Waking Up to a Dream Job

September 25th, 2013

ed_academic_bigLast month, I started as an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Louis University. I’ve wanted to be a chemist ever since I was 15 and enraptured by Dr. Liebermann’s three-year chemistry sequence at my high school. My wonderful experience as an undergrad at NYU cemented these plans and the goal of a career in academia.  Almost every academic decision I’ve made since high school has been directed toward being able to teach chemistry and conduct research.

I feel very fortunate to have successfully navigated the job market, and I wish all the best to those of you going out for jobs now. I could never make sense of everything I saw when my colleagues and I applied for jobs. It was an incredibly tough experience, made all the more frustrating by the opaque nature of the process. You never know exactly what’s important, what schools are looking for, or if they’ve even received your application. So little information is shared that when it finally trickles in from second- and third-hand sources, you treat it like valuable military intelligence—dispatches from the front lines of battle. Some people win, but many don’t and must endure a long wait until the next application cycle opens.

Despite the elation—and relief—of getting the job I’ve always wanted, I haven’t really had the opportunity to savor the moment. The hectic experience of moving halfway across the country blended with the hectic experience of setting up the lab at SLU. Two weeks later, classes started and my head has been spinning ever since. SLU definitely values teaching more than your typical Ph.D. chemistry department, and I am teaching two classes this fall: (i) sophomore organic chemistry for majors and (ii) an introduction to the chemical literature + scientific presentations.

The semester hit me like a freight train. The volume of work is unbelievable. I give four lectures a week, and because it’s my first time teaching, these lectures all have to be created from scratch. The joy of being finished with a lecture is quickly superseded by the crushing realization I have to prepare and deliver another whole lecture in 47 hours. On Mondays, I give two lectures, so weekends are particularly filled with fun. Aside from preparing lectures from scratch, there is the other nasty detail that I’ve never written exams before so I can’t distribute old ones as practice tests. So, instead of writing one new exam per unit, I have to write three. And as it turns out, writing thoughtful exams also takes a lot of time. I suppose I could give my colleagues’ old exams,  but everyone emphasizes different things and I feel that the practice exams I give students should reflect what they’ll see on my exams.

In many ways I feel like a new parent. I’ve gone through life as a kid saying, “when I grow up, I’m going to do it this way.” Now is my chance to correct all of the problems I experienced as a student. One of the things I disliked about taking organic chemistry was that no one took the time to explain things in answer keys. Answer keys are a wonderful opportunity to teach; just dropping an answer on students is frustrating to them. Of course, writing detailed answer keys takes a lot of time, but I’m making it a point to do so. Here was the key from my last practice exam. Let’s see how long I can keep it up.

Outside of lecture preparation, there’s a whole bunch of grading to do and many, many meetings with students and advisees. When I was a grad student and postdoc, I could keep my calendar on a small index card. Now, I have so many meetings every week, I finally surrendered and registered for Google Calendar. I get multiple text messages every day reminding me whom I’m supposed to meet with, when, and where. On top of that, students and colleagues stop by my office regularly, which is great. I live for these interactions, but they are another investment of time. Basically, the only time I can get work done is at home, which is yet another weird/counter-intuitive realization I’ve made in the past month.

Despite the fact that I always feel I’m doing something, I am still amazed how quickly work piles up. Up to 50 new e-mails a day land in my inbox, and some of them I just can’t get to. Unfortunately, friends and blog stuff are the ones that typically get pushed to the back burner, so my deepest apologies if you’re waiting on a reply about something. Also, while I have yet to submit a research paper from SLU, referee requests have already found their way into my SLU inbox.

So, the last five weeks have been crazy, but enjoyable. I really like working with students and I have a fantastic group of colleagues. I hope to update the blog more often, but it’s one of those things that is easily pushed to the back burner. I’m looking forward to the time when I will teach a class for the second time and I’ll already have the material ready to go, but sadly, that is at least a year away. In the meantime, I’m just hoping to keep my head above water…


43 Responses to “Waking Up to a Dream Job”

  1. Chao Says:

    “前人栽树,后人乘凉” also works for the same person I guess…Just enjoy the first year lol.

