Careers

A year in the life of a new professor

Inside the exhilarating, frustrating, messy transition to being the boss

Lisa M. Jarvis

Congratulations!

On the enthusiastic recommendation of the faculty, the University of Your Dreams is pleased to offer you an appointment as an assistant professor of chemistry.

You did it! All those years of hard work—college, summers in the lab, the graduate school grind, paying dues as a postdoctoral researcher, the intense job hunt—have paid off. Here are the keys to your very own lab. You are officially an independent scientist.

If you read the fine print, you’ll notice that we also expect you to be a fundraiser, a manager, a teacher, and a mentor. In addition, our students may call on you at any time to serve as a counselor and confidant. There will probably be tears—some could be yours. There will be curveballs—hopefully none land in your lab. But we also promise triumphs, big and small, and the opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.

Are you ready for all that? Great. Get to work! The tenure clock is ticking.

Are you a newly-hired chemistry professor or in the early stages of your career? Join our Facebook group to connect with other new chemistry PIs

Read what chemists have to say about C&EN’s ‘A year in the life of a new professor.’

Every freshly minted assistant professor is acutely aware of how lucky they are to finally be in the job they’ve worked so hard for, one where they get paid to pursue their own ideas and nurture the next generation of chemists. In any given year, only 80 or so of those academic positions open up at research-intensive schools in the U.S., and securing one can feel like winning the career lottery.

But whether it’s hesitancy about being in front of a classroom or worry about developing the right leadership style, no one walks into an assistant professorship feeling confident about every aspect of the job. Even the lab, every scientist’s comfort zone, can start to feel foreign when laden with the pressure to balance a budget, manage multiple projects, and publish.

Since summer 2016, C&EN has followed three chemists—Northwestern University’s Julia Kalow, Cornell University’s Song Lin, and University of California, San Diego’s Valerie Schmidt—as they navigated their new jobs at competitive research institutions. What follows is a chronicle of their frustrating, exhausting, rewarding, and gratifying first year.

Are you a newly-hired chemistry professor or in the early stages of your career? Join our Facebook group to connect with other new chemistry PIs

Read what chemists have to say about C&EN’s ‘A year in the life of a new professor.’

Summer

Learn everything, all at once

Credit: Jim Prisching
Well aware that the learning curve for new professors is steep, Julia Kalow walked into her first year at Northwestern with a “no regrets” mantra.
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Sitting at a coffee shop in Evanston on an unseasonably warm June morning, Julia Kalow mapped out everything that had gone into arriving at this moment. She had arrived at Northwestern just days earlier, but the planning for her new lab began months ago—pretty much from the moment she accepted the job here.

If Kalow felt any major stress over this next big step in her career, she didn’t show it as she settled in with her coffee. Prone to pull her longish brown hair back into a ponytail and favoring khakis and solid-colored tops, Kalow was decidedly at home with herself, a quality that would prove helpful as she navigated her new role.

As she walked through how she planned to get her labs going, she laughed at the predicament of the new chemistry professor. This sink-or-swim course in teaching, people management, and fundraising is daunting but manageable if approached in an organized, measured way. For Kalow, that’s all about keeping an eye on the long game. This is just the first year. The progress she would make now was important, and she had goals for herself, but Kalow also knew she would make mistakes. In moments of doubt, she and another newish academic liked to text one other, “No regrets,” a two-word reminder that no one is perfect at this job.

After the glee of securing that coveted assistant professorship comes the reality that there’s so much work to be done. A personal website advertising your research needs to go up. Budgets need to be made. Labs need to be designed and renovated. Grad students need to be recruited and postdocs hired. Class syllabi need to be created. All of it needs to be done pretty much immediately.

It all starts with the blank slate that is your lab. Almost immediately after hammering out the details of the start-up package, that pot of cash provided by the university to keep your research going until you can pull in grant money, your new employer will want to start renovating your labs.

Credit: Sandy Huffaker Photography
Walking into her new labs at UCSD for the first time, Valerie Schmidt was elated that “all of this is mine!”

As a postdoc, Valerie Schmidt started making lists of all the equipment she regularly used and made notes each time she ordered something. “Okay, we order from this company, and this is the price they gave us, and here are the sales reps,” she says. “It’s basically about being as organized as humanly possible and using Excel and making tab upon tab upon tab.”

You think you’ve done a superb job, and then you get into the space for real and look around and say, ‘Actually, I change my mind,’

— Valerie Schmidt

Before officially starting at the University of California, San Diego, Schmidt made several trips to visit her new labs, which at the time were still occupied by another group. Although she could see the skeleton of her space and had thought carefully about what she wanted, “it’s like a giant game of chess that you have to play blindfolded,” she says.

“You think you’ve done a superb job, and then you get into the space for real and look around and say, ‘Actually, I change my mind,’ ” Schmidt says.

Kalow and Schmidt both had what they hoped was a leg up in this first year: As graduate students, each had joined labs run by professors who were just starting their independent careers. Kalow worked with Abigail Doyle at Princeton University, and Schmidt with Erik Alexanian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. That experience gave the researchers unique insight into what to expect when starting a lab, warts and all.

Still, watching it all unfold is different from being on the other side of the desk, where everyone is looking to you to make each decision and to put out every fire. It is impossible to be completely prepared for the start-up process.

“You go through so many years of education and following people’s instructions and then don’t really get eased into the professor position,” says Lauren Buchanan, who started in August as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University.

As a spectroscopist, Buchanan needs stringent conditions to support her delicate equipment. Almost as soon as she accepted the job at Vanderbilt, she was faced with questions from electricians and engineers that she simply hadn’t considered. “I was like, I don’t know, the lab space has always been here. Do I care what type of light bulbs you put in?” she laughs.

Credit: Heather Ainsworth Photography
Song Lin shrugged off anxiety over quickly growing his group at Cornell, explaining, “I’m a chemist. I do experiments.”

