20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong

In late December, 1994 I arrived in Montreal with several boxes of books and papers, most of my belongings, and absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had a week to unpack, get groceries, become a professor, and plan an undergrad course. I survived that first week, and that first term, and am, somewhat inexplicably, still here at McGill University. Over the course of the past 20 years I’ve done a lot of things right, and I’ve done a lot of things wrong. Some of those things happened early on in my time here; some more recently, but they’ve all had an impact on how I do my job and (theoretically) live my life. It seemed like a good anniversary to look back on some of them. Some of my perspectives might be useful; or they might not be.

Let’s start, as is traditional, with the bad news.

Things I did wrong

Didn’t find a mentor. For new faculty members just starting out, a slightly senior colleague can be a guide, a sounding board, and an advisor. Our department has a policy of matching up new hires with a mentor, but this wasn’t in place when I started out, and I didn’t think to seek one out myself. I just dove in and tried to figure it all out. Two people, both senior, and both now retired, who sat me down for “the tenure talk” advised me as follows: “I’m sure you’re on the right track and it’ll all work out fine”; and “get some visiting scientists to come to your lab and put your name on their papers”. Yeah. Thanks.

Took on too much. I said yes. A lot. Too many committees. Too much team teaching. Too many little ad hoc things “that shouldn’t take too much time at all”. That was mostly dumb. Obviously new hires need to take on some service and administration, but you have to be ruthless in protecting your research time and your teaching time. Choose wisely! The system finds it just a little too easy to take advantage of new people who are willing. If there’s a teeny-tiny shred of Ayn Rand inside you somewhere, this is the time (the only time!) to awaken it.

Started without finishing. As time goes by, we have lots of students through the lab, and chats at conferences, and great exchanges with colleagues, and lots of time to think when we’re out in the field. And all of those things generate ideas — sometimes great ideas, and sometimes dead ends. One of the biggest errors I made was to dive too quickly into new ideas and new projects before wrapping up old ones. The result is a really long list of subfolders in my folder called “manuscripts on hold”. Dumb.

Failed to delegate. Sometimes, I’m too hands-on. Sometimes I’ve delegated too much responsibility to others and it’s blown up in my face. Sometimes I’ve exercised too much control and it’s blown up in my face. Fortunately, eyebrows grow back. The reality is that when we start up a research group, we usually manage to surround ourselves with people who are mostly good. They’re fine on their own. Every now and then somebody is not. No biggie, as long as they aren’t taking somebody else down with them. But that’s why I like everybody to have their own separate project.

Aimed for perfect. Nothing is perfect. Nothing. Is. Perfect. I tell this to my students. There’s no point sitting on results or ideas or projects or manuscripts until they’re perfect. Because they won’t be. They have to be carefully executed, clearly written, and good enough to advance the field of science. And then we put them out there. Despite all this, I still sit on projects or manuscripts for far longer than I should because I’m worried about them not being good enough, because I’m waiting for more data, because I’m waiting for new insights to mystically appear. Or maybe because I don’t want to deal with the rejection. This is dumb.

Sacrificed personal time. For various reasons, I spent a lot of time avoiding things when I was younger. I was voted Most Likely to Avoid Everything in my high school graduating class (really). Something obviously snapped at some point and ever since I found my niche in biology I’ve become more ambitious, more engaged. But I also struggle with time management. That combination means that I’ve spent far too much time on work-related things – working on my teaching, on research projects, managing the museum, doing curation, answering emails, doing committee work. And all that came at the expense of time spent away from work. And that was dumb. I shouldn’t have done that, and nobody else should either.

Things I did right

Resisted the Impact game. I’m often grateful that Impact Factors and H-indices weren’t such a ridiculous obsession when I got into this game. As a taxonomist, I would have been (and still would be) on the losing end of such bean-counting exercises. Yes, it’s nice to get papers into “good” journals, and it’s nice to see our work cited by others. BUT, when I sit on search committees where one of the members builds a short list based on whether or not people have Nature papers, or when external reviewers of my grant applications go through the effort of calculating my H-index (usually incorrectly) and use it to judge my quality as a scientist, or when I get dropped from a grant application because my H-index is the lowest among the co-PIs (yes, that happened), it reminds me that the system is a little bit broken. Yes, I aim higher with manuscripts than I used to, but I think it’s because my students are doing more significant work than I did when I first started out. But some of the papers I’m most proud of, and which are the most important, appeared in journals with lower impact factors, and I am so perfectly fine with that. Impact matters, but there are many ways to measure impact, and obsessing about one particular flavour of it is ultimately self-defeating.

Diversified my research. I was trained as a taxonomist, and hired as a taxonomist. But not all the students in my first cohort of interested students wanted to do taxonomy. Fair enough. Taxonomy is really just one end of a continuum that runs from fundamental taxonomy through biodiversity inventories out to questions about community structure and ecology. Why shouldn’t a single lab have people working at multiple points along that continuum? By sticking to their desire to do inventories, or restoration ecology, or community structure or biogeography, my students have helped me become a more well-rounded scientist over the years, and it’s made the lab a much more interesting place. And, as a bonus, the taxonomists in the lab provide their expertise to the ecologists and the ecologists in the lab bring in fantastic material and data for the taxonomists. Win-win.

Kept the lab small. I get the distinct impression that The System wants me to have funding in the high six-figure range, and at least a dozen or so grad students and postdocs in the lab at a time. But, I work best when I’ve got 3-5 grad students in the lab. It gives me time to connect with them, to check in on the projects, and to do some of my own research too. I’ve also resisted the temptation to get involved in research grants or projects that are well outside my areas of interest just for the sake of getting more money. I’d rather be judged, in the long run, on how many great people and how much good research comes out of the lab, than how much money comes in.