  2. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    Well, yeah dude. :) Not to dump on you but honestly teaching is the easy part of this job. Keep at it…teaching really gets easier if you commit to building those skills quickly. You should all ready have the doing research skills so get your group trained ASAP so you can hone your writing/publishing/grantship skills next. After that is reviewing, planning conferences, univ-level service, etc. The whole thing is a process. Find mentors and maintain your personal life/ability to relax/sanity.

    50/day is a lower limit on email…use different accounts and don’t be afraid to train yourself and students that 24-36hrs IS an acceptable lull for a response. Check your spam box at least once a week (stupid thing at my U is WAAAY too aggressive and sometimes catches PO’s and editors…NOT GOOD).

    It’s a blur but a few years in and it’s still the greatest job ever.

  3. Brian Says:

    Oddly inspiring and daunting at the same time as I imagine I will be in your shoes a year from today. First apps out and more on the way.

  4. Dave Fernig Says:

    Block some time off in that Google calendar, most important and something I wish I had done earlier in life! Otherwise, if you reasonable people centred, as you seem to be, your time will get eaten and what will suffer is grant and paper writing.
    I would also remember this first year when you have more influence on decision making: it would be far better to have eased you into teaching, so 1 course each semester and then gain another next year.

  5. Lila Says:

    Hang in there, Paul. As with new parenthood, a totally new job will get easier and less overwhelming — but probably not as quickly as you wish it would! I’m glad you’re enjoying it even while it’s crazy-busy.

  6. azmanam Says:

    Here were my thoughts after finishing my first year teaching undergrads organic chemistry. I felt much the same way you did.

    http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2011/05/12/the-other-side-of-the-lectern-a-reflection-on-my-first-year-of-teaching-undergrads/

  7. Matt Says:

    Hey Paul,
    Keep at it. It’s nice when you’ve taught one round and don’t have to prep for lectures anymore. But, it seems, that even at that point, there are new challenges to face. I know that you will (and are) doing well. I agree with @Dave. Block off some time that is yours as well as some time that is your fiance’s. :)

  8. anon Says:

    …but will you have time for Nobel predictions??? :)

  9. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I remember reading somewhere that to give a really top notch lecture you have to put in roughly eight hours of preparation per lecture. Good luck.

  10. luysii Says:

    Sorry to be hard, but if you really know the material, lecturing shouldn’t be that difficult. One of the problems teaching newcomers to any field is realizing just how much you’ve internalized, and making it all explicit. When trying to teach neuropharmacology to people outside the field, I had to write something answering the question “where is the brain in the head”.

    When lecturing in medicine, particularly in neuropharmacology in the 70s and 80s, the field was constantly changing year to year — the discovery of the endorphins, the cannabinoid receptors etc. etc., so the lectures were constantly revised. Not so for what you will be teaching, even though the field will constantly be changing [ Science vol. 341 pp. 1348 - 9 '13 -- a new and slightly different Lewis acid of all things ].

    Anyway, good luck and congrats.

  11. Reverend J Says:

    I credit you for writing up a practice exam complete with extremely useful answer keys. However, I’d suggest you never use question #4 in an actual exam, unless you want your graders/graduate students to hate you or make up semi-valid excuses why they can’t grade that week.

  12. Bob Sacamano Says:

    I wrote long exams in my first couple of years teaching but they have shortened over the years–be sure to watch your students work their exams and see if they have any time to think and process information.

    I am interested in your answer to the cyclohexane question, where in the key you write that equatorial large substituents are generally energetically favored because of a reduction in torsional strain.

    I’ve seen ‘concept maps’ in textbooks that show repulsive van der Waals interactions as a subset of torsional strain (the other contribution being sigma-sigma* hyperconjugation stabilization in staggered vicinal bonds), but I’m not sure this ‘lumping together’ should be done in the first place. Your answer leads me to believe that you are also using this prescription.

    Eliel’s definition (Stereochemistry of Organic Compounds, 1994) of torsional (Pitzer) strain makes no mention of repulsive VDW: excess enthalpy of a molecule caused by the torsion angles deviating from their optimum values, over that of the lowest energy conformation.

    He defines non-bonded interactions as attractive/repulsive VDW as intramolecular through-space interactions between atoms in a molecule that are not bonded to each other. Do all pair-wise repulsive VDW interactions depend upon the concerted motion of single torsion angle? No.

