Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Am I an OLD prof?

One of the weirdest feelings when you first become a new professor is that students and postdocs view you differently – you have instantly transitioned from being “one of them” to being “separate from them.” I suppose this shift seems natural from the external (to you) perspective, but it is extremely weird from the perspective of the person who just became the professor. That is, you aren’t a different person overnight just because someone bestowed a job on you. You are that same stupid, procrastinating, goofing-off, incompetent, flawed, and so on, person that you were before you accepted the job offer. This feeling persists for years – in the sense that you don’t feel qualitatively different from graduate students. You just feel a bit older. And it makes sense. After all, you likely spent 6 years as a graduate student and 3 years as a postdoc – so you will need to be a prof for 9 years before you have as much experience at it as you already have at being a trainee. Sure, I felt a growing difference between myself and grad students - but it has been very gradual, not abrupt – that is until recently. 

Earlier this year, I received an email from Steve Young that read: As editor of the Paper Trail section in Ecological Society of America¹s Bulletin, I am writing to ask if you would be willing to contribute a short piece to an upcoming issue. You may be familiar with this section, but if not, it is a recent addition that was part of the 100th anniversary of ESA in 2015. … I have made some changes to the ¹old¹ format to try and reach a wider audience by showing how ecology has connected generations starting with those who are just beginning their careers as graduate students or junior faculty members all the way to those well advanced … the guidelines are simple: 1) less than 500 words or so and 2) include picture(s). The picture should show you or is symbolic in some way of your work. I have already asked an arising ecologist to contribute to this section and she has graciously agreed. This person is Dr. Emily Lescak, who is an up and coming researcher at the University of Alaska ... She has identified you as an established researcher who has had a significant influence on her career through a scholarly paper.

Wait, what? I am being identified as an established researcher who has had a significant influence on someone’s career through a scholarly paper. How can that be? Sure, I suppose I am someone who contributes to science in ways that shape RESEARCH, but not RESEARCHERS! How is it possible that people whom I haven’t worked with are identifying my work as shaping their career development? It was at this precise moment, receiving that email, that I no longer felt at all like a graduate student or postdoc.

I am not sure how I feel about this. Of course, I am flattered and humbled that Emily felt my work had influenced her career, and that Steve had supported her suggestion. And I really enjoyed writing the two-part essay with Emily. At the same time, I still want to feel like a graduate student, brimming with new ideas and embarking on new projects, not some “old” professor whose big influence here-on-out will be in supporting and inspiring the next generation of researchers. Perhaps it means that I am about to be over-the-hill and, in fact, I am in some ways. I don’t write first-authored data-based primary research papers anymore. I don’t know how to do statistics in the R environment. (My first ever plot - below - was also my last.) I write books – and am even planning to write a trade (“popular”) book. I run from meeting to meeting and idea to idea and student to student without sitting down and thinking long and deep about any one specific thing. And I think that new professors in our department are starting to think of me not as a collaborator but as a mentor – and I might even be accepting that.

Perhaps it is only coincidence, but I did turn 50 this year. And I have been a prof for 15 years, which would be half of my career assuming (incorrectly) that I will retire at 65. I just received a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair that, with renewal, could last until that time. Can it be that a career is divided into equal portions, with a first half where you simply feel like an old graduate student and a second half where you can’t remember what it is like to be a graduate student? Is this the moment where I should start planning my exit seminar, my scientific memoir, my retirement? Have I passed the tipping point leading to a regime shift that generates an alternative state from which I can never recover? “Chill out” I hear you saying, “You are a mid-career scientist.” OK, sure, but, if you HAD to divide each career as a prof into two states (emerging versus established, young versus old, new versus old, developing versus old, etc.), which state would I be in?

I am not saying my career is winding down – far from it. I have more students than ever before, more collaborations than ever before, and more papers than ever before. We are just embarking on three huge new long-term collaborative “eco-evo in nature” projects that will likely last for decades. I still actively avoid major administrative roles. I still thing about the big questions, the big papers, and the new topics that might be emerging.

But that doesn’t mean that I am not transitioning to a new state without (until now) formally realizing it. I actively encourage my students to engage in projects that motivate them instead of those that build my research program. In fact, I am doing the same for myself, recruiting students to work on camera traps and eDNA and “micro-oases” and whatever seems fun and interesting, as opposed to projects that represent the next logical step in my existing research program. I have students who work on howler monkey microbiomes and dolphin behavior, and I support other students who are working on ball python genomics and many other diverse projects. I no longer care (much) about where my name is on an author list, even if it is my student or “my” project. I (sometimes) don’t even care if I am an author on such papers. In short, maybe I really am in a qualitatively different career state where I am no longer worried about building my career but rather in building fields and developing the next generation of scientists.
I look forward to how my approach and perspective will change into the future. 

Some of our ball pythons

Will I age gracefully as a professor – in my own eyes and in the eyes of others? Who knows. But – for the moment – I love where I am and how I got here, and I am excited to see where I am going. Long live the “old” professor.

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