If it had taken me as long to figure out the first words of my first lecture as it has to figure out the first lines of this Corner Office, I am not entirely sure I would have ever made it to my first class sixteen years ago. I am faced now, as I was then, with a new experience, having been given a unique opportunity to talk about my experiences with people in my community. Then, it was all about the software tools I thought would be useful for our undergraduate students – but which were not covered in any one class. Now, it is all about what I think might be useful for teaching our undergraduate students.

I am going to focus on what happens after setting a schedule and getting the right space and teaching assistant support for a course and coming up with a schedule – mainly because I just discovered that writing about those processes took over 1400 words and didn’t really get to the heart of the questions I have been asked to answer! So, now assume you have a course to teach, a place to teach it in, an idea of what needs to happen with the syllabus, and a spherical cow radiating milk isotropically. The latter may not be relevant, but I hope it brought to mind a whimsical image.

The items I want to talk about are lectures, homework, laboratory experiences and assignments, and assessments.

Lectures

For an established class, deciding what to do with a lecture can either be very easy or very hard. Not quite as hard as deciding when it is time to change research directions – Nan Jokerst, Jeff Glass, and Richard Fair all discussed that particular conundrum in their posts – but still there is very much a sense of attachment to the material in a course and the way it might be conveyed. For example, I still mourn the loss of a lecture on Newton Polynomials that was removed from Computational Methods to make room for a more robust discussion of integration. But with only 35 hours to work with, and having to account for tests, and logistics, and everything else, there is only so much that can go into a course. I know for myself that I have to remain vigilant that I do not let something that is personally interesting – but which does not provide the students with an appreciably or proportionally greater understanding of the material – take time away from other things.

My notebooks for classes have day-by-day dividers in them so I can put the notes and references for a particular day in their own place. I also generally try to use a Sympodium or a slate PC for writing “on the board.” This does a number of things for me: I can use many, many colors; I can go back to previous slides if someone needs to see them; and I can print out what I wrote on a given day and put it in the notebook. I thus have a history of the semester’s material that I can use to improve things in the next cycle.

There are some disadvantages to using a Sympodium. First, you are stuck standing in one place – and if you are in Teer 203 or Schiciano, that one place may be relatively far from where the projection screen is. Second, you are beholden to the resolution of the screen for how much material you put up at once. Third, when you point to something and say, “look here,” no one has any idea what you are talking about unless you make some obvious motion with the cursor or use a laser pointer. Or, in Teer 203, come out from behind what I call the Wizard of Oz Box, walk on stage, and actually point to something.

For a new class, deciding what material to be included and how to parse it out into lectures can be very difficult. For Mechatronics, I made a list of the various topics I wanted to cover, wrote lecture notes on my tablet for them as one continuous file, and then began cutting and pasting the material I got through on a particular day. I then looked at how the course coverage was matching the specific items listed for each day on the syllabus and adjusted. As it happens, a few weeks into that class I realized that the pacing and content thus far were not working; I ended up taking a few lectures to go back over some territory and re-mapped the syllabus for the rest of the semester.

Regardless, I always try to work in a couple places where the students can work together on some aspect of the course we have discussed. For introductory classes, that might mean finding equations that will model a circuit or writing a bit of MATLAB code; for upper level classes, it might mean coming up with a plan to implement a particular controller. Whatever it is, the process of engaging the students with the material and then hearing back their answers will serve two purposes. First, it will get them talking – which always helps if a few of them are a bit sleep-deprived. Second, it will give you a little bit of instant information as to how the material is coming across. There may be groups who cannot come up with correct answers or who ask clarifying questions while they are working – finding that out during the lecture, when there is still time to provide some form of clarification to the whole class, can be very valuable.