    I keep torsional strain and repulsive VDW as separate contributors because one could ask your definition the following question regarding axial vs equatorial methylcyclohexane: are there any (profoundly) non-staggered torsional angles in the two ground states? The answer is no. So why call axial methylcyclohexane a torsionally strained molecule? The source of its strain is mainly 1,3-diaxial repulsive VDW interactions.

    I’m not sure how many texts are adopting the ‘repulsive VDW as a subset of torsional strain’ argument. I would appreciate hearing from other readers how they teach this aspect of conformational analysis.

  13. Steve Chamberland Says:

    Congratulations on your tenure-track dream job. I’ve been reading your blog for years, but have never taken the time to write a comment.

    I love your planet Billiken question. The occasional zany or punny question may elicit a chuckle out of your students and remove a modicum of inevitable test anxiety. I read an article about Paul Wender that noted he puts a cutout picture of his cat in the front of the room before exams to lighten the mood.

    I’ll also agree with Bob Sacamano (#12) about shortening test length. I’ve tried writing shorter exams because I like to ask “thinking” questions that test applied knowledge, not factual regurgitation questions. Students always note how challenging they are, mostly because there’s just so much to tackle. They don’t have time to think clearly through each question. Writing shorter exams feels like I’m just giving A’s away, but it didn’t turn out that way. What I discovered is that students who really understood the material did better than they would have with a longer exam. Students who performed poorly would have done so either way. Shorter exams raised the high score and the median by several points, but the average only ticked up slightly. And you’re right, writing a good exam takes me about 6-8 hours. You’ll get a feel for what length and difficulty level is appropriate with practice.

    It IS amazing how much time it takes to perform all professorial tasks well. What’s even more amazing is how many students see our class schedule on our door and think we only work 5 hours a week. My advice would be to delegate or ignore what you can and focus on the big things. “Putting out small fires” and firing off tons of e-mail (and reading blogs, note to self) makes you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot, but then you haven’t made a dent in the big, important things (getting in lab, writing papers, writing and rewriting grant proposals). Funding your research, getting your name out there, building your CV line by arduous line, and earning tenure are the big prizes. Don’t be afraid to close your door and ignore knocks (as hard as that is). Your colleagues will understand, so long as you’re door is not ALWAYS closed. If there’s a truly urgent need for interruption (i.e., if the building’s on fire), you’ll hear an alarm.

    Good luck this year, and feel free to e-mail if you ever want to chat about anything.

    P.S. To Bob Sacamano: I agree that torsional strain and repulsive VDW (steric) strain are different. You could argue whether torsional strain is (correctly) caused by stabilizing sigma-sigma star interactions or repulsive VDW interactions, but most sophomore’s eyes twitch and glaze over when you start talking in depth about anti-bonding orbital overlap. Maybe save the truth about that for grad school or advanced O-chem. I explain the greater stability of equatorial vs. axial methylcyclohexane by discussing the extra two gauche-butane interactions in the axial conformer. Each gauche-butane interaction is worth 0.9 kcal/mol x 2 = 1.8 kcal/mol, which approximates methyl’s A-value (1.74 – Anslyn/Dougherty). This rationale includes the VDW repulsion of the extra two 1,3-diaxial Me-H interactions in the axial conformer in the ground state. In smaller rings, however, torsional strain does account for some of the strain energy due to increasingly eclipsing H-H interactions, but angle (Baeyer) strain also plays a substantial role.

  14. Bob Sacamano Says:

    Steve (#13),

    Thanks for your thoughts and providing a chuckle, because I’ve seen the antibonding twitching and glazing with my own eyes!

    But I do think it’s a good opportunity to cast new light on antibonding orbitals, which come up several times later in the year. Students have been conditioned to think anti-bonding orbitals bring nothing good to the table, and the fun part of teaching organic (for me at least) is rocking their foundation, just a bit. Discussions like these can help them re-situate their general understanding of orbitals and bonding. So I include it, if only to provoke conversation and early-term office hour visits.

  15. NickJK Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your observations. Welcome to your dream job; enjoy those times where it strikes you that you’d never consider wanting to be anywhere else.

