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One of the most rewarding aspects of being a professor is guiding students as they identify and achieve their educational, research, and professional goals. This mentorship role is often buried within the faculty mission of research, teaching, and service, but it is a core component of our daily activities and responsibilities. As such, faculty mentorship is one of the strongest resources for creating successful outcomes for graduate students…the challenge is to incorporate such mentorship earlier in the graduate experience.

Socialization is defined as “…the processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career…” [1]. In the traditional Ph.D. program, the faculty research advisor imparts this knowledge to the Ph.D. student, most often in the context of being an independent researcher. Typically, this mentorship occurs once the student has completed all coursework and qualifying exams, and is fully integrated into the research group. Yet, for most Ph.D. students, the foundation for completing the degree and much of their future success is rooted in the mentoring provided during the first two years.

One of the greatest dangers for any graduate student after matriculation, and especially for members of underrepresented groups, is the feeling of isolation or the concern that you do not fit into the culture of your research group, department, and/or chosen field of study. As an African-American woman and member of a group that is sorely underrepresented in science and engineering, I am acutely aware of the perils posed during this critical, initial period of graduate study. From the time of matriculation, Ph.D. students require socialization to their research group, department, and institution; yet, the relationship with the faculty advisor is new and under development, and may present its own set of challenges. Therefore, alternative forms of mentorship are an essential approach to the successful socialization of graduate students.

As I reflect on my experiences as a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, I find that in many ways, it was representative of the traditional graduate program structure. I was very fortunate to have had an excellent faculty advisor and mentor; but, this relationship did not fully blossom until well after the qualifying exam in my second year. During the first two years of study, like many other graduate students, my academic life was dominated by coursework, interactions with peers and faculty instructors, and preparation for the qualifying exam. Fortunately, my first two years of graduate study were also characterized by peer mentoring, which provided socialization and a sense of community. Peer mentorship occurred spontaneously because the Applied Physics Program at UofM consisted of a common physics curriculum for all students in the first year and required weekly seminars for the first two years.

These requirements created an atmosphere in which cohorts of Applied Physics students often took courses together and formed study groups, and encouraged first-year and second-year students to interact and share knowledge about navigating the program, selecting research advisors, and passing the qualifying exam. Another important aspect of my experience at UofM was that the student body and faculty in science and engineering included a critical mass of underrepresented minorities that provided role models and successful examples for emulation.

Of course, my graduate school experiences are not unique, and the peer mentoring that was instrumental to my success as a graduate student is not the only model for promoting better socialization through mentorship. The growing recognition of the importance of socialization and mentorship in graduate education is well documented. The 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” identifies the following trends that necessitate reform of the traditional Ph.D. program structure [1]:
Diversity – One aspect of graduate student socialization is that the “backgrounds and predispositions of prospective graduate students” influence their perceptions of belonging to a potential graduate program and their decisions of whether to attend a given institution or not. The impact of the program structure on the ability to recruit diverse student populations (i.e., underrepresented groups, women & minorities) should be considered.
International Graduate Students – As the graduate student population continues to comprise large percentages of international Ph.D. students, it is important to ensure these students receive professional socialization beyond the routine attention to academics and research.
Professionalism – A successful Ph.D. program should not only prepare students for completion of coursework and the research dissertation, but it should instill in students the qualities and sensibilities of professionalism that they will be expected to display after graduation.
Professionalization – A successful Ph.D. program should also provide some guidance and training on issues that have historically been learned through on-the-job training, such as grant-writing or teaching in the case of academia.
Ethics – While ethics are not always explicitly taught in the context of Ph.D. education, the expectation exists that students will be well-versed in ethics issues during their professional careers.
Technology and Distance Learning – As technology continues to enable distance learning and on-line education, it is important to determine how this will impact socialization and transfer of knowledge, especially with respect to Master’s education.

We can see examples of some of these trends being addressed in our current Ph.D. graduate program, such as the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training required by the graduate school, the technical writing and presentation courses required for international graduate students, and the Ph.D.+ Program offered by the Pratt School of Engineering. Less obvious are the actions we can take as faculty and as a department to better support our Ph.D. students and to promote socialization early in our graduate program. Some reforms have been suggested in higher education literature.

