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Student Column: Three Lives in Early Academia

Posted By Charlotte Loeb, U of Mannheim and Tamar Lazar, U of Mannheim, Monday, April 3, 2017
This month’s column from the Student and Early Career Advisory Committee provides a glimpse into the postdoctoral lives of three committee members.  Each reflects on his or her transition from graduate school and provides advice to current graduate students and early career scholars. 

Karin Fikkers, Postdoctoral Researcher, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands):
My transition from PhD student to postdoctoral researcher was a smooth one. I completed my PhD project about adolescents’ media violence exposure and aggressive behavior at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), and was very fortunate to obtain a postdoctoral position at the same institution. In the Netherlands, there is no policy requiring you to leave your alma mater upon graduating, which means I get to continue working with my amazing (former) supervisors Patti Valkenburg and Jessica Piotrowski.  

I must admit that initially, I was a little concerned that staying at the same institution would mean that I would soon grow tired of doing the same things, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In my experience, staying at ASCoR opened up new and challenging opportunities that I don’t think would have been offered to me had I started at a new place. For example, I am now myself the proud (co)supervisor of a wonderful PhD student who is elaborating on the dataset I used for my PhD project. It’s a joy to work with her and to be able transfer your own experience in research (and doing a PhD project) to the next generation. Related to teaching, after having taught smaller (25-person) tutorial sessions for our course “Introduction to Communication Science” in the past 5 years, I now got the opportunity to teach large (150-person) lectures for this course in both our Dutch and English bachelor track. This was a very exciting opportunity and, as it turns out, a great fit for me! I think that both of these opportunities presented themselves because people at my home institution were already familiar with my work. So, my fears of not being able to develop proved unwarranted.   
In fact, 2 years into my postdoc position have me convinced that you never stop learning or developing after obtaining your PhD (I’m sure the more senior scholars will be smiling knowingly here). You can push your academic boundaries in so many different ways. There are new research skills to learn – theoretical, methodological, analytical — and so, so many ways to further develop your teaching skills.  

The most difficult part, I think, is choosing what to focus on and when. When I look around me, I see so many other skilled academics who all thrive in one or more parts of academic life – whether it’s teaching, publishing, obtaining grants, valorization, receiving awards and recognitions, etcetera. It’s extremely easy to get caught up in this rat race and try to keep up by doing more and working harder. 

Personally, my way of staying sane in the rat race is to remind myself often about what my personal goals are as an academic, rather than letting others’ achievements dictate my goals for me. One easy way to do this is to write a post-it with your personal goal (mine is “Quality”) and stick it to your computer screen, where you can see this reminder every day. And whenever I fail at focusing on my own goals and try to join in the rat race, I’m happy to say that I have a group of great colleagues (who are also friends) around me that help me put my feet on the ground again. Talking to others in academia about your experiences is a great help!  

So, in conclusion, my advice for current (graduate) students is to make sure you know what your goals are as an academic and to let them guide your decisions. Don’t let what (you think) other people are doing make you crazy. But do chat with peers about your experiences and listen to theirs too (you may even discover that others think YOU are doing great!). 
Holli Seitz, Assistant Professor, Mississippi State University (United States): 
Like Karin, I found myself in a familiar place after graduation.  My first faculty position actually involved a return “home” to my undergraduate institution. I am a faculty member in the Department of Communication at Mississippi State University and am also affiliated with the Social Science Research Center, where I direct the Messaging Laboratory.  