    It’s funny how we spend all this time preparing for these careers (i.e. the schooling), yet there’s so much more to learn once you have one. Having just started my second year in a tenure track position, I feel a lot has changed. It was a constant roller coaster to try and balance preparing lectures, setting up a lab, going to meetings, and learning the nuances of the university. I remember having to make a student sit down with me just so I could see how they registered for classes since my “training” in advising wasn’t for another 6 months).

    Everyone said things would get better in the second year. I believed them, and it’s been true. But I’m still surprised on how different it’s become. I’ve grown more than I ever would have imagined.

  16. Scholander Says:

    I hope this doesn’t come off as too negative, as I just left my academic position. Ran screaming, really. But some pragmatic advice:
    –Enjoy the lull! Your colleagues will be throwing more your way next year. And you’ll be expected to publish and submit many grants.
    –Be cautious showing that you’re good at something organizational. Committees (which can come in University, College, Departmental, Program, or research interest) can suck up inordinate amounts of time for zero benefit.
    –Find good grad students, and be prepared to become a second parent. I don’t know specifically about the caliber of recruitment at SLU, but I pretty much guarantee the students are different than what you experienced at NYU, in terms of motivation and preparation. American students will feel often entitled, and mask their fears of inadequacy with arrogance and aggression. Foreign students will have a long ramp up of adjustment, especially if English is a foreign language, but usually work harder. Maybe just my experience though.
    –Be prepared for students to disappoint you. For most, Organic Chemist will be the class that keeps them out of M School, and your class is just an obstacle to get through. Have a plan for dealing with cheating, and spell out the repercussions before you have to.
    –Learn the fine art of “tactical incompetence.” You can’t possibly do everything, so learn how to apologize for missing deadlines that aren’t as important without making the demander angry.
    –Be aware of departmental politics, but avoid participating in them. Like it or not, when you were hired there was thought given to where you would fit into a power structure, and if you upset that balance you could make enemies. If it seems like there are no politics, then at least the department is not overtly toxic, and that’s a good thing. But its there. Its not possible for people to work together for 20-30 years without slowly accumulating a list of grievances against one another.
    –Make time for friends and family, even if it impacts your career. I made the “mistake” of having kids before getting tenure, and chose to make sure I saw my kids grow, and I don’t regret it.

    Good luck! You’ve chosen one of the hardest jobs in the world, in one of the most challenging times to do it. When it works, its great. But, it didn’t work out for me, and I’m lucky enough to be doing the same research in industry now, and don’t regret leaving a bit.

  17. Paul Bracher Says:

    @azmanam: I hadn’t read your post until now. It’s funny how similar our experiences have been.

    @Reverend J: I totally agree! I put the draw-all-isomers-of-C8H18 problem on the practice exam because there is no way I’d survive grading that. On the “real” exam I gave last night, I had them draw the isomers of C7H16, but even then I gave them 7 of the 9 and made them draw the two remaining ones in a box. Much easier to grade that way.

    @Bob and Steve: Point taken about torsional strain vs. repulsive VDW interactions. I’m going to make sure to separate these out next year. Also, I have tried to bring up antibonding orbitals in class, but not in terms of hyperconjugative and anomeric effects. Rather, the key on my first practice exam talked about how water can behave as both a Bronsted-Lowry acid and base, and a Lewis acid and base. Basically, I went through how all Bronsted-Lowry acids and bases are Lewis acids and bases. It is easy for them to see how water can be a Lewis base (the filled orbitals with lone pairs on oxygen), but difficult to see how water can be a Lewis acid. The empty orbital must be an antibonding orbital with a big lobe behind hydrogen.

  18. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Scholander: Enlightening. Thanks for the comment. It reminds me of a piece of advice someone gave me about how to avoid service roles like department chairman or becoming the head of a committee: tell everyone you want the job. Basically, the best way to avoid being the department chair is to tell everyone you want to be chair.

    And I am very fortunate that the faculty at SLU are supportive of each other.