In the same 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, the following suggestions for improvement were made [1]:
Modifying the program – “More collaborative, holistic approaches to learning necessitate systemic change that challenges most existing approaches to graduate and professional study.”
Increasing diversity – “Developing greater flexibility and more options for students so that graduates are more versatile, attracting more women and minority group members, and providing better information about careers continue to be among the major areas of improvement advocated by major national commissions.”
Offering support for students – “Graduate programs will have not only to create more supportive and collaborative environments in the face of increasing diversity but also to sustain them over time.”
Modifying faculty and administrative roles – “The relationship of faculty to students should be interactive, collaborative, open, and mutually evaluative. Relationships need not be power based but should be more interactive with faculty-student, teaching, and research relationships more cooperative.”

Austin provides student recommendations for how graduate programs can provide better socialization, especially in the context of preparing future faculty [2]. The following two suggestions are of particular interest:
More attention to regular mentoring, advising, and feedback – “…faculty members should provide regular, ongoing advising and thorough, periodic feedback and assessment. Assessment should help students determine their progress as scholars and future faculty members. Such advising requires department chairs and graduate deans to work with faculty members to develop effective, mutually respectful, efficient advising relationships. In addition to effective advising, reducing the conflicts between faculty members and graduate students is important.”
Regular and guided reflection – “…graduate students should be encouraged to engage in ongoing, systematic self-reflection. Socialization for doctoral students is largely about making sense of graduate school and the academic career, developing one’s interests and areas of strength, determining how one’s values and commitments relate to those in the profession, and developing one’s own sense of place and competence within that profession. The time and support for reflection are important ingredients in the socialization process.”

Austin synthesizes the student recommendations to propose a modest revision of the typical PhD program [2]:
“A revised doctoral program could begin with an opportunity for entering students to discuss with faculty members their intellectual and professional goals. Though students’ goals often change as they gain experience and learn more about the questions of their fields, the initial assessment could be used to begin focused planning and decision-making. A planning session at time of entry could be followed by annual discussions with a faculty advisor about how the student’s goals are changing and how courses, research, teaching, and other experiences are contributing to progress toward the goals.”

Austin also notes [2]:
“Without a plan these recommendations might appear to add more time to a doctoral program or to the work of already busy faculty members. Yet many of these suggestions involve reorganizing, not adding time.”

Chesler and Chesler describe alternative, gender-informed, mentoring models for women engineering scholars [3]:
“Model 3: Collective Mentoring – Collective mentoring is an evolution of the multiple mentor/single mentee model whereby senior colleagues and the department take responsibility for constructing and maintaining a mentoring team. The entire department or organization must establish and ensure the effective mentoring and performance of graduate students and young professionals. In this way, senior colleagues and the department itself send the message that their progress is a priority concern and may create a departmental climate that overcomes some of the obstacles not only to effective mentoring of women, but also to their effective performance, retention, and advancement.”

Davidson and Foster-Johnson suggest specific actions that departments can take to improve the mentorship of graduate researchers of color [4]. Of particular interest is the suggestion that departments create formal mentoring programs in which faculty are rewarded for participation, which should be voluntary, and that choice should be involved in the matching process with mentors.

It is important to note that one of the positive outcomes of being sensitive to diversity is that the community and departmental culture can improve for everyone when the programmatic structure accounts for vulnerable members of underrepresented groups. As Chesler and Chesler state [3], “Organizational change that creates more egalitarian and caring communities will benefit men as well as women.”

I believe that a stronger sense of community, as well as a stronger faculty presence in and commitment to the development of PhD students during the early years of graduate study, are the best ways to improve departmental culture, to combat attrition, to increase diversity of our graduate student population (specifically students from underrepresented groups), to better serve diverse student populations, and to continue to attract and matriculate the very best PhD students. So, to conclude, I pose the following questions:
1) What structural changes can/should we make to our Ph.D. program to promote peer mentoring and to foster a sense of community?
2) How can we as faculty members be active participants, as mentors and advocates, in the socialization of Ph.D. students after matriculation?

With modest effort, creative thinking, and flexibility, I am certain that we can channel our existing mentorship functions into a force for improvement within our department.

