Teaching Tips for the Absolute Beginner

Most PhD students get the opportunity to be a teaching assistant; some even get the opportunity to instruct labs, lead tutorials, or even give the occasional lecture.  However, it seems that few get the opportunity to be responsible for planning and delivering an entire course until they actually become a professor. In addition, many universities require no formalized educational training of their new professors.  Once you’ve got that PhD in molecular biology or in mechanical engineering, it seems you’ve got all the necessary qualifications for teaching students at the highest educational levels: in university undergraduate and graduate programs.

Many universities, including my own, offer a wide variety of training opportunities for new professors.  (Some of the older professors would benefit from these, as well! 🙂 )  If you’ve had no formal training on how to teach, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of these as soon as possible.  I know you’re busy, but I promise you that making time for some of these will really be worthwhile.  I’ll also try to help – in fact, teaching will be a recurring topic on this blog since ‘How to be an Effective Instructor’ is certainly not something I can cover in one post.  Not that I am necessarily an expert myself – but after 20+ years of doing it, I do have a few ideas that I hope you’ll find useful. Continue reading


Advice for writing your first grant propsal

Today I am re-blogging a guest post I did for SoapboxScience (a community  guest blog from nature.com).  It appeared today as part of their Beginnings series.  Hope you find it useful!  Check out the nature.com blogs for terrific info.


Many thanks to Nature for inviting me to write a guest post for the “Beginnings” series.  I’ve been asked to offer advice to young academics who are facing the daunting task of writing their first grant proposal.  This is a broad topic and, to a great extent, the specific approach is highly dependent upon the agency you’re targeting with your application.  In that context, it’s critical to read the instructions they provide.  Apparently, ~80% of people don’t do that. Amazing! However, beyond that, there are some general tips that apply universally and that’s what I’ll be focusing on today.

Preparation of a successful grant proposal generally requires the ability to communicate effectively with two entirely different audiences.  You want to come across as knowledgeable to the reviewers who are experts in your area, but you also need to be understandable to those members of the review committee who may have little or no related expertise.  Most people make the mistake of catering only to the former, when it is the latter group that typically carries the weight in the decision, simply because there are many more of them.

Fortunately, it is actually pretty easy to satisfy the experts in your area.  You do this by: Continue reading

Back to School Prep

If you’re like me, you hate those annoying ‘Back to School’ ads that start appearing on TV in late July.  What a way to ruin that little bit left of my summer – reminding me of the insanity that will descend on my life in early September.  But the majority rules and while many professors live in dread of the return to the 60+ hour work week that the fall term inevitably brings, the rest of the world awaits it eagerly because it means that the kids will be back in school and out of their hair.

To help you avoid the blues that these inevitable ‘Back to School’ ads tend to initiate, today’s post is all about how to prepare for fall so that you don’t end up in the teaching time-pitContinue reading

Just Say No!

A few years ago, I called a colleague at another university to get the inside track on one of his former students who had applied to our graduate program.  Our conversation went something like this…

ME: “Hi there – how are you doing?”

HE: “Good thanks, insanely busy. You?”

ME: “Yep – the same.  I won’t keep you; I just wanted to ask you a quick question.”

HE: “Okay, but beware – I’m in my ‘No!’ mood today.”

I was floored…  his ‘No!’ mood?  I had never heard of this before but I knew exactly what he meant the minute he said it.  Thankful that I hadn’t called to ask him to ‘do’ anything (other than tell me a bit about a student), I quickly concluded my business and let him go.  After I hung up the phone I leaned back in my chair and stared into space, contemplating the earth shattering implications of this amazing revelation.  He has a ‘No!’ mood, I thought.  Absolutely brilliant, I definitely gotta get me one of those. Continue reading

Avoiding Time-Wasters

Last night I had a terrifying nightmare – I dreamt that I wasted an hour waiting for a cab. How weird is that? When I woke up I was so relieved to realize it was just a dream – it was almost as good as waking up from the ‘missed my exam’ nightmare! Then it hit me – after 20+ years as a professor, my worst fears have evolved. Now the scariest thing I can imagine is not failing a course or even missing an exam – it’s wasting an hour of my time. In fact, nothing stresses me out more than the prospect of wasting time – so much so, that I have developed an arsenal of strategies for effective time management. Continue reading

It’s all about fear control…

Welcome to the inaugural post on the “Help for New Professors” blog!  I’m starting this blog at the suggestion of one of my (much younger) colleagues who recently said to me, “I would love a book that offers advice to academics early in their career. “

Never one to pass up a great idea I thought, “Hey! I could do that!”  After all what old professor doesn’t love to give advice?  Despite being a bona-fide old fart (I’ve got the gray hair to prove it), I do remember the stress and insanity of those early years, probably because the stress and insanity never went away.

Am I qualified to give advice to new professors?  Well, if making lots of mistakes along the way counts towards the requisite skill set – I’ve got tons of training!  However, the main goal here is to let you know that you are not alone and that you’re probably not doing as badly as you think you are – because everyone is struggling!  And if perhaps you get a chuckle or find a gem of truth in something I post here – all the better!

So to get started – the topic for today is “fear control”.  You see, there are many skills that can make you a successful academic: effective time management, good writing abilities, being really smart (that one’s easy right?  after all you DO have a PhD! ;-)), being a good mentor…  What else? Oh ya, never needing sleep and having a family that doesn’t mind you working evenings and weekends…  I am sure I could think up a better list but, no matter how long a list I came up with, the one skill that would always be right at the top is “fear control”.  Really, once you have that mastered, the rest becomes easy. Continue reading