And then there are the delays. Even the most organized professor cannot control the sometimes maddeningly slow pace of lab renovations. Song Lin arrived at Cornell in July to a sizable group: Three undergraduate students and two postdocs had already signed on to work with him. Lin’s newly formed team immediately rolled up their sleeves to transform his empty labs into their new home.

But waiting for an inspection and certification of his fume hoods meant no actual experiments could be run until mid-August. “It was pretty frustrating. We finished setting up the labs in three weeks and then were just sitting around doing nothing.”

Rationally, new professors know that a few weeks or months of delays are a blip in what they hope will be a long career. But keeping that perspective in those summer months—without real labs, without classes to teach, and with a “group” that might be just you and your thoughts—can be tough.

Those hiccups lead to unsettling down time. Although Kalow was reasonably comfortable not having her own lab space after arriving in mid-June, figuring out how to feel productive as July turned into August, with an undergraduate and two graduate students now in the fold, was tough. “The first month, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d sit there and read or think, and I had a lot of meetings with students because what else are they going to do?” Kalow says.

As Hosea Nelson, who is now wrapping up his second year as an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, puts it, “You wish there was a Magic 8-Ball on your desk that you could shake and tell you what to do as a professor.”

Those weeks and months of feeling adrift are soon forgotten when everything finally comes together. The first time Schmidt walked into her new labs, she had what she describes as the first of several “Lion King” moments. “When Mufasa is like, ‘Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom,’ that’s kind of how I feel when I open our lab door. All of this is mine!” she says.

That delicious sense of arrival is soon tempered with the knowledge that ownership can be onerous. Yes, it is the professor’s name in lights when a project is a huge success, but it is also the professor’s problem if equipment breaks or someone has an accident in the lab. And until grants come rolling in, those start-up funds are shrinking rapidly. Running her first experiment in her own labs, Schmidt found herself mentally calculating how much every last chemical costs.

Keary Engle, thriving in his second year at Scripps Research Institute California, remembers arriving at his labs—sparkling clean and completely empty—and feeling momentarily overcome with doubt. “There’s a voice in the back of your head going, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” Engle says.

Building a team that can help you get everything off the ground is a constant preoccupation. In the months leading up to their arrival on campus, new professors pore over the files of incoming students to decide which ones to target for their groups. They have lofty goals of how many graduate students they’d like to add—goals that might not jibe with the actual number of new students focused on their particular flavor of chemistry. And they contemplate whether to integrate other experienced scientists into the mix.

No issue is as polarizing for new professors as the decision to hire—or not hire—a postdoc in that first year. Everyone they talk to wants to offer advice on the subject. “I’ve met people who say, ‘Yes, right away, it’s the most important thing you’ll do. It’ll make your career,’ ” Schmidt says. “And then I’ve met people who say, ‘No, you are the best postdoc you’ve ever had.’ ”

Many agonize over the choice. A new lab doesn’t just run itself, and new professors are keenly aware that a postdoc could take on a lot of tasks that would otherwise fall to them. Ideally, the person they bring on will be responsible, have a good work ethic, and generally set a positive tone for graduate students to emulate.

But new professors fret over how a postdoc will shape a nascent and fragile group culture. Ominous tales passed down from experienced faculty warn of a bad hire poisoning the atmosphere of a lab.

At a more fundamental level, many new professors are simply not convinced great researchers will want to join a team that has yet to be established and might take some time to hit its stride. Schmidt paraphrases an old Groucho Marx quote to explain her hesitancy: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

It’s a valid concern. The minute news of their appointment hits, unsolicited applications from postdocs crowd their inbox. At top schools, where it’s no secret that new professors have plenty of start-up money, they might get four or five résumés a day.

Yet the publications a professor amassed as a grad student or postdoc only hint at the direction their new lab will take. Getting applications from people wanting to join before the doors have even opened makes freshly minted professors suspicious.

Kalow had been tentatively filtering résumés over the summer when a candidate who was too good to pass up fell into her lap. He had originally reached out to her Northwestern colleague William Dichtel, who didn’t have room for the researcher and passed his application on to Kalow. She leaped at the opportunity to bring on someone who normally wouldn’t consider a young lab.

Getting résumés from senior colleagues is a strategy many new professors employ to improve their candidate pool. Another tack is to cultivate a good network of relationships during interview season.

Scripps’s Engle tapped a graduate student he had been impressed by while visiting University of Chicago to join his new lab, a move he says had a transformative effect on research in his first year. Of course, convincing the student to come to La Jolla, Calif., took a full-court press involving not just Engle but also Engle’s big-name colleague Phil Baran.

The allure of jump-starting his career outweighed any concerns Cornell’s Lin had with getting the wrong postdoc. Lin’s first two postdocs arrived in Ithaca just weeks after Lin got to campus. “I don’t know whether this is going to pan out well for me, but I’m willing to take the risk and see,” he says. “I’m a chemist. I do experiments.”

He rationalized that his time would be split across so many responsibilities that having an extra set of steady hands in the lab would be the only way to get preliminary data that first year. Lin’s biggest worry was that the wrong addition would set a negative tone in the lab. A postdoc who might need more training but was trying hard was okay; someone who was lazy and set a bad example for the graduate students was not.

Lin had an advantage: As a Chinese native who did his undergraduate degree at Peking University, he had a network of academic contacts in China that better equipped him to assess Chinese candidates whom other professors might overlook.

With the help of his postdocs, Lin was squarely focused on finally testing out his own ideas in the lab. “Hopefully by the end of the first year, I will not necessarily have publications but will have something I know I’m going to be publishing,” he says. “That will be my goal.”

Schmidt, meanwhile, had no plans to hire anyone anytime soon. “Until I’m a little more established and I start getting folks because they know my chemistry and want to be a part of it, I’ll probably hold off.” She pauses, adding that, of course, there are exceptions to that firm stance. She’d take someone from one of her previous groups in a heartbeat and would have to entertain a fantastic candidate if one dropped in her lap. “I’ll probably change my mind eight times a day.”