I also try to stay on top of campus news to make sure I know what is going on with our students in general. A quick read of The Chronicle (Duke’s, not “of Higher Education”) can be very valuable in learning what events our students see as important. Including those items in a lecture can also help reinforce the notion that We Are Duke. This can take place in the minutes just before class starts as people are filing in or even during a lecture if it is relevant.
Mainly though, be sure to take Nan’s advice on teaching: “Be organized and enthusiastic, teach clearly, and treat the students with respect, and you will do well as a teacher.” (ECE Corner Office by Nan Jokerst, 02 Nov 2012)

Effectiveness of Homework Assignments

I have taught a fairly broad range of courses – everything from Introduction to Engineering Computer Programs to Seapower & Maritime Affairs – and for each I have had to determine the function of homework. There have been some common components:

–  Homework is most effective when the feedback loop is accurate and efficient. Students should get back thoroughly examined material in a reasonably short period of time. I have always worked to get the number of teaching assistants that will meet this need. For the classes I teach, I also provide TAs with a set of solutions and a grading rubric. If possible, I will have assignments split into parts and I will have one TA grade all submissions for a part. In ECE 110 I have two grader TAs, so students turn in a Part I and a Part II for each homework. All 40 people will have their Part I graded by the same person, which hopefully leads to more consistent grading. There is a bit of overhead involved – two entries in the gradebook and two piles to collect and redistribute – but the overall process has worked well.

–  Homework is most effective when there is a means of comparing the finished work against legitimate processes. This does not necessarily mean “a correct solution,” because oftentimes work done at home will and should provide open-ended opportunities for students to develop their answer in a way that is unique and is in keeping with the principles established by the course. Doubtless, there are some assignments where there will be A Right Answer – but generally there are multiple different paths to get there.

–  Homework is most effective when students have the tools to complete it. An assignment does not need to look exactly like an example from the book or from a lecture, but there should be some reasonable expectation that the underlying information and skills required to solve the problem are available to the student given a reasonable amount of work. Which, of course, means defining “reasonable.” Any takers?

One part of how I use homework which varies from class to class is the notion of collaboration. This is a complex issue. There is value in requiring that an individual, alone, gathers all the information necessary to develop a solution to a given prompt and develops that solution alone. There is value in having that same process be shared by a group with all the viewpoints that may be discussed along the way. What is critical, however, is giving clear guidance about collaboration policy. Gary Ybarra and Lisa Huettel, for example, have crafted the controlling document for ECE 110. The end result establishes what is and is not allowed, gives examples, and even informs the students of historical repercussions for failure to abide by the rules. It also notes that there is a “gray area” and encourages students to contact instructors in those cases.

Laboratory Experiences and Assignments

For those classes with hands-on labs, the experience and insight gained from performing the work, analyzing the results, and crafting the conclusions can be a very powerful component of the course. For the Computational Methods course in particular, labs are the primary means by which students will actually learn the material. For other courses, such as Fundamentals of ECE, labs are the avenue students take to become familiar with building blocks of ECE. The most effective laboratory experiences I have seen have some common components as well:

–  Laboratory experiences are most effective when they complement or clearly supplement lectures and readings. If a lab involves material that has not been covered yet, students can either miss the point or get frustrated at not being able to understand what is going on. If a lab is going to introduce some new concept, it is very important that the period during which the lab is performed by prefaced with a period of instruction on that material. That may involve a class lecture, an in-lab talk from a laboratory TA, or clear reading material – preferably with examples. If the lectures for a course start slipping behind for some reason, consider re-working the lab schedule or determine a means by which the students will be otherwise prepared to truly learn from the laboratory experience.

–  Laboratory experiences are most effective when there is an assignment requiring that the student takes information from the lectures, from the readings, and from the laboratory itself and combines them to demonstrate a broader understanding of the material as a result of having done the lab.

–  Finally, laboratory experiences are most effective when they work. Admittedly, learning the mechanisms by which an experiment will not succeed can be very important, but for early classes where students do not have sufficient troubleshooting experience or theoretical knowledge to “fix” a malfunctioning lab setup, care must be taken to create a laboratory experience that provides legitimate data and supports the theories discussed in class. Also, whomever runs the lab must be prepared as well.

