I decided to address three topics for the inaugural ECE Corner Office: (i) Jumpstarting your academic career and navigating tenure, (ii) Transitioning from one position to the next or one research area to another and (iii) Managing research groups and graduate students.  There is no “one size fits all” for any of these topics so please simply consider these ideas to be possible approaches based on my experience.

Jumpstarting your academic career and navigating tenure

Use a portfolio approach for your research – Especially early in your career you should think carefully about applying your skills and your most novel ideas to a few different areas and then assess which one gets traction.  This means using judgment about the number of areas you can try to nucleate simultaneously and achieving the balance between being too focused vs. spread too thin.  Also, there is a fine line between being persistent and being stubborn.  Areas that are not getting traction should be eliminated after a reasonable time and effort.  Most of us have had projects that we wish we had pursued but simply could not get funding.  Don’t give up too early but don’t get too emotionally attached to an area.  Also, keep in mind that your portfolio can handle more projects if you are actively collaborating (see the next section for more thoughts about collaborating).  The nucleation or seeding process for your portfolio should involve a lot of networking…..

Networking – Of course this means going to many conferences and workshops but it also means plenty of cold calls to the agencies you think might be interested in your ideas.  Early in your career you can take advantage of the fact that program managers want to help you with advice on how to get started.  Any opportunity to discuss your ideas with program managers informally at conferences and on targeted visits to their offices is simply invaluable.  Sometimes the PM’s are hard to reach but when you do reach them they are happy to accommodate a brief conversation and provide you with feedback and referrals to other people.  Even “drop-bys” to their offices are usually well-received in my experience.  If you think of this not as trying to “get money” from them but rather as trying to obtain advice and ultimately to build a relationship it is a much easier endeavor. In fact, it is just as likely you will help them out in some way in the future as it is that they will help you build your research program.

Do the statistics and don’t use a shot gun approach – Use a project management approach to your activities; determine how many projects you need to: (i) keep a healthy research group funded, (ii) publish the number and quality of papers that you need and (iii) graduate the number and quality of PhD students you need to (“need” means for tenure or promotion).  From there, decide how much networking you need to be doing to find the next high potential funding source.  For my areas of interest, I always have one or two proposals actively being written to specific RFPs and I am simultaneously networking once a quarter with new program managers.  These numbers really depend on the size of the proposals and the particular agencies you target.  Don’t get caught in the trap of just throwing a bunch of proposals “over the transom.”  Cultivate the relationships with Program Managers and get guidance on where your proposals have the highest probability of success.  In your proposals, specifically and directly (blatantly) address each of the points in any RFP and the points that the program manager tells you are of interest.

The Research, Teaching, Service Balance – This is probably the most controversial topic!  When starting out or when trying to transition to new research areas, you simply cannot spend too much time and energy on teaching and service.  To me this means teach-what-you-know or look for real synergies between teaching and research.  Say “no” to service opportunities that are too time consuming (or rather say – “could I take that on after I have built a solid foundation for my research”).

Don’t ignore the internal relationships – Although we will be primarily hired and promoted for our accomplishments, you need to take a systems view of the process.  The department and school are a network of people and if you disrupt that network and the relationships therein while acquiring your accomplishments, you could be doing more harm than good to the “system”.  In this case your individual accomplishments may be overshadowed by the negative impact of your actions.  You can call this politics if you want to but that obscures the fact that relationships are needed to build and run organizations and if you are not contributing to those relationships (or worse, if you are damaging them), you are missing a career opportunity.

Don’t fool yourself – Getting tenure or promotion in a major research university is tough and takes an incredible commitment. But also remember it really is not for everyone, especially if you don’t enjoy the process of obtaining funding and publishing.  Try to be as realistic with yourself as possible about your accomplishments, especially when it comes to quantitative assessments like publications, research grants and students graduated.  If you are on the border, accept that and try to fill the gaps.  If you are not sure, talk with senior faculty who you feel will give you an honest and tough assessment.  Most people want to make you feel good so they tend to make the situation sound more positive than it is.  Take that into account when you ask someone and be sure to request their toughest assessment.  Don’t rely too much on what was done for past promotions since the bar is always being raised.