Fall

Out of the lab, into the classroom

Credit: Jim Prisching
Kalow meets with a first-year graduate student who joined her lab in November.
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That awkward period during which new professors might find themselves with unusable labs, few or no students to fill them, and a lot of time sitting behind a desk with their thoughts comes to an abrupt end in September. Overnight, the arrival of students wakes college campuses from their sleepy August state.

On a picture-perfect September day in Evanston, hundreds of teenagers in purple “Class of ’20” T-shirts lined up across the street from a wrought iron arch, the emblematic gateway to Northwestern University. Parents hooked an arm around their new college freshman’s shoulders, posing for one last emotional family photo before a makeshift marching band ushered everyone to a welcome ceremony. An event organizer waved a pack of Kleenex at passersby, yelling, “Tissues? Anyone need tissues?”

A few blocks north, inside the school’s “tech” building, Julia Kalow is oblivious to the purple parade going on outside. But the campus awakening has definitely spread to her group. She gestures at burgeoning signs of life in her labs. “We’re filling the central corridor now,” she notes with a satisfied nod.

Kalow’s labs are spacious: 16 gleaming hoods that she inherited not because of some expectation of immediate output but because that’s all that were available when she joined the faculty. Much of the lab will be empty for a while; Kalow knows better than to try to grow too fast.

Traces of her expanding group–by September, she had two graduate students, an undergrad, and a postdoctoral researcher–could be found throughout the space. Although student’s time was being frustratingly occupied by a weeks-long orientation, reactions were under way in the lab, and a few of the adjacent desks were strewn with stray papers and the occasional backpack.

While the official start of the school year made the job feel more real, it also marked the arrival of an aspect of the job that strikes fear in the heart of many the novice professor: teaching.

Unlike in the humanities, where graduate students commonly depend on teaching to support themselves, many chemists can get through their Ph.D. without putting in more than a year or two in a classroom. Often that experience is as a teaching assistant; they’ve never had to actually create a syllabus.

To ease the transition, chemistry departments try to take it easy on their junior faculty during that first year. Many new professors are allowed to take on just one or two classes, often graduate-level courses in their area of expertise, rather than being thrown into a large lecture hall full of undergrads.

Universities do offer optional teacher training, and some might even have a learning center where experts observe classes and provide feedback for how to do better. But by and large, folks are walking into a classroom with little more than a few days or weeks of guidance on how to do that aspect of the job.

And although, as UCLA’s Nelson points out, “people who get this job are pretty well spoken in front of a crowd,” the ability to give a smooth talk about research might not directly translate to being a good teacher. “Being charismatic and smart is not enough,” he adds.

Thinking back, Kalow realized it had been seven years since she’d last taught a course. “Teaching was hard as a grad student. I wasn’t particularly good at it,” she says.

Still, she was excited about her first course on organic reaction mechanisms, a class she wished she’d had as a grad student. Through Twitter, Kalow had stumbled upon a paper in Journal of Chemical Education in which two professors at the University of North Carolina laid out what she considered a brilliant syllabus for her graduate-level class.

And she had at least a little bit of preparation for what lay ahead. A few weeks earlier, she, Lin, and Schmidt had all participated in the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative New Faculty Workshop, a two-day training meant to help early-career chemists with this daunting aspect of their job.

Developed by Andrew Feig and Rory Waterman, chemists at Wayne State University and the University of Vermont, respectively, the course is meant to give professors a few tools to bring their teaching into the 21st century. Students today are used to being taught using an “active learning” approach rather than simply being lectured at, Feig notes. Some new professors might never have even taken a class in that style.

Although UCSD’s Schmidt wasn’t teaching her first quarter, she was excited about testing out that active learning approach in her classroom. In addition to the Cottrell workshop, she’d taken two syllabus-writing classes, including one focused purely on an interactive syllabus, while doing her postdoc at Princeton.

And she had an edge over her peers: During college, Schmidt was a substitute math and science teacher at a middle school. “I got out of that nervous space about being in the classroom then,“ she says. “If I can handle a class of seventh graders, I’m good.“

Feig and his colleagues want early-career professors to be creative in their teaching, but their larger purpose is to show them how to be as efficient as they are effective. “You can spend all your time being a superb teacher, but your job is going to be relatively short,” Feig says.

Indeed, one of the first things new professors realize is how much time teaching will suck out of their already busy schedule. “Even though you’re teaching a course that maybe you’ve taken before, no one really tells you how much time it takes to write a single one-hour lecture,” Vanderbilt’s Buchanan says. “It seems really simple, like, ’Oh, I can write a few weeks’ worth of lectures in an afternoon!’ ”

Credit: Heather Ainsworth
Schmidt’s prior experience teaching made her least anxious about that part of her new job.

In reality, one lecture might take an afternoon or longer. Part of that time is spent relearning concepts you haven’t thought about for years, Buchanan, who started out teaching a physical chemistry course, adds. The hope is that when a student lobs a question at you, “you’re not standing up there dumbfounded,” laughs Travis White, a new chemistry professor at Ohio University.

After his first go-round teaching a graduate-level organic synthesis course, UCLA’s Nelson realized he would need to switch up his syllabus to better match his interests. He’d felt pressured to cover certain material that was outside his comfort zone, and it hadn’t gone well. “I don’t know how to describe how many ways it was a disaster,” he says.

That initial course load and its attendant anxieties come just as all the other responsibilities of the job are ramping up. Departmental meetings abound, and hiring or admissions committees are suddenly in full swing. That unfettered time in the lab that these new professors not too long ago enjoyed as a postdoc? That’s a thing of the past. Keeping up with everything requires a degree of organization that goes beyond what some have previously experienced.

As the school year got under way at Cornell, Lin was feeling the pressure of juggling so many different and new responsibilities. “Right now, it’s from teaching,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been working every day, but I’m not getting things done.”

Lin taught three times in graduate school–a lab course and twice leading a two-hour-long discussion section for a sophomore-level organic chemistry class–an experience he looks back on fondly.

