Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#NewFaculty: First Year Review (Part 1)

I'm back! It's been a long semester, full of new course prep, student presentations, conference travel, and yes, some meaningful research productivity. I admit that staying on top of everything has been more challenging this semester (Spring, my second) than last. As flexible time has diminished, I've wondered what a typical day will look like in years two and three - when I also have academic advisees and increased service obligations. Yet I do have the sense that I've built a strong foundation for managing academic life, which will ease the way for adding to it in the next few years. The following is a start to what stands out when I look back on the first year.

Optimizing and protecting time. Teaching schedules change from one semester to the next. When you teach 3+ hours in class on each teaching day, the change has an impact. It's possible to set yourself up with an effective, efficient way to work in prep time and research time when your classes are in the morning, and to find that simply flipping your schedule doesn't work very well when your classes are in the afternoon. So cognitive rigidity doesn't work, unless you're able to secure exactly the same schedule each semester. (If so, I envy you.)

What does work? Some tried-and-true methods such as scheduling time for writing and actually being unavailable during that time. During my first semester, I left my office door open whenever I was in, to make sure everyone knew I was here. (Some of them do pay close attention to this.) Before students and colleagues knew me, this didn't promote a lot of drop-bys; but that lasted only a few weeks. 

Now that I've established my schedule and I've made it absolutely clear to students that they need an appointment to see me, I keep my door closed for significant portions of the day. I get in early, so my door is closed for the first 2-3 hours I'm here. I get writing, administrative tasks, and course prep done with very few interruptions. And I'm not afraid to say no to requests for meetings during these blocks of time, especially on teaching days.

Finding colleagues who share and/or complement your skills and interests. This is critical at teaching-focused institution, as time for research and writing can be scarce. When other faculty have suggested that I "really should talk to Dr. X - you have similar interests," I listen. I make time to meet Dr. X and I share some of my work in the conversation; I also mention the skills or interests that might set me apart from other faculty, so that Dr. X knows that I might be useful in a particular area. (I find that a love of data analysis comes in handy.) Ask for feedback on your ideas and offer some to them. For example, I asked my university-assigned mentor to collaborate on a grant application, and it seems to be mutually beneficial thus far. 

Some of the most fortuitous meetings are due solely to luck, like mine with my mentor - the assignment was random. But you can increase your chances. One of the best ways to increase the odds is to go to meetings and other university events. You get seen, you get known, and you can steer yourself toward opportunities. Think like you would at a conference: "How can I effectively network?"

Does this take time out of an already busy schedule? Can it seem to take over all of your flexible (i.e., writing) time? Absolutely. But many ECRs focus only on the losses, and think they have to go to every event. Be choosy! Go to the events where like-minded people tend to be, and where you'll learn something useful even if Dr. X doesn't show. (If you don't know this information, ask ahead of time!)

The first year certainly can be overwhelming, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Next time, some additional ways that you can stay in control of your time and research productivity.

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