Early Career Perspective
Making It Matter: Lessons Learned as a New Professor in the Pandemic
Jessica L. Hamilton, Ph.D.
I started my first faculty job in the pandemic. It has been a roller coaster of new and unforeseen challenges and opportunities filled with both excitement and uncertainty. In some ways, this past year likely had similar challenges to being a new faculty member in the ‘before’ times. Yet, faculty who started entirely remote during an ongoing pandemic have had unique challenges. We faced budgetary cuts, staff and faculty furloughs, hiring freezes, remote teaching and research, and the isolation of moving to a new job and state amidst ongoing pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. This past year also helped me to develop new strategies, perspectives, and connections that have made this transition easier and position even more rewarding.
Create your own support network and ask for help. New professors must learn, navigate, and transition into new systems, places, people, and roles all at once. You are simultaneously building a lab, teaching classes, launching your research, writing grants, mentoring students, hiring and managing staff, balancing budgets, and so much more! It is near impossible to figure everything out on your own or even from just one source. Creating a support network to help you is critical. Reach out and ask for help from mentors, other faculty at your institution (especially newer hires), administrators in your department, and even other new faculty! In my first week, I reached out to my graduate mentor for advice on graduate admissions. I reached out to my close friend (who was 4 years into faculty position) for an example lab manual. I reached out to multiple colleagues for example class syllabi. I regularly reach out to our administrators for navigating our online systems (which are always so complicated!). I am a big believer in not recreating the wheel and sharing resources, which has helped me tremendously and even generated some ideas in which I can support others (e.g., see here for F31 examples). As new faculty, I had so many questions, and I quickly realized that I was not the only one. One of the best sources of support that I have in navigating this transition are other new faculty who also started their positions in the pandemic. Starting from a tweet, I created a ‘COVID profs” Slack channel to build a network of support for myself and other new faculty in psychology and psychiatry departments starting remote. It has been integral for navigating this new role, sharing resources and suggestions, and normalizing the anxieties and uncertainties of being a new professor. While being remote had its challenges with traditional methods of building support, it also had made platforms like Slack and Zoom more accessible for building these new support networks and friendships.
Make your own celebrations and markers of success. I had dreamed of being a tenure-track professor at an R1 university since I started towards this path as a college junior. The first day I imagined looked very different from the reality of sitting at my home office. Very anti-climactic, to say the least. However, it was still my first day as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University and it was important to me that I celebrate the moment. So, with the encouragement of a friend, I sent myself an email that read: “Dear Professor Jess, You did it! Happy first day as a professor!” It may sound corny, but it made the moment feel more real. In our field, it can be hard to celebrate moments because reward is often delayed and sometimes uncertain (e.g., you have a great grant score, but may still not get funded; you get a paper accepted after months of resubmissions). It gets easier and easier to let these moments of success go unnoticed, if you let them. We need to make our own celebrations for ourselves and others! As the director of a new lab, I aim to actively promote a culture of support and celebration of these moments for every team member. This could be a celebratory lab lunch for my student’s first conference talk or lab kudos in recognition of my sophomores completing their first in-person college semester!
Make your research matter. With COVID-19 and the continued social and political upheaval of these past few years, I’m sure many of us have experienced this existential crisis: does my work really matter? It can be challenging at times to see how one more manuscript will improve the mental health crisis and reduce suicide rates. The truth is that a single manuscript may not... if we just leave it there. We need to think critically as a field about what how we communicate clinical science to make it matter. How do we disseminate our research for the public and across stakeholders to impact systems of change (e.g., education, clinical care, policy)? Given that my research focuses on teen mental health, one way that we make our research matter is by working directly with teens to inform the research we do, disseminate our findings more broadly, and develop mental health resources for their schools and communities. This has helped us to make changes in our community and think creatively about new ways that we can make a difference with our research. This motto of ‘Make Research Matter’ also inspired me to launch the “RU Communicating Clinical Science” Training Program at Rutgers, funded by the 2021 SSCP Varda Shoham Award. The goal is to train clinical psychology doctoral students in science communication so that our future leaders can communicate with stakeholders and make even more meaningful change with their science. The training program and materials will be freely accessible online, so we hope that others will implement this program with their students! Stay tuned for more in the next year!
Yes, You Though. A close friend sent me this meme (see below), and we laughed a little too loud at how much it resonated with us. I am more than understanding and validating when my students or collaborators need an extension or feel behind on papers, grant-writing, study recruitment, you name it. But how often do we apply this compassion to ourselves? Asking myself “What would you tell a colleague in this exact same scenario?” has been incredibly helpful in rethinking and restructuring my own anxieties and doubts. It also has given me the confidence and space to ask for what I need, such as an extension on a deadline or extra support from a collaborator. We are doing the best we can in an unfathomable scenario. That is enough. You are enough. And I am saying this to myself, just as much as I am saying it to you. Echoing Jasmine Mote’s beautiful article for SSCP, we need to do better as a field to move away from the ‘cult of productivity’ and basing our self-worth on productivity (link). We need to acknowledge the full humanity of our students, peers, and ourselves, which will help academia become a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable space and improve the impact of clinical science.
In short, this year has been filled with a lot of firsts that often felt overwhelming, scary, and exciting. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that you are not alone! I have developed new and meaningful relationships and collaborations that make me a happier, healthier, and better scientist and person. I have surrounded myself with an outstanding team that further inspire me and cultivate these values (shoutout to my amazing graduate students Simone Boyd and Missy Dreier, my incredible research coordinator Saskia Jorgensen, and team of talented undergraduates)! I still have a lot to learn as I embark on Year 2 of being a faculty member, but I know that I have a support network of mentors, peers, students, family, and friends who will make this next stage even better!