If I Only Knew: Reflections for New Faculty Members

— Yang Decheng, PhD; Professor, Centre for Heart Lung Innovation, St. Paul's Hospital

Looking back on more than 25 years of experience as a faculty member at UBC

“Most of us on college faculties learn our craft by trial-and-error. We start teaching and doing research, make lots of mistakes, learn from some of them, ...gradually more or less figure out what we're doing. While there's something to be said for purely experiential learning, it's not very efficient. Sometimes small changes in the ways we do things can yield large benefits. We may eventually come up with the changes ourselves, but it could help both us and our students immeasurably if someone were to suggest them early in our careers” (1).

Looking back on more than 25 years of experience as a faculty member at UBC, I have many thoughts and feelings about the experience on various topics such as productive research, effective teaching, mentorship, active service, good collaboration, collegiality within the department, work-life balance, etc… Here I will focus on my top three.

  1. Develop a short-term and a long-term agenda for your research programs supported by the national granting agencies

    Our university is a research-intensive institution. If you are a non-clinical Assistant Professor and your major responsibility is conducting research and supervising graduate students and post-graduate fellows, your highest priority is to develop a clear and focused research program and to regularly secure research funding from national or local grant agencies and organizations. After you have obtained your first CIHR grant, you should develop your long-term plan to expand your research direction to maintain more than one federal grant at all times. Ideally, the timeline of your national grants should be overlapping to avoid funding discontinuation. If you have a time gap for national grant funding at the time when you are applying for consideration of promotion you may have trouble being supported even though you had secured numerous tri-agency grants. This issue may delay your promotion to Associate Professor.

    When selecting your research areas, it is understandable that most of the new Assistant Professors (also called PIs) will stay in the same knowledge domain as their own PhD program. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you are familiar with the area and it is easy for you to start. The disadvantage is that it may limit your space for further growth, and may lead you to continue relying on your previous supervisor. For the long run, you may end up in competition for funding with your supervisor, which is a situation you do not want to see. Alternatively, you may end up working and publishing together with your supervisor. This may have a negative impact on your grant ranking because the reviewers will question your ‘independence’ in research. In order to avoid these potential problems, it is fine to initially stay the course, but after about two years, it is advisable to move into other areas. In this was, you have more space and opportunity to develop expertise as a leader of the new field.

    Do not lose confidence after receiving rejections. Everyone experiences this. My personal experience is that the most effective way forward is to revise, revise, revise. Never give up and avoid frequently changing the main purpose of the proposal. You should feel confident that your proposal will be successful after modifications. Recalling the past almost 30 years, I am lucky that most of my CIHR proposals were eventually funded after modifications (some of them were even submitted three times), which resulted in continuous CIHR funding. When modifying your proposal, make sure that the proposal is clear, very focused, and has high novelty and feasibility. The common problem for new PI research proposals is that they are often too ambitious. I heard an anecdote from a friend in another university that his colleague wanted to publish a Nature paper without publishing anything in the prior 3 years. The Nature manuscript was ultimately rejected and his application for tenure failed. May this serve as a reminder that regularly publishing is critically important, regardless of the journal, which is not only important for success in achieving tenure, but also for any grant application.

  2. Actively participate in effective teaching

    Teaching is an important part of the mission of UBC and provides students the opportunity to interact with and learn from the faculty members and top scholars from around the world. Likewise, faculty members have the pleasure of working with bright and fresh young minds. As a new PI, you need to spend a certain amount of time in educational activities. Teaching will force you to read broadly to update your knowledge to meet the students’ requirements, which will also benefit your research.

    To be a good educator and achieve effective teaching, you should consider the following:

    First, (i) Select a course or topic that fits the departmental needs and also matches your research interest. This will enable you to deliver high quality lectures without spending too much time preparing teaching materials. For some new PIs whose major responsibilities are conducting research and supervising graduate students, you may also carefully consider the teaching load to protect your required research time.

