#NewPI chat: Third (or maybe fourth) time's the charm edition

(Flickr: jby)

Following up on last fall’s group-chat discussion of life as a new(is) professor, three *Molecular Ecologist contributors who are in our first years on faculty recently reconvened on the TME Slack channel to talk about that #NewPI life for an hour. What follows is a transcript of our chat, lightly edited for clarity and grammar and with the odd hyperlink added for context. Enjoy!*
— Jeremy
Jeremy Yoder: Good (Pacific Time) morning, fellow new PIs! Let’s have a quick round of re-introductions, and then dig in. Who’s on the chat?
Stacy Krueger-Hadfield: Well me, Stacy Krueger-Hadfield, newish PI at the University of Alabama at Birmingham
Arun Sethuraman: Arun Sethuraman, newish PI at CSU San Marcos
JBY: And I’m Jeremy Yoder, no-longer-completely-new PI at CSU Northridge. I’m now a couple months (!) into my second semester, and I think both Arun and Stacy are sailing through year two?
AS: “Sailing” would be an overstatement haha
SKH: Sailing through … oh Jeremy you jest
JBY: Well, I have the year right, at least?
AS: Yup, class of Fall 2016
SKH: Yes, class of fall 2016!
JBY: Okay, so my role in this is to draw on that extra year of experience you each have, and find out whether things do get … well, not better, because they’re honestly pretty great, but let’s say less frantic?
I feel like the place we have to start is scheduling, because by my count it took about three tries to get us all together for this chat. One of which was an appointment that I totally blew through.

And this is not actually an isolated incident. Just Tuesday I had a phone call scheduled with an incoming grad student and, even though I was at my computer the entire time, I was so absorbed in throwing together slides for a lecture the next day that I didn’t see his “hey, are we doing this?” email until I got home for the night, two hours later.
SKH: That has happened to me on multiple occasions
JBY: So, yes, I’m wondering if this gets better, and how the heck are you two keeping on top of everything?
SKH: Not with a grad student but totally losing the plot! Yes it gets better, but it also gets worse at the same time!
I feel like this year is harder but I also feel a bit more equipped to deal with it?
AS: Time management has not been my friend — I find myself (and my calendar) spread way too thin almost all the time. But I think that I’ve gotten better at it by prioritizing.
SKH: Yes I think that’s it. I prioritize better but I haven’t learned to say no yet!!! So I am chronically stretched too thin!
AS: (Also, have gotten better at learning not to respond to emails right away – it can wait)
And totally agreed – I haven’t learned to say no yet either. Which has landed me in a pretty bad mess of a schedule right now – when I’m not teaching, I am constantly in meetings (with graduate students, undergrads, other faculty, etc).
SKH: Same!
I’ve escaped it and am in line for food doing this newPI chat!
AS: BUT – my workaround has been to prioritize things, including the gym, and commute on my calendar. And I religiously try to make it
Haha (I’m eating my lunch too, way too early now)
SKH: Yes, I swim or weightlift m-f mornings and that’s made life better and clears my head!
AS: YES! Invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones!
SKH: Yes! And be ok with a shut door from time to time when you really just need to focus
AS: Oh yes — that was going to be my next point. I’ve learned to shut my door more. For example, right now — while I’m on this chat, I am not ready for “office hours” — no thank you
SKH: It’s hard figuring out how to prioritize your time and everything else!
AS: Also, since I’m at a smaller University, my service responsibilities have caught up to me in Year 2 — which means schedule goes even more bonkers
SKH: Same!!
JBY: Yeah, so I think what I’ve had brought home to me is that there is simply an upper limit to what I can do in a day. I’ve been pretty firm about blocking time for the gym, cooking, housework, sleep and whatnot. And then I’m basically robbing Peter to pay Paul when it comes to figuring out which item on my to-do list gets my time.
Like, at any given moment there’s a minimum of three other things I could be doing.