But he was having trouble pacing his lectures and figuring out how to get students excited about learning. “It’s funny–maybe it’s because the way I teach isn’t efficient enough–but the students haven’t been interactive.” Their lack of participation was making it hard for Lin to gauge whether they actually understood the material.

Clearly an analytical thinker, Lin asked some senior colleagues to sit in on his class to get an outside perspective on his teaching skills. He hoped their honest feedback, no matter how brutal, would help him be better at this job. And it did. As the semester progressed, he started to relax in front of the class.

By mid-quarter, Kalow was starting to find her groove–at least when it came to preparing for class. The magic number of pages of notes to fill an 80-minute lecture? Seven. The best number of PowerPoint slides to include in a class? Zero. She had quickly realized that slides took way too long to prepare and switched to primarily using the blackboard to teach.

That isn’t to say everything was going perfectly. Kalow laughs thinking about the many moments that she plans to do differently next time around. A few teaching experiments fell flat, and she was keeping notes about the parts of her course that didn’t go over well.

“Even though you’re teaching a course that maybe you’ve taken before, no one really tells you how much time it takes to write a single one-hour lecture.”

Lauren Buchanan, Vanderbilt University

Nearly every new professor was realizing how tough it is to write a reasonable exam. It requires stepping outside your own deep knowledge of a subject and considering the different levels of training and interest sitting in the chairs each week. Even though the questions seem totally obvious to you, students simply might not get it.

Because quarters go by fast, Kalow wanted to squeeze in a good assessment for students before the deadline to drop the class. But it turned out her first test was way too hard; afterward, her class winnowed down to 18 people. That was fine–she’d had quite a few undergraduates in the class–but Kalow also knew she’d need to get better at judging the difficulty of the material.

Although classes present a challenge, many new professors are actually keen to teach in that first half of the year. Their secret strategy? To use that regular face time with as-yet untethered graduate students to recruit one or two for their group.

Every new professor walks onto campus with a target number of graduate students they’d like to add to their team. Students will always gravitate to the big-name professors, but new professors hope they can convince a few aspiring researchers to take a risk with a new lab.

Somewhere between late October and Thanksgiving, depending on the school, most graduate students have committed to a group. By Nov. 1, Lin had three new first-years in his group; by Thanksgiving, Kalow had added two–one of whom she thinks was compelled to join after her class–plus a second-year graduate student who had transferred to her team in mid-September.

Both were pleased with the outcome, but that first go-round at recruitment can be tricky. Osvaldo Gutierrez, who started at University of Maryland, College Park, in June, had underestimated the difficulty of selling his science to prospective students. “That’s the one thing I don’t think I was prepared for at all. I knew how to mentor, but not recruit,” he says.

In some instances, the ability to recruit students is simply out of the hands of a new professor. UCSD had a small incoming crop of Ph.D. candidates–about 25% fewer students than in a typical year there, just and just two of whom planned to focus on organic chemistry. As a consequence, Schmidt didn’t get any first-year graduate students.

But a second-year had transferred to her team, which also included a master’s student and two undergrads. And another master’s student planned to do a rotation in her lab the next quarter.

The smaller-than-expected group affected how she balanced her time. “Because I don’t necessarily have the immediate group that I envisioned, I have taken on a lot more projects for myself than I probably would have otherwise,” she says.

Winter

Back in the lab—this time, as the boss

Credit: Sandy Huffaker Photography
Schmidt and two students flip through papers after an exam.
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On a mid-December day in Ithaca, N.Y., with the first semester at Cornell on its last gasp, Lin was feeling really good. His first-year grad students were nearly done with their final exams, putting them that much closer to being in Lin’s lab full-time, and Lin himself had just wrapped up teaching for the school year.

He was getting ready to head to Italy for a well-deserved break and expected that when he returned, his spring semester could be more about the part of the job he loved most: the chemistry. Lin’s research was going surprisingly well—so well that he was hoping to have a publication ready by late spring. “That would be amazing,” he adds softly.

And Lin’s genuine enthusiasm for his research and earnestness to match his strengths in the lab in other parts of his job had definitely earned the respect of his colleagues at Cornell. “I see myself growing as a professor, as a lab manager. That’s something I’m very happy with,” Lin says.

Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. By December, he had 10 people under his wing, and figuring out the right management style for each of them was a work in progress.

One major hurdle for Lin was clearly going to be tempering his expectations for younger researchers. It takes just a few minutes of chatting with Lin to understand what an ambitious scientist he is. His work ethic will always be hard for his students to match.

Lin was also a bit perplexed by some students’ failure to prioritize research over classes. For an analytical mind, cracking the emotional problem of what motivates different personalities brought him out of his comfort zone. “I definitely feel a little stressed,” Lin says. “This is going to be a pretty steep learning curve for me to start to actually manage graduate students.”

He was characteristically determined to figure out the best way to manage each member of his lab. Senior faculty had become an indispensable resource, offering advice and a gut check on whether Lin was taking the right approach to dealing with his students.

For now, his default mode was to lead by example. “When they see their adviser in the lab, hopefully they’ll be excited, as well.”

At the halfway mark, the new professors are starting to feel the growing pains experienced by any young start-up, be it an academic lab or a company. Virtually overnight, they’ve gone from a mentorship role as a postdoc to a management role as a professor, and everyone was having trouble adjusting.

“When you’re getting your Ph.D., you’re focused on hard skills, like chemistry,” says Raychelle Burks, now a year into her assistant professor role at St. Edward’s University. “And yet it is the soft skills that are the most difficult—managing teams, coordinating a lot of different personalities, and navigating diplomacy—the human side of running any endeavor.”

Burks’s experiences outside academia were far more helpful on the soft skills side than anything she learned while in grad school. She jokes that the best preparation she had for managing students was a college job running a retail store.

