Viewpoint: Life as an Assistant Professor

joebwWe recently had a chat with Joseph Redden about his happy life as an assistant professor. From this conversation, we found out that Professor Redden had a lot answers to some of the questions that stressed out graduate students often have about being a young professor so we asked him to do a Q&A with a representative stressed out graduate student.

So far, we’ve been interviewing the established greats and focused a lot on life after tenure. But as a blog dedicated in part to helping young researchers find their way, we thought it would be good to have some more posts about your most immediate concerns and fears. So here’s Joseph Redden with some guidance and comfort in the first of many soon to come InDecision Blog posts on the two topics that on all young researchers minds: the job market and being a quality young faculty member. Joseph Redden is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and he is an emerging expert on the topic of satiation.


Hi Joe, I am a stressed out student in graduate school – or actually I’m not just stressed but also worried and afraid. I am worried that my impostor syndrome is not just a syndrome but real: I look at the top people on the job market recently and I just feel inadequate. I look at the greats in our field and their theoretical might and publishing powerhouse make me feel like I’ll never make in the field, and even if I can get a few publications I am worried my work won’t matter. So if you don’t mind, I have a bunch of questions... 

SOS: How stressed are you? Do you have free time?

Professor Redden: Like any academic or human for that matter, I feel like my life has plenty of stress. That being said, I do find that my stress seems to diminish a bit every year. I like to think that is not just adaptation, but rather a reflection of my active efforts to manage stress in two ways. First, I’ve focused my time more on problems that really pique my interest and leverage my areas of expertise. Second, I make sure some of the time “savings” I get from being more productive translates into free time for me to enjoy. I personally find this last point the most attractive aspect of an academic life.

SOS: What’s daily life like for you?

Professor Redden: Like any other academic, there is not really a protypical day. Some days are mostly teaching, others mostly writing, some mostly reading while others might be service. Even so, I really try to keep a regular schedule (a 9-to-5 if you will) to avoid burnout. If you don’t do this I think it’s very easy to burn yourself out because there is always more we could do on every research project or teaching topic. I find it helpful to set a goal for what I want to get done in a week. If I happen to get lucky and get things done quickly, then I might leave early. If instead things take quite a bit longer, then that becomes a longer week (and possibly weekend). Over time, I’ve found that I’ve become much better calibrated at setting what is reasonable for a week.

SOS: Do you ever have fun?

Professor Redden: Of course. Otherwise, what is the point? In fact, I explicitly carve out time for fun. As an example, I often teach on Wednesdays until noon and then often go catch an early movie. Interestingly, I have found this increases my productivity as I come back Thursday morning refreshed and ready to work. I think everyone should carve out some of these hobbies to take advantage of the flexibility academia offers. For me, this is movies, tennis leagues, my kids’ sports teams, etc.

SOS: How do you manage your choice of projects?

Professor Redden: That is a great question. I found that early in my career I tended to work on anything I found interesting. This led me to jump from project to project chasing after the “shiny new object”. You can imagine how this hampered my productivity. I now try to decide what enters my portfolio in three stages. First, I make sure that any new idea leverages an area of my expertise. I want to avoid one-off projects that require me to learn an entirely new literature each time. Second, I go ahead and write a potential contribution paragraph to flush out whether this idea could be in an A-journal. The worst outcome is for an idea to work perfectly yet have no chance to be published. Third, I try to run a quick study to see if the idea seems promising at all. If it works, I try to quickly replicate it so I’ll know I have something real. If it fails at first, I’ll give it one more shot if I think the idea is super promising. If it works at first and fails on the replication, then I’ll often give it one more go as a sort of tiebreaker. I’ve found this approach has really helped me weed out effects that will be difficult to establish and understand.

SOS: What do I really need to do to get tenure in this field?

Professor Redden: The answer to this question is both ambiguous and varied across schools. At my university, the guidance is centered on achieving distinction in your field. Of course, this could mean something very different for everyone. Personally, I tried to make sure that two things would hold true. First, that there was a topic (satiation in my case) such that I would be one of the first few names mentioned if one asked who was doing research in that area. Second, that it worked the other way such that when asked what I researched people would have a consistent answer. I think if both of those are true then you will have achieved distinction in your field.  

SOS: How do you choose collaborators?

Professor Redden: A great deal of this is serendipity so I’m not sure there is a conscious effort to “choose” collaborators. I can say that the collaborators I want are those that share my interests, possess complementary skills, and make research fun. I’d say the last one, having fun, is by far the most important.

SOS:  I am worried that only the Thaler’s and Loewensteins of the world will make a difference. I know now that I’ll never be them, so I am thinking, what’s the point, what will I really do for this field?

Professor Redden: It matters how you define making a difference. If you consider yourself a success only if you make a difference for an entire field, then that is a really high standard for nearly anyone. I like to think of making a difference at a more micro level. Think about how your presentation at a conference may affect how a listener writes their paper, how a conservation may lead a doctoral student to their thesis idea, how teaching a topic may spark a student’s interest, how seemingly minor coverage of a paper may affect a marketer at a company (and hence millions of people). I believe that many of these unknown differences are happening — as long as we work on interesting problems.

If you have any questions for future interviews, let us know at indecisionblogging@gmail.com

Interview by Troy Campbell

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One thought on “Viewpoint: Life as an Assistant Professor

  1. Pingback: What’s It Like to Be a Young Professor? | Essential Post

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