AS: Oh yes (responds to student email as I type this…)
JBY: I’ve started tracking my time with Toggl, which has been helpful for perspective on that — I am certainly not slacking on hours spent. But I really can’t do science until I have the next day’s class prepped, and I can’t multitask while I’m in the classroom, and I can only advance so many projects in what time I’ve got left …
And I might complain about how much time teaching is taking up, but it’s really a relatively plum assignment. Nineteen students, eight hours in the classroom a week.
But we’ll see how fast I can prep the exam for Monday, too.
AS: Yah I think that I’ve learned to deal with teaching a lot better now in Year 2. Also, I’ve developed three new courses in the year and a half I’ve been here, which has driven me crazy, but also made me happier, since I love that these are now my classes, and I get to teach them however I want. (My teaching load as a CSU faculty is comparatively high – on an average, it’s about 9 credits a semester, which means I end up teaching 2 3-credit lectures, and 1 lab)
JBY: Yeah, building this class out is certainly not unsatisfying work — it’s just a colossal time-suck.
SKH: Yes, my teaching has improved and I enjoy it more
AS: Totally — I end up “crowd-sourcing” lecture fodder on Twitter a lot
SKH: me too!
JBY: I have actually managed to start saying “no” already, simply because people who are asking me to do things now tend to be interrupting lecture prep.
JBY: So what other tools are you two using to keep on top of everything? I’m heavily invested in my Google calendar, though not quite at the level of detail Arun is, and I’m everlastingly thankful for the “Snooze until” feature in Gmail’s Inbox interface.
And Toggl is showing me where the time goes, if not necessarily helping me re-balance things.
SKH: Maybe I’m old fashioned but I found going back to a good old week view Moleskin calendar (red, if you care) has helped me manage my time so much better. My Google calendar got out of hand, so when I was in the UK over Christmas, I bought myself a calendar and have found satisfaction crossing stuff out and writing stuff down.
AS: I have insisted that my students/staff also keep meticulous calendars (which they share with me), so I can keep track of their time as well
It also helps with accountability, and I know where to find them if I want (wet lab/dry lab/class/etc)
SKH: We are re-starting a Krueger-Hadfield lab calendar, and we also use Slack to communicate
AS: My lab has a Slack as well – which works great!
SKH: We also have weekly meetings and talk about successes, failures, and everything in between
JBY: Yeah, I haven’t got folks in the lab at a capacity to do that, but I have a Slack ready to go when the grad students arrive.
I’ve had pretty fitful undergrad involvement in the lab so far, mostly because I haven’t been teaching till this semester. But as I type there are students down in the greenhouse filling cone-tainers for my first new experiment at CSUN, so that’s cool.
AS: I am also super-duper thankful for my department admin folks. They are on top of all the paperwork (ordering, travel, pre-grant, post-award, etc), which helps me manage my time better
(So I take my time to write thank-you notes for them – no better way to spend my time!)
SKH: Same, the three ladies in our office are AMAZING. I knew this before, but I was the chair of Darwin Day at UAB. It was a huge event and I couldn’t have done it without them. I always bring them something from my travels, and send postcards when I’m out and about …
JBY: That’s a good thought. I’m just starting planning for a summer fieldtrip that’ll be good for souvenir-gift shopping, that way.
SKH: Even though I am totally overbooked (now sitting in on another meeting with my post-doc at folks at FSU while typing this), I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it at all, even when I’m super stressed!
AS: Echo that sentiment! I feel like as much as I wasn’t prepared for this craziness, it’s what I’ve always wanted
JBY: Well, so to shift gears: we’ve already kind of touched on this in the context of schedule-packing, but teaching is a new thing for me this semester! I think it’s going okay, but I also leave every class with a mental list of what I should’ve done differently.
JBY: The students are generally engaged and game for whatever I throw at them, but I am worried about the sheer volume of material I’m throwing at them.