New professors discover that management challenges quickly escalate. As fall turned to winter, it became increasingly clear that neither Kalow nor her postdoc was happy with their arrangement. By February, Kalow found a place for him at another lab at Northwestern, but that hiccup was troubling even for someone living this year with a “no regrets” mantra.

Although uncharacteristically uncomfortable talking about the situation, Kalow seemed genuinely glad to have learned something from the experience. In hindsight, her definition of a “good” postdoctoral candidate might have been flawed. Kalow had always thought that a résumé that featured strong publications was the best indication of someone’s strengths as a scientist.

“One thing I realized is that having a good CV might just mean that they haven’t faced a lot of experimental obstacles,” she says. That researcher might have excellent hands but not be well equipped to drop into a lab where everything is new and projects aren’t going to run smoothly—or might not even work at all.

“Now, I’m looking for candidates who maybe didn’t have the perfect Ph.D. but where I can see clearly that they overcame some sort of obstacle experimentally. That, in my mind, shows they’re good at problem solving and pushing through things.”

But times when the job feels particularly tough are thankfully balanced by periods where everything magically falls into place. By late February, Kalow’s group was starting to function more as an autonomous team rather than needing direction from her at every turn. As a group meeting began, one of her graduate students, unprompted, raised the issue of how to redistribute jobs that the recently departed postdoc had handled; everyone stepped up to take something on.

Some of that cohesiveness can be achieved only with time. A group holiday celebration in January was way less awkward than a barbecue Kalow held at her house in the summer. By then, everyone simply knew each other better.

A lot of becoming a good leader can be chalked up to getting comfortable being the boss. As Alison Narayan, who is wrapping up her second year at the University of Michigan, puts it, “As the leader, you want to make sure everyone feels like you’re in control of the ship.” Having opened the doors to her lab just 11 days after giving birth to her second child, Narayan was juggling more than the typical new professor does. Under those circumstances, conveying confidence and organization to her students felt extra important.

Credit: Heather Ainsworth
Lin listens as a student presents at group meeting.

One of the first tests for new professors is figuring out how to establish clear expectations for their students. Establishing boundaries sounds deceptively simple: Lay out a time commitment for the lab, assign each member jobs, be clear about research goals.

When setting expectations, most take a cue from the lab culture they experienced as a graduate student or postdoc. But deciding how and whether to enforce those rules is something they just have to feel out.

“As the leader, you want to make sure everyone feels like you’re in control of the ship.”

—Alison Narayan, University of Michigan

University of Maryland’s Gutierrez recalls a student in his newly formed group asking if their weekly meeting could be moved so he could do an activity. Although Gutierrez’s instinct was to be accommodating, he also didn’t want to set a precedent that the time of the group meeting was up for debate. “You don’t want to have them running the group rather than you running the group,” he says.

Yet professors walk a delicate line: Within those boundaries, they also want to be flexible and acknowledge that their students are human. Lin assigned lab upkeep jobs to members of his group but struggled with whether to enforce them. “If you see some people not doing their job, are you going to jump in and do it for them, or should you keep testing them?” he wonders.

While Lin wants his group to know he expects them to be responsible, he also doesn’t want to seem above hard work. “One piece of really good advice I got is that you shouldn’t feel like you are too good to do anything in your lab,” he says. “I do go in and order things for students and send empty bottles to the dumpster or make substrates and clean up.”

By winter, Kalow was starting to feel more at home at the helm of the ship. “It’s been hard for me to learn how to boss people around. I still say everything as a suggestion, even when I don’t mean it as a suggestion.” Luckily, her students largely interpret her suggestions as commands.

She was finding her own ways of getting her students to take on responsibilities. After bringing all the essentials to her first few group meetings—the room key, a laptop, cords, the projector—she sent a clear message one Friday afternoon by showing up empty-handed. When her students looked at her blankly and asked where everything was, she could only laugh. “I was like, okay, you guys have to do this stuff.” And from then on, they did.

Beyond setting the rules and solving interpersonal problems, leaders need to be champions for their students. Earlier than expected, UCSD’s Schmidt found herself contemplating the short- and long-term goals of her group members. Whereas many top-tier graduate programs offer only a doctoral degree in chemistry, UCSD offers a terminal master’s degree. By winter, two students in Schmidt’s group had not much more than a year left to wrap up their research.

That meant finding the best way to train students whose time horizon was different from what Schmidt experienced in graduate school. She needed to come up with research projects that they could do in a truncated period and yet could ideally still yield a publication.

And a new deadline loomed large. UCSD’s master’s students are generally focused on getting a job in industry, a career aspiration that Schmidt needed to help them achieve sooner rather than later.

“Usually with a Ph.D. student, you have four or five years to worry about those things—to initiate the type of outreach to get folks employed,” Schmidt says. Now, just a few months into the job, she was already making calls and probing contacts from grad school for leads.

As new professors test out different approaches to being an advocate, a boss, an educator, and a mentor, they do their best at accepting that the learning curve is steep. “You just have to try to keep your perspective that we’re going to get there,” Schmidt says. “It’s an investment in time and people, and I have to be as patient as I can be, which is easier said than done.”

Spring

The pressure to publish sets in

Credit: Jim Prisching
After getting scooped, Kalow had to find a new direction for one project.
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As the sun dipped into the ocean on a sublime early March day in San Diego, Schmidt’s bubbly enthusiasm—typically boundless—was starting to wane.

That afternoon, she’d taught a graduate class in organic mechanisms, refereeing as two teams of students competed to, as Schmidt put it, “dazzle us with your synthesis of discodermolide.” Immediately after, she’d held office hours, patiently going over a test with the one person who stopped by—an undergraduate who prefaced his conversation with, “I’m not trying to get my grade changed, but…”

Last, there was group meeting. The sun was just setting when she plopped fresh-cut watermelon, Cheez-Its, and Oreos on a conference table and gestured to her second-year graduate student to kick things off. He drew a molecule on the blackboard and asked everyone to estimate its pKa—a measure of its acidity—and bond strength.

