Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Jar Labeled: Grad Student Tears

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I was discussing my experience with a colleague recently about being a grad student and how I cried. I then told her about a recent meeting with a grad student bursting into tears during her monthly mentoring meeting with me. I joked that in grades 6-12, my former students would cry once in a while (which is fine btw), but a grad student bursting into tears was a new phenomenon for me (this was also fine, keep reading, i’m not making fun or her or any grad student).

Not too long ago, I was a grad student and in case you were wondering YES I CRIED. I cried to my mom when I was so unhappy. I cried to her on the phone in the stairwell of my office building because I was frustrated. I cried to my ‘work husband,’ another grad student when I was losing my shit. I cried with my advisor when I was beyond frustrated about a situation that had turned from bad to worse by lies. In fact, I can clock my meltdowns on the calendar since they usually fell at the beginning/middle of each semester when I felt like I was getting buried. Grad school is an experience that can only be described by fellow graduate students and the range of emotions will often leave you exhausted and yes, even crying.

So, here we go grad students. If you’re reading this, you should know that I completed my graduate program a year ago and got hired (it’s possible and good luck!). This being said, I learned some hard lessons in grad school and would like to share them with you here so you may or may not do some of these things. I wish you the best in your graduate program and continue to feel humbled by the experience and am using many of the valuable skills I learned in my graduate program.

It’s simple. We want you to learn, to work, & learn how to do research. You don’t feel like it? Have a chip on your shoulder? Think you can slink through? We’re not dumb. We will figure it out. We know the language you speak because we also speak it fluently. Stop. Get to work. Get off your ass and get to work.

There is no road map to graduate school so quit trying to download it on your smart phone. Quit trying to control and micro-manage all of it because as soon as you think you have a hand on it, life will toss you something super fun (insert sarcasm).

Grad school is an experience. Experience it. Go to the socials, meet other students in your classes, get involved in something besides school, research, and going home to your couch. Scrape your ass off the chair and go out. You don’t have to party like an undergrad to form relationships with people. Find a core group and go out with them. Make it a standing invitation. Sometimes you want like minded people around you who understand what you’re talking about when you’re at your best and worst.

Get communicating. NOW. With who? Everyone. Set weekly check in’s with your advisor if you can. Make a list of questions. Get a mentor. You’ll need someone on your side who will lead you and guide you along your way. Break it down with your spouse, significant other, kids, and family. Odds are, these folks won’t understand why in the world you’re in grad school so you better rally your troops so they respect your decision, even if they don’t understand it. Communicate with the other grad students around you. Coursework, job prospects, life, hobbies, weird ingrown toenails, whatever it is, it’s ok. I can’t stress how important it is to communicate. As you get deeper and deeper into your program you will continue to withdraw due to work and research so start reaching out early.

Plug your sense of humor in and turn it on HIGH!!! Being so tired you’re giggling like a four year old, being so frustrated that you begin to laugh uncontrollably, or just being giddy on too much bad coffee while you race to find free food are all good reasons to laugh. So, get ready. Perhaps you need to check out phd comics or the grad school tumblr if you need help finding your chuckle because there will be days when absolutely nothing else is funny, including you.

Grad school is your job, not your life. Did you hear me? It’s your job. It will lead you to your next job so make sure you do a good job but remember it’s not forever.

Grad school is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Get some good shoes, a good laptop, a thick skin, and prepare to gain 10 lbs. from all of the sitting.

Grad school can be isolating and very lonely. I cannot stress how terribly isolating the experience can be because you’re often the only one working on your research. Go get those experiences and reach out so you don’t suffer from grad school loneliness.

Grad school guilt. Turn off grad school sometimes. You will need time off. The blessing and the curse of grad school is that it’s always there. With more mobile options available, that nagging feeling that you should always be working will eat away at you and the ‘grad school guilt’ as I like to call it, will make you feel like you should be working 24/7. In truth, you shouldn’t have to work all of the time. If you are, you’re not being efficient. Pick a start time and an end time and base those on your circadian clock. Make a point to do things you enjoy; working out, playing music, movies, outdoor activities, reading other things, whatever it is, pencil in the time to do it. Make time for regular tasks too like paying bills, it’s amazing how pleasurable grocery shopping can be when you’re not racing through the store like a maniac. Taking delight in some regular activities will grow on you. I promise.