  19. Recently Tenured Says:

    Thanks for the honest post, Paul. The blogs often too often treat professors as if they are living cushy lives on the backs of exploited students. You are are maturing quickly and finding out that its not so easy to give three or four lectures a week, manage a dozen or two dozen students and all the research projects, write grants, do committee work, keep good relations with colleagues, review papers, meet with undergraduates, and keep up with the literature. Just wait until you have 5 recommendation or tenure letters a week to write, maybe a journal to edit, and a symposium to organize on top of everything else. In only a few weeks you have learned that no real work gets done at school, and soon you’ll be learning why most successful professors get up at 5 am. Its not that they like getting up at 5 am, its just that 5 to 8 am is the only quiet time a day where any work on papers or grants can get done. Oh, and I think you are recently married or close to it. Just wait until you have a child or two on top of everything else.

    But you are absolutely right. It is a dream job, and worth all the frustrations and sleepless nights. Like you, I wanted this job for a long time and it is even better than imagined . That doesn’t mean its easy, but I’m grateful every day, maybe even every hour, that I have been fortunately enough to have this life.

  20. JKey Says:

    Hi Paul,

    It’s my second time around teaching organic, and I have taught some gen chem and upgrading chem as well. I have a few comments/suggestions from my limited experience that I hope may help with your lecture prep and practice problem/quiz/exam writing:

    – Take advantage of the resources that come with the textbook you are using. Most textbooks come with an instructor resource package which includes powerpoint slides, diagrams and tables from the textbook and question bank. Although these may not be perfect, in your first year teaching you are often just trying to keep your head above water.

    – Online practice problem companies do exist and could save you some time. Sapling learning, Mastering Chemistry and others are available at a small fee to the student, and offer online practice problems with tutorial-esque properties.

    – Invest time writing shorter, easily marked quizzes and exams that still cover the important concepts. Put boxes where answers are supposed to go. In the case of stereochemistry questions, include structures/scaffolds for the students to complete, so you don’t get a few different ways of drawing the same molecule. 30 minutes of extra time in the question design could save you or your TA’s several hours of marking.

    Best of luck and congratulations on landing your ideal position

  21. Reverend J Says:

    @Paul: Very clever idea with the structures problem, I’ll file that way and either use it myself someday or suggest it to my academically minded friends.

  22. Ludovico Says:

    Hi Paul,

    welcome to the club. Teaching absorbs an inordinate amount of time. I have no problem believing this will be especially true for you, since I never knew you as somebody that did not care about teaching or that was good with compromises either :-)
    Most of what Scholander said is spot on.
    What I would add is that the most dangerous thing is to fight back. At one point you’ll understand that making this job a fight will turn everything sour. Things get a lot better when you accept that not everything will work out the way you wanted and that some things will just never happen. That’s when you can take a breath, look out and enjoy the present moment, the fact that you are having a pretty cushy job (all things considered), and that *nobody* really has a gun pointed to your head (even though I know it feels that way – the system is designed to be that way).
    One distinguished friend of mine, tenured from a top 5 school, gave me this piece of advice which only gets better as the times goes on: “You have to do science and your faculty job exactly like you want to do it. Because that is what you are best at. And eventually that will prevail. Bow and you’ll end up destroying the job you worked so hard to get.” And let me add my own piece of advice which will have a circular reference: plenty of people/colleagues will be out there giving your advice on what you should do, how you should do it, and spending a lot of time trying to convince you that you will fail unless you bow, unless you do things the way they did. Don’t listen to any of that. I am quite confident that you had all the high quality advice that you need from your mentors and from yourself.

    I have a grant due on Tuesday, one more in two weeks, one more in four weeks. Four papers to finish and submit. 20 lectures to prepare, a course to create, 4 papers to review. And I have been lucky. I have not been traveling.

    Best of luck Paul! (the first year is tough… the second can be better if something will start to work in the lab)

  23. luysii Says:

    Not to shamelessly self promote, but all you folks teaching orgo, should read the following.
    http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/son-of-a-responsibility-you-didnt-know-you-had/

    You’ll be doing society a favor

  24. luysii Says:

    Another post to read, if you’re teaching orgo and getting a lot of complaints such as ‘why do I have to learn this stuff’ from pre-meds. Show them this.

    http://luysii.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/why-premeds-should-be-required-to-take-and-pass-organic-chemistry/

  25. Anonymousy Says:

    I too am going through a similar adjustment, although at a PUI, not a graduate-level school. It’s been a big change from being a senior grad student then a postdoc, where you just do research all the time. I am teaching quite a bit now, and I have not taught since TA’ing as a starting grad student. Even though I am at a PUI, I am expected to have a research program and publish. I still have to get my equipment set up, and recruit students.