During long pauses, while students scratched away at the problem, Schmidt tried to hold back yawns. One by one, students gamely stuck Post-its to their foreheads and looked around to see if their guesses were in line with the others.

She coaxed a discussion out of them, all the while focusing on the words they used to defend their answers. Schmidt is trying to get them comfortable speaking the language of chemistry. She wants students leaving her group with a rock-solid knowledge base—to be known for the high-quality training they get in her lab.

By 7:30 PM, as students reviewed papers related to their research, she surreptitiously scrolled through the e-mails that had piled up throughout the afternoon. Exhaustion was starting to show in the eyes of the normally upbeat, funny professor.

Finally, around 8 PM, Schmidt was headed home. She’d definitely earned a few hours with her feet up on the couch, a glass of wine, and Netflix. But that wasn’t her plan. She was going home to pop out her contacts, change out of her teaching clothes, and head back to the lab. There was an experiment to run.

By spring, the new professors are starting to gain traction in the lab. Some of the projects they pitched during the job interview process might have failed, but most folks have regrouped and moved on to ideas that are showing the first promising results. Their successes might be small, but each small step—moving beyond starting materials to getting actual products, or finally getting a large piece of equipment up and running—feels like an achievement.

And as those bits of data emerge from their independent labs, a first publication starts to feel tantalizingly within reach. No one will openly admit their goal is to have an article out their first year, but everyone would love to be one of the rare cases where an early project magically works out. That first paper is ample motivation to head back into the lab after an exhausting day.

The push to publish comes against the backdrop of a constantly ticking tenure clock. Those five to seven years until your peers review your progress? They go fast. And although new professors are tempted to apply for early-career grants, another factor considered during tenure, they know that without enough data, their chances of bringing in money are slim.

But beyond job security, publishing carries a more immediate allure: That first paper is the worldwide debut of your scientific vision. Until now, new professors are known for the work they did in someone else’s lab. True, during hiring seasons, they toured the country giving talks about the projects they hoped to work on. But those were all just ideas on paper (or PowerPoint). Now they’ve been put into practice.

“Before you publish your first paper, no one knows what you’re working on,” Cornell’s Lin says.

By the end of April, Lin was poised to send out his first paper for review. He credited his rapid progress to his decision to quickly grow his group. One of the first postdocs he brought on had taken the lead on the successful project. “Obviously hiring a postdoc is a pretty big decision. I definitely think I benefited from it,” he says.

But there was a flip side to that rapid growth. A second project in Lin’s lab was nearing the point of publication when Lin made an alarming discovery: One of his postdocs had mischaracterized the structure of a starting material for the project.

“I wasn’t super thrilled for a few weeks,” Lin admits. But he also knew that he needed to be patient with the researcher. If he wanted to prevent future mistakes with this postdoc or anyone else, he’d need to get to the bottom of how this one occurred.

Lin realized he had expected his postdoc to have the same kind of rigorous training Lin had in graduate school. That assumption meant Lin hadn’t been checking every nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum the postdoc generated. “He’s very hard working, but he needed a little more guidance,” Lin says.

The two sat down with all the NMR spectra from the project, and Lin spent several days showing him how to analyze data for starting materials and products and sharing his thought process for coming up with new directions for the project.

And what initially seemed calamitous turned into a moment of scientific serendipity. Despite that problematic starting material, the reaction he was trying to achieve still worked, a development that didn’t make sense. As Lin and his postdoc unraveled the reason for its success, Lin realized the project might now head in a much more interesting direction than his original intent.

That new direction will require more work and time to cultivate, and Lin is trying to remember to pace himself. “As a first-year assistant professor, when you don’t have anything published, you always want things to go fast,” Lin says. “At some point you have to slow down and think—I can publish this now, or I can refine the work and publish a much better paper six months from now.”

Sometimes even when everything aligns in the lab, the universe finds a way to waylay progress. In February, Kalow’s group at Northwestern had a project with preliminary data that seemed headed toward publication. Then one Friday afternoon in late March, Kalow was scrolling through Feedly during a break between meetings and saw a link to a paper that looked awfully familiar. She’d gotten scooped.

Although it wasn’t a central part of Kalow’s lab, it was a disappointment. It was also the first time in Kalow’s career that another researcher had beat her to the punch. “It’s tough,” Kalow says. “At least the work that was published was really nice work—it’s better than being scooped by a bad paper.”

Credit: Heather Ainsworth
Lin is happy with how far his research has come this first year.

That disappointment wasn’t just about Kalow and her aspirations as a young professor. The project had been her second-year grad student’s baby, and Kalow had to find the right way to break the news to her. More experienced colleagues, Danna Freedman and William Dichtel, counseled Kalow on how to talk to her lab about the situation. The goal was to “not have them get totally despondent but also understand the gravity of the situation,” she says. “That’s a delicate balance.”

She met with her group the Monday after the paper came out. It turned out they’d seen it even before Kalow had but had been afraid to tell her. She talked the young researchers through how to move forward. She came up with a way to roll the work into another project, but it still smarts to push back that first publication.

Being able to deftly pivot their research is another skill these new professors are learning on the job. The ability to expand their research into new directions, whether to salvage a disappointment in the lab or to build on a key new finding, is vital for any group’s long-term survival. Yet during their training, they likely focused on only one or two projects at a time. Now as the leader of the group, it was tough after each successful project to remember to “pause to look at the big picture” and decide which direction your research should head, notes University of Michigan’s Narayan.

Another roadblock for new researchers is self-confidence. The interview process, when you’re asked to stand in front of leaders in your field and give a talk outlining the projects you’d like to tackle in your lab, can leave some feeling a bit bruised. You might have gotten a job, but for some, those biting comments remain in their ear, feeding doubts about the merits of their proposals.

UCLA’s Nelson felt like he was adrift scientifically during his first year. Still stung by criticism that some of his ideas elicited on the job-talk circuit, Nelson lost some trust in his own instincts in the lab. The feedback even made him abandon one particular project altogether. “Scientist Hosea would have just done what I love. But in the context of this job, your mind runs wild and you start doing other stuff,” he says.