Transitioning from one position to the next or one research area to another –

Focus – My biggest mistakes on this topic were trying to do too much in too many areas, especially with respect to simultaneous administration and research.  You can do both but generally you need to choose which one will be in “steady state” and which you will be trying to grow or significantly improve.  You must be much more critical about screening opportunities when trying to do both, especially during the transition periods.  Whereas when you are focused on research it is possible to say “yes” to new opportunities and then get up to speed on the fly as soon as a significant fraction of your time is administrative, this strategy can lead to failure unless you collaborate…..

Collaborate – It is both fun and frustrating to collaborate.  But if you want to be successful during a major transition (including starting your career), it is almost essential.  Finding the right personalities with whom to collaborate is as critical as finding the right topics.  In any case, it allows you more flexibility and more focus on your strengths when you have strong collaborations.  When I have been overwhelmed by an administrative issue and felt that my research could not survive, my collaborators have always stepped up and covered for me.  Some issues are simply too time sensitive to wait for you to have the time and when this happens in both administration (or teaching/service) and research simultaneously, it is hard to resolve without support from a good collaborator. Collaborators can be across the globe in todays connected world but due to the rich research in the RTP area, local collaborators are abundant in many areas. Of course, even so, it helps to be patient…..

Be patient (but know when to throw in the towel on an idea) – I think a sense of urgency is critical to success in academia and business.  But during transition periods, when you are moving to a new position or trying to change your research direction, it can take a tremendous amount of time.  Don’t stop trying too early.  Establishing a new research direction is a 5 year endeavor in my experience.  Take this into account when you are planning for a change in direction.  I have given up too soon in my own career when I decided not to pursue diamond thin film research in a new position.  It was a bad decision and eventually I came back to it but only after a lot of lost time.  On the other hand, don’t be too stubborn and hold on to your directions too long.  There is an opportunity cost that is hard to quantify but is nonetheless significant.

Find a hook – My most successful transitions have been based on a unique, strategic issue; i.e., a hook; a specific novel research concept, a new administrative/curricular program, a strategic initiative in the organization, etc.  The novel research concept blossomed into a complete program that has been the basis of several successful proposals.  Administrative programs have been integrated into the schools I have been involved in and served as a basis for my next moves.  If I had made any of these transitions with a less clear or less unique agenda, it would have been hard to develop momentum. It is not always clear what is a successful hook but if you are passionate about it and you are honest with yourself about the support you feel it can generate, you will be able to choose a successful hook vs. a “pet project”.

Managing research groups and graduate students

I will keep this one short but here is a list of my favorite management/leadership concepts (there are exceptions but these are good for the vast majority of situations):

  • Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to cluelessness (so many times we ascribe intention and malice to an action that was actually just an oversight or a different perspective).
  • Don’t delay giving bad news, it is generally worse for everyone involved (even for the recipient, it is usually better to know it early and move on).
  • Praise in public, reprimand in private (if your goal is to actually affect change in the behavior of the recipient, it is rarely best to publically admonish someone).
  • Trust can overcome many sins in an organization (and lack thereof can cause productivity in an organization to grind to halt).
  • Management is about managing expectations of employees, customers and stakeholders (it is amazing how reactions to the same situation can vary wildly depending on the expectations generated by previous communications; you can actively manage this).
  • Understand and respond to perceptions, not your own reality (everyone has heard that perception is reality but believing it and using it as a basis for communication is not very common).
  • Fairness is usually more important than outcome (even when people get a decision that they want, if they perceive the process used to make the decision was not “fair” they are more unhappy than when the decision went the opposite way but a fair, inclusive process was used).
  • Being a good leader or manager is about “Emotional Intelligence” (the intellectual ability we value in academia is not the key to managing or leading our employees and students).
  • Sarcasm is almost never a good choice for humor in the workplace (humor is great but keep sarcasm out of it or you will be surprised by the way it is interpreted by some of your staff)

Post by Jeffrey T. Glass, Professor and Hogg Family Directror of Engineering Managament and Entrepreneurship