How the Best Young Professors Research (and Why it Matters to You)September 18th, 2014 · 26 comments
Lounging in Lauinger
Today I spent the morning in the library. As often happens, I arrived with a specific book in mind, but soon a long trail of diverting citations lured me in new directions.
I’m a sucker for libraries.
One such happy discovery was the book, The New Faculty Member, by Robert Boice, a now emeritus professor of psychology at Stony Brook. This book summarizes the findings of a multi-year longitudinal study in which Boice followed multiple cohorts of junior professors, at multiple types of higher education institutions, from their arrival on campus until their tenure fate seemed clear.
(He also wrote a non-academic version of this book called Advice for New Faculty Members, which I haven’t read, but assume is similar in its conclusions.)
I was particularly drawn to his chapter on research productivity. It turns out that Boice hounded his subjects on this topic year after year. He didn’t trust self-estimates of work accomplished and instead required the young professors to produce newly written pages to verify progress.
After four years, only 13% of these professors had produced enough (and had good enough teaching evaluations) to make tenure seem highly probable. Here are some of the main differences Boice identified in the research habits of these “exemplary young faculty” as compared to their peers:
- The exemplary faculty did not wait for “ideal” times to write.
As Boice explains: “waiting for ideal times such as binges induces more than mere uninvolvement…[i]t can also bring procrastination and dissatisfaction.”
- The exemplary faculty instead maintained a regular writing habit.
As Boice explains: “[they] pay close attention to regiment…[those who] did not establish a regiment of writing regularly did not establish productivity.”
- The exemplary faculty put thought into how to be more productive.
As Boice explains: “[new faculty] would do well to take more notice of knowledge, usually untaught in open systematic ways, about survival, including self-management.”
- The exemplary faculty looked for outside help in improving their academic productivity.
As Boice explains: “The quick starters depicted here, unlike their counterparts, were proactive in soliciting collegial advice. They were quick to dismiss the idea that they had to figure out the subtle rules of productivity on their own.”
The advice in this short but dense guide is undoubtedly useful to people like me who are young professors hoping to inch into the exemplary category. But I noticed that Boice talked a lot about how his subjects struggled with both the autonomy and loneliness of their position — in which much is expected but little guidance is provided.
These seem like obstacles common to many entrepreneurial endeavors, which leads me to speculate that many of Boice’s findings should resonate well beyond the Ivory Tower. Put another way: if you replace above the word “write” with whatever verb captures the core value producing activity in your own entrepreneurial endeavor, Boice’s findings will likely seem suddenly quite relevant.