    Best of luck!

  26. David Eisenberg Says:

    Good luck, Paul!
    It’s amazing you can still get all these things done, and still maintain a lively blog. Keep it up – and we’re waiting for your Nobel predictions…

  27. Matt from TJ 98 Says:

    Hi Paul- Good luck with the new school year! It’s pretty rough that they have you doing 2 new course developments in your first semester. Ideally you’ll want one at a time. Perhaps try negotiating for 1 course next semester to cool things down (org 2)? This semester I negotiated a 0.5 course load, though the 6 papers and 3 active grants helped!

    I have found that scheduling at least one day a week to stay free of meetings and classes is a must. For me, it’s Friday, and Fridays are wonderful. Those are the days I write the papers and grants, and close the door and keep everyone else out.

    If you have TAs, use them, especially for grading. Grading can quickly become more time-consuming than course development. I’ve also found that assigning numerically less homework makes a difference as well. You can do this by taking 2 homeworks you were planning on assigning and mashing them into one. Somehow or another it takes less time to grade one large homework than two smaller homework assignments, probably because getting in the mood to grade homeworks itself takes extra time and energy. Note that I’m coming at this from a geology/geochemistry perspective and you may find JKey’s advice better.

    Even on the days that you have a loaded schedule, try to find some down time, especially if classes start to feel like a drain. For me, I take a 2.5 mile walk each day to clear my head and skip out of the office. I spend that time thinking about research or drafting a paper in my head, or just getting out of the office.

    Also, definitely don’t sign up for everything that comes your way (Scholander’s advice is very true, if from a glass is half-empty perspective). Colleagues and students will come to you with ideas, but keep focus on what you’ve done before and what you can get funded to continue doing. As Ludovico has said, do what you have do, and don’t do what others want you to do (within reason!). That will work.

    You were probably told what the requirements for tenure were when you started (for us, it’s at least 2 papers, and 3 courses taught each year, and one significant federally-funded grant before tenure). Notably, service is not usually on that list, so avoid it like the plague. Committees, students who are too time-consuming, and *shutter* internal university governance documents should be avoided until you have those major requirements out of the way, especially grantsmanship. Even afterwards, let the tenured faculty take the lead.

  28. Jose Wales Says:

    I hope this new job opens your eyes to the life of an academic. It should provide you with a different viewpoint for a number of your previous articles looking from a postdoc/grad student postdoc. I look forward to posts from this new career view.

  29. Andreas Bender Says:

    Hi Paul,

    Congratulations to your new job! I have been leading a research group for about 5-6 years now (in two different places, now being close to 20 people in total), and I think, in hindsight, what I would judge as most important would be:

    1. Prioritize. Make sure your research is present in the public via publications (which will likely be followed quite soon by invited presentations and papers, which makes things in some sense easier), that you bring in some ‘prestigious grants’ (which funds people, but also gives you an answer to this slightly repetitive question about ‘how much money you brought in recently’…) and that your teaching is at least reasonable. If you don’t have the time to prepare the courses as much as you would have liked to pay attention to explain well (explicitly, slowly) in the lectures – this is one of the things I had to learn myself as well. (I share your focus on people by the way – make sure you treat people around you well; you cannot reply to every email in time, but you can apologize and treat the other person friendly the next time in any case.)

    2. Collaborate with other groups in the department (and externally as well for that matter), and be open to what other people tell you. We are all limited in our knowledge – and collaborations make our science better, and let us learn something new. I have done this since my PhD and now also teach in India and Malysia, apart from the ‘usual’ scientific collaborations – this is good for science, and for yourself as a person. Science lets you learn about the world quite easily I guess.

    3. Learn how to manage people – and yourself. I noticed that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me! Supervising people is actually quite a psychologically demanding task (‘why did this situation make me angry/disappointed/happy/… actually?’); the stimulus is from the interaction, but the pattern comes often from your own past and personality. Once you get used to the personal side of managing people this will give you more desired outcomes, a more understanding situation with your group members – and also teach you a lot about yourself. Believe me, it’s well worth it, for all of the above reasons.

