It is important to get the balance between your different responsibilities right when starting your academic post, John Tregoning suggests some ninja tips to help you choose.
Guest contributor John Tregoning
So you have just read my first blog post, Nobody rides for free, and have come to terms with the idea that academia is more than just research. Now you face a dilemma – how best to add value and still be productive. One of the biggest challenges facing early stage academics is not over-diluting your effort and getting the balance of activities right. Whilst everyone is different and the balance can change over the trajectory of a career, with teaching/grants predominant early on and admin/impact coming later, the following approaches can help you to decide how best to spend your time.
Mentoring. You are not the first person to start a career and academics love to give advice. The simple act of talking through problems can often clarify the solutions. Find someone local, trustworthy (and ideally not your boss) who is willing to give up a bit of their time and sound them out. If you can’t find someone, many institutions now have mentoring schemes to help guide you through the maze. “At my university, new faculty are enrolled into a formal mentorship programme,” says Jamie Mann, assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. “This non-supervisory process ensures new faculty members can access the critical support and assistance of more experienced colleagues, enabling new recruits to better achieve their professional goals.” Don’t limit yourself to one person; it may be that you get prudent political advice from one professor and great grantsmanship guidance from another.
Key performance indicators. These represent what the institution expects of you, they are a way of benchmarking what you are doing against what is expected – hours taught, funding in, papers out etc. “At an early stage, as a research oriented academic, demonstrating capacity to successfully instigate new research is a high priority,” says Tom Bibby, associate professor at the University of Southampton, UK. “Most departments will help you with your early workload to meet this goal.”
Mutual Benefit. Many of the value-adding activities will not necessarily feel like they are directly contributing to your main effort. However, there can often be overlaps, for example animal ethics boards may help you refine your experimental technique, review panels will help you write grants and teaching can help you dissect the fine detail of a topic that you last thought about as an undergraduate (believe me, nothing sharpens the mind as much as the panic induced by a poorly prepared lecture). Teaching can also segue directly with your research, Dr Rachel Allen, senior lecturer, St George’s, University of London, UK says. “Putting teaching in the context of current research adds both relevance and interest; university teaching should be more than what is available in the text books. Learning about the particular research strengths of their university also raises students’ institutional pride and can increase engagement in the subject matter, particularly when tied to undergraduate research projects.” You may need to do some strategic planning about how you can directly benefit whilst still adding value, but you are (within reason) allowed to turn things down, when deciding to serve or not to serve.
Monetise your time. Mercenary, but useful. Everything has a value, e.g. one hour of teaching, one high impact paper included in the REF (UK research evaluation exercise), 17 marked exam scripts etc. Calculate how much you cost the university, determine how much income each activity generates and ensure the work you do earns more than you cost the institution. If the things you are doing are not directly earning money, don’t do them!
Change is good. Different approaches will be appropriate for different individuals, try them all out, see what works for you. The balance of what is appropriate can and will change over the trajectory of a career, with teaching/ grants predominant early on and admin/ impact coming later, so it is worth reassessing every year or so what is of benefit to you and the university. There is nothing worse than being stuck with something unfulfilling so if it is really draining time and energy, find a way to move on and do things closer to your interests. Doing a broad range of different activities is, for me, one of the great joys of academia, get the balance right for yourself and enjoy it.
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: