Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How I got tenure

Last November, I received the great news from Universidad San Francisco de Quito that I got tenured after a "concurso de merecimientos y oposicion". Not only did I receive my tenure, which in Ecuador can come at the Associate Professor level, Full Professor level, and Full Professor of Research level, but I was appointed as Full Professor of Research. Whereas Associate Professors and Full Professors in Ecuador still have to teach up to 4 courses per semester and 1 course over the summer, a Full Professor of Research teaches officially half a course per semester. The requirements to achieve this position are more stringent than for the other positions.

For practical reasons, I am now teaching one course per semester (not sure who ever taught the half course per semester was going to be a thing), which is quite a reduction in teaching load from the three courses per semester I was teaching earlier. I'm teaching a high-level undergraduate course (Reinforced Concrete II), carrying out my own research, working on book projects, and supervising the Bachelor thesis research of students. I am also the faculty advisor of the ACI and Civil Engineering student chapters in our department. The demands on me in terms of teaching and administration have been pleasantly reduced, and I get to spend my time pretty much the way I like it, as long as I keep publishing as I have been doing. I'm still on part-time contracts as a researcher for TU Delft, so I don't have a fixed contract there yet, but I keep my exceptional situation (working at two universities that are an two opposite sides of the world) going.

I got my tenure three years and a few months after my PhD. Certainly, the rules for obtaining in Ecuador are a bit less demanding than in western Europe or North America, but this advantage may be offset by the large teaching demands on young faculty members in Ecuador. Here, teaching four courses per semester is standard, and some areas require up to the double of that. You can imagine that this heavy teaching demand leaves very little time for other activities. For me, too, juggling teaching and research was a constant battle of priorities in my first years as a faculty member, especially since I developed five new courses in my first four semester, and had to set up three new courses in my first semester.

You may have guessed that the short answer to the question "Eva, how did you get tenure?" would be "I published a lot". Publishing and bringing in research funding are perhaps the most important factors all over the world for getting tenure. But, then again, how did I do it? I'll be giving you an honest insight in how I was working over the past years, as I've always done on this blog. I don't want to shout out loud, saying "Look at me, and all my achievements". In fact, I postponed writing this blog for a long time because I am afraid of tooting my own horn. And, admittedly, the imposter syndrome causes me to think that maybe I didn't even deserve it, or that I only got tenure because it is so much easier in Ecuador, and that I would have failed anywhere else. But, I've been sharing my experiences and thoughts on this blog for seven years now, and some people seem to find it valuable, so I have gathered my courage to write this post.

Here's what helped me move my career forward:

1. Planning

The most important aspect for me to move all projects forward while teaching three courses per semester was to have a clear planning. I use a weekly template to see how I can fit in all my different responsibilities, and fill in the specifics of what I will be working on on a weekly basis. I also use To Do lists (in todoist.com) for keeping track of what I need to do, for logging deadlines, and for putting reminders to myself to follow up certain things that are pending. I've blogged extensively about how I have been trying to get a grip of my time, and still have time to play music, read fiction, spend time with my husband, cat, and family, and work out on a daily basis. I turned to Twitter for advice on juggling tasks, used the weekly template, learned what worked, learned to leave more space, wrote about my struggles, learned to roll with the punches, and at the end developed a system that works for me (but is subject to change as life and work change).

2. Writing

I write every workday, except when I travel or have experimental work going on (during my research stay in Delft). I write maximum two hours per day, five days a week, and make sure to have a constant output of my work. I may be working on a new draft, implementing reviewers' comments, or reading material to improve a draft - writing is of course not limited to the production of new text. While two hours per day may be limited, I've learned to write fast once I have my thoughts ordered, and I've focused on journal publications and papers for conferences that index their proceedings in Scopus. I use a planning of my papers that I am working on (at all stages in the publication process), and with the topics of the papers that I want to write in the future (at various stages of the research being finished). Before the start of every semester, I outline which papers I want to draft that semester, and aim for drafting four to six papers per semester. Putting in the time on a daily basis to move my manuscripts forward has been one of the most productive choices to make. I never used my teaching load as an excuse for not writing, and never had a reduction in my output as a result of a teaching-heavy semester. I transitioned from publishing about my PhD research to publishing the work I've been doing after my graduation.

3. Travel a lot

Go to all the conferences! I've been attending a number of conferences; a habit that I started during my PhD. In the first years after graduating, I've been forking out some of the money for attending conferences when I could not get full funding, although in general I've received support for my travel. Attending conferences has been important for me, as I tend to feel a bit isolated in Ecuador, where I may be the only person working on existing concrete structures. I've had the chance to exchange ideas with colleagues, meet up with old friends, and get involved with the work of technical committees, which has been very inspiring for my research.

4. Volunteer for all the work

When you join technical committees, lean in to all opportunities. Don't just say yes to every single thing without knowing you'll be able to deliver what you promised. Don't hold back because the little voice in your head is telling you that you don't know enough about the topic yet. Volunteer for work that you can do, and make time to work on these tasks. When you take on a service appointment, be willing to roll up your sleeves and make yourself useful. You'll learn a lot from doing this as well, as it will help you break out of the bubble of a maybe very narrow field of research that you were working in during your PhD.

5. Push through when needed

In general, I don't work more than about 50 hours per week, so that I still have time for other things in life. However, when I need to move something forward, I am willing to go all in for a week or two. During my annual research stay in Delft, I try to push my research forward as much as possible. If that means that my life for that time will be limited to work, gym, eating, and sleeping, then I am fine with that. I set limits with myself on what I find acceptable, such as working 7:30 am - 6:30 pm, training 7pm - 8 pm, going home, eating, relaxing, sleeping, and perhaps working every other weekend while I am there, and spending the other weekend in Belgium to be with my family. For me and my work, it is important to use the short time that I am in Delft to get as much research done as possible, so that I have food for thought and data to work with for the rest of the year. I'm not advocating overwork here, but it is OK every now and then to push a bit harder if that suits your situation and if it will benefit you in the long run.

6. Always do what you promise

Some people give me a very weird look when I tell them I have never missed a deadline for a conference paper in my life. I usually submit my papers about a month in advance of the deadline. I've wanted to build a reputation in my research field on what I value most in life, which is honesty. When I tell a friend that they can count on me for something, I am dead serious about it. When I volunteer for working on something, or when I promise to deliver a piece of work by a certain date, I take it equally serious. For me, it is a matter of respect for the people I work with. As a deep introvert, I tend to hide away in concrete bunkers, which makes me not a good person for networking and interacting with peers, or for having lots and lots of friends. But at the same time, I think I've shown to the people that I work with, and the few friends that I have, that when I say something, I will do it without excuses, and that I can be trusted.

7. Reading

When you have a lot of work going on, it is easy to let reading slip away. I've taken the conscious choice to keep reading as many papers as possible. I schedule time for reading, and I usually read journals while I take exams. When preparing a new draft, I also make sure my literature review is up-to-date. Reading has been important for me to keep the quality of my manuscripts up to the standards expected for publication, and for having the required understanding of my research, which has branched out to more fields now than during my PhD days.

8. Learn to balance saying yes and no

While I think you should say "no" to opportunities that are not of benefit to you, your research, and your career, I do think you should not say "no" to every single thing and just focus on writing your journal papers. When something interesting comes up, and you are interested in it, go for it. Volunteer for all the extra tasks. Reach out to other researchers. Learn to make the right choices. If at a certain point in your career, you need to lean in as much as possible, accept all the opportunities for reviewing papers, serving on technical committees, developing documents, and serving on scientific committees. Some career advice is so focused on saying "no" to everything that is not part of the narrowest description of your job that you will be missing out on opportunities that may be crucial to move your career forward.

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