Faculty need to learn how to add value to their institution when starting their first role, says John Tregoning.
Guest contributor John Tregoning
Congratulations, you have your first academic appointment and are now a member of faculty.
Commiserations, you are now a massive financial burden to the faculty and will need to continually justify your appointment.
As a postdoc, financially you were someone else’s problem: your salary came from whoever funded your project. Now, as a member of faculty, the cost of your salary comes from the university’s pocket. But it doesn’t stop at salary. The university also pays for bench space, utilities, parental leave, and – if you were better than me at negotiating – consumables, equipment and possibly even a technician’s salary. None of which comes cheaply. In this age of austerity, heads of department are forced to make budgetary decisions and salaries are not only the biggest cost to most departments, they often account for more than 50% of the total budget. In business speak, these costs mean that not only do you need to demonstrate that the department is making a return on its investment in you, but you also need to add value.
Academia with added value
Luckily there are a number of ways in which you can do this (I call these the 4 elements of academia). There are the more obvious ones: engage in great research, write brilliant papers, successfully win grants and inspiringly teach students. But there is also mentoring, chairing committees, reviewing grants and papers, engaging the public, pastoral care, setting up spinout companies, performing translational research with an impact in the real world, writing witty but insightful blog posts for major international careers-focussed websites (worth a try), being a safe pair of hands (delivering what you have been asked to deliver), helping old ladies across roads and generally being a nice person. (The old ladies part probably won’t help your career much, but being a valued member of the department rather than disruptive and toxic will).
But don’t just take my word for it. Richard Follett, director of international recruitment at the University of Sussex, UK, says there are two further ways to add value. “Through academic leadership in research, and through professional leadership, which includes administrative roles and outward-facing work with different external stakeholders.”
Remember, the faculty selected you and wants you to succeed, so investing in and developing early career academics is a core function of academic life. “People are the most valuable asset of any institution and we need to set them up for success,” says Maggie Dallman, associate provost at Imperial College London, UK. “To that end, each individual will contribute to university life in an individual way, but at a research-intensive institute like Imperial College London, research will always be a key element”.
Admin is the new research
You may want to believe that academia is all about the research, but unless you have an atom smasher in your shed or an electron microscope in your closet, you need a lab to work in and the appropriate academic structures to support you. Chairing the undergraduate bicycle safety committee may not be what you dreamed of when you were a postdoc working ‘till two in the morning, generating data in response to reviewers’ comments that only ended up in the supplementary figures of your career-making paper, but the other, non-research, activities are important. Admittedly some of the things you need to do will drain the life out of you (Health and Safety meetings), but you may find a hidden talent in the dark arts of committee chairing or renewed energy from discussing your research with school children. Either way you have to do it. Find out what’s expected of you, do it with good grace and then get back to solving the mysteries of the universe.
In the next gripping instalment, I will suggest some strategies to help you get the balance right between research and other duties.
John Tregoning is an immunologist studying the immune response to respiratory viral infections. He has been a PI since 2008 and is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London. You can read more of his writing here.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: