21 August 2015

You may not be wasting time. You might be laying foundations.

A great post by Matt Might on the difficulties of his tenure process is making the rounds on social media. Spoiler alert! There is a happy ending to his story – he got tenure. I wanted to highlight this bit:

I also started blogging a lot. Blogging, much like answering questions on Quora, doesn’t count for tenure at all, and in fact I was cautioned against doing it, since it was “a waste of time.”

But, blogging became a way to reach out to the world and to transmit technical knowledge, which is what academic publications are supposed to do – but don’t.

Before I knew it, my blog began attracting top-notch students to my lab.

Today, my lab is a team of talented grads, undergrads, postdocs and research scientists. I’m proud of each of them. I can’t imagine it would be that way without my “waste of time” blog.

That Matt is also at Harvard Med School might also have enhanced the effectiveness of his blog as recruitment tool. Many academics blog, but don’t necessarily have a run of students wanting to join the lab.

Continuing on:

And, perhaps my experience is a counter-example to the cynical yet sincere advice frequently given on how to get tenure.

The central theme in this “advice” is that anything that detracts from research – teaching, service, kids, health, etc. – is bad.

This resonates with me. As I noted last week, I’ve had so many good things happen because I “wasted time on the Internet.” Make no mistake, it took a long while, but I think it worked because I approached that time on the Internet with the goal of creating a professional footprint online. I approached it with the goal of trying to be available and helpful when I could be.

And it made me stronger. Blogging, for instance, honed my writing skills, and it gave me a background source of knowledge that paid off in a big way when I had two book chapters to write (this and this).

Of course, some of the stuff I did was pure procrastination and stopped me from getting other things done that I should have done. There are pros and cons, like everything else. I like to say, “Yes, it’s a waste of time... but it’s not a complete waste of time. The qualifier is important.”

I think the pressure on tenure-track faculty to keep focused on research is usually coming from a good place. Senior faculty want their faculty to succeed, and they’ve been around long enough to have seen that when there is a problem in the tenure process, it’s usually because someone’s research projects didn’t work out and fell short.

It is easy to see how “making sure you are making progress on research” becomes “do nothing but research.” The first is good advice; the latter is bad advice. If you only focus on creating academic research, you will have a very hard time accomplishing anything else. And most people are going to want to accomplish other things; and so will their institutions, eventually.

A construction project might go for a while before you see anything above ground level, because you have to put in the foundation first. Same with networking. Same with social media presence.

External links

HOWTO: Get tenure

Related posts

Lessons from Quora

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