    There are more points but these would probably be my top 3. All the best for now – and have fun with your chemistry also in the future!

    Cheers,
    Andreas

  30. Howard Peters Says:

    Paul,
    I enjoyed your post. Keep it up.
    35 Years ago I switched from lab chemistry at SRI Int. to law (IP-patent).
    I remember then saying to the General Counsel at Hexcel that,
    “I was having so much fun that he wouldn’t need to pay me to do the job.”
    He remembered.
    Regards, Howard

  31. Graet Chem Says:

    It’s interesting that they make you write ‘pretend’ past papers for a new course, as if you don’t have enough to do! In the institutions (UK) that I’ve been taught and taught at, a new course/lecturer meant a bit of a voyage into the unknown for the students (i.e. past papers didn’t mean much) – I don’t think this is too bad really. Why should students need to know what style your exam is going to be? They should just know their stuff and your exam should be set to test that knowledge. I’m not sure I’d be so happy to be spending time writing exams that will never be sat.

    @luysii: I don’t think Paul is really complaining that it is a difficult intellectual activity to create teaching content, but that it is a time consuming one when you have a lot of other things to do as the new kid on the block. I agree that you need to be able to recognise internalised knowledge and clearly explain it. We’ve all had lecturers who assume far too much background or fail to connect with students because they can’t understand why they don’t know something they consider to be general knowledge.

  32. Paul Bracher Says:

    I think that some professors fail to appreciate the fact that the students in their classes are paying thousands of dollars to be there. We have a duty to deliver a quality product.

  33. catalyzer Says:

    Great post and a really great test. I hope your students realize how lucky they are. But since its more fun to dwell on the 0.1% that I disagree with, regarding the alkane mp question (last question) I would say branching is more likely to lower (not raise) melting point. Check out n-hexane (mp -96) vs the very branched AND symmetrical 2,3-dimethylbutane (mp -130). Yes, the “symmetry” of 2,3-dimethylbutane is deceptive, but in general I think the n-alkane has the highest mp for any carbon number which makes the “branching = low mp” rule really dicey at best.

    Anyway, presumably you’ll never have to teach two new courses again (I sure hope!!) – that’s certainly a full time job on its own (I think 8 hours per new lecture is conservative) so I hope you can get away with doing very little else (professionally) this semester (it will be over soon!). Great parenting analogy – and on that note, enjoy it even while you look forward to the next stage.

  34. Darren Says:

    One thing I’ve learned, coming from forty-member “megalabs” in both graduate school and postdoc, is that the difficulty in obtaining funding can be in a way liberating. That is, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain a research group of ten or more PhD students and postdocs. If you get one NSF-sized grant funded per year, you are doing quite well by the standards of most universities, but each one is only enough to pay the expenses of a single PhD student for three years! The demands of my research group on my time are immense, but also self-limiting: even if I wrote a new grant every month, and each had a rate of success of 20% (twice the NSF rate for my area), I wouldn’t be able to make my group any larger without serious inputs of money from private interests.

    A less fun conclusion you will reach is that it is much easier to get papers and oral presentations at conferences accepted with your old boss as an author. My first original research paper as a PI is in press right now. It is the most scholarly piece of work with which my name has ever been associated (whenever possible, hire students who are smarter than you are). The work and the motivation behind it, however, encountered resistance of the kind I’ve never experienced as a graduate student or postdoc.

    Also, there were a few references in the comments to repulsive VDW forces. There is no such thing as a repulsive VDW interaction. VDW forces comprise only orientational, inductive, and dispersive contributions, all of which are attractive for pairwise interactions with a 1/r^6 dependence. An expert in quantum mechanics will be able to explain with more depth than I can, but the origin of the steric repulsive force is quantum mechanical, i.e., the Pauli exclusion principal. It is definitely not a VDW force.

  35. luysii Says:

    I’ve thought a bit about the difference between teaching introductory organic chemistry and what is fed to med students. It’s unlikely that Paul will tell them that stereochemical inversion has been seen in a classic Sn1 reaction — which has just come out — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/just-when-you-thought-it-was-safe-to-assume/. While it’s the latest and greatest, it would likely make it harder to understand the difference between Sn1 and Sn2.