[1] J. C. Weidman, D. J. Twale, and E. L. Stein, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” San Francisco, CA 2001.
[2] A. E. Austin, “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career,” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 73, pp. 94-122, 2002.
[3] N. C. Chesler and M. A. Chesler, “Gender-informed mentoring strategies for women engineering scholars: On establishing a caring community,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 91, 2002.
[4] M. N. Davidson and L. Foster-Johnson, “Mentoring in the Preparation of Graduate Researchers of Color,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, pp. 549-574, 2001.


Alan Deutschman has written a book entitled “Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and Life.” Deutschman asserts that both individuals and organizations are involved in a process of natural selection and will survive the competition only if they can adapt to their environment. However, he acknowledges that change is difficult, but it is a necessary mutation of the old self into a new one. His message is that individuals and organizations must constantly adapt or they will fall behind and eventually perish.

In a lighter vein, Papa Roach has written a song entitled “Change or Die.” The words from one versus are:
“Change or die
We’re looking for the answers of our life together
You gotta change or die
The answer is for you to do what’s right tonight”

Papa Roach likely did not intend career advice for engineering faculty, but there is a general message here that I have seen played out over the last 40 years. Institutions change, the focus of science changes, people change, and priorities change as we progress through our professional lives. Yes, even the culture in the university may change, even though universities are perhaps the most change-adverse institutions ever conceived. The only thing that stays the same are the ages of the students we see year after year!

Fortunately, few of us will be faced with the hyberbolic rhetoric that conflates change with life and death. However, we all experience changes that affect our professional lives at Duke, and it’s important to know how we might respond. These changes may come in the form of new standards for evaluating performance for promotion and tenure, changes in granting agency priorities, redirecting or closing academic programs or departments, technical obsolescence, and retirement. Long before retirement, however, we may find that we have reached a plateau where professional goals are less clear. According to Marvellen Weimer, author of “Mid-Career Faculty: Staying Challenged and Enthused,” the absence of motivating professional goals can cause professors to settle into a dull routine or begin to invest their energies in activities outside of their professional lives. According to Weimer, “once you’ve gotten tenure, you are sort of in charge of your own fate. You’ve achieved a certain level of professional maturity that indicates the department doesn’t need to oversee or nurture your next promotion. That’s kind of up to you.” So you are faced with the choice of change or die, where “die” means “retire in place.”

Most faculties find the autonomy of academic positions highly attractive. But being left alone also means that faculties assume the responsibility of taking care of their own instructional health and well-being. Numerous academics continue to work in the same field that carried them through graduate school. The thinking is this: I have about five years to get tenure, so I don’t have time to start a new field of research. If after five years a favorable tenure decision is received, this means that one has enjoyed success and recognition in his field. When you attend conferences, peer recognition and invited talk offers make you feel good – emotionally attached to your field. Other workers begin to defer to you and your opinions. Perhaps you have topped out and have become an impediment to further progress in the area! But it still feels good, so why quit? Now I can coast to retirement! Eventually, the number of papers in your field, which were exponentially increasing with time, may acquire a negative exponent. Yes, but you can still make a contribution, and the Dean counts publications each year. You have plateaued and it feels good! Or are you just uninspired?

As we heard from Nan Jokerst: “adaptation and change are critical to an academic career – to remain relevant in research, I have found that I need to refresh my focus every 5 years.” (Nan Jokerst, ECE Corner Office, Nov. 2, 2012) Jeff Glass cautions: “…don’t get too emotionally attached to an area.” Jeff advocates a project management approach in applying novel ideas to a few different areas and then assessing which ones gets traction. (Jeff Glass, ECE Corner Office, Oct. 1, 2012) These observations are really good advice from two highly evolved colleagues. However, if you too are not yet self-actualized, changing directions can be hard. It may mean prying your fingers off a field and moving on to something new. Now, when you attend conferences in your new area, no one knows who you are! No one invites you to give talks or to write papers. You are starting over in unfamiliar territory, and it doesn’t feel good anymore. And besides, you may have to learn new stuff, like biology, to play in the new area. And the Dean may see “zero” next to your annual publications list for a while.

