Monday, February 22, 2010

Guest Post: Update from the CRA Career Mentoring Workshop

(ed note: Jeff Phillips is at the CRA Career Mentoring Workshop today and tomorrow, and filed this dispatch from Day 1.)

I am reporting from the CRA Career Mentoring Workshop. So far it has been excellent.

Frankly, I would not have even thought of coming (I did not even know about it), but it was "highly recommended" for all CI Fellows. But, having been here the first day, I would now recommend it to postdocs, early faculty, and senior graduate students set on a career in academics. Someone could obtain all of the information presented here by asking the right people around your department or field, but this workshop has really stressed what are the right questions to ask, and whom to ask.

The topics today were "Planning Your Research Career," "Career Networking," "Teaching," "Managing and Mentoring Students," "Preparing a Tenure Dossier," "Time Management and Family Life," and "Advice from Early Career Faculty." I thought an important aspect of how it was organized was that each topic had at least two speakers. This kept presentations short, and always provided at least two (often differing) perspectives. This ensured that there was just not someone lecturing us on their opinions on a topic, but instead demonstrating to us that there was no one right way to approach being a young faculty. The slides from all of the talks should eventually be online, found from one of the above links.

It's hard to pick out a handful of pieces of advice to share with you. Maybe I had heard 80% of the suggestions before, and 20% were new. But I would guess for an average person in my position a different 20% would be new. For instance, I was surprised by how different the tenure process can be from university to university. The solution: ask your department chair what are the key factors (journal vs. conference papers, is there a funding dollar threshold, student progress, who can write letters), and ask more senior faculty members in your department who recently got tenure for copies of their dossier. In general, the advice was to "ask for advice" and sometimes, according to Kim Hazelwood, "if you don't like the answer, then keep asking until you get an answer you like."

(ed. note: I've also heard the counter-advice "focus on doing the work to get tenure at a high ranking place, rather than just your department" - the rationale being that having a generically strong tenure case makes you more mobile if you need to be)

Also, your department is making a 5-6 year investment in you. So they should be there to help you succeed; if you don't get tenure, then everyone loses. This has all helped realize the great demands of the tenure process, but also make it seem quite possible. Intimidating and comforting at the same time.


  1. As another CIFellow attending the workshop, I agree that this is a very useful experience for postdocs and new faculty. I liked the part on networking where Valerie Taylor from TAMU and Mary Jean Harrold from Georgia Tech talked about how to do networking, and how it has affected their careers.

    The talks were fast paced, but easy to follow. The only regret is that the talks were not recorded (though slides will be available). There was a lot of good discussion in the Q/A sessions.

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