(I’m teaching Flowering Plant Systematics, which is 400-level)
SKH: Me too! This is my second semester teaching, and I’m doing my Sci Comm course again and Evolution. Normally, we teach one course per semester, but I have field work and some conferences in Europe this summer, so I’ve doubled up. It’s a lot, but I am happy with each course more so than the first time I taught them. I felt like I could have done every Evolution lecture last semester so much better. While I still feel that way, I think slowing down and getting them to do a lot of active things is helping a lot! And, I feel like it is easier to assess what I want to change and not be overwhelmed.
I’ve been told the fourth time you teach the course, you’ll like it!
JBY: Oh, good?
AS: Agreed – I always come away from classes feeling like I did something wrong. But I think that the students are appreciative of the effort that I put into every lecture/lab.
I tell them up front that I expect them to spend at least the amount of time that I spend preparing for a lecture on an average (~3-4 hours) afterwards, studying
JBY: Hah, I should’ve done that!
It seems about right, especially for the first time through the material
AS: And I’ve taught all semesters that I’ve been here, at a variety of levels (300, 400, 500), and I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t please every student
JBY: My prep time to class time ratio is MAYBE as low as 3:1
SKH: Yes, I tell them up front what I expect and that I’m still working on my teaching skills. But, I didn’t expect how much time it would take even on round 2!
Yes, you can’t please every student. And, you have students in your lab, etc. So, I’ve learned to be honest when I’ve messed up or made a bad decision. I’m going to make mistakes, and I think the thing I’ve learned in the last 6 months is that that’s ok.
AS: Agreed – I’ve had some disastrous labs (in my bioinformatics class), where I’d try everything prior to the lab, and it would work great, and then you go to lab, and the server crashes, which means you can’t do a thing. The students are flustered, I go crazy, trying to salvage material, give up, let them go early. But hey – that’s just part of how these things go. :slightly_smiling_face:
SKH: I’ve also learned that some things are going to have wait, but I give my students very clear guidelines on what to do and how to seek help if they need it. That has minimized stressing me out because there is structure in the classroom and the lab.
AS: True – I lay it out in my syllabus these days (point distribution, what they need to do to be successful, rubrics, etc). I think that as long as you are upfront about your expectations, the students know to at least try to meet them.
SKH: Yes, they know what they need to do and I think the students this semester are doing better. Exam 1 was 4 points higher!
JBY: I don’t know … I feel like I spent a lot of time and effort on the scope of the class and the nature of assignments, and students are still only realizing what each bit really entails the day before it comes due.
AS: Oh that’s always how they work haha! (They = me when I was an undergrad too)
JBY: But this is the perpetual Professorial Gripe, I guess
SKH: I have that too … So, this semester, I added in a broader picture scope, I think it helped a little, but I think it was hard to see that bigger picture when I was an undergrad.
JBY: “I literally gave you the rubric for this assignment the first day of class”
SKH: Same.
I don’t let it irritate me as much now.
AS: I’ve just come to terms with the fact that no matter what you do/try, someone is still unhappy. For instance, I’ve had complaints ranging from “hey I can’t see the board”, “your handwriting sucks”, to “I didn’t learn anything”, and “crazy hair”
SKH: That I wasn’t “lenient” enough
And, that I required the textbook (which I didn’t) which isn’t fair
No one said anything about my hair, but one student told me that I was the worst professor, E-V-E-R. I can laugh about it now!
JBY: Wheee, implicit bias in student evals
JBY: I’ve actually already had my peer evaluation done, and that went better than I’d even hoped — so whatever else happens I’m not getting fired this semester.
But I am going to be on pins and needles about the student feedback.
SKH: You have to develop a thick skin and laugh at some of it …
AS: Whoo! Yes! I had my second year retention back from the Provost and I’m set for another 2 years … so I guess that’s a good sign
SKH: I turn in my 2-year review in September and have my peer evaluations in a couple weeks
JBY: Here’s to retention
And on that note, I’m overdue in the greenhouse

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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