I can personally attest that this journey is worth the pain! The change from the familiar to the unfamiliar is only temporary. After attending silicon diffusion conferences for 30 years, I began attending microfluidic conferences, and I began hanging out with chemists, biomedical engineers, and mechanical engineers. Electrical engineering brought a unique perspective to this field, and within two years we had brought digital microfluidics and architecture to the game. Shortly thereafter, 35 labs worldwide were working in this new area. We received 17,000 hits on our website as soon as we brought it up. It began to feel good again. The effort has brought along other great collaborators in the ECE department at Duke (Nan Jokerst and Krish Chakrabarty) as well as nationwide (Stanford and Harvard), and resulted in a spinoff company (Advanced Liquid Logic). And, I don’t plan on riding this field into the ground (or onto the plateau).

Thus, according to Alan Deutschman, I have experienced “creative destruction”, which occurs when something new kills something older. Creative destruction happens in technology (i.e. the PC replacing mainframes, CD’s replacing tape, etc.), and it also happens in people. According to Deutschman, “individuals as well as organizations must constantly adapt or they will fall behind and eventually perish.” Change or die.

Does Deutschman’s hypothesis also apply to research institutions? Assuming that it does means that it is good to be aware of the health of the institution that employs you. In dealing with institutional change one needs to know the rules of engagement, know when the rules change, and to always keep oneself marketable as part of an exit strategy. As a personal example, I was at Bell Labs during the glory days, when individual contributions to research were valued. Bell Labs was forever. Then the rules changed. Bell Labs came under pressure to justify funding from its owners within the Bell System. In 1984, an antitrust lawsuit resulted in the divestiture of the Bell System. The business model of a central R&D lab ceased to be sustainable, and the bluest of blue chip companies died.

My colleagues responded in different ways. Cultural inertia made it very difficult for many employees to adapt to a product focus. Those who pined for the old Bell Labs and who didn’t change became bitter, resentful and eventually unemployed. My contemporaries who rode it out closed the doors of Bell Labs in their 50s with few options available to them other than too early retirement with too little pension. Others of us who had prepared an exit strategy, built our credentials, and those who didn’t hang around out of inertia and loyalty landed in good academic positions, while they lasted. The lesson: always prepare yourself to be ready and competitive to face the next change if your institution fails to sustain you.

And now, a word for the institution: innovative people (those who are not intransigent to adapting and morphing as required) also keep the institution healthy, assuming the institution can handle the change. Duke should have a vested interest in supporting faculty as they move into uncharted territories. This should include seeding new research areas deemed important to furthering institutional priorities. I also see it as enlightened self-interest for the health of all concerned.
So it’s all about change. Blind Mellon’s song “Change” has these lyrics:

“And as we all play parts of tomorrow,
Some ways will work and other ways will play.
But I know we all can’t stay here forever,
So I want to write my words on the face of today,
And then they’ll paint it.”

And so colleagues, my parting wish for you: Change and thrive!

With special thanks to Professor Cynthia D. Fair, Elon University, who reviewed the content and who lives into the principles advocated herein.

Traversing a career – and life – is a challenging prospect, and I am glad to share some of my experiences. In this issue of the ECE Corner Office, I will take on the hardest question (for me) first, that of how to spend my time. Next, some aspects of research as a function of time, and finally, thinking about life trajectories and not only dealing with, but embracing and creating change in our lives and careers as they progress.

Time Triage and Goals

Whatever your life and work situations, time management is the name of the game in academia. Actually, the reality is more on the order of “time triage” – a focus on what is most critical, limited attention to what we cannot let fall by the wayside, and a decision to let the rest decline though inactivity! We have a great deal of personal freedom in academia, and that is a challenge to excel, a ticket to exhaustion, a burden of responsibility, and a creative outlet that can all add up to a fulfilling, productive life that has a real impact in the world. As our lives progress, sometimes we will achieve balance, and sometimes we will be forced from the path of moderation to excess – pouring work into tenure, enjoying time with a new baby, spending precious moments with an aging parent. How to navigate all of this?