Assessments

This section of my post will not be on the test. But it will be on tests. In many courses, especially early ones, a healthy portion of the assessment of a student’s learning in a course will be done via tests. And, depending on the course, of the 35 hours devoted to a standard 1-credit course, tests generally take between 0.83 hours and 1.875 hours total depending on if you have two or three tests and whether you teach in 50-minute or 75-minute sections. That either represents a small or large portion of the whole depending on your perspective. In my experience:

–  Tests are most effective when they can be completed in the time allotted. I know there will be some disagreement here, and my experience is biased by the nature of the courses I teach. I also want to emphasize the “can” here – there is certainly no requirement that every test be written such that every student in a course can complete it. But there does need to be a sense that a well-prepared student can complete the tasks at hand in the time allotted. For some of my classes, this has meant moving the test to the lab, where the students could use 170 minutes to work on the assessment. I will say that this is one area I continue to struggle with – as much as I try to account for my experiences as well as the fact that it will not take me any additional time to interpret a problem (since I wrote it), I still get this wrong.

–  Tests are most effective when they efficiently cover the breadth and depth of material. I will generally give a class a “road map” for an upcoming test. For Computational Methods, the first road map is a 5-page long outline of concepts and commands totally 23 topics with several sub-topics. The second is a 1-page long outline with 6 topics (including “Know everything from the first test”). Once I make that map, I work to have some aspect of each part show up somewhere on the test.

–  Tests are most effective when they ask valid questions. I have managed to give some test questions that were either impossible or trivial. Allow me to illustrate from ECE 61L Test III Fall of 2001:

Gus' Corner Office Image

Just before I went to copy the test, I decided to be clever and ask for the current through resistor R3 instead of the inductor current. Hilarity ensued. Almost everyone got a 0 for that problem, which means almost everyone got a perfect score on that problem.

Given the pressure that students feel during a test, and given the contribution of the testing process (studying for, taking, and getting back) to the learning process, it is crucial that tests be legitimate.

Lessons Learned

I’ll cap this off with what I think I have learned from the experiences I have had teaching so far.

–  Keeping things organized is essential, especially for larger classes. For me, that means having a spreadsheet with all my to-do items for each of my classes as well as structures in place for exchanging materials with the TAs and returning materials to the students. For my Mechatronics class, as an example, I have a rolling cart with 80 hanging folders – one per student. TAs return all graded material to each student’s folder, and then I roll the folder to class or lab for recovery. It greatly reduces the time it takes to have students find their stuff and gives me an easy visual way to see if people have been showing up to class.

–  Keeping track of “where we are” is crucial. I generally teach Monday and Friday, and a great deal goes on between lectures. Be sure to note for yourself where you actually stopped in a given lecture, not what the schedule said you were supposed to cover.

–  Knowing where things fit into the grand curricular scheme of things can really help. I have a head start here comprised of having gone through Duke as an undergraduate, of having had appointments in three departments, and of having taught classes for all four. Since I teach or run lab for all incoming engineers, knowing the different degree requirements for all of Pratt is a job requirement. Knowing what goes on for all of ECE on the undergraduate side – not just within on curricular group – can help you include connections between the material you are teaching and the material in other classes. That, in turn, can give the students a better sense of the big picture.

–  “Cooperation Without Compromise” – I first heard this as the motto of the Navy Chaplain Corps. As an aside – it is decidedly more appropriate here than the motto of the part of the Navy I was in, the Seabees, which is Construimus Batuimus (“We Build, We Fight”).

The idea is that there may be times you need to work to cooperate with a student or group of students without compromising the integrity of the course or your own integrity. For example, some of our varsity athletes have rigid travel schedules – working with them in advance to overcome those obstacles may involve moving deadlines or providing other accommodations. Other students will have life events that merit consideration. And that consideration takes time and effort on your part, but it will be worth it.

–  Be approachable. Come to class a little early and stay a little late if students want to bend your ear. For your office hours, emphasize that the main purpose is to discuss concepts from the course, but that conversations on other topics are certainly welcome too.

If any part of this has been useful, there are many members of the staff, faculty, alumni, and students who should get the credit. The rambling, however, is on me. Duke in general and Pratt specifically have been my home now for nearly 24 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I consider it a very real privilege indeed to be a member of the ECE faculty, and I’d like to thank Larry for the opportunity to contribute this post. I have learned much from the posts that have been in the series so far and look forward to reading more.

