A year in the life of a new professor

Congratulations!

On the enthusiastic recommendation of the faculty, the University of Your Dreams is pleased to offer you an appointment as an assistant professor of chemistry.

You did it! All those years of hard work—college, summers in the lab, the graduate school grind, paying dues as a postdoctoral researcher, the intense job hunt—have paid off. Here are the keys to your very own lab. You are officially an independent scientist.

If you read the fine print, you’ll notice that we also expect you to be a fundraiser, a manager, a teacher, and a mentor. In addition, our students may call on you at any time to serve as a counselor and confidant. There will probably be tears—some could be yours. There will be curveballs—hopefully none land in your lab. But we also promise triumphs, big and small, and the opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.

Are you ready for all that? Great. Get to work! The tenure clock is ticking.

Every freshly minted assistant professor is acutely aware of how lucky they are to finally be in the job they’ve worked so hard for, one where they get paid to pursue their own ideas and nurture the next generation of chemists. In any given year, only 80 or so of those academic positions open up at research-intensive schools in the U.S., and securing one can feel like winning the career lottery.

But whether it’s hesitancy about being in front of a classroom or worry about developing the right leadership style, no one walks into an assistant professorship feeling confident about every aspect of the job. Even the lab, every scientist’s comfort zone, can start to feel foreign when laden with the pressure to balance a budget, manage multiple projects, and publish.

Since summer 2016, C&EN has followed three chemists—Northwestern University’s Julia Kalow, Cornell University’s Song Lin, and University of California, San Diego’s Valerie Schmidt—as they navigated their new jobs at competitive research institutions. What follows is a chronicle of their frustrating, exhausting, rewarding, and gratifying first year.

Summer

Credit: Jim Prisching

Well aware that the learning curve for new professors is steep, Julia Kalow walked into her first year at Northwestern with a “no regrets” mantra.

Sitting at a coffee shop in Evanston on an unseasonably warm June morning, Julia Kalow mapped out everything that had gone into arriving at this moment. She had arrived at Northwestern just days earlier, but the planning for her new lab began months ago—pretty much from the moment she accepted the job here.

If Kalow felt any major stress over this next big step in her career, she didn’t show it as she settled in with her coffee. Prone to pull her longish brown hair back into a ponytail and favoring khakis and solid-colored tops, Kalow was decidedly at home with herself, a quality that would prove helpful as she navigated her new role.

As she walked through how she planned to…

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