I’m taking part in a Guardian live chat this Friday (1-4pm BST) titled ‘Surviving your first academic post.’ With this topic in mind, I’m noting some preliminary thoughts under a few themes.

The points below relate to my first 10 months as a lecturer at St Andrews and aren’t at all relevant to my postdoc experience which was, by and large, extremely easy to navigate and the most enjoyable period of my career so far. It’s also important to make the context from which I am making these observations clear.  I am privileged in that I am on a permanent contract, the first five years of which comprise a SINAPSE research fellowship which means I have a minimal teaching load.  That said, I do have an admin load and I have the additional responsibility to promote neuroimaging within the department and across the SINAPSE network.

Before you accept the job – You’ll start evaluating whether a position is right for you from the moment you see the advert.  Beyond whether you are the ‘type’ of academic the institution is after, you’ll also consider the department is right for you (is it the right size? could you collaborate with anyone? are there local research facilities? is it the right calibre of institution for you?), whether you could live there (is it too big/small a city? too far to move? too isolated?) and whether you could actually do what you enjoy about academia there (is the teaching load too heavy? if you did your PhD/postdoc there, could you get taken seriously as a PI). All of these thoughts feed into the rather nebulous concept of ‘fit’ which, it turns out, is rather important to you enjoying your potential new job.

When I interviewed at St Andrews, everyone I spoke to mentioned how small the town is.  I didn’t think it would be a problem, but on moving here, the realisation that I had never previously lived outside a city certainly hit home. Within my first few weeks here I understood that this common point of conversation had been an important warning. Starting your first academic post can be lonely (even if you go with family), and being in a place that doesn’t feel right for you can make you feel even lonelier. I would never have turned down the offer to work here, but I suspect that another candidate for the job I went on to accept did, and it was probably something to do with ‘fit’.

Start-up negotiations are also worth devoting some thought to once you’ve established that the ‘fit’ is going to be satisfactory. You’ll have to walk a fine line between making sure you don’t do yourself out of money you will need to set up a lab that is capable of doing the research you are being employed to do, and asking for too much and appearing (or being) greedy. My experience of start-up negotiation was that the equipment I wanted was a lot easier to obtain than the scanner time I wanted. Colleagues have mentioned an informal loan arrangement where the School provided expensive equipment on condition that costs be recouped further down the line, so that could be a useful negotiation strategy, particularly when expensive equipment is required from the outset. One thing I wish I had done was to speak to an academic who had recently started, to ascertain where they thought they went wrong in their start-up request. I, for example, realised too late that I would have to buy my own printer toner, which ended up having to come out of my research budget for the 2010/2011 academic year.

Your first weeks – These are lonely and stressful. Simple things like making external phone calls can be challenging. Of course, people offer their help and advice, but you want to appear capable and self-sufficient so you end up spending far too much time working things out on your own.  If there are other new hires in your department, pooling your newly acquired knowledge will help. Induction events are also a good way to get to know people throughout the University.

Department coffee mornings are supposed to be an excellent way of establishing yourself amongst your new colleagues.  But, I found these to be something of a double-edged sword.  Despite the social benefits, there will be times you wish you hadn’t gone. Within a week of starting, going to grab some coffee had led to me being roped in to give a cover lecture on probability theory. I felt like hiding in my office after that (and I did for a while), but the best strategy is to…

Learn how to say “no” – You won’t want to appear uncollegiate, but people will ask you to do things until you learn how to say “no”. You’ll probably receive a lot of requests to cover lectures and complete one-off tasks in your first few weeks.  Some of this is down to people wrongly assuming that you won’t have anything else to do, and some of it, I think, is down to people testing the water and seeing whether you are a ‘yes-(wo)man’ who will agree to anything.