    Second, (ii) develop your teaching philosophy. To achieve effective teaching, your teaching strategy must answer the following questions: how do you prepare your lectures? How do you deliver them? How do you get students involved in class?

    Here I provide some tips:

    1. be enthusiastic about teaching. Initially, you will need to prepare each lecture with a clearly defined objective, up-to-date content, careful organization and a short summery at the end;
    2. be a good friend to your students. You should put yourself in the position of the learner and ask, “Which part of the lecture is most difficult?” and, “how did I understand this when I learned it in the first time?” Once you have this perspective, it is only then that you can prepare and deliver your lecture in a format that fits the students’ needs;
    3. finally, encourage active learning. Encouraging students to be involved in active learning is critically important and challenging. New PIs are usually able to deliver their lectures well because they have fresh memory of how they learned the difficult content the first time. However, they tend to fall into the mistake of covering too much, resulting in a lack of time for student interaction. To avoid this problem, the lecturer should focus on the most necessary content for stimulating student thinking and leave enough time for students to ask questions in class.

    Third, (iii) seek feedback and use the university teaching support resources. Frequently seeking feedback on your teaching is critically important for improving your teaching effectiveness. This feedback can come from your students’ course evaluations, which provides detailed comments on several areas and serves as a guideline for further improvements. You can also get feedback from your colleagues by inviting them to attend one of your lectures and provide comments. All of these evaluations will be included in your teaching dossier. Teaching is not only in class, your graduate and postdoctoral students work with you together daily, and they can also provide more feedback on your supervision of their research projects. In addition, the UBC Teaching Support Center provides workshops, seminars or short courses for effective teaching. Making full use of these resources will enrich your teaching skills.

  3. Establish a mentoring relationship with established faculty members

    Boice’s study indicated that ~95% of new PIs take an average of 4–5 years to meet or exceed their institution’s expectations for research and teaching. The remaining 5%, however—the so called “quick starters”—manage to do it in their first two years on the faculty (2). Considering the enormous investment institutions make in each faculty member they hire, moving more of the new ones into the quick starter category would be good for everyone. To achieve this goal, the new PIs need seek mentorship, as quickly as possible, from established faculty member(s). If the department does not assign you a mentor, the best solution is to independently seek out a mentor that fits your needs. For example, you may choose a mentor who is familiar with your research areas and conveniently located. You may also reach out to colleagues outside of the department. There might be someone at another institution who can provide some distance from our community, and give you a broader view of the discipline and academia.

    Ideally, you should have two mentors: one teaching mentor and one research mentor. This is particularly necessary for new PIs who have more teaching responsibility. The teaching mentor may be your co-instructor for the course. Initially mentors may help with lesson planning, assignment & test writing, and even lecturing - gradually you will assume more of these responsibilities. The advantage of co-instructing is that you receive timely advice from your mentor. The research mentor is your collaborator. This is the most effective approach for mentoring and collaboration. The new PI will see first-hand how the experienced researcher plans a study, secures funding, works with graduate students, publishes results, and deals with problems.

    I would highlight that the importance of mentorship is not only for a quick start but also for the further development of your academic career. Good mentorship can make your promotion and tenure path go smoothly. The experienced mentors are familiar with the tenure policy. They can provide guidance on how to apply for promotion and tenure. Most importantly, your mentor will become your consultant for your entire academic career. I have been fortunate to have Dr. Bruce McManus as my mentor. He has provided invaluable guidance throughout my career. I learned a lot from him about how to achieve success in research and teaching, how to develop an attractive research proposal, how to respond to grant reviewers’ comments, how to run a research laboratory and how to establish an encouraging, collaborative, and mutually respectful research environment in the laboratory. In brief, establishing a mentoring program is critically important for our academic success.

1R. M. Felder & R. Brent, Helping New Faculty Members Get Off to a Good Start. September 20, 2010. 2R. Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members, Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon, 2000.