On the road again

First day of school, 2014

First day of school/work, 2014

The past 12 months have been quite busy for my wife and I.  In September I defended my PhD at the University of Ottawa/Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.  In December we moved across the country to Halifax so that I could begin a post doctoral fellowship at Dalhousie University.

Coincidentally, the day that we drove out of Ottawa in a 14 foot Uhaul, we also found out that my wife is pregnant.  That day was also a massive snowstorm (if anything makes driving a massive truck in a snowstorm even more stressful, it’s knowing that you’re about to be a first-time parent!).  After a short time in Halifax, we have now moved again – this time to Prince Edward Island, where I have begun work as an Assistant Prof in Applied Human Science*.  That makes for 2 separate moves within 7 months (and a single pregnancy!).

I’m really excited to be starting what is essentially my dream job.  I’ll be in a relatively small school doing both teaching and research, which was always my goal.  And it’s in the part of the world/Canada that my wife and I have wanted to be in all along.  I think that both the department and the community will be an excellent fit, and it’s been a very positive experience for us so far.

As I transition from post doc to prof, I wanted to take a moment to publicly thank my post doctoral supervisor Chris Blanchard, as well as his team at Dalhousie.  Although I was only in his lab for 7 months, he was extremely generous to me both in time and in resources.  We’ve begun some very interesting projects that will start to trickle out soon (one is currently under review, two others will be submitted shortly), and have begun prepping for some very cool future projects.  Chris and his team were excellent to my wife and I, and we both thoroughly enjoyed our time in Halifax.  I would also like to thank the Heart and Stroke Foundation for their funding of my work at Dal.  And it goes without saying that I am forever thankful of all the good folks at the HALO research group in Ottawa.

I should also mention that when I was putting together my application for this position I leaned very heavily on the tremendous resources that have been collected by Dr Becca in her Tenure Track Aggregator (in addition to the help of many colleagues).  In particular, I found the Prodigal Academic‘s  posts to be very helpful, despite being in a very different field and dealing with very different types of academic institutions.  Similarly, this handy list of questions to ask/prepare for from SERC was unbelievably helpful. If you are applying to an academic job, I cannot recommend that you click on those above links highly enough.  I also had a lot of help from the Centre for University Teaching at the University of Ottawa, and the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Dal.

However, while I found a ton of advice online about how to prep my application for my current job, I’m cognizant of the fact that grad school is not a perfect preparation for life as an academic.  And so I’d like to ask for input from anyone who has once been in my shoes as a new faculty member: 

  • What did you do that worked well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • How did you balance the responsibilities of teaching and research?
  • How did you transition from being a student/trainee to being a prof/mentor?

And from anyone who was ever a student:

  • What did your profs/supervisors do that you liked best?
  • What did they do that you liked least?
  • What would have improved your experience as a student?

I’ll be doing both teaching and research, so I’m interested in your thoughts on either or both.  If you’re uncomfortable commenting under your real name, feel free to comment anonymously (the email line needs to be completed, but as far as I know, it need not be a valid email address).  And if you’re completely uncomfortable posting online but would like to share, feel free to email me at saunders dot travis at gmail. I’d rather have comments available so that others can benefit/reply, but I’ll take advice in any form that I can get it.  

As for what this will mean for the Obesity Panacea, probably not much.  I will continue to post when I have time (aiming for 1-2 posts/week between Peter and me), focusing mostly on topics that I am currently working on (I will try to work in some posts related to my course content as well, so that it’s not 24/7 sedentary behaviour).  Peter and I began this blog almost 6 years ago, a month before I defended my MSc.  So for the handful of people who have been reading since then (I’m looking at you, Angie & Yoni!), you’ve actually seen a frightening amount of my professional development!

As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to any advice you’d like to share!


*As always, a reminder that the opinions and info expressed on the blog belong to Peter or I (or the guest post author, as appropriate), and do not reflect those of any other institution or funding agency.  I hope that’s pretty obvious, but this is a good opportunity for a reminder.  It is also why I don’t specifically list my active academic affiliation(s) here on the blog, although they are by no means a secret.

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7 Responses to On the road again

  1. Carlin says:

    Congrats Travis on the new position and baby to be! That’s very exciting news!!

    I think you’re going to be an amazing prof! You should totally bring out the unicycle for one of your lectures.

    Let me know if you ever have plans to visit the island on the other coast of Canada.

    Huge congrats again!!


  2. Jen Kuk says:

    Hi Travis,
    Congrats on the new position. The life of an academic is great. You get to do what interests you and control the direction of your research program. However, it is a lot of work, particularly if you don’t work hard in the ‘right’ places. Read your university guidelines for T&P, and in the beginning, make sure that you do the things that will count.

    The most important thing is to ask for help.
    – Find a mentor in a similar field that you can ask for advice, to read your grants (maybe be co-inv) and give you the ins and outs for your institution.
    – Ask people you know who are currently teaching to see if they would be willing to share slides from their classes. This will save you an enormous amount of work at the start. At worst, they say ‘no’ or don’t respond to your email.

