Monday, October 17, 2011

Advice for new professors

A summary of advice I have for new professors.*

1) Delegate

Graduate students were invented for a reason. Delegate everything. Data analysis. Literature reviews. Writing. Teaching prep. If you don't have any graduate students, find some undergrads. A task you might find mundane can actually be "research experience". 

One of my colleagues laments that their students often mess things up, causing even more work than just doing it themselves. For some things this may be true, but thus far I've been pleasantly surprised with what happens when I challenge my students. Even if they don't do a perfect job they are still doing useful work for both of us.

For CS-type folks -- get someone else to manage your machines. I know it's tempting to spend hours and hours tweaking your linux box to play fur elise backwards every other Tuesday at 2:22pm and building That Perfect Windows Manager config file and whatever other fun hacky things you do, but try to resist the urge. Shell scripts won't get you tenure (damnit). 

2) Ask

I read Boice's advice for new faculty, and he implied "quick starters" ask everyone for help on everything - research, teaching, grant writing, etc. This is helpful to remember. Spending three hours trying to find an arcane policy statement on NSF's website isn't worth the time when a quick email to your university's research support office will suffice. 

3) Network

Don't forget to water your social networks, both in your department, at your university, in your town, and in your professional community. This is something you shouldn't delegate or put off. 

Of course you don't want to spend all of your time networking; I think Boice suggests about 2-5 hours a week. YMMV.

4) Dry Clean

Best. Thing. Ever. Absolutely worth every penny. To just wake up in the morning, go to your closet, have cleaned and pressed professional clothes ready to go is just about the best thing since fur elise.

(*)  To be honest I just had one piece of advice ("Dry cleaning FTW!"), but I thought I'd throw the other ones in too while I was here. 


  1. How do you delegate teaching prep?

  2. "How do you delegate teaching prep? "

    This is actually something I learned the hard way. Some departments have a culture of passing lecture notes on from one professor to the next one teaching the course. That way, the new comer gets a feel for the level, speed and how comprehensive a syllabus should be. It lets students set expectations of what is taught in a particular course year to year. Finally, getting course materials from someone else cuts down on prep time.

  3. Or find a book you like and stifle your desire to edit, update, change and modify the curriculum as laid out. Saves a lot of time.

  4. Suresh is right. What you want from others are old syllabi and also exams. And old paper topics, which you will surely find awful and can improve upon, which will be your contribution.

    Also delegate teaching prep to undergrads. I am not joking. If you can get a senior major to do just a couple of hours a week in an internship, which can be a resume line, and they come up with cool activities for Friday classes that put concepts in motion using pop culture motifs or something that you don't know about but which gets students doing Stuff, it is cool.

    I'm not in a field that can do machine grading but I have just come up with a substitute for it: co studying. I imitated this from the math lab where I went to college - there was a room where there was always a TA so at any hour you could go and ask math questions and have them answered. My modification is, I grade in public at the library, on the big tables, and priority grading with comments goes to students who show up to do homework. This enables tutoring, office hours, and grading to happen all at once and in a social environment with real coffee for sale, and cuts down on all the drone work I have in the absence of enough TAs.

  5. John - depends on what I'm teaching. But let's say an introductory programming practicum. I'd have my undergrads help create labs, create development sandboxes, beta-test homework assignments / tests, and like profacero said, find cool new things happening that I don't know about which I an incorporate into my lectures.