Zero is never a good number

Zero is never a good number

These past few weeks have been insanely busy for me. I alluded to this two weeks ago with my post on how blogging is hard. Obviously, it’s not too hard and you certainly don’t need any credentials to do it (otherwise I’d be screwed) but it is time consuming. And right now, time is one form of currency that I am severely lacking. I managed another proposal submission, which should be my last one for a few months. In addition to that, I was lacking in my classroom preparation and it certainly showed. Plus, I’ve started to take delivery of my equipment for my lab which is very cool but another thing to coordinate. Also, my group is a little bit bigger (one PhD student, one MS student, and now one undergrad). On top of all of that, I’ve had the obligatory “new faculty” events to attend, which is an easy segue into today’s post.

As part of the new faculty at SnowU, one of the events I attended was a large panel discussion on starting a successful career in academia. Afterwards, a smaller round table discussion was organized with just the new engineering faculty where we could get into more nitty-gritty, engineering-specific questions.

One of the problems with this discussion is that it immediately evolved (devolved?) into “tenure panic” (hence Homer’s worried expression). In informal discussions, it is frequently a topic of discussion, especially since I’m trying to gauge what the average expectations are for getting tenure. However, this was the first instance where the topic was highlighted in a formal discussion.

And, as to be expected,  there was no definitive answer given. Everyone is their own individual case. However, it did shock me that the leaders of the round table suggested that the amount of money to be brought in isn’t the number one criteria. And their advice was varied but the best advice about the whole process was summed up to this: zero is never a good number.

On the tenure review committee, there will be faculty who are primarily at the universality for teaching, so you have to be at least an average teacher. The big money researchers on the committee will want to see your ability to draw in money. The top scientists/engineers will want to see publications and high citation numbers. Department heads and university higher-ups will want to see some decent service and that you can be a contributing member in all areas (even if some are greater than others). And while each thinks their perspective is the most important, the one thing they generally agree on is that a zero in any of those categories is not good.

If you do good research and contribute to the department and are a passable teacher, you maybe ok. But even if you bring in lots of money, if you are terrible in front of the class (zero rating), it might be dicey for you. You maybe be a great mentor and excellent in front of the class and volunteer for a lot of service, but if you can’t bring in your own money and are living off of startups funds (zero rating), you’re probably not going to make it. And while this seems like a lot to expect, it actually gives me a better goal to shoot for rather than a specific dollar amount or graduation amount or classroom review numbers. I know it seems somewhat ridiculous but if you can put a check-mark in each of those columns (papers, citations, graduate a student, decent teacher, bring in money, do some service), you’re probably doing ok. And, if you do focus on that and are aware of your deficiencies, you may be able to use that to seek out help.

[photo credit, obvious Homer from the Simpsons, borrows from here]