There you have it. It may seem like a lot or a little. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, take it from a first year faculty. As I get ready to celebrate my first year on faculty, it’s passing quickly and the lessons I learned in grad school I still reflect on. Your program and experience will be unique so don’t spend time comparing you vs. whoever. Just go in and kick some ass.

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Taking Rejection Like a Champ

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Rejection.  I’ve gotten real good at it.  The new economy had me running around like a maniac applying for jobs.  At last count, over 50–and I’m sure my number is very LOW compared to others who found themselves scrambling and lucky because I actually landed a job. I’ve been rejected about 49 times in over a year. Thankfully I received at least one call and it has been one of the best calls professionally I’ve received in a while.

Rejection is tough.  There’s no way around it. The waiting….that’s the worst.  In academia the wait seems to be about 10x longer due to the negotiation process that comes with it.  If you are the candidate who gets the call, you can go back to your current job, negotiate both ways, and that can take weeks to decide upon.  If you were like me, you said “yes” and signed on the dotted line for fear that someone else would swoop in and do it.  But don’t worry, I didn’t sign until the last day.  I learned a thing or two in life and I also learned how to ask questions, get things in writing, and haggle a little bit.  But not too much, girlfriend wanted a paycheck and good benefits again….

Academic rejection is like a swear word with which many of my colleagues think about and immediately want to barf a bit.  Pardon the overt honesty here but it’s true.  I won’t lie, I interviewed for a few TT track positions and was flown to far away places that did not remind me of never never land (the Peter Pan version of the Michael Jackson version). One is still sitting with me and I’d like to share my experience…..

The interview started off well enough.  The folks were pleasant. The breakfast was from a major chain restaurant. And that’s where it stopped being pleasant. As I waited in the room to present my seminar(s) that I had prepared with the topic guidelines sent to me earlier, I noticed something that was odd to me. No one spoke to each other. The interview committee, the other invited stakeholders, the chair of the search committee, all sat with stone silence.  Was I supposed to entertain them?  Should I have brought my juggling balls?  I can’t even juggle! I made small talk like a champ, noting that I loved the weather, the city was fabulous, and I had enjoyed a leisurely stroll the day before. **Awkward turtle swimming at ya!**

I gave my talks, fielded questions, and was given a boxed lunch to eat while visiting with the graduate students.  Pleasant. Honest. After lunch I met with an “important guy” in the Dean’s office (the dean was unavailable, a red flag raised high enough for me to notice it) and we chatted about research, scholarship, and all things academic.  That was ok.  I could do my work here……Dean’s are busy people but if an interview committee is truly serious about a candidate, they will do their very best to schedule said candidates during a time when the Dean is available to get multiple impressions.  Note that future job hunters in academia….There are extenuating circumstances (emergency hires, emergencies for the Dean, etc….)

My last interview segment of the day was with the full interview committee.  While I’m going to point a few things out here, let me preface this by saying: these things bother me, they might not bother you.  I walk into the conference room w/ no personality-white walls, no decor, no nothing, the door closes behind me and I’m sitting in front of an all-white-male committee with one-token-female thrown in there for good measure. **Red flags** I sit down. I begin to answer the questions of this very interested committee. And then I apparently made a mistake.  I know it was a mistake because it was followed by a full blown argument between one of my interviewers and myself.  This was not witty banter or scholarly engagement.  How do I know this?  Because I had to pull out a term I save only for when the s^$t gets deep, “we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one Dr.__________.” The question at hand does not matter enough anymore because I knew….I KNEW the interview was over no matter how many other stops in the day there was.

I finished the on-campus visit.  I went back to the hotel.  I called my old advisor and panicked.  She reassured me.  I told her I wasn’t feeling too good.  I did feel good up until that point. I’m not afraid of conflict, it’s not one of my top 5 things to do, but you know what I mean.  I can hold my own.  Mama didn’t raise no fool.  I go to dinner……The department chair is at dinner, another newly hired faculty is there, it’s pleasant.  We discussed pies and baking.  During dinner a few more red flags flew up like red cards at a soccer match. “We think this hiring process will be audited so we wanted to make sure to bring in a diverse candidate like yourself.” **giant red flag** During the car ride back to the hotel, the newly hired faculty asks, “do you have kids? are you married? i’m not supposed to ask you that but oh well. i have two kids. this is my job for life.” **red flag** While it wasn’t so much that she asked me very personal things, which are in fact illegal to ask, the point that caught me–the job for life thing.