    Med students simply have to be told about the latest and newest data, as it often contradicts the received wisdom and (hopefully) directly affects patient care (again, hopefully for the better).

  36. LC Says:

    Paul: yes we have a duty to do that. I completely agree. But our duty is also defined by our contract. The fact that the average assistant professor works 70+ hrs a week (while contract is for a full time appointment) is also due the guilt-tripping associated with the job: “The poor students paid a thousand dollars for your class!” “Yes, I know but it is 3 am, my babies are crying, my wife is sick, and it would be great if I could just work only 10 hrs more than what I signed for, instead of 30.” “Well, that is why you are an asst prof. You are unproductive. Quit complaining and try to enjoy it. You should do 80 hrs anyway, slacker!”. And the thing is that they will keep adding chores over chores until people will start doing stupid things. I remember one colleague told me as a reason of pride in his department that none of his colleagues got divorced due to tenure… I mean… wow…

    Maybe it is my european upbringing, but if you pay me for 40hrs a week, and you give me 70hrs minimum workload, then it is more plausible that there is a problem with you/the system than there is with me, especially since all young faculty have an established history of tremendous productivity. No?
    But then of course, there is always the cop out of saying: “well, maybe you are not cut out for this job”….

    I apologize for what might sound like a rant. Deadline for NSF is tomorrow and got a s^%ton of last minute changes to make… it will be a loooong night.

  37. Sophia L Says:

    Paul,
    I’m really glad to have found your blog!
    I’m currently a freshman undergrad and I’m considering becoming a professor of organic chemistry. I absolutely love organic and I taught myself it in high school. Keep up the good posts, I’d love too see some updates on how your job is coming. Congratulations, and I hope you’ll be able to pull through all that work.

    PS I stalked your personal website and saw that you went to USNCO camp in 1998.
    I went to USNCO camp this summer! Cool to see that more than 10 years ago they still did the obligatory group photo before the long practice lab session with those awesome lab coats!

  38. Paul Bracher Says:

    Good luck, Sophia! You should note that one of the other students in those photos is now an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Harvard. Work hard; it’s doable.

    Edit to add: the pic is here.

  39. oldnuke Says:

    Paul — I like your remark about just who is “paying the bill” in a University. Amen. Even though I am an adjunct prof, I always wind up spending “extra” time with my students after class. They remember that — I occasionally run into some of them in the market and they always say hello.

    What’s scary is when they start enrolling THEIR kids in my class… gr

  40. Manish B Says:

    Hey Paul, hearty congratulations on the faculty position. I check out your blog from time to time, especially around the early days of October. Four years in, I wish I could offer you my own sage advice about being an assistant professor. I am taking a faculty development class now and am finally learning some of the key lessons everyone should know: the 4 Ds (Delegate, Defer, Delete, Do), learning how to say no, tracking time, etc etc. It’s helped me plan my classes better, get more writing done, and even get some sleep once in a while. Let me know if you’re interested and I can give you details.

  41. DrAmazon Says:

    4 lectures a week!? You lucky dog! Out here in PUI land, I’ve got 6 and three labs, with no TAs. Thank heavens our research expectation for tenure mostly makes sense with that load.

    I hope that your students take the time to work through and with your answer keys. They many need to be shown how to do that.

    Biggest thing to remember, that I learned from a colleague in Geography, is that “they aren’t you”. You may remember the work that you did, the way you did the work, and how hard you were willing to work, but YOU aren’t an accurate yardstick. None of us professors are. We are anomalous. We loved this stuff, and we’re clearly good at navigating all of the written and unwritten rules of this game. I’m not saying lower expectations, per se, but use a realistic ruler.

    I’m still willing to guest blog about applying to PUI type schools!

  42. Senyawa Organik Says:

    Outside of lecture preparation, there’s a whole bunch of grading to do and many, many meetings with students and advisees. When I was a grad student and postdoc, I could keep my calendar on a small index card. Now, I have so many meetings every week, I finally surrendered and registered for Google Calendar. I get multiple text messages every day reminding me whom I’m supposed to meet with, when, and where. On top of that, students and colleagues stop by my office regularly, which is great. I live for these interactions, but they are another investment of time. Basically, the only time I can get work done is at home, which is yet another weird/counter-intuitive realization I’ve made in the past month.

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