After not feeling happy about how research went his first year, he decided to go back to that project. Six months in, it was working splendidly. So much so that in March it yielded his group’s first publication—in Science.

Credit: Heather Ainsworth
Even after a long day, Schmidt always finds the motivation to go back to the lab.

Schmidt also felt a bit battered after the job-search process. “It was tough to have people talk about your science and say, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work,’ ” she says. Her strategy has been to work extra hard to get to the paper that shows the harshest critics that she was right after all.

That mic-drop moment won’t likely come this first year. Schmidt is making good headway on research, but over the winter and spring she had a lot on her plate.

“At some point you have to stop and think—I can publish this now, or I can refine the work and publish a much better paper six months from now.”

Song Lin, Cornell University

She was on the graduate admissions committee, helped with new faculty searches, and taught back-to-back classes—a graduate-level organic synthesis class followed the next quarter by an undergraduate organic chemistry course with 370 students.

The undergraduate class, in particular, was a doozy. A class of about 20 graduate students is far more forgiving about when they get class notes or when exams are graded. Her undergraduates, meanwhile, were prone to ask when they’d have their grade the instant they turned in their test.

“It is a significant time difference,” she laughs. “I’m doing a lot less lab work than I even was before.”

By March, Schmidt had started to come around to the idea of adding a postdoc to her group. Her colleagues at UCSD had been trying to convince her to hire someone so that Schmidt didn’t have to be the point person for every decision and responsibility in the lab. “Right now, everything that gets ordered, I order. I do maintenance on all the larger equipment myself. And I’m working on three projects in the lab myself,” she says, conceding that having someone to help train students and delegate responsibilities would be a tremendous help. The problem, of course, was finding the time to sift through candidates.

Schmidt knows momentum will ramp up next year. The incoming class includes more than a dozen graduate students in her field, and she won’t teach again until next spring, so in theory she should have plenty of time to get students going on the projects she has taken the lead on.

And although she’s not ready to present data at conferences this summer—a place she’d hoped to be when the year began—Schmidt is proud of the tremendous progress her group has made. In a testament to her hands-on training style, her students were adapting and learning quickly.

By spring, she was astounded to hear her students asking each other the critical questions in group meeting that Schmidt would normally ask. “This is like magic. All of a sudden, you’re not the one who is hassling them,” she says. “It’s super cool to watch that happen.”

Another Summer

Reflecting on year one in ‘the coolest job in the world’

Credit: Jim Prisching
Kalow’s group started to be more independent in the lab, leaving her to focus on all the other parts of the job.
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As summer approaches, new professors relish the thought that their group will at long last be able to move in sync toward their common scientific goal: data. Temporarily free from teaching duties and with a lab full of students finally done with classes, professors fantasize about how much chemistry their group will get done.

Of course, their long list of responsibilities persists. That won’t ever change. But they are getting better at managing their time. “Someone told me it’s never that you have less work as you progress, you’re just more efficient at doing it,” UCSD’s Schmidt says. She’s finding that maxim to be true. Now, in the same time it used to take her to set up an experiment, answer e-mails, and train a student, she can get twice as much research done, respond to twice as many e-mails, and go to five meetings.

As they near the one-year mark, the professors overall seem more confident in their decision-making, more comfortable being the boss. Plenty is left to learn, but at least parts of the job will feel easier next year.

Looking back at his first year, Cornell’s Lin says one of the most important things he’s learned is how to be patient. If he sees a student making a mistake, hears of an interpersonal problem, or notices someone not holding their own in the lab, Lin now knows to wait a bit and let the situation play out. “I have a good conversation with the students as opposed to jumping in and being like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing this,’ ” he says. “That’s really hard. It’s harder than you think.”

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For Kalow, the toughest part of being a leader is getting inside other people’s brains to understand what makes them tick. She’s still working on how to design projects that play to individual students’ strengths. Kalow and a fellow Northwestern professor recently did a Q&A for grad students, and whenever a question about mentoring came up, she had to laugh as she explained, “I don’t really know. I’m still figuring it out.” Nonetheless, her even-keeled delivery inspires confidence.

While ecstatic for some breathing room to do research alongside their students, the professors find the arrival of summer is also bittersweet. Lin recently realized it could be the last summer he is in the lab. Between his postdocs, his soon-to-be-second-year graduate students, and the incoming class, Lin felt himself needing to be less and less hands-on with his group.

The goal all along has been to train independent thinkers, and although Kalow hasn’t stopped being excited when students bring her data to discuss, “it’s also weird to not be as close to the process of doing the experiments.”

Kalow was also feeling like she had reached a point where she could rely on her group to handle many of the day-to-day tasks, such as ordering chemicals or getting equipment fixed, that keep a lab running. On a recent weekend, friends visiting from out of town were astonished that Kalow left the planning of an outreach event entirely up to her students. But, she says with pride, they took care of it.

Developing that mutual trust, knowing you and your students are both trying hard to do right by each other, is one of the more gratifying parts of the job, Schmidt says. “I can set an example all day, and I can tell them what they need to do to be successful, but for that to come to fruition, they have to buy into that,” Schmidt says. “Right now, everybody has bought in.”

That transition out of the lab is a natural phase of this new career. Lin knows that if he wants to keep this start-up running, he will need to turn his attention to different parts of the job. “I so look forward to the time when my lab just runs itself and the one thing I need to do is find money to support them,” he says.

Credit: Heather Ainsworth
With research progressing nicely, Lin is turning his attention to writing grants.

Year two is a time when the focus shifts to funding. The budget has always lurked at the back of everyone’s mind this first year. At some point, that generous lump of money provided by the university will run out. The new professors started their first year with a spreadsheet or list of grant deadlines that they had optimistically hoped to hit.

The reality is that the chances of bringing in outside cash are small before a new lab has produced solid preliminary data, let alone publications. Some have pared back their plans until their research gains momentum.