I admit, I’m female and Korean.  I can check a whole lot of HR boxes with one fell swoop. I know this and can’t do much about it.  English is my first (and mostly only) language. But no, I don’t have kids. I’m not married.  If you know questions are ‘off the table’ keep your big mouth shut other new faculty.  You’re making yourself and your university look bad. The end.

So, rejection–that’s what it looks like.  You get that feeling.  You just know.  To my own defense and not to pad my own diaper, this place would not have been a good home for me.  There were too many epistemological differences we shared, hence the screaming match.  I did not really want to move to that city, I would not have been happy.  I know I could do it for a few years, but the long term was scary for me. This was also different because I have a job that I LOVE.  This is not just for the blog either, I truly enjoy my work right now. It’s opening new doors for me that will come in handy in a few years.  Where I live right now is pretty great, it’s nice, quiet, cheap, and I am living with good company.  It’s also a bit backwards, southern, and humid.  But central AC can cure much of my crabbiness most summer days. I received my email of rejection and quickly replied and thanked the person again.  Getting rejected is a feeling of humbleness mixed with satisfaction.  I am humbled because I am not perfect but I was very satisfied with myself for recognizing my strengths and weaknesses.  I was satisfied because deep down, I knew I didn’t belong there, I belong where I am right now.  Standing at my desk blogging.  This interview was a different experience for me because for the first time in my interview history since grad school, I had nothing to lose.  I felt as though I could be bold, sell my research and future interests without fear.  I did not fear if they didn’t like my crazy ideas, I only feared if it would be a good fit. This job would have paid more, it would have had summer money, startup, grad students, and other perks.  But those perks would come with cost.  More publications, higher cost of living, less family/home time, a huge move farther away from anyone I recognize as important in my life, and other unintended consequences.

As a new faculty, it’s something that we all must face, rejection.  Perhaps we have become jaded in this new economy.  But I was raised knowing that if I did good work, tenure would not matter, I would always be employable.  While the economy may never fully recover, my own moral and work ethic have yet to let me down.  It’s still not a perfect job, but it’s work to live a nice life.

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On People Who Suck the Life Out of You

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Academia can sometimes be riddled with good folks and bad folks.  Good from the standpoint of outstanding colleagues who are excellent collaborators and go into projects with focus, their goals defined, and then help the rest of the team carry out the vision of the project.  The other side of the coin is often a colleague who is the polar opposite of that. Whether you have to work with them directly or not, they often drain you, hog your time, and you find yourself distancing yourself so as to not be subject to the ‘brain drain’ that can be felt in all areas of life, not just academia. Being mindful in an academic world can be difficult because we get so caught up in what we’re doing, that we often fail to see what others are doing.  Is it being self-important?  I’m not sure because when I do it, it’s not on purpose but it’s tough to find the balance when working with colleagues.  Students are my first responsibility and being charismatic with them is easy because the student is there for the education not the faculty.  Faculty charisma gets tough because it’s more like a dog-eat-dog world around academia. People are sometimes not self-aware when they interact or they just don’t care, making them even more toxic. Knowing the difference can be tough because sometimes human nature takes over and we think we’re ‘in the zone’ and others think we’re being a giant jerk. It’s a fine line to walk. Everyone has their own baggage, their own interests, and their own selfish whims.  I see it regularly and it’s becoming easier and easier to spot from farther away. People will interact with you because they’re pushing their own agenda or they’re just totally NOT aware of their actions. Working with people who aren’t your favorite per say isn’t that hard, just grin and bear it.  I can get around in life with that, no problem. Other people who you may be closer to you are tough because you don’t want to put them in a ‘toxic’ category, but sometimes you must.  As a new faculty (and a human being) it’s alright to walk away sometimes and create distance for your own personal good.