I feel incredibly fortunate that this job brought me back to a welcoming place, with a network of people that I know and respect.  There is no doubt that this familiarity has made my transition smoother.  Instead of adjusting to a new community and a new position, I had to tackle only one of those.  Even so, I’ve been surprised by the challenges that the transition has presented and by the things that have helped me in my new role.   
As I was preparing to transition into my new life as a professor, I did the only thing I knew to do—my research.  (To give you some background, this is how I cope with the unknown.  For my dissertation, I depended on Destination Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters; for the job search, I devoured The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong; and, for pregnancy and new motherhood, I triangulated advice from no fewer than 12 volumes on the topic.)  I came to enjoy books by James M. Lang, including Small Teaching (which I have recommended so often that I should probably be getting a share of his royalties) and On Course, a book designed for one’s first semester of teaching. I also took part in a faculty learning community through our Center for Teaching and Learning, in which a group of faculty members at different career stages came together to read and discuss Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. Finally, having just gone through my first annual review, I have David D. Perlmutter’s Promotion and Tenure Confidential on my nightstand.  This reading has been immensely helpful, and my growing awareness of my knowledge gaps has led to an ever-expanding reading list. 
Despite all of that reading, however, I was surprised by the one thing that has been most essential to my transition: the development of social support. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to self-isolate, making academia feel like a lonely place. Intellectually, I know that social support enhances health and well-being, but I never expected that developing friendships with other new faculty members would have such a buoying effect on my career enjoyment and fulfillment. On a whim, I signed up to be a part of faculty writing group. This group has unexpectedly enhanced my productivity, produced new research ideas, and led to the development of great working relationships with faculty across the university. I’ve started having lunch occasionally with one new faculty member in a different department who has overlapping research interests and a daughter about my daughter’s age (having “mom friends” is important), and I have coffee every few weeks with yet another new faculty member. In addition, I’ve been warmly supported by faculty members in my home department.  Each of these relationships has contributed to a sense of community, and each is making me a better teacher, scholar, and colleague. 
Depending on your personality and situation, my experience may or may not resonate with you, but I firmly believe that (academic) life is better and richer when we can draw on the wisdom of others and develop authentic relationships.  
Omar Al-Ghazzi, lecturer (assistant professor), University of Sheffield 
After finishing my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, I immediately moved to the United Kingdom to start as a lecturer (assistant prof) at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Journalism Studies. Two years on, I am now in the process of making another move. Starting September 2017, I will be joining the Department of Media and Communications at the London School for Economics and Political Science (LSE) as an assistant professor. While the shift from student researcher to academic staff is not easy, it is also not Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat”— despite what the more dramatic amongst us may warn. Looking back at my experience, these are some thoughts I would want to go back in time to tell my graduate student self. 

You are not simply a student. Though it is important to experiment with different ideas as a student, and to enjoy graduate student life, you would benefit from realizing that your career has already started. The research you are conducting will be the research profile that defines your career for years to come. The contacts that you make as a PhD student, whether fellow graduate students or professors, will be very important into the future. And that senior scholar you met once may end up being the head of your department. Your notes, class papers, lectures, and presentations will be material that you will use and revisit for many years.  

Accordingly, it is important to make decisions with an eye onto the future. You do not start from scratch when you begin in a new position. You build and enhance what you already have, whether in terms of research, teaching experience, or access to networks. And, of course, the most important lesson: Your dissertation is not the final product. You will be thinking about it, revising it, and rewriting it well into the future—whether one decides to publish it as a book or a series of articles. 

As a new assistant professor, you will be busy. The one aspect to which you will have to quickly adapt as you make the shift is balancing the different and new demands on your time. In your first year, you will have to manage a workload of service and administration, in addition to teaching and advising, on top of your research. While I realize that one is lucky in this market to find a permanent and stable position immediately after finishing the PhD, there is also a case to be made for going for the postdoc route, which will give you more time to publish your work without the new time-consuming tasks.  

Finally, remember that you love what you do. Transitioning from graduate student to academic faculty member, and in my case from one country to another, is difficult and can be overwhelming. The immediate pressures may make you lose sight of the big picture— which is that you are in this profession because you love teaching, researching, and learning. So avoid worrying and think of new opportunities as just that: opportunities to do what you are good at and what you love.  

I think it is always good to remember that the core of our labor as academics should be the exchange of ideas, the search for truths, and the opening of minds. It is these ideals that can positively fuel our ambitions and make our transitions from one role to another smoother.  

Tags:  April 2017 

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