“I get paid to have ideas, go do those ideas, and have students do those ideas. That is so cool.”

—Valerie Schmidt, University of California, San Diego

The time has come to start applying for grants, even if the process yields more feedback than money. As they contemplate their first proposals, young professors in the U.S. can’t escape their fears over how the political environment will affect their career. They had barely settled into their labs when Donald J. Trump won the presidency. Soon thereafter, his Administration proposed deep cuts to government funding agencies that have historically been the bread and butter of academic scientists.

And although government funding agencies have escaped painful cutbacks, at least for now, what feels like an overall decline in public support for science has left many anxious as they make their first push into grant writing. Kalow wonders if future tenure committees will take this political twist into consideration. “Are they going to compare it to what happened to them, or recognize this is not the same climate?”

Although Lin shares the frustrations over the uncertain future for science funding, he’s trying not to let it distract him. “You just have to do your work,” he says. “It doesn’t change the fact that you have to work hard.” His hope is that good science will always be rewarded.

Whether a challenge is external, like the funding environment, or comes from inside their lab, everyone is getting used to the emotional roller coaster of being an early-career academic scientist. For every victorious moment, there is an equally frustrating or disappointing moment. The best they can do is laugh about it and move on.

Anytime she feels stressed, “I take a minute and remind myself that I have the coolest job in the world,” Schmidt says. “I get paid to have ideas, go do those ideas, and have students do those ideas. That is so cool.”

If asked during interview season to contemplate what they want in the longer term for their careers, these new professors would have had a ready answer. Now, a year into this humbling, messy, rewarding job, that question carries more weight.

Lin is unafraid of his ambition and wants to be recognized in his field. But he explains, “It’s not that I care about accolades—rather, I just want to do good chemistry. I want to be good at my job. Hopefully by the time I get tenure, people will look at my work and think, ‘He’s made some pretty interesting contributions.’ ”

Beyond wanting to make an impact on her field, Schmidt wants her legacy to be felt in branches of her lab’s family tree. “I want there to be instant recognition that the students coming from my group are exceptionally well trained. They know how to do experiments, but they also know how to think.”

Kalow looks back on the job interview process as the period when she first got to “live out loud” as a scientist. Every research proposal talk was a small thrill because the ideas—even if they were being critiqued—were all her own.

Nearly a year into putting those ideas into practice, Kalow has definite ideas about the direction she’d like her research to take in the longer term. In the coming months, she and her peers will travel to conferences to debut early results from their independent labs. Many will see their first publications go live.

Even if the data are preliminary, those talks and poster sessions and papers and grant applications will give the larger community a first glimpse of who they really are, and who they want to be, as scientists.

They have been living out loud all year, but quietly—testing their voices in front of their own groups, a classroom, or their colleagues. Now, they’re finally ready to turn up the volume.

New professors by the numbers

In March, C&EN surveyed chemists in their first or second year as an assistant professor. Of the 192 academics we reached out to, 111 responded; 85 identified themselves as working at a research-intensive school, whereas 26 are at primarily undergraduate institutions.

Comments
William T. Winter (Wed May 17 13:20:57 EDT 2017)
In 1977, I made the transition from being a postdoc in a very competitive structural biology program in Big Ten university to an intellectually strong but resource challenged small private university in a major eastern metropolis. One of our few luxuries was a faculty dining room where the chemists has claimed a table for their own. Conversation at that table was spirited and exciting. Bravely and as the most junior member of the group, I decided that I had to find a clever event on which to report . I found something that I thought was most amusing, an ‘addendum’ in the then current issue of Biopolymers that added two more names to the author list for a recently published paper in that journal. Aha, something new and unusual to report to the others at the chemistry table!
When I mentioned this amusing item at the table, the full professor on one side became livid. And another senior faculty member a few seats away burst out laughing. The one who was upset, of course, turned out to be the corresponding author and the other gentlemen was one of the two whose names were added as authors. Despite that gaffe, I did receive tenure a few years later. But, it was an important lesson in both preparation for a discussion and humility.
Jim Palmer (Fri May 19 19:25:20 EDT 2017)
A senior VP once told me, as I took on the role of leading a group at a biotech company, "Imagine that every day you come to work, you're given $1000 to spend, because that is roughly what it costs the company to employ you, once you have factored in your salary, benefits, facilities, equipment, and consumables. Spend that money wisely, as if it were your own." It was a valuable lesson in time and resource management, but also in personal responsibility. It doesn't matter where you are in an organization, top, middle, or bottom of the career ladder, the advice still works well.
Dave Wynn (Tue May 23 13:27:50 EDT 2017)
Industry is no different than teaching in a university or college. Yes teaching is hard and rewarding work. I have taught part-time while working 40-50 hours in my full-time job. Plus I do not receive a 3 month vacation. Try doing what industrial chemists do and I suspect you would still choose teaching. The plaques on the door for an industrial chemist are an even longer list.
Curt Fischer (Wed May 24 16:57:17 EDT 2017)
Mr. Wynn --

You may not be aware that many users of the web site twitter.com have been discussing your comment. Generally, they were very critical of it. Users there have called your comment "dumb", have called you an "asshat", and say that you are "demonstrating [your] ignorance in a national forum." You can see most of the comments at https://twitter.com/Chemjobber/status/867419195650129920 . I'm writing to let you know about their feedback, and to ask you to further explicate yourself. Your comment was confusing to many of us, and we don't know what you meant. Do you think that industrial chemists work harder than academic chemists? Do you think that academic chemists get a 3-month vacation every year? (They don't.) I, for one, would be curious to hear what you have to say, even if that far corners of the internet have already rendered their judgements against you.
Matt Grobis (Thu May 25 17:10:41 EDT 2017)
This is a fantastic, in-depth look into the life of an assistant professor. Thank you to everyone involved in this. I feel like the managerial challenges are not talked about at all in grad school, yet they're a huge part of running a lab.
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