0518-backup-A year in the life of a new professor

A year in the life of a new professor

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

Lisa M. Jarvis


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.

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.


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.

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.”


Out of the lab, into the classroom

Credit: Jim Prisching
Kalow meets with a first-year graduate student who joined her lab in November.

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.

How will the start of the school year change life for the new professors? Tune in tomorrow to find out.