Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 5, 2001

Summer workshop provides success strategies for future professors


The cartoon projected on the screen behind Kyle Cattani's back consists of a single frame: A worried young man wearing a gown and mortarboard sits in the back seat of a cab. The driver, an avuncular smile gracing his grizzled face, is saying, “Frightened by the real world? Hey, I felt the same way when I got my Ph.D.”

That sentiment is certainly familiar to any college graduate. Academic smarts, valuable as they are, get you only partway in this world -- even when your career unfolds within the walls of academe. So, at a workshop held on Stanford's campus June 21-22, Cattani, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's business school in Chapel Hill, N.C., was doing his best to ease the transition for some of his soon-to-be peers. During the workshop, which was marked by the easy, frank exchanges of a dormitory bull session, he and several other academics at various stages along the professorial trajectory tossed around tidbits of “tacit knowledge” -- a rather academic-sounding designation for what's known in the vernacular as “the things they don't teach you in school.”

The workshop was organized by Stanford's Future Professors of Manufacturing (FPM) program and sponsored by the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing (AIM). AIM is a Stanford-based joint venture initiated by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Engineering and corporate partners to promote the exchange of technical ideas and techniques between academia and industry. As part of that mission, AIM created the FPM program several years ago. At present, close to 20 students participate in the program, with an additional 35 to 40 dual-degree students working toward master's degrees in other engineering programs.

Cattani, a 1997 FPM graduate who teaches courses in operations and supply chain management at UNC, confirmed what may be the worst-kept secret of the tenure-review process: It's not your teaching, but your research, that gets you a permanent perch. After their third year, Cattani told the audience, assistant professors at UNC must submit a “renewal packet” containing summaries of their research, professional activities and career plans, as well as a sampling of research papers and list of courses they've taught. In the seventh year, this is followed by a “tenure packet” -- essentially an updated renewal packet, along with a list of leaders in the field of interest and letters to those leaders asking for comments on the importance of the young researcher's work. The reality, Cattani said, is that “the tenure committee asks you for a list of leaders, and then they send letters to whomever they want.”

Cattani served up a sophisticated formula, the upshot of which was that you get more credit for co-authoring two papers with another researcher than for single-authoring just one -- and even more for co-authoring three publications with two other researchers. At the same time, he said, “you need to include some single-authored papers to show you did your own work.”

This emphasis on publishing has an almost inevitable, if unintended, result. Michael Harrison, a veteran of 30 years on the faculty of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where he is Gregor G. Peterson Professor of Operations Management, estimated that perhaps 10 percent of published articles in his field stand out on grounds of intellectual scope and depth, and another 10 percent because of specialty contributions. Still, the other 80 percent may be necessary, he said -- although perhaps not so much for the readers as for the writers. “You have to keep moving, to warm up,” said Harrison, likening research momentum to a flywheel. “Academics do better research as they go along. Be patient with yourself. If you don't crank out the less-than-stellar stuff early on, you may not advance your career enough.”

The pressure to teach can overwhelm a young professor's survival instinct to hit the research accelerator. Harrison offered one reason for this tendency: “Teaching pressures are immediate, and the rewards are concrete,” he said. “Research pressures are extremely non-immediate, and the rewards are subtle -- there's no thunderous applause -- and very slow in coming. I co-wrote a paper in 1979 that today has 400 citations. In the first five years, I received zero comments of acknowledgment whatsoever except from my co-author.”

Joe Hall, a 2000 FPM graduate who taught operations and management last year in his first season as an assistant professor at Dartmouth's business school, pointed out two virtues of not knocking yourself out teaching at the outset: “First and foremost, you'll get more research done. And also -- no small thing in the eyes of your departmental judges -- you'll have an easier time showing improvement in subsequent years.” On the other hand, there are some compelling reasons for paying attention to the quality of your teaching from the get-go. For one thing, Hall said, “student impressions can persist for years, and student assessments of your teaching performance do matter.” At Dartmouth, at least, “you can literally get yanked out of class” if your performance is subpar.

Along with the favorable impact of a solid teaching performance on your ego and self-esteem, Hall continued, is a practical payoff: “Giving it your best shot right from the start makes it much easier to re-use the material later -- you get the ‘fixed cost' of gathering and synthesizing your lecture materials out of the way.” A positive buzz in the hallways concerning your teaching skill means that “enrollment in elective courses you're teaching will be higher,” said Hall, and that's nice. The downside, he noted dryly, is that “enrollment in elective courses you're teaching will be higher,” and thus, presumably, demand more of your time and attention.

Hall's observation that “if you're overly harsh in your grading, it can cause problems” prompted David Kazmer, a University of Massachusetts associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and a 1995 FPM graduate, to serve up this tip for teachers: “Be sure to hand out course evaluation surveys way before grading time, so there's no connection between the two.”

To encourage classroom participation, Andy Hargadon, an assistant professor of management at the University of Florida's business school and a 1998 FPM graduate, offered a diabolical method he has employed to advantage: “I tell them that every student, at the end of the semester, is going to rank the top five student participants -- and, to make sure they're not just backing their buddies, they'll be graded on how well their answers correlate with the consensus.”