The “good enough” professor

I am very hard on myself; I always have been, and guilt over how much I could be working and fear of my advisor’s disappointment motivated me through grad school.  During my postdoc my imposter syndrome started to fall away, although it still rears its Gorgon head every so often.  Although I’ve accepted that I’ll probably rarely meet my own (unrealistic) expectations, I worry about whether I’m meeting others’ (=my chair’s/colleagues’/students’/collaborators’) expectations.  As junior professors, so much is riding on others’ opinions of our work, it’s natural to want to do well based on others’ norms.  But how often do we stop to ask what our colleagues and students expect from us?

One of my resolutions this semester is to focus on being a “good enough” professor, which has brought up this interesting question:

What is ‘good enough’ in each realm of my job as a professor?

My biggest realization while trying to answer this question is that feedback from others is critical to academic well-being.  One of my colleagues put it well when he told me, “You have to remember you only see others’ successes, and it’s human to focus almost exclusively on your own failures.”  Without someone else’s perspective on my work, I would always assume I’m underperforming: there’s always a paper that needs resuscitation, or a grant that needs improvement, or an advisee who could use more attention.  It also makes things a bit harder for me that I tend to, like many women, attribute my successes to external factors and luck, rather than to my own skill.

Here is what I’ve learned by asking, in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways, what those who work with me would most like from me:

1) My advisees want time. They don’t expect me to read every email, and don’t mind showing me figures they sent me again and again. They overlook my absent-mindedness and disorganization (which drives me nuts).  They just want to see me reliably, and to get some pointers for the coming week in lab meeting and one-on-one meetings.  Routine in the lab is a bit of a struggle for me, since my office and lab are in separate buildings, but now that I’m no longer a pumping/nursing mom, I can give them more of what they want.

I know some advisors with large labs who ask students to submit a one-page summary or a set of slides to “earn” weekly time with the PI. I don’t need to do that (and find it a bit weird, although I can imagine it’s necessary when a lab is large). I have started to have two lab meetings, one where each person shows two slides (and can show more if they would lab) to gauge progress on projects and have other members weigh in on how to get past stumbling blocks. The other lab meeting is more traditional, where one to two members present in-depth. This has been an improvement – I feel I can offer nudges in the right direction more easily during our “sync-up” meeting, partly because it forces lab members to hone in on what their “result (or issue) of the week” is.

 2) My chair wants publications more than grants, although likely the former begets the latter. After a recent grant submission didn’t go well, I asked to meet with my chair to talk about a strategy moving forward. The funding climate is bad, to be sure, but I do need to get a major extramural grant for tenure. I was surprised when my chair suggested I take six months off from writing and focus on writing papers and getting them out. I felt relieved after that meeting, since I’ve been churning out proposal upon proposal in the last year.

3) My students don’t want to learn math. This is slightly sad (and funny), given that I am teaching statistics this semester, but aversion to mathematical proofs was just one nugget out of many I got from my midsemester evaluations. Honestly, I give midsemester evaluations partly because pedagogy studies show that teachers who give midsem evaluations get better final evaluations. But it also gives me a good read on the class experience. I once taught a course I dreaded every class session of, until I got my midsemester evaluations which were largely very positive.

I keep these evaluations short and basically ask “What’s one thing you’d like to change about the homework assignments? About the lectures? How do you feel about the pace of the course to date?” What I’ve learned from my three years of teachings is that students appreciate variety in presentation method (i.e., mixing up lectures with group problems or discussions), they always want more practice problems, and want to see how to immediately apply the concepts covered in class. Also, there will be complaints about when the professor chooses to hold office hours, unless the professor holds them from 8 p.m. – 11 p.m. the night before the homework is due.

4) My collaborators want my input but are driving the bus on their respective projects.  I have a couple collaborative projects that are outside my area of expertise. I spend an hour each week on the phone or in person meeting with folks on each of these projects and have been getting a bit antsy about seeing results. So I asked the PIs of each project what more I could be doing and what they saw my role as.  I was surprised that neither thought I needed to put more input in or that my group should take over any analysis at this stage.  Instead they both said they wanted my advice as results got presented and hoped that after the first paper got written my group could take a piece of interest and run with it. On the one hand I found this frustrating, because these projects are taking up time in the office I could be spending with my lab, but on the other hand learning this was freeing. I no longer have to feel guilty about being unprepared for these meetings; instead, it seems, that’s kind of what my colleagues want: my off-the-cuff gut-reaction about whether what their trainees are seeing in the data passes muster with me.

This self-study of others’ expectations has been eye-opening, especially because in time management identifying what’s urgent (i.e., what someone else needs) and what’s important (what is necessary for us each to achieve our own goals) is touted as the all-important first step towards effectiveness at work.  I think in research-oriented academic settings, where professors are like small business owners, downplaying others’ needs outside one’s own lab is critical to research success.

The “good enough” model has been discussed a lot in computer science and in parenting. I think it’s time to bring a “good enough” framework into the academic life as well.

4 thoughts on “The “good enough” professor

  1. Good points.

    As an aside, an excellent high school teacher of science once told me that whenever her students said “I’m no good at maths” (or similar statement), she added the word “yet”. I found this very helpful with my own students.

    If asked, students always want the surface knowledge (ie “what is the formula for solving this problem, Professor?”) rather than working out their own strategy because they have a deep understanding of the concept. In 30+ yrs of teaching at university level, I never worked out how to overcome this …. but it doesn’t mean you are not adequate and ‘good enough’, you have to keep trying and you will get through to some (never all). Remember that students may know what they LIKE, but they don’t always know what they NEED. That is why we are employed to teach them and we don’t usually let the inmates take over the institution. It is important to ask their opinion, but it is not necessary or desirable to give in to all their ‘wants’.

    It seems to me that you are more than ‘good enough’, that you are ‘really good’ and probably ‘better at your job’ than many of your peers. This is evident because you are reflective about it and are trying to implement strategies to improve. These things in themselves are an indication of how good you really are.

    You may see it as ‘good enough’ now, and that is OK, particularly if it helps reduce your stress levels. But down the track I hope that you will ponder about all the students you have influenced, every semester, for xx years (the papers are easier to count; the idea of all those students going out into the world with a better knowledge of stats is harder to measure). Then I hope you will be very proud of your achievements.

    I agree that women seem to feel the guilt thing more than men, and if something works out they call it good luck rather than good management. It is something that I try to point out to people, but in the end they should ‘do what I say’ and not ‘what i did’.

    So I say it to you too – do what i say – look into the mirror each day and say to yourself 3 times “I will not feel guilty today.”, Maybe you can add “I am good enough”, if that helps.

    All the best, keep being reflective. You’ll do OK I am sure.

  2. Pingback: “Group meeting is the highlight of my week.” | Tenure, She Wrote

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