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While I appreciate the invitation to contribute to this insightful series of essays, I realize I am very far from attaining the depth of distinction and breadth of perspective associated with previous essayists – Robert Calderbank, Nan Jokerst, Richard Fair and Jeff Glass. However, I was asked to discuss the complexity of my recent experiences related to developing a research program and earning tenure as a female faculty member starting a family. My hope is that these reflections may be helpful not only to those facing similar challenges, but also to those designing policies and allocating resources for junior faculty in a rapidly changing world.

Tenure

Anyone attending the annual meeting hosted by the Provost to explain the tenure process will hear details of APT considerations and a review of frequently asked questions. Based on these discussions, it is clear and unsurprising than a successful assistant professor must conduct high-quality research and communicate compelling research results effectively enough to garner strong outside letters and recognition in the form of competitive funding. To accomplish these tasks, I found I needed to jealously guard my research time and develop sound strategies for choosing fruitful research problems.

Setting aside time for research in the face of external demands is a perpetual challenge, as Hisham Massoud advised me during my first week and as Nan Jokerst discussed in her essay in this series. One aspect of this – setting service priorities – was particularly easy at Duke, where senior faculty are consistently protective and supportive of junior faculty. I was encouraged to focus on activities which would raise my visibility within my scholarly community (such as organizing committees for workshops) or were particularly important to the direction of the department (such as faculty search committees), and defer other service for later in my career.

I also learned, much later than I should, that asking for advice when needed is an excellent way of saving time. Balancing the uncertainty of funding with the uncertainty of graduate student recruitment was a continual challenge, and I arrived here not knowing how to most effectively manage research staff and students. In my early years, I hesitated to ask advice about these issues, thinking I was expected to already know how to handle them. In this sense, I underestimated my colleagues, who were more than willing to offer suggestions and advice when I finally asked for help. Along these lines, I highly recommend reading You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty by Mohamed Noor of Duke. (http://www.amazon.com/Youre-Hired-Guide-Science-Faculty/dp/0878939636/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359211226&sr=8-1&keywords=mohamed+noor) It was sadly not published when I was beginning my career, but it offers helpful advice on a variety of relevant topics – including time management and asking advice.

Rebecca Willet ECE-Corner Office Image jpegMy most significant challenge, however, was the selection of good problems. Some projects would immediately lead to publication and garner a few citations without having significant staying power. Other projects in my portfolio were far riskier, not only for me, but for my students. Initially I tried exclusively to choose “big” problems. Richard Hamming said researchers should always ask themselves, “What are the important problems of my field? What important problems am I working on?” (1) However, I have come to think if we only focus on the seemingly big problems, we risk missing new perspectives and surprises. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal offers a humorous perspective on this at http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2698#comic. More soberly, I remember seeing Emmanuel Candes, a giant in my field responsible for many of the initial insights into compressed sensing, give one of the first talks on this topic before it was widely known. He said he first discovered compressed sensing after trying to help a colleague with what appeared to be a straightforward problem, and seeing an interesting and surprising effect. He started investigating this phenomenon, and what appeared initially to be small and unimportant turned out to yield groundbreaking results. Similarly, an early technique for spread spectrum communications was developed by actress Hedy Lamarr after observing composer George Antheil experiment with synchronized player pianos(http://www.amazon.com/Hedys-Folly-Breakthrough-Inventions-Beautiful/dp/0307742954/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359425968&sr=1-1&keywords=hedy+lamarr). Other renowned researchers, including Richard Feynman (whose Nobel Prize winning work stemmed from his fascination with the motion of plates being spun in the cafeteria ( http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/FeynmansWobblingPlate/), have noted the importance of choosing problems based upon how interesting and intellectually stimulating they are, and this has been an influential principle for me in recent years. We have all been trained to recognize interesting and surprising phenomena, and I believe that by focusing our attention in these directions, we give ourselves the most opportunity to make exciting new discoveries.

