Monday, June 15, 2015

Adapting to career transitions with pleasure

There are several important career transitions that the fortunate few need to adapt to.
Getting a potentially "permanent" job. (e.g., Assistant Professor).
Getting Tenure.
Getting promoted to full Professor.

Previously I wrote my survival and sanity guide to young faculty.
My general observation is that people don't adapt well to these transitions. In particularly, they tend to just continue to operate in the same mode.

Unlike in North America, in Australia promotion to full Professor is not the natural trajectory. Thirty years ago, there was virtually no promotion. You had to get a separately advertised "Chair". Sometimes there was only one per department and they were the default department head. Most people ended their careers as Senior Lecturers or Readers. Now there is no limit on the number of Professors, but only a few will attain it. [Also in Australia, tenure no longer strictly exists, but that is another story].
Some will run themselves ragged, particularly taking on burdensome administrative tasks, chasing funding, or pandering to managers and/or students, in order to jump through this hoop (or over the hurdle).

Once you have tenure and/or become full Professor you should make the most of the freedom you have. John Baez has the following sage advice:
The great challenge at the beginning of ones career in academia is to get tenure at a decent university. Personally I got tenure before I started messing with quantum gravity, and this approach has some real advantages. Before you have tenure, you have to please people. After you have tenure, you can do whatever ... you want - so long as it's legal, and so long as your department doesn't put a lot of pressure on you to get grants. (This is one reason I'm happier in a math department than I would be in a physics department. Mathematicians have more trouble getting grants, so there's a bit less pressure to get them.) 
The great thing about tenure is that it means your research can be driven by your actual interests instead of the ever-changing winds of fashion. The problem is, by the time many people get tenure, they've become such slaves of fashion that they no longer know what it means to follow their own interests. They've spent the best years of their life trying to keep up with the Joneses instead of developing their own personal style! So, bear in mind that getting tenure is only half the battle: getting tenure while keeping your soul is the really hard part. To do this, you have to make sure you never lose that raw naive curiosity that got you interested in science in the first place. Don't get too wrapped up seriousness. The universe is a cool place; exploring it is fun! 
 So: keep playing around with all sorts of ideas, techniques and tools. Read voraciously. Don't be scared of experts and their jargon. Become one yourself, but then give the game away by explaining things in simple language whenever possible. Talk to lots of people! Teach them; learn from them; don't worry too much about impressing them. Don't be scared to ask basic questions - and don't be surprised when nobody knows the answers. The simplest questions are the last to be answered.
I found this quite refreshing, encouraging, and liberating.

What do you think? Do people adapt well to these transitions? If you have been fortunate to go through one of them, did you change? Do you have regrets?

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