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Ask a Senior Colleague- Summer 2014

Thanks to four tenured DWC members for their responses to this newsletter's questions!

Question 1: Can you provide any advice on how to hit the ground running during the first year of a 3-year post doc? Also, this fellowship could turn into a tenure-track hire opportunity. Do you have strategies for how to maximize my candidacy during the fellowship?

Answer 1a: The best way to hit the ground running is to get writing for publication. A postdoc is a blissful time with reduced teaching and administrative responsibilities so enjoy it as best you can. Prioritize your research and writing interests. People may ask you to take on time consuming tasks that do not really count as part of your performance review process or eventual hire. It is not only OK to say no to those, this is an essential skill to develop to ensure that your precious research and writing time are not gobbled up by meetings.

It would be good to have your next big project in mind before you get there. Get your ethics review preparation underway if relevant/possible (you can start filling out the forms) and have your study planned. In the meantime, what else can you be writing for publication? Can you produce a critical literature review that would serve as background for your study? Is there an existing dataset you can access in your area? Can you pull articles from your dissertation?

Is your dissertation suitable for revision into book form? If so you can work on writing a book prospectus before you start the postdoc. Ask one of your mentors for a prospectus they used for a successful book and use it as a guide. Don't just publish with any vanity press that mass emails you or hands you a business card at ASC! University presses count the most. Look for a book series that contains books you love. That may be a good fit.

Make sure to focus on the types of publications that count in your department. Target the journals that will count for you. Before you start writing a new publication, have a journal in mind, check out their mission, and confirm the match between published articles and what you have planned. Follow the journal conventions for the sections of your article and formatting as you write to avoid time consuming revision. External deadlines are your friend! Special issues can be great for finishing things on a schedule. So can conference talks. Plan to have your paper ready to submit by the time you give the conference talk.

In sum, prioritize the activities that will count for you! Of course you should be professional and friendly to your potential colleagues but research for publication is your first priority as a postdoc.

Answer 1b: The question doesn't say whether this is a teaching post-doc or a research post-doc, and my advice would be slightly different for each of those, but I'll just provide some general thoughts. My first piece of advice would be to participate as fully as possible in the department. Post-docs occupy a "funny" kind of position in a department. They almost never have any kind of service responsibilities, for example, even if they are teaching post-docs. It's easy to feel like an "outsider" or excluded. It will be your responsibility to participate as much as possible; don't expect them to necessarily go out of their way to invite you to everything. Go to all department events such as seminars, presentations, brown bags, symposia, and even department meetings if they'll let you, as well as social events. You not only get to learn about the department this way, but you demonstrate to your colleagues that you are interested in the department and that you are a good department citizen. Don't over-volunteer, though, because you need to protect your time to do the things that are required for the post-doc.

Second, you should have been or will be assigned a mentor in the dept. If not, you should seek one out. If the one you are assigned is not helpful to you, be collegial (i.e., meet with the person or whatever they want), but seek out someone else informally who will be more helpful to you, not only in terms of guiding you in the ways of the department, but also guide you more broadly through the processes of research, grant-writing, publication (and teaching, if this is a teaching post-doc). Your mentor should also help you network in the university as well as in the larger professional community. Don't be afraid to ask your mentor for help with specific things (e.g., to read a draft of a manuscript, for advice on journals to submit manuscripts to, whether you should attend a particular talk or not or attend a specific conference, etc.)

Finally, be clear on what your responsibilities for the post-doc are and plan out your time as much as possible. Three years seems like a long time initially, but believe me, it will fly by. Don't procrastinate. You want to manage your time well, so that you fulfill all the responsibilities expected of you.

Question 2: I am going on the job market this fall and would like to ask how important publications are for a viable job candidate. Also, what is the perception of candidates who apply with book publications vs. peer-reviewed journal publications, and how important are first-authored or solo-authored publications?

Answer 2a: The importance of publications for candidates on the market varies significantly depending on the type of institutions that you are applying to. If you are looking at places that have a strong research focus, then several publications are a must-have for your CV. If you are looking at the smaller, teaching oriented colleges, then it is more important to show that you have experience in teaching and there will probably be less of a focus in the research game, but will probably want to see something. That being said, many institutions want to see a balance between teaching and research. I'm at a campus that is part of a state university system where teaching is key. We probably wouldn't hire someone if they don't have experience in teaching their own class (being a TA would not be enough).

As for research, this can vary from year to year depending on what the candidate pool looks like. Generally speaking, we want to see that people have at least one peer review article published or at least things under review. This helps us to know that they have an established research agenda that will help them get the publications that they will need for tenure. Of course the volume for this can vary from institution to institution - I would recommend that you search the website for the departments that you are applying to. This will help in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this question, you should look at the CV's of the other faculty in the department. What are the publication records of the faculty in general? For those at the assistant professor rank? This will help you decide whether your research/publication record is a good fit for the department/institution.

Answer 2b: The importance of publications varies with the mission of the institution. Research-oriented institutions value publications much more than institutions with a primary mission of teaching. As a general rule, the more publications, the better. Beyond quantity, peer-reviewed publications are always valued more than publications that are not peer reviewed. Some places examine the impact factors for journal publications, but the content of an article is more important to me personally. In our field, peer-reviewed journal articles receive greater priority than books. Solo-authored or lead-authored articles are preferable to articles where one is a junior author.

I have omitted all the caveats from these guidelines for the sake of clarity. At least in the case of our institution, the question is whether an applicant demonstrates potential for growth as a scholar. We are more concerned about where the applicant is headed than where she has been. You should have an elevator speech on the direction and expected products of your scholarly activities in the near term (this is something that our Dean asks every applicant about). Your plans should also be addressed in your letter of application.