#NewPI in the time of Covid – A recap

Whew. The spring semester has wound down for most of us or will in the next couple of weeks, and summer research (and recovery!) time has begun. I’m now 9 months into being a #newPI at the University of Cincinnati and given the wild ride that being a #newPI generally is, plus the clusterf*ck that was 2020-2021, it felt like time for reflection and checking in with my Pre-NewPI Summer To Do List. The first thing I want to note for postdocs who are about to transition to a faculty position or are planning to transition in the future: On our CVs, these positions have discrete start and end dates but in reality, they overlap for months. When I mentioned this to other #newPIs, they all commiserated with this issue. In the last 2-3 months of my postdoc, I was spending 5-10 hours a week on preparing to start my position – everything from planning my move to getting my institutional email set up to attending faculty meetings or orientation events, participating in discussions of who is teaching what, discussing possible lab renovations or purchases, making plans for transitioning data/ grants/ samples/ etc. And since most positions start the same month that teaching begins, if you teach that first semester, I suggest you start working on that class material earlier than your start date. Then I moved and the situation was reversed – unless you’re extremely lucky (I was not), you’ll still be working on postdoc papers at least your first semester if not for the next couple of years. I assumed the postdoc work would bleed into the faculty work but did not realize how much the faculty work would bleed into the last few months of my postdoc.

As for being a #newPI, the advice you’ll read in lots of places is get your own independent projects up and running ASAP & start churning out preliminary data and grants. #OverlyHonestNewPI confession: I started NONE of my planned projects. Not one. And I am ok with that. Instead, I completed the analysis for two postdoc projects that I’m trying to finish and drafted partial manuscripts which I’m planning to finish this summer, re-vamped and updated an undergraduate course, shepherded a few submitted papers to publication, and organized and collected a data for a small paper unrelated to my major research plans.

Checking in with the Pre-NewPI To Do List, I did all of the Low Effort Items and about half of the stuff in the Medium Effort done. Turns out, its hard to connect with new colleagues or make plans in the time of COVID and endless Zoom meetings. For example, my original research plan called for multiple weeks of fieldwork in Africa in 2021/2022 and that ain’t happening (more on this topic in June). Thus, planning beyond this summer is difficult but I have signed up for a New Faculty Bootcamp through the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (if you have an institutional membership to this organization, I highly recommend using it and signing up for their weekly emails). I did none of the things on the Great Effort or Herculean Effort list, but I am planning to write up all of those lab documents this summer and I’ll likely tackle the rest of those items this fall IF it looks like fieldwork will be possible in 2022. Final accounting: Mixed bag of success. Since it wasn’t 100% failure, we’re celebrating over here.

Given that I got a lot of feedback about the hourly accounting I did for the TT faculty job search, I want to do a little of that for #newPI responsibilities because something I didn’t quite put into hours for myself was this: Whether you teach your first ‘new to you’ course (i.e. a course that has been taught before in the department but that you’ve never taught) during your first year or your second, be prepared for it to take so much more of your time than you thought. I’m pretty experienced in the classroom and I was still unprepared for the percentage of my available work hours this task just devoured.

For those not familiar, many tenure-track research faculty positions are described as splitting their Percent Effort into 3 categories: Research, Teaching, and Service (service being department, university, and society committees, etc). A position at a prestigious R1 with few teaching responsibilities might be described as 80% research, 10% teaching, and 10% service. In contrast, a position that teaches 2-3 courses a year might be described as 45% research, 45% teaching, and 10% service. I track my time in each of my ‘effort’ categories and you can see below what happened in mid-December when I started updating and re-vamping my spring course.

Katie’s Personal Effort Report – SO MUCH TEACHING.

I was super fortunate to receive a ton of materials from the previous person who taught it, but it was a course related to human genetics and hadn’t been taught in 5 years, so the amount of updating needed was…substantial. To quantify this in hours, I spent at least 20-26 hours a week prepping lectures, giving lectures, and prepping/grading assignments from January to March. Transitioning the class from in person to online for COVID and from a high stakes exam-based class to a low-stakes quiz and small homework assignments class was also a lot of work. I’m ultimately really proud of the work I did on this class and my course evaluations are stellar, but a mentor would absolutely tell me I spent too entirely much time on it and not enough time on the tenure-critical category: Research. Given that as a new faculty, you’ll probably spend ~5-10 hours a week in meetings (SO MANY MEETINGS), answering emails (SO MANY emails), and doing administrative stuff, that quickly pushes any research or writing to nights and weekends. Lest you think you’re special, this is pretty typical of university faculty according to a pre-pandemic study from 2014: “Combining work week and weekend, faculty subjects spent about 40 percent of their time on teaching-related tasks, or about 24.5 hours.”

Since we’ve all discovered the importance and benefits of taking care of your mental health during the pandemic, I committed to rarely working on nights or weekends this year. I’m hoping to make up that research time this summer (aren’t we all?). Either way, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s do what you can and let the rest go so I’m going to forgive myself for so much time spent on teaching this spring and just be really proud of how well the class went and how much the students reported they enjoyed it.

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