I have such a colleague.  A simple ‘how are you doing?’ turns into an hour long rant about how much they hate their job, hates  life, can’t wait to do something else, look at everyone around, exhausting diatribe on everyone else.  While I will never claim perfection and will probably claim insanity first, it’s tiring.  I dread interacting with this person now.  I have distanced myself on purpose and yet with each interaction, I find myself more frustrated than before.  I felt bad that I let it get in the way of my other friendships at one point and went to a lunch in a terrible mood and unloaded on another friend. I apologized for my bad behavior, but when I got back to the office after lunch, I started really thinking about why I let one person get in the way of what was usually a very pleasant lunch with another friend.

I don’t have a problem with their viewpoints, their life (it’s not for me to judge), or anything they do, but I do have a problem with the fact that every time I think of them, I immediately get annoyed. During our last interaction they were lamenting about how they would lose computer privileges of the university databases and wanted me to pull articles and their current project at work was exciting yet they immediately asked me how to run the stats on it. I’m busy with my own job, was this a joke?  I did push back and tell them there was no way I would be pulling articles, that was just a ludicrous request and that they should probably reference their own set of expertise and sources in order to do THEIR work at THEIR job.  I have yet to ask them to do my work for me.

I think the part that really set me over the edge was that they never took the time to ask how I was.  They never even brought anything up about ‘what’s new with you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’ I looked over the chat history just to make sure and it was really a one sided conversation. Elmore breaks up folks into a few categories and I think the article really resonated with me.  It also makes me aware when I’m the guilty party of these toxic relationship cues. Everyone is negative, sad, needy, and selfish every now and again but someone who is on a never ending spiral with no regard for others can be tough to deal with, work with, or have in your life.

As a new faculty, people will suck the life out of you for several reasons.  They feel like they need to impart how truly educated they are, they don’t realize they do it, or they just don’t care and do it anyway.  It’s like ‘only child syndrome’ but for academics.  I know this applies to other disciplines as well but dealing with folks with whom you may find yourself collaborating with down the road can be tough.

Separating yourself is an excellent place to start.  I had begun creating more distance with my colleague months ago when I received a frantic phone call over nothing.  I decided that I would no longer engage as much. I would not go out of my way to be communicative, and if they wanted me, they could certainly initiate the conversation.  Like touching the hot stove more than once, I made the mistake of simply saying, “howdy ho” and that was my mistake. Emails are answered professionally but with little ‘other information’ about personal life or other musings. I have learned my lesson and I gather that this person doesn’t notice any difference if they’re too wrapped up in their own world to forget simple pleasantries.

Closing the door.  I know I’ve discussed it before but valuing my time over others has become more important than anything.  I covet my time, create small pockets for a few minutes of solace and while I used to feel bad, I no longer feel bad about coming to the office, unlocking the door, letting myself in, and then promptly closing it for several hours.  I don’t tell anyone where I’ve been or where I’m going, unless it’s someone that needs to know or someone who I’m actually going to meet.  I finally understand it. In terms of my digital life, I’ve taken steps to get away from social media, separate my life and compartmentalize things in a more efficient way that works for me.  I’ve begun purging friends, blocking people who are too aggressive for me, and getting rid of connections that no longer exist.  Instead, I have great people sitting right in front of me, next to me, and around me.  I’ve begun investing in them.

Sometimes, getting the life sucked out of you in inevitable so it’s important to keep in mind that it will happen from time to time with no one to blame.  The lesson comes in when it happens over and over again and it’s up to you to collect your sanity, self-worth, and you personal self and disconnect when and where you can.  How do you deal with people who take too much but never give anything back?  How can you help other young faculty members flourish instead of suffer in this area?

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Making Friends in the Faculty Sandbox

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The transition from grad student to faculty was a cognitive shift for me.  I still live with a grad student, I have friends who are grad students, but I found myself creating professional distance from some of them (besides PIC). My shift from student to faculty has recently started to take shape and I’ve had the good fortune of coming into some excellent faculty company.  I have been a regular at a yoga studio now for almost three years.  I go at least once a week for the workout, the improved flexibility, the meditation, the silence, and now the great women with whom I’ve started to build relationships with. Just like any new situation, I was tentative and quiet, going to yoga for the health benefits, but after a while you start to chat with folks and strike up conversations.  Being asked to brunch after yoga one Sunday was a pleasant surprise that led to a dinner party and other social activities.

