Monday, July 25, 2016

Mentoring Our Colleagues

I have been asked to mentor some of my colleagues, especially those earlier in their careers. I am not an agent of our dean or the university, rather my focus is on being of use for the person I am talking to.  Here are some discoveries I have made, often surprising to me.

1. Although planning is a profession, and we are seen as a professional school, there is ambivalence about applied vs. theoretical work, or so my colleagues tell me they perceive in the system. I tell them to work on their most important problems and fields, and we can justify its theoretical or applied nature once we have the work in hand. Faculty's major contribution is to choose problems or issues and pursue them vigorously--that is what they can provide to the profession and the university.

2. People who have quite nice publication histories are worried about having enough stuff. Someone told them they should publish, say, two articles a year--but this is in fact rarely done, and often done by those who publish with many co-authors. Of course, you have to have a substantial contribution in terms of pages and appropriate venues. But what you want to focus on is the contribution to scholarship made by your work and your contribution to jointly authored work.  Hence, you want to write two brief statements.
     a. the contribution to advancing scholarship: what are the two or three main contributions that distinguish your work. This should be no more than 200 words.
     b. What you did in joint work. This is not meant to go through each paper, rather to indicate generally your role: pose question, fieldwork, grant getting, writing,...

3. You are not a professor for 5-7 years, but for a career that may well last 30-40 years. So you want to write a statement, again less than 200 words, that is a description of your planned trajectory for the next 5-8 years, and perhaps some long term objective if you might discern one.

4. Often people are so buried in their work, in putting out papers, writing grant applications, whatever, they are not explicitly aware of what it is they are doing. You want to write a statement of what you are up to, what you are trying to do, again 200 words. This is the proverbial elevator speech, albeit such a speech actually is likely 100 words.

All such statements should be understandable by a dean or a provost who is not in your field.

5. Some people are unable to convert drafts and working papers into published work. One needs to take on one or two or three such drafts and for each one devote a day to getting it into shape. No more than a day. Show what you have to a colleague. Take their advice and submit it to an appropriate venue. In other words, take the risk of rejection, but also there is the pleasure of doing work.

6. If you are pursuing a serious line of research, research that might deeply affect your field [no more than ten percent of us are so engaged], make sure you are not diverted by duties other than teaching. There are so few of you, the university and the field need you. Tell your dean or chair or whoever is diverting you that you are engaged in this line of research, and you must get it out while it still might be important.

7. If you are coming up for tenure or promotion, it is a good idea to look around and see if there are other institutions that would be better for you. Your own institution may not value what is has in front of itself, and they only way they wake up is if you are being bid away. No threats to leave, for you don't want them to tell you to go. But deans do not want to lose the faculty they wish they could keep because they did not realize what they needed to do. And if your institution does not rise to the occasion, very very graciously indicate that you are grateful for all the your current institution has invested in you, and now you are moving on to a place that will allow you to make further and deeper contributions. You may be denied tenure, but another institution may value you appropriately. And then go out and do a bang up job, and let your current institution realize the errors of its ways.

8. What's crucial is what others think of your work--especially those most prominent in your field at the strongest institutions.

9. There may well be monsters in your department who are trying to do you in. Consult with your closest colleagues and see what you might do. And of course seek other positions. Again, your colleagues may well be too unwilling to take on the monster, but they ought pay for their lack of courage.

10. If you discover you don't like writing, or don't like teaching, or hate your institution, move as soon as is possible.  Find a role that suits your strengths. It's awful to be an eternal associate professor in the modern university. Somebody up there really wants you--find that somebody. Again, thank your colleagues profusely for bringing you to where you are, and don't look back. If you choose to have a career at a research institution that is not a university, or in a consulting firm, or perhaps in finance or whatever, keep in mind that some of your former colleagues are envying you, and more importantly you are likely making more money and having more fun now. Some of us do not want to take care of other people's teenage and young-adult children, and that is no shame.

There will be more added to this list....