, but I can connect my ongoing projects by saying that there is an overarching focus on healthcare access and quality, with attention to spatialized inequities in the distribution of healthcare and health-enabling resources. My niche is at the nexus of methods, theory, and contextual/subject matter knowledge, but “methodologist” is not the right label.

Another issue that I’m still figuring out is avoiding being pigeon-holed as a “mapper.” There is a common (mis)perception that geographers are “mappers.” Mapping is just one thing that I do as a geographer, but that perception means that people ask me to do work that a full-time geospatial analyst would do, rather than what a PhD-trained geographer can do (e.g. formulating and answering research questions). I get quite a few emails asking if I can assist with “mapping” for projects, with no remuneration for my efforts, and I must decline them all.

I think I’ll stop there! Hope you’re safe and well–


Arrianna Marie Planey

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