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Life of a professor: Year 1

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 29, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 22

We are creatures of habit. Change is never easy, as it challenges us out of our comfort zones and forces us to face our fear of the unknown. On a more basic level, it also means more work, as glitches, obstacles, and resistance are far more likely to appear.

For a chemist in academia, there is no more uncertain time, or a more crucial time for change, than when individuals transition into their first year as assistant professors.

As a budding first-year academic, you may be tempted to look back and feel that you have done a lot of work to get where you are. You know it’s going to get harder, at least for a while, but you think you are organized and the months of prep will pay off.

And you’ll be wrong. Soon, uncertainty creeps in. Besides the huge learning curve that comes with setting up a lab, recruiting students and postdocs, developing a syllabus, or managing a large budget, you now need to become a boss and a leader. And nobody has prepared you for that.

In addition to being a researcher, you are now also a fundraiser, a mentor, a teacher, and a manager. You are supposed to do five jobs at once at a time when you may be starting to feel a little vulnerable and questioning your competence to do the job. It can feel like walking off a cliff blindfolded.

The transition to assistant professorship at a research-intensive school is the subject of a five-part series of articles that C&EN released last week. C&EN Senior Correspondent Lisa Jarvis followed Julia Kalow from Northwestern University, Valerie Schmidt from the University of California, San Diego, and Song Lin from Cornell University as they went through this process starting in the summer of 2016.

Chapter 1 documents their first few months on the job as they familiarize themselves with their new institutions, begin to build their teams, and set up their labs.

Chapter 2 marks the start of the academic year and the arrival of the (dreaded-by-most) teaching duties.

Chapter 3 covers the halfway mark of that first year, when rookie professors start “to feel the growing pains experienced by any young start-up, be it an academic lab or a company.” This is the time when they learn what it means to be a boss.

Chapter 4 introduces a pressure on an academic’s life that will never leave: the pressure to publish results.

Chapter 5 marks the end of year one. It’s time to take a step back and reflect about the hardships and the accomplishments of the previous 12 months. Certain parts of the job feel a lot easier, and although there is still a lot to learn, the subjects of our series felt much closer to being the leaders they aspire to be.

This project pushed boundaries for C&EN in many ways: its story form, its digital presentation, the way we rolled it out to our readers. The whole story package appeared in print last Monday, and it is also available at

Also on Monday we launched our first-ever Facebook group, which was specifically created to accompany this series. The group is a private place for new professors, whether at research-intensive schools or not, to share their stories, ask for advice, and offer support. I’d like to encourage any current or future professor at any school who started or will start their jobs in 2015, 2016, or 2017 to join the group at and meet individuals who are going through the same transition.

I’d also like to thank the professors who allowed us to get insight into their lives for the first year of their professorship. We’ve already seen suggestions for other career types or stages that readers are interested in seeing C&EN treat this way. We are currently considering these ideas, so send us yours.

I hope that this story inspires those who aspire to be in the shoes of our protagonists and offers guidance for when the time comes to walk off the cliff.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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