Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three Things Research-oriented Faculty Do

This is based on something I jotted down in a late night email to a former Ph.D. student from USC, who just has landed a faculty position, and will start as an Assistant Professor this fall.

The main epiphany I had early on about life as a faculty member is that you have three main functions as a researcher:
1. do good work and publish
2. raise money
3. network and collaborate

Doing good work and publishing it in respectable venues is, of course, the main thing.

But these three all feed inextricably, recursively, into each other:

  • To do good work you need to raise funds to support students, and it helps to network and collaborate with others. 
  • To raise funding, you must do good work, and it helps to network and to collaborate.
  • To network and collaborate, you must do good work, but also need funding to travel.
Doing a good job as a faculty member at a research university thus means constantly balancing and juggling these three functions. New Faculty must particularly pay attention to 2 and 3, because 1 is the thing they were good at as students or post-docs (or they would not have been hired), but in many cases 2 and 3 have not been as much of a focus for them in the past. 

I would actually encourage senior Ph.D. students seeking academic positions,  and certainly post-docs, to gain as much experience as they can with respect to 2 (for instance by practicing writing proposals for/with their advisor) and 3 (by collaborating with other students and faculty, being engaged and interactive while attending conferences, making themselves known to faculty at other schools, giving talks at other schools). This will both help them land faculty positions, and give them a head-start on life as a research-oriented faculty member. 

It's interesting to note that excellence in communication is crucial to all these functions.  


Gabe said...

Yup. Of note is that there is one striking omission to the list, which is "be a good teacher." And by "omission", I don't mean "you forgot to put it on the list", but in that I agree that it shouldn't be on this list. It's a nice thing, but not actually critical for success as research-oriented faculty at a research-oriented university. Whether or not (or how) the system should be changed to better reward teaching is a whole other topic though...

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

I certainly would be the last to put down teaching, but it is outside the scope of this post which focused only on the research aspects of the job. (see my other, more general, post on what academics do: )

But you're right too that the present system in a research university does not treat teaching excellence at the same level as research excellence. In fact I was recently told that the promotions and tenure guidelines at USC have been modified to make this explicitly clear. But this is still not to say that it's not worth teaching well, or that teaching should not be recognized.

I also just added a note at the end that communication skills are essential to all three aspects of research, which is of course also true of teaching as well. Being attentive to teaching builds good communication skills. So they are not completely disjoint anyway.

Affan Syed said...

Bhaskar, while writing a research statement, I wrote down these three exact parts of research work. But I also added teaching as indirect but important part. My argument is that if you are research active, you must need be exploring new idea/area that you didnt know before. While these ideas are capture in dense research papers, a good teacher will involve them in their curiculla. Teaching those topics to students, forces one to take deep stock of what you learnt. Some of the insights (from student question, the preparation for a lecture) can be quite useful and helpful in furthering or starting newer research directions.

Your thoughts?

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

This is a great point, Affan. I fully concur. I have certainly had several cases where new research ideas came out of discussions with students taking my class.

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