    In the beginning, it will be tough to balance teaching and research, as generating all your teaching materials from scratch, finishing your ongoing research and starting your independent research program is more than 2 full time jobs. It will be particularly tough as you will have a small baby that will demand your attention. However, the first few years are really important as many grants and programs are only for people within the first 5 years of obtaining their PhD. Ask your research office for help on finding these programs and have your mentor help you with the application.

    Everyone I know has made this sacrifice in the beginning and then the balance comes after with experience and tenure ;). That said, you should still work smart. Do the things that show up and look good on your CV. For example, you don’t want to start projects that are a lot of work and years before yielding fruit, or heavy admin positions in early years. Say yes to things like invited talks, sure collaborations that are less time intensive and will translate to publications. Finally, use the 80-20 rule where you can. You get 80% of the result with 20% of the effort, and the last 20% of the product takes the remaining 80% of the effort. Prioritize things that are really important, such as research papers and grants and spend your time there versus manuscript review, some admin service, and making lecture powerpoint slides look pretty.

    Finally, you need to carve an area of research out for Travis Saunders. Collaborations are great, but your T&P committee will likely want you to show independence from your former supervisors. Find a niche that interests you and go in a new direction. Ask the tough/controversial questions that no one is asking. That is the fun stuff.

    • Travis says:

      Comments from two former roomates in one post!

      Car – I could never make it through the semester without bringing out the unicycle at least once.

      Jen – As always, thanks for the great advice. Those are pretty much all action items that I am going to add to my to-do list. I had been told about asking people for slides before, but had forgotten. On a related note, keep an eye out for a future email requesting slides 😉

  3. steve says:

    Perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt as the time and field is so different, but a bit of experience from an older physicist.

    Finding at least two people to guide you is helpful. A mentor is great and required, but another person’s viewpoint is very useful. The best people are those who love to help out. If you find someone is reluctant, move on as you’ll be leaning on the primary mentor a lot.

    Finding the right work/life balance is centrally important. My field expected a postdoc or two before a tenure track post became available and the pressure was incredible. At one point my mentor pointed out ‘if you are putting in more than 60 hours a week all the time, perhaps you’re not working smart enough’. I found it was very important to carve out a bit of personal time every day for reflection.

    I was in a top 20 research university environment and the focus was largely on research. It was sad as teaching is important and something I enjoy. If I had a chance to start over I would focus more on teaching skills. A trap one falls into is thinking you are a good teacher when the underlying reason many of the students seem interested is they are pushing for grades and want to make a good impression. When I finally learned how to teach it was a revelation.

    Teaching takes a lot of time to do well so finding the right teaching/research balance is difficult. In my case research trumped teaching and I muddled through teaching assignments until I had tenure for some time. There were resources for improving teaching skills including mini-classes and probably mentors, but I didn’t take advantage of them.

    Get a reading of how likely your goal is. I’m guessing your field is expanding which should lower the pressure of competition. My field was leveling after rapid growth which lowered the probability of tenure. I didn’t realize how hard it would be and may have shifted to another similar field after my postdoc had I realized what I was getting into. The net result was far too little sleep for many years.

    good luck!

    • Travis says:

      Thanks Steve, that’s very helpful! I believe that we actually have a formal mentorship program (at least for the teaching side of things) which I’m planning to look into shortly.

  4. Dan Gillis says:

    What did you do that worked well?

    The best thing that happened was accepting a course that I had no experience/training in. It was a lot of work, but it opened me up to a world that I’d never explored, and it’s become a huge part of my life now (in a very good, very career-positive way). Engage the students in as many ways as you can. Say yes to things, even though you’re told to be selfish and focus on your research. Show up to campus/student events. Ultimately the students will become an invaluable resource – but only if you cultivate the relationships.

    What would you do differently?

    Applied to as many grants as possible. I often overlooked some because I didn’t think I fit well enough, or that I wasn’t good enough. Throw whatever you can at the wall – see what sticks. You’d be surprised. Get students involved in grant writing sooner. Even undergrads. Get them to help write papers too.

    How did you balance the responsibilities of teaching and research?

    Still working on this :) I have found that I just have to accept the fact that it comes in waves. When I can research, I research. When I need to teach, I teach. I also look for students who want to help with research (volunteer or paid). Sometimes you have to accept that you are managing the research instead of doing the research – directing others (aka training) to build on your previous work.

    How did you transition from being a student/trainee to being a prof/mentor?

    Again – still working on this. I think the biggest thing that I did was take the attitude of “What’s the worst that could happen?” It seems to have worked so far for me.

    Also – I like letting the students come up with ideas instead of making them do something for me. It keeps my options open, but also gets the students more engaged in the research. It ends up being better work in the end, I think.

    From my point of view, it’s important that the students know that you aren’t perfect. Let them know if/when something went wrong – that’s a part of science that I don’t think we do a good job of teaching to students. Everyone assumes it’s a linear process. Your job is to be the experienced guide, the doubter, the question-everything man. You aren’t necessarily required to know everything, so don’t feel overwhelmed or less-than if/when you don’t.

    It’s also super important that the students are engaged. If they see you working your butt off to help them get to where they need to be, they’ll do the same for you.