Advice for the newly-hired PUI theorist

Congratulations; you got the job! Now what? The Anacapa Society has some suggestions to help you succeed as a theorist at your PUI.

I. Precalculate your strategy

New hires need to understand both formal and informal expectations of them, especially those for tenure*. This requires deciphering the formal documents (such as a faculty handbook and guidelines for rank and tenure file preparations), then finding a mentor and plumbing the sociology of your institution. Perception is all, inside and outside your department. Get advice on the balance among competing expectations of research, teaching, and service, but remember that everything matters to some extent. Get feedback early and often, from as many perspectives as possible. Although one size will not fit all, a few items of general advice:

– Manage your time strategically when preparing your teaching materials. Avoid aiming for perfection, but keep in mind that well-written notes and problem sets will surely come in handy the next time you teach the course.

– Manage your time carefully during the semester; be sure to carve out time for your research and for your own sanity. Learn how (and when it is appropriate) to say no to requests on your time from students, colleagues, and administrators.

– Consider asking for research space, separate from your office. Even though you don’t have optical tables or graduate students, you can argue that a space dedicated to your research will improve your productivity, for instance by giving you space for specialized computational needs, or student collaborators, or all those field theory books. One thing such a space will certainly give you is a way to signal to others that you are working on your research, and maybe that question they have can wait until you’re in your office.

– It’s never too early to explore your options for external funding. See here for a list of some funding sources.

*Determine the publication requirements, namely (i) the number, (ii) the type (refereed publications or conference proceedings/presentations), and (iii) what value is placed on co-authorship with undergraduates.

II. Differentiate yourself

a) Have a research plan for the first six years and choose topics that can be completed in that time. Make sure to work in areas in which you can compete successfully. This may require a shift in focus, and may be an opportunity to return to your inspirations. It is important to produce relevant research, but there is much less need at PUI to follow the fads, which may be why PUI theorists played a key role in founding quantum information theory. Other PUI theorists have found it valuable to maintain or develop collaborations with theorists at other institutions or with experimental groups. It’s not unusual for PUI theorists to migrate into numerical work, since this is sometimes more conducive to undergraduate involvement than analytic work. Determine the correct balance between projects that do or do not involve undergraduates. What balance is “correct” likely depends on your subfield, your institution, and the amount of time you have available.

b) Ask colleagues for copies of their successful grant proposals and/or volunteer to review grants in your field (e.g., for the NSF) to learn what makes for success. Use creative ways to find collaborators (and friendly competitors): approach people at conferences; invite them to talk at your institution (take advantage of free speaker programs such as the APS Women in Physics travel grants and the AAS Shapley Lectureship); offer to talk at nearby institutions and topical meetings; visit 1st tier research universities and institutes, and “shoehorn” yourself in.

III. Integrate with the community

Publicize your work within the institution. For instance, lunch regularly with your colleagues and meet over coffee; organize a seminar series (and volunteer to give a talk); write newsletters, use postering, etc., according to your personality and style. Avoid isolation: make connections inside and outside your division, including by the aforementioned techniques. Do visible and interesting service to show investment in your institution. For example, consider organizing unusual activities, such as a cross-departmental Nobel prize-explaining pizza-party symposium; a lecture series starring you as a speaker; community or K-12 outreach; local SPS events; or an alumni newsletter. Your energy, enthusiasm, and fresh outlook will make a good impression.

Finally, it’s never too early to start thinking about your long-term goals at your institution. Consider reading ahead to our document on approaching tenure as a PUI theorist.