The biggest difference between these ladies and grad students is that the LAST thing we discuss is work. It’s great!  These women are smart, articulate, intelligent, and don’t have anything to prove.  The feeling of camaraderie is very pleasant and I’m thankful to finally have the opportunity to get to know these women.  We range in ages from a late 40’s full professor to me, the early 30’s just starting out faculty member.  The women in between are late 30’s to early 40’s and it’s a nice mix of women.  With different ages, different stages in our careers, and different home and personal lives, we have found some ties that bind us.

  • We are the ‘bread winners’ in our houses.  In all of our situations where there is a partner involved, all of the men are successful and happy in their careers, but it’s the women who are the dominant financial earners.
  • We see the inequalities of women in the workplace.  No, we do not gather over a cauldron boiling over an open fire to form spells for men, but we do share insights and compare stories on being a female in the professional world.  Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to chat without fear.
  • We hardly talk about work.  This might be my #1 reason why I enjoy these women.  They are more than their research and teaching.  It’s great.  It’s nice to be around people who aren’t trying to prove themselves all of the time, which is what I found in grad school.  I hated it too. When we do discuss work, it’s minimal or it’s full of humor.
  • These women are intelligent, dynamic, and generally fantastic.  All different personalities, all different stages of life, but we never run out of things to discuss.  Perhaps it’s because we have similar situations with different shades of grey.  I don’t know the real reason, but it’s so refreshing.  I am really enjoying it. I think I have said this once already.
  • We can just be. We don’t have to explain every nuance or define every term, we all speak the same ‘language’ because we’re all in similar professional and home situations.  There’s no judgment, but a general understanding of one another. Kindred spirits?  I don’t know.

We all feel similar pressures and share similar stories and while our conversations are usually full of laughter and good humor, the vibe among the group is legit and humbling.  We do discuss the big question: Can women have it all? I know the article in The Atlantic spurred quite a bit of conversation and HBR ran a blog post about women having to choose between career, family, and spouse–something always gets left behind. In our situations, everyone is different and each personal relationship they have is different.

No matter what happens tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, it’s nice to have some other female faculty to share some laughs with, share stories with, and NOT talk about work.  It’s genuine friendship that isn’t easy to come by and each week (or as regularly as we can) we find an hour to discuss everything else but work. As a new faculty, it’s important to build positive relationships with people you don’t live with, don’t work with, and perhaps don’t see every day at the office in order to keep your sanity in check.  There will always be those forced social interactions with your partner’s friends, work obligations, and awkward moments in professional life, but it’s nice to put your professional self on a shelf for a few hours, work for the weekend, and be who you really are without judgment.

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Reality vs. Perception in Academia

I put up this picture on facebook last week.  It made me laugh for a few reasons, hence putting up a photo.  It made me first think of elementary school and when you were bad, sometimes you had to sit in the hallway in a ‘naughty chair’ of just sit on the floor.  In truth, the office staff put it out because my office neighbor and I see a good number of students and sometimes we run late and they show up extra early, so she put out a chair so at least one could sit while waiting. I also realize that I have no nameplate as of yet and it’s my own fault.  I have not ordered one. Printing out my name on a piece of paper and taping it just seemed so much easier and cheaper.  I also just unpacked the last boxes about two weeks ago and considering I moved into this office in December of 2011, it was a long overdue task.  Again, my own fault for doing other things besides unpacking boxes, ordering a name plate or business cards (which I believe are antiquated but that’s for another day). Even my immediate boss noticed the unpacking had finished at our next meeting and he made a comment about it.  It takes me a while to get to this stuff.

Anyway, back to the chair.  So, I posted this photo.  A facebook friend commented on it and it got me thinking.  His comment was:

“I thought you worked at _____ not an online university. They should be able to get you a better waiting chair and at least a bigger piece of paper to put your name on.”

My comment back to him:

“While I don’t disagree w you, perhaps the publics perception of the state of academia is skewed.”