Got into the field. I can’t stress enough how important field work has been to me. Time in the field is like rebooting my brain after too much paperwork causes it to freeze up. Fieldwork is not just where I get my data, it’s where I can talk research and science and careers and food and history with my students. It’s where I can take the time to see connections and patterns that I wouldn’t otherwise see in the lab. It’s where my new questions come from. If I couldn’t go in the field, I wouldn’t do this job.

Embraced teaching. Some people view teaching as a necessary evil. A chore to endure so they can get on with research. That’s a recipe for bitterness. For most professors, teaching is part of what we do. It’s part of our job. I love it. Always have. It’s my chance to tell stories about nature. It’s my chance to contract infectious enthusiasm from students who love the program they’re in. It’s the place I identify potential summer students and lab volunteers and grad students. Lots of my grad students over the years started out in my undergrad courses. Teaching is also my chance to learn new material in new areas – evolution, ecology, geology, paleoecology, anthropology, phylogeography and more. In other words, it made me a better scientist.

Built an online presence. This is a recent one. Should have started earlier. I started this blog early in 2011, initially to publicize the research and people in our lab, but the scope has expanded since then. I came late to Twitter (March 2014), but I’m very glad I did. It takes almost no time to set up a Google Scholar profile and it’s an easy and highly visible way to highlight your research output and track its impact (and I mean that in the “small-i impact” sense). ResearchGate and Academia.edu do somewhat similar things to Google Scholar, but each does things the others don’t. I have a LinkedIn profile but, to be honest, I don’t use that much. I think LinkedIn is much more useful to people at other career stages, or in different domains, but maybe that’s just my experience. As with all things online, your mileage may vary. BUT, please give some careful thought to your online presence. We are increasingly linked with it, and it’s the easiest way to promote your abilities, make connections, and connect with a very big, very diverse community beyond your own institution or domain. It’s a small investment of time and effort that can yield enormous rewards.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to 20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong

  1. Sue Eglin says:

    I love reading your notes from the Pedestal of Higher Ed. Now I want to come out and watch you teach. 🙂

  2. Alessandra says:

    Many scientists are so insecure that they can’t let pass a chance to criticize or find fault with their colleagues. Countless times I’ve praised someone’s work just to hear that that person is not as competent as it seems, and then I am offered some unsolicited anecdote about a mistake that person did in a paper, a bad paper that he/she published, a holotype that was damaged etc. Sometimes this info comes through an unethical breach of peer review confidentiality. This may be a reason why some of us might always want to strive for the perfect, but in fact there is no way to please “them”. Just turn your back and rest assured others will be finding fault with you. It is just how it is.

    • Alessandra – true. Ours is a strange game sometimes, isn’t it? I think we both know people who fit at all points along this continuum of behavior. I take solace in the fact that for every unpleasant, uncooperative colleague out there, there is at least one more who is truly wonderful. I think we’ve both interacted with some of these fantastic folks through our careers, and they may be partly responsible for the fact that we still do what we do, and enjoy it. Makes it a little easier to ignore the crappy side of academia/research/working life/etc.

      I think this is another thing I really like about interacting with students as much as I do. They are an excellent vaccination against the dark side of science!

  3. john anderson says:

    awesome note Terry! thanks for this!

  4. smvamosi says:

    Great read! Lots of great tidbits in here.

  5. Many thanks for that! It is inspiring in many ways.

  6. Thanks for sharing your introspective retrospection, Terry. Now three years into the same gig, reading your post is looking into a mirror!

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  8. Great post! I’m on my 3rd year in the professor game and you made some little lamps shine on my mind right now! ^_^

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  10. jeffollerton says:

    Really interesting reflections Terry. This is also my 20th year at my institution and much of what you’ve written chimes with me, especially embracing teaching and not bothering (too) much about impact factors, etc. What I really liked though was the comment that “Time in the field is like rebooting my brain after too much paperwork causes it to freeze up”. Couldn’t agree more, even a single day of field work can have that effect.

    • Thanks, Jeff. Yes, whether we’re field people or bench people or theory people, I think it’s really important to find time to get away from the other duties of the job and carve out some time for our own research, if for no other reason to reconnect with what got most of us into The Game in the first place.

  11. Nice feel good post, Terry. Good messages in here!

  12. percepticon says:

    That is pretty interesting from a Ph.D. Student perpsective because many things already appear on th pe horizon (not saying no for example). Thanks for your insights!

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  14. Staffan Lindgren says:

    Right on Terry. Should be required reading for aspiring and junior faculty. I have seen many junior faculty fail because they were too eager to please their superiors by volunteering rather than balancing their approach and learning “how the game is played” so-to-speak. Being in academia is as close to a dream job as one can come, but it can also be a cruel place if you don’t meet some often vaguely defined minimum expectations. In the tenure and promotion context, selfishness is often rewarded whereas altruism isn’t. If you are aware of that, you can balance contributions both ways and do just fine, I think.

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  16. I’d say that the things you’ve done right, you’ve done incredibly well. I started as an undergrad in the fall of ’96, so not so long after you began teaching. Looking at this retrospective, you were probably still trying to find a balance in all of the pieces of your job. I can tell you that, without a doubt, you were the most dynamic and interesting professor we had that year (maybe all three years). You approached teaching from a different angle, and drew us in.
    I’ve also always admired how you ran your research lab. As you’ve mentioned above, I think having a few (but brilliant) students can work very well – both for you and for them.
    Thanks for making some time for me in those years 🙂

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