Women in Science and Engineering

I have often been asked to reflect on any special challenges I’ve faced associated with being a woman in engineering. This is a difficult topic for many people to address; women do not want to appear malcontent or unable to compete, and men often hesitate to claim they understand all the challenges faced by their female colleagues. First let me state that I’m proud to be part of the Duke community, where I have never personally experienced outright gender bias. My fellow faculty and administrators have always been supportive, including when I took maternity leave and a tenure clock extension, when I needed assistance addressing dual career challenges before being hired, when I was working with other Duke departments and UNC to help them address dual career challenges for their faculty, and in prioritizing family-friendly scheduling of critical meetings. Based on what I know of our peer institutions, Duke is quite progressive on these fronts. In fact, a 1999 study of female faculty in the sciences at MIT lists several tangible actions designed to foster inclusion and supportive environments for women (http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html), and many of these actions are already standard procedure at Duke.

This being stated, women faculty in engineering and the sciences in general still face gender bias and significant challenges. April Brown has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues in her various roles at Pratt and I’m sure her reflections would be a valuable complement to mine. Consider the following 2012 study. Yale researchers “created application forms purporting to be from a recent science graduate wanting a laboratory manager job and asking for feedback. In total, 127 faculty members were asked to rank the candidate in terms of competence, starting salary they would offer, willingness to mentor the candidate, and likeability. The only difference in the applications was the name of the student – 63 were from ‘John’ and 64 were from ‘Jennifer’. The results were stark. Jennifer was ranked less competent than John and was offered a median starting salary almost $4,000 lower than John. In addition, the faculty was less willing to mentor Jennifer, but, strangely, found her to be more likeable.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/14/sexual-discrimination-science, http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full  More recently, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, “blasted managers who unconsciously reflect stereotypes when they judge women’s performance, saying: ‘She’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,’ or: ‘She’s a bit aggressive.’” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/jan/25/facebook-sheryl-sandberg-gender-stereotypes) While my personal experiences have been very positive, that is more a reflection of the caliber of the faculty and administration here at Duke than on the state of women in science and engineering in general.

The root causes of these phenomena are opaque, but Duke has the opportunity to maintain its leadership role in addressing these challenges. A 2011 report on the status of women faculty in science and engineering at MIT (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/images/documents/women-report-2011.pdf) describes a variety of these challenges, many of which are relevant to the faculty at Duke as well. Below I describe some specific examples of these challenges and possible ways to address them. Many of these initiatives would be beneficial to all faculty, not just women.