Perception of academics revolves around pipe smoking men in cardigan sweaters who wax on about philosophy while wearing loafers with tassels.  When I see one of these men, I will be sure to stop him and ask to take his photo.  I don’t know where this ideal began or who is still fostering it as reality but as I sit and stand to write this post I assure you I’m not male, I’m not wearing a cardigan sweater, and quite frankly: I can’t afford the loafers with the tassels. They’re probably not that comfortable anyway.

No folks, academia is NOT Ron Burgandy, we do not have many leather bound books and no office I’ve ever been in smells of rich mahogany and rarely do I see anyone laughing on the way out the door. It’s mostly of blood, sweat, and tears while on deadline and trying to make it home in time for a real meal with your family before bedtime. I would also argue that most online unversities (AKA: for profit) probably have nicer furniture than my university because they are in the business of turning a profit.  We could argue all day long and night about profit in R1’s like mine, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone ‘retire early’ or ‘hit the jackpot’ in academia.  Most of the faculty who I interact with all drive sensible cars, albeit the family ‘beater’ to get to campus and back. Their kids all go to public school because private school isn’t an option financially, and in most cases, consulting within the university rules is done to earn holiday money and vacation money and not to pad the 401K. I have yet to hear of any extravagant purchases, European holidays but instead I hear chatter of people who are saving to put a new roof on their house, pay off some tuition of their own from 20 years ago, and perhaps, throw a few bucks into a ‘just in case’ fund.  The undergraduate students are the ones who drive around campus in their BMW’s, Mercedes, and Land Rovers, and eat out regularly. The faculty can be spotted from a mile away with their lunch bags.

Public perception is skewed on what academia really is.  Some of it is our fault (academia). When your child visits our universities, we show them the best, we feed them the best, we give them shiny things along with the promise of a top notch education for a price.  We show them the nicest, newest dorms, let them eat all-you-can-eat buffet, and then show off our outstanding athletic facilities.  One could argue that good food and a great living space are important to an education.  I have yet to see a tour of students go through my office building, get marched through a dorm that is ‘older’ and is on slate to get remodeled, or anything of the sort.  The 70,000 seat football stadium and brand new, state of the art facilities trump academics.  They usually come third or fourth in the conversation.  So, what are we selling?  Lifestyle? Perceived wealth?  Convenience?  A meal plan where you can buy lobster?

The public thinks that academia has all of this ‘money.’ I put money in ” because it’s also smoke and mirrors.  The field of higher education (and education as a whole) took heart breaking cuts due to the poor recession.  Before you go screaming about politics, stop.  That’s not what this is turning into.  Whether you want to cry republican or democrat, it’s too late for that.  The damage is done.  It began a long time ago when standardized testing took off (mid 80’s) and then really catapulted into the spotlight with NCLB (mid 90’s) so all parties are to blame on this one.  Standardized tests drive education in the pre k-12 and now in higher education.  No one is left behind for sure when it comes to accountability. The public cries that academia has all of this money and let me be the first to tell you: no, it doesn’t.  Any time a faculty member is awarded a grant, the university takes anywhere from about 25%-65% of it and calls it ‘overhead.’ I have no idea where it goes, I can speculate, but I’m pretty sure my office furniture is particle board and the only thing made in the last decade is my computer.  The university distributes it to various outlets to cover costs that most faculty cannot even fathom.

So, let’s agree to disagree on any point that you didn’t like.  But, as a new faculty I would like it if you learned only one thing from this post:

Take the notion you have of academia in your head and erase it.  With the changing economy, changing population, and changing state of education, it will not look like the picture in your head ever again.  That’s not a bad thing either.  We are busy teaching your children for jobs we don’t know exist and we arm them with technical knowledge and foster them as human beings while they feel through their own identity.  It’s an exciting time to be in education, even if we don’t have nice furniture, name plates, or business cards.  I didn’t get into this field to get rich, be famous, or wear loafers.  I did get into this business to help students uncover their potential, help them become productive members of society, discover how students learn through research and scholarship, and make sure I can keep driving my trusty Toyota’s for a while. I may even pay off my student loans in the next 20 years but odds are I’ll still be paying them when my own kid(s) go to college.

As a new faculty, how do you handle questions or statements when people have a varied perception that your job is one thing, but is really another?

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