Crafting that first refusal will probably take a lot of time, but it is an important step to take.  Just make sure that you:
a) can demonstrate that you have shown willing (it helps to have said “yes” at least once before your first “no”);
b) say why you are refusing (not the right person for the job, have already said “yes” to too many other requests, too little time at this stage, though happy to muck in next semester when things have settled, etc.);
c) don’t let the task you initially agreed to morph into something that you would never have agreed to in the first place (e.g. it’s OK for a “yes” to become a “no” if a one-off lecture turns into longer-term cover for a lecturer on maternity leave).

Saying “no” gets easier, it just takes a bit of practice.  With some strategic refusals and a bit of luck, you’ll calibrate the system so that you’re not having to say “no” to very much because people making requests of you will make sure that you really are the right person for the job before asking.

If you run into a persistent problem of people making too many unreasonable demands of you, a mentor who is looking out for your interests will help. I haven’t yet had to call on my mentor for this, but I’m fairly certain that she has been doing so anyway, if only by not suggesting me for admin duties whose allocation she controls.

Time – When I was a postdoc, nothing felt too difficult.  All anything took was time, sometimes plenty of it, but it didn’t matter because time was something I was given plenty of.  I spent months learning Matlab, weeks scripting analyses and days making a couple of lines of code to do just what I wanted them to do. Now, some tasks are too difficult because I don’t feel I have the time to devote to them. Of course, I have much more time than I would if I had a full teaching load, but I have much less time than I had as a postdoc.

To remedy this perceived lack of time, I’m considering devoting a few weeks here and there to an ‘at-work-retreat’.  That is, I will go to work, and just work on what I need to work on to get analyses done and papers written without the distraction of e-mail, admin jobs (which will be put on hold) and teaching. I think it might even be appropriate to use an e-mail auto-response, the exact working of which I will have to be very careful about, to let people know of my unavailability. This fellowship period of my job should be a perfect opportunity for me to do this sort of thing and it may be something worth writing about on the blog at a later date.

Money – I need to funding to carry out neuroimaging. I therefore need grant funding. I don’t mind that the School strongly encourage me to apply for grant-funding because I need to apply for it anyway. That said, it feels like I have only just learned how to write journal articles and now I’m being asked to write in a totally different style with a totally different emphasis.  Applying for grant funding has probably taken more time than any other activity in my first 10 months here. It’s a shame, because I could have devoted this time to writing journal articles that would have added to my CV and made me more ‘fundable’.  Still, I need to do it at some stage, and now is as good a time as any.

A recent submission to the Journal of Memory and Language, an Elsevier journal has made my hyper-aware of how the way a manuscript’s progress through the Elsevier Editorial System (EES) is indicated.  For future reference, I’ve summarised the story-so-far for a recently revised and resubmitted manuscript.  (The worst thing for a compulsive checker like me is that you’re not e-mailed about changes in status, you have to login to the EES and check to see whether the ‘Status Date’ or the ‘Current Status’ has changed.  Every few weeks you get that variable-ratio reinforcement that just reinforces your maladaptive checking behaviour!)

I’m not sure if the ‘Current Status’ stages I list below are universal for all Elsevier journals, or even for all manuscripts within the the Journal of Memory and Language, but here’s what I’ve been through so far.  (Elsevier have a few more details on some of these statuses here: http://support.elsevier.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/160/~/paper-lifecycle-from-submission-to-publication)

Submission

  • “Submission Being Processed” – 16/11/2010: The manuscript is submitted and an e-mail is sent to the corresponding author with EES login details.  The manuscript is assigned to an editor by the journal office staff.
  • “With Editor” – 18/11/2010 (estimated): Presumably an editor makes sure the thing is worthy of being sent out for review and identifies appropriate reviewers.
  • “Under Review” – 24/11/2010: The peer review process starts.
  • “Required Reviews Completed” – 24/12/2010: The manuscript is sent back for an editorial decision.
  • “Revise” – 1/1/2011: E-mail sent to the corresponding author indicating the editorial decision.