  • As described above, subtle forms of bias can emerge during hiring and evaluation processes. The MIT study recommends, and Duke could consider, “training search committees to recognize subtle forms of discrimination in reference letters and the interview process.”
  • Women, particularly in engineering and the “hard” sciences, are often asked to perform more service activities, sometimes because of the admirable desire to have some female representation. This was particularly noted in the MIT report: “Additionally, women faculty members expressed concern at their high level of service, both within the Institute and in their scientific communities, which can interfere significantly with research accomplishment.” Duke administrators should be made aware of the service requests made of women and the toll this can take on their research programs, ensure service loads are fairly distributed without excluding qualified faculty from key decision-making roles, and exercise due discretion when making service requests.
  • Recent research has shown that, even in dual-career families, women generally take on a significant majority of housework and childrearing tasks. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm) indicates that, on average, women perform 200 more hours per year on household chores than men, leaving them with less time to devote to their careers. This is perhaps not as it should be, but the disparity is nevertheless a fact of life for many working women, including female science and engineering faculty at Duke. Duke might consider resources to ease housework burdens on all faculty, particularly when it comes to childcare. Examples might include on-campus daycare without a three (or more) year waiting list, emergency backup child care programs, or Duke-negotiated discounts for housecleaning and lawn care services. Duke could also consider the cost-benefit tradeoff of concierge services, a major benefit at companies such as Freescale Semiconductor: “Freescale also has a concierge service to handle simple tasks that would otherwise require an employee to be in two places at one time. If an employee is on a business trip, but at the same time needs to deliver an item to his or her children’s school, the service can handle that. If a mother is working from home and her children are sick, the concierge can pick up medicine for her. Freescale’s intent is to have a suite of services that makes it easier for women to fulfill their career ambitions without compromising family obligations.” (http://www.forbescustom.com/HCMPgs/HCMWWFP1.html)
  • Supervising graduate students and showing progress on grants and contracts or towards career milestones is a major challenge for faculty on family leave; these challenges are not entirely mitigated by teaching release and tenure clock extensions. Evidence suggests these challenges disproportionately affect women: “Women with children younger than age six were the least likely of all groups to secure a ladder-rank faculty position. Married men with children younger than six were the most likely of all groups to secure a tenure-track position.” (http://ann.sagepub.com/content/596/1/252.full.pdf) Analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients data paints a complex picture of the role of family life for men and women in academia, as compellingly presented via graphs at http://www.uic.edu/orgs/wise/WISEST_MaryAnnMason_2006.pdf. Duke development offices could pursue private funding for post-doc support for faculty on family leave, as at USC (http://www.usc.edu/programs/wise/programs/childbirth_adoption/).
  • Additional research has revealed that “women don’t ask” (http://www.womendontask.com/) – that is, they tend to negotiate for salary and resources far less aggressively than their male counterparts, leading to significant long-term discrepancies. Similar trends appear if we examine research funding applications. “At NSF and NIH, women who applied in 2001 were less likely to submit another application in the next two years. The difference was much larger at NIH (more than 20 percent) than at NSF (5 percent). At both agencies, this disparity applied to both successful and unsuccessful applicants in the first year.” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9147/index1.html) Related work in Virginia Valian’s book, Why so Slow?, shows that small differences in resources allocated to faculty have a cumulative effect over time, leading to significant disparities in long-term achievement. (http://www.amazon.com/Why-So-Slow-Advancement-Women/dp/0262720310) Duke could offer practical grant strategizing, negotiation and leadership training workshops for faculty. As the MIT report recommends, Duke could also “continue and improve tracking of faculty salaries and resources for equity. Conduct a study on equity of individual retirement packages.” The distribution of chaired professorships could also be tracked.
  • “Many women faculty cite workplace climate as an important factor in career satisfaction and decisions about whether to pursue a career in academe. All too often, newly minted scientists begin their faculty positions with little or no training in effective strategies for running a laboratory, lacking even basic training and skills in writing and managing a budget, hiring and evaluating personnel, and conflict management. The dearth of training contributes in turn to some of the observed climate problems in the academic science workplace.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11741&page=219) Duke could provide additional training in these areas for all junior faculty.
  • As described in the MIT report, women are often asked to speak or serve on panels related to work-life balance and child rearing, while men are rarely asked to publicly reflect on their personal lives in profession settings. One MIT faculty member said, “I am uncomfortable on work/life balance panels. There is an expectation that as a female faculty member you will talk about personal issues. But it’s perfectly normal for men to keep work and life separate.” This imbalance engenders the notion that women are distracted by family concerns while men are not. We do a disservice to men in this respect, as I have known many male colleagues who were dedicated husbands and fathers and struggled with work-life balance issues. I am looking forward to seeing future essays in this series written by my male colleagues as they discuss work-life balance issues.

Let me close by reflecting that most of the above sources highlight the importance of mentorship in overcoming these and other challenges. Again, I consider myself fortunate to be part of the Duke ECE community, where I found ready mentors for a variety of job facets: Loren Nolte on developing a clear tenure dossier; Robert Calderbank on constructing a research vision; Leslie Collins on lab management; Larry Carin and David Brady on navigating the DOD funding environment; Steve Cummer and Dan Sorin on day-to-day life in the department; Ingrid Daubechies and Nan Jokerst on maternity leave and kids; Gary Ybarra on service; and many others. Study after study shows that this kind of support network is critical to the success of junior faculty and thus a department as a whole, and I look forward to continuing that tradition in my turn.

(1)  http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

When I look back over the history of the AT&T Corporation from the invention of the telephone in 1876 to the break up in 1984, I see a world that operated at a very different pace. Imagine thirty-two years from the introduction of rotary dialing in 1919 to the introduction of direct dial in 1951 !