Identifying your personal goals can guide you through your time triage, but setting goals is a great deal more difficult than it might seem at first glance, especially when you are trying to balance the multiple aspects of an academic career (research, teaching, service) and a personal life (dating, partner/spouse, children, parents, friends, exercise, recreation). Try to be realistic in your goals, and honest. Then, prioritize your tasks and time to meet your goals. Be firm with yourself about time allocation. Watch for burnout, and be sure to get some sleep. If you are uncomfortable with where this leads you to, then re-formulate your goals.

Your goals will change with time, and it is a great idea to set a time each year to think about your path through work and life. Looking at your goals, and your progress toward your goals, will insert a realism into your planning that may be a bit painful in some years, but that will give you a powerful sense of self-determination, accomplishment, and capability as time progresses. Looking back, my goals and choices did not always result in exactly what I expected, but rather, opened up some unanticipated adventures that at times enriched me, and at other times taught me a lesson. Set your goals, but also let your goals flow with time, and events, and be open to the unexpected – there is a great deal of room for living with spontaneity while keeping the larger picture in sight. Having goals enables us to think strategically, which is a powerful way to consciously set our own paths, rather than following those that might be set for us, or that we wander into.

Set a variety of goals – some short term, some long term, some easier to accomplish, and some that will be a real stretch. If you reach every goal, or none of your goals, in the time period you set, that’s a wake-up call that needs attention. I have found it very helpful to talk to friends, colleagues, and experts, as well as to read and get data about what realistic goals are for my age and profession. How many papers do faculty publish, who are my age, tenured, at my rank, a Fellow, a NAE member? How do people with school age children and a spouse handle work and family? What resources can I leverage to give myself more time?

Projects, Students, and Collaboration in Research

Research is the name of the game in a research university, and leverage can help you to achieve more results in less time. I leverage my research efforts through a diversity of projects, by engaging students, and through collaboration. I attempt to build a continuum of funding, projects, and students with varying completion dates. A diverse portfolio of projects that have a common technical foundation is efficient, so that my students can share knowledge and problems that are synergistic internal to the group, and then go out and use that knowledge in collaborations with other groups. A diversity of projects and funding sources can also help to alleviate the inevitable hiccups in support that occur, so if funding becomes difficult in one research area or sponsor, another can support the group.

A productive, positive relationship with research students is one of the most satisfying aspects of an academic career, and your students can significantly magnify your efforts. Recruit the best students possible, and treat their ideas, work, and time with respect. One of our greatest privileges and challenges is to guide and enable our research students, and to share the determination that is necessary to realize solid research, the savvy needed to judge what the best questions are, and the rush that is a successful result. Be straightforward with students, and give them feedback when you are impressed with their work, and also when a better effort is needed. It is critical to build up a research program with multiple students of varying levels so that more senior students can teach the junior students, which leads to significant times savings for everyone involved. I aim for, and usually achieve, a positive mentoring relationship with my students, so that we are “rowing in the same direction,” to get high quality research results in a timely manner, and to publish the results.

Collaboration is another great approach to leverage and diversification. Working with others to achieve a common goal occurs in many venues – at work, with a spouse, with a family, with friends and organizations. At work, for tenure and promotion, it is important to distinguish yourself as a researcher, both through individual and collaborative research. Particularly in multidisciplinary, highly competitive fields, it is important to form collaborations so that you can compete effectively. Bring your skills to the table for collaboration: approach other researchers who may not be in your field, limit the jargon that you use to communicate effectively, and explore how you could partner together to create something new and exciting. Creative energy and ideas can flow at an amazing pace in a great collaboration. Talking with others that are higher or lower on the “food chain” is an excellent approach – who will use your technology? What do you need to make your technology better? All of us have problems that need solutions. Your solutions could be useful to program managers, hospital clinicians, faculty in another department, and individuals in industry. They key is to approach people, and to engage them.

The most effective collaboration is when multiple investigators bring capabilities to the research, each has a clear contribution that is needed for the project to succeed, each can perform work that can progress initially without results from the others, and everyone appreciates the skills for the other’s work. Collaboration is a relationship – it evolves with time, mutual respect breeds good relationships, and trust underlines the relationship. I talk to lots of people about collaborating, but choose a few to spend my time with – down select to people that you enjoy working with. Collaborations have lifetimes, too; long term collaborations are great, but funding, areas of interest, and commitments shift, so don’t hold on if there is no reason to do so.