Revision 1

  • “Revisions Being Processed” – 20/1/2011: The manuscript is resubmitted and another e-mail is sent to the corresponding author
  • “With Editor” – 20/1/2011: Presumably the editor makes sure the thing is worthy of being sent out for review again…
  • “Accept” – 5/2/2011: or accepts the revised manuscript without a second peer-review.
  • Completed” – 8/2/2011: I don’t know what this stage means.  Maybe it’s an acknowledgement of my receipt of the decision letter.  Incidentally, there are now two additional visible columns: “Date Final Disposition Set” (Feb 08, 2011); and “Final Disposition” (Accept).

Publication

At this point the submission gets closed on the Elsevier Editorial System and gets moved onto an author tracking system (http://authors.elsevier.com).  One of the most important developments is the assignment of a DOI – it’s doesn’t go live until the proofs have been created, but it ‘s assigned and can be used to link to the article in the future. From now onwards, e-mail notifications seem to arrive with every change in status.

  • Expected despatch of proofs notification – 10/02/2011: A date for receipt of manuscript proofs (the journal-formatted pdf) is assigned.
  • Return of “Journal Publishing Agreement”, “Funding Body Agreement” and “Order Offprints” forms requested – 10/2/2011: A link to these forms is e-mailed and they can be completed and submitted online.  This makes a great change from the procedure of having to get snail-mail signatures from all authors, which is a real pain if collaborating with people at multiple institutions.  Once submitted, the status comment changes to…
  • Status comment changed to Publication date not yet known – 10/2/2011
  • Uncorrected Proofs made available and return with corrections requested within 48 hours – 18/2/2011 (Consistent with the tracking system information): This was done through the elsevier.sps.co.in/authorproofs/ website.
  • Status comment changed to No further corrections can now be made – 19/02/2011: ‘Proofs returned’ row also added, with the same 19/02/2011 date.  DOI link still dead and manuscript is still not yet available on the ‘Articles in Press’ section of the JML section of the ScienceDirect website.
  • PDF made available as an ‘Articles in Press’  – 02/03/2011: But the DOI link still doesn’t work.
  • DOI link made functional – 08/03/2011.
  • Article published in print journal – 05/2011.

It’s been a while.

Settling in to a new job has been terrifying and tiring in equal measure.  The seemingly boundless spending of the early weeks has been replaced by an awfully adult awareness that the only thing you can’t buy is time: more time in my day to prepare for contact with students, to write grant applications, to read journal articles, to blog (yes, this is something I feel I ‘should’ be doing)  but most of all, to think.

Whilst I find it very easy to develop my thoughts on how the Comprehensive Spending Review affected me (not much, yet), whether I support the student protest movement against tuition fees (I do, wholeheartedly), and why QPR saw fit to lose on national television in the only fixture I’ve seen them play this season (regression to the mean), I’m struggling to come up with original ideas for experiments that will be an instant imaging hit.  I’m in the profession of thinking, so it’s certainly no good thing that I’m running dry, but it’s also rather inevitable.

For the past three years I’ve been thinking about work that isn’t actually my own. I have deferred my own ideas about projects to those of my PI and we have primarily pursued paths that he has wanted to pursue.  This was great for showing me the ropes, and showing me how to think about fMRI within Psychology, something I have been employed to further here in St. Andrews, but it has also lead to this rather awkward moment of transition.  I now have to build up my own head of steam, run my own behavioural pilots and read other people’s’ articles with my own research agenda in mind.  Of course, I was doing this when in St Louis, but my livelihood didn’t depend on it.  Now it does.

So, I’m ploughing on with behavioural projects and hoping that forcing myself to think will lead to better thinking (after all, your brain is a muscle isn’t it? gah!).  I’m also considering a couple of more contrived mind-hacks to nudge the process along:

1) Read journal articles at a minimum rate of 1/weekday.

2) Design an experiment I could run at a minimum rate of 1/week.

3) Blog at a minimum rate of 1/week.

I’m not sure if I’ll follow through on these, or whether they’ll be any help if I do, but I’m going to try.  I can’t afford to stay barren for too long.