Throughout this early history AT&T was so dominant that if you were an engineer and you wanted to change this industry, than you would naturally elect to work for Bell Labs because AT&T provided a unique path to influence. When I graduated from Caltech in 1980 there was only one place that I wanted to work., and when I joined Bell Labs I slept on the floor of my apartment for 6 months because I was sure my department head would soon discover his mistake and send me packing.

The Bell System embodied vertical integration of service infrastructure, network/service customer management and network infrastructure. The Bell System was a regulated monopoly, so if $10M was spent hunting a Nobel Prize in superconductivity then the return to the company was $10M plus a guaranteed margin. This really was a golden age for physics and certainly a business model that promoted unfettered curiosity, because the more stones you turned over the greater was the payback.

Inverted Triangle-01My inverted triangle is shaded green the color of money, with light shading representing commodity businesses and darker shading representing businesses that are able to support speculative research. The money is in networked applications.

When there was one Bell System there was really one source of innovation. Today there is a tide of innovation in IP networking and I would like to mention two Bell System ideas that were swamped; ISDN and ATM to the desktop. They were designed with central control in mind whereas IP was designed for organic growth. It turns out that networks prosper by making third party applications run successfully.

The breakup of AT&T and Lucent happened in 1995, and at the beginnings of AT&T Labs there were many who questioned whether a services company needed a research organization, let alone one centered in the computational sciences. It was customary to think about research in terms of inventing the transistor, and the long march through development, product and finally services. I think that most ideas do not survive this long march. If you run a Research organization on this model, and if you do it really, really well then you might bat .300; that means 7 out of every 10 conversations you have with your boss are about how you failed. It is far better to work backwards from challenges where someone cares about the answer. What takes judgment is finding challenges that illuminate the research frontier in science and engineering disciplines and can sustain an intellectually vibrant organization.

The long march can be lonely. When I joined Bell Labs, my department head showed me to my office, reminded me that a Member of Technical Staff was an independent researcher, and advised me to get busy. I think I prospered by finding very good people to work with and by working in many different areas. When I became a research manager I drew maps where edges connected individuals if they had collaborated on a successful project. I looked for individuals who had contributed to several successful projects and tried to reward them for making the organization more than the sum of its parts.

I left Bell Labs in 1995 because I had worked 10 years at the physical layer and I was attracted by the new challenge of creating a research organization for a services company. We soon recognized that what distinguished AT&T was operation at scale, and we tumbled to the idea that we could use company data at massive scale to illuminate the research frontier in statistics and many other disciplines.

In statistics the mainstream now revolves around understanding large dynamic data streams, rather than sorting outliers in small data sets. We organized an entire research program around what information is needed to operate and compete, and how this information is obtained and applied. AT&T came to look to Research for ideas; we built the system used to manage all voice calling, optimized the IP network infrastructure, and used speech technology to transform customer care.

Something I like very much about Duke ECE is interdisciplinary projects that go all the way from revolutionary cameras to revolutionary mathematics. Other universities have very good parts (perhaps their cameras are not quite as good) but Duke is special in that it has all the parts and the parts like working together. And what is important in both industry and academia is this kind of community. I am sometimes asked whether it easier to manage in industry than in academia given that in industry it is just possible to tell staff what to do. My experience telling very smart people what to do is that it does not work terribly well either in industry or academia. It is much more effective to generate excitement about a research challenge and to celebrate the research community when the research program is successful.

At AT&T Research we learned that interdisciplinary communities enable early career success by amplifying the impact of individual contributions. Vahid Tarokh, now a Professor at Harvard, was the first electrical engineer to win the NSF Waterman Award, and his work on the geometry of scattering has transformed wireless communication. Jennifer Rexford, now a Professor at Princeton, developed tools for router configuration, network monitoring, and traffic engineering that are in daily use in AT&T’s backbone network, and is now a leader of the NSF initiative to reinvent the Internet. Ann Rogers and Kathleen Fisher revitalized the field of domain specific programming languages by making it possible to use traffic flows to build and maintain signatures on a billion network components.

Along the way we also learned that interdisciplinary communities also improve retention by making it necessary for a competitor to replicate a community that enables larger success.

They are also more fun and we came to Duke in 2010 to have more fun.

Robert Calderbank

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