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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Davis professors share tips they wish they knew before becoming educators

Several professors gathered for an informal panel discussion to discuss lab funding, impressing employers and the importance of self-advocacy


By MIA BALTIERRA — features@theaggie.org

Lea este artículo en español.


At a research institution like UC Davis, most instructors are performing research while teaching classes. The path to these positions can take on many forms, but almost all of them include attending graduate school, completing a Ph.D. and potentially holding a postdoc research position. 

On April 20, several UC Davis professors came together for a discussion at the Graduate Center to answer questions about their careers in higher education, as well as logistical aspects of their careers that they wished they had known how to navigate earlier on.

In particular, the educators emphasized the idea that there are many career paths that can lead to the same destination. Not every experience is the same, and students should not be afraid to explore and pursue unique interests after attaining their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree.

Christine Diepenbrock, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, gained hands-on experience in research before she returned to academia as a professor.

“In the industry, I was working on a very computational team,” Diepenbrock said during the panel. “[I learned] this idea of working across functional teams and what it takes to communicate across these teams.” 

Colleen Bronner, Ph.D., an associate professor of teaching in civil and environmental engineering, also gained social skills from her time outside a university. 

“I worked at a psychiatric hospital for a while,” Bronner said during the panel. “It teaches you to communicate with diverse folks and how to calm down folks who are overwhelmed. Most of our students are overwhelmed. Interpersonal skills are really important, and I don’t think we practice that as much as we could in academia.”

The professors also shared their experiences receiving a “start-up package” — the first set of financial and material supplies given when starting a faculty position, which includes a starting salary, job benefits, equipment, money to fund graduate students in a lab and more.

The panelists expressed how important this package is to starting the first year as a professor in an institution. They said that employees should discuss with the school what items they will need to thrive.

“You are fully expected to negotiate,” said Randy Carney, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

For those who aren’t familiar with the process, the panelists explained that it is easy to simply take what is offered. However, not acquiring all the necessary funding can make the first year extremely challenging for a new faculty member.

“I didn’t ask for anything more, and I regretted it a little,” Bronner said during the panel.

Self-advocacy was a central theme in the discussion, and the speakers said that having a support system as a new faculty member — something that is not always given — is extremely important.

“Be productive; don’t assume the support you need will find you,” Bronner said. “Have lunch with a colleague; ask for mentorship. We see way too many faculty of color leaving academia because the mentorship isn’t there, and they end up feeling like they don’t belong.”

The daily tasks of a professor can be taxing on a newcomer, and Carney suggested that for the first year, “it might be incumbent to ask for a teaching release,” or a release from a heavy teaching load, so that there is time to adjust to the new environment. 

The panelists each gave their opinions of what a board of employers at a school will be looking for in potential candidates. According to Bronner, employees search for those who have made good use of opportunities and demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Another necessary skill for someone looking to become a professor is time management. As an educator, teaching, researching and writing will take up a lot of time, according to the panelists.

Panelist JoAnne Engebrecht, Ph.D., a professor of molecular and cellular biology, said that when you do land a position, or a few, it is important to weigh each job opportunity carefully. 

“Don’t say yes right away,” Engebrecht said. “Particularly early on in your career, have mentors to talk to. I would strongly recommend that for anyone who has a problem saying no.”

Engebrecht encouraged prospective professors to advocate for themselves when they do take a job.

“One thing I wish I had done more of [is] be willing to take chances,” Engebrecht said. “If you have a really good idea, go for it. Maybe don’t be so hesitant. [If] you don’t have this linear path, every off-road [experience] brings something to your position. Perseverance counts for a lot in this field.”

Written by: Mia Baltierra — features@theaggie.org