Leverage and collaboration are keywords for me at home, too. I thought that the time crunch hit right away while I was seeking tenure; exercise, friends, and recreation didn’t get much time. When I had children, the real time crunch hit. I found that I was unable to do everything that I wanted to do, and if I exhausted myself, I ended up sick, and in an even deeper time pit. So, I leveraged family and salary into daily help (child and elder care, cleaners), made friends with other people in similar circumstances in the neighborhood and at my children’s schools (we help each other out), exerted control over my schedule so that I could be more flexible if an emergency arose, and became more efficient at home and at work than I had thought possible. Those were the days when the children were young – little sleep, lots of work, but great times. As the children have grown, the time demands have changed, and the high level of external help at home is no longer needed, but the network of family and friends is increasingly important. There is an enforced balance for me between life and work, which takes continuous prioritization, negotiation, compromise, and juggling.

Transitions, Trajectories, and Strategic Thinking

Our careers and lives have trajectories that evolve with time, and transitions are not only to be endured, but can be embraced to keep us fresh. Adaptation and change are critical to an academic career – to remain relevant in research, I have found that I need to refresh my focus every 5 years. As I have grown more senior, I have been asked to do more management and service for Duke. We wrap our story around again to our goals – they have guided me in transitions, set my trajectories, and led me to think strategically about who I want to be, and what I want to achieve as I go through my career and my life.

In my early academic years, the focus was to earn tenure, and so I concentrated on research. Build your research program fast, recruit the best students possible, perform some individual and some collaborative research, and publish in solid journals. Teach well, but minimize the time input by teaching a few courses. If possible, teach the same basic “bread and butter” course once per year; after a couple of years, this will minimize the effort necessary for that class. Be organized and enthusiastic, teach clearly, and treat the students with respect, and you will do well as a teacher. Take on limited service commitments that maximize benefit for the time spent.

Once you have successfully earned tenure, then it’s time to build your reputation. In research, it is important to continue to build the story of who you are – the areas in which you are an expert, how you lead, your creative drive, and your collaborative capabilities. This is a time to volunteer at the local and national levels for journal, conference, and leadership positions to build visibility in your field, and, you guessed it – to publish and to graduate research students. You have the freedom to expand your horizons a bit in teaching and service. Just be aware that your research production and reputation will shape your future more than most other activities at this point.

As your career progresses, take the time to strategize about your future – what are your possible paths for the next 5, 10, 20 years? I have found that I enjoy collaboration immensely, and have focused my research on collaborative efforts that all have a common technology base in my expertise. I have also faced critical decisions about where I want to work and live, and ended up surprising myself occasionally when I took the time to really think about what I wanted, and not what the world was pressing me to do. If we think about our lives, we can make decisions about who we are – it has been enlightening for me to explore these thoughts.

These reflections, and sometimes, lack of them, has led me down some forked paths that have taught me some lessons, and have opened up vistas that I had not anticipated. When you make a transition, especially involving a decision to stay or to go to a new place, you are at a vulnerable point. Get everything important in writing, however, decide where to be flexible – draw some lines, and don’t insist on having every detail nailed down – just the critical points – and express yourself clearly to the negotiating parties. I have found that when I have questions about new forays into the unknown, asking people like me who have traversed that path can be helpful. And if you, or a recruiter, can’t find anyone like you who has walked that trail, then be aware of how difficult trail blazing can be.

My largest service commitment to date has been the design and upfit of SMIF. When I took on SMIF, I had little idea of the time commitment that it would be, the discussions that would surround SMIF, and how my research program would be challenged. Service and leadership are about enabling others and the common good, but it does help if the personal good sees benefit, too. My experiences have been greatly expanded through SMIF, and that has helped me to think more broadly and creatively. I have taken on other service roles at Duke, as well, because I have found that I am interested in the inner workings of the University, and I have a contribution to make. It’s not for everyone, but it has kept me fresh and interested, and intellectually challenged, and that is most certainly one of my most cherished goals in my career.

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