Update on life as a new prof

Yesterday I signed my contract renewal, and in August of this year I officially begin my third year as a professor in the Physics Department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Several friends and family have been asking me what comes next in terms of promotion and tenure, so I thought an update might be a nice way to revive this quiet blog. First, some background…

I originally entered my current position by responding to a open call for applications.  A few years ago, the university launched a new Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Physics, and in 2015 they opened up a search for faculty. I was one of two (both women!) professors offered a position that round. I officially started on August 1, 2015. Here’s where things vary from the system many academics in Canada, the U.S., and U.K. might be used to. Professors here in Mexico do not begin their faculty positions on the tenure track. For the first three years, we are on annual contract renewal, meaning I sign for one year at a time and my next year’s contract is based on an evaluation by the review board. Each December/January, I submit a progress report describing my teaching, research, service, etc., accomplishments for the year, and submit a new work plan outlining what I intend to accomplish in the next year.

To date, I have not received any official comments back on my evaluations; I simply know my annual review was successful when a letter arrives to my office informing me that my contract has been renewed. For this reason, it’s a little difficult for me to assess what the review board thinks of my progress so far, or if there are specific areas where they think I could improve.  The only unofficial comment has come from my program coordinator, who said the review board would like to see me publish more. I can’t disagree. But I do have two articles nearly ready to submit, so I’m hopeful my production will increase this year.

By far, the toughest thing about my first two years has been the teaching load. Our minimum teaching load is 9 classroom hours per week, which works out to 2.5-3 classes per semester. I currently teach most of the bio- and physiology-related core courses for the program, including Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Human Physiology, Physics of the Human Body, and sometimes Intro to Physical Chemistry or Measurement and Analysis in Experimental Physics, depending on the semester and course demand. Only this semester did I begin to repeat courses, and was able to build on previous class preparation, rather than having to start entirely from scratch. This and a couple of great teaching aids this semester made a huge difference, and am hoping this trend continues. On another good note, my teaching evaluations have been very positive, and interactions with some great groups of students have been a highlight of my faculty experience so far. I have no shortage of passionate and interested students. The questions from them in class this semester got tough, but I think that’s a good problem to have!

This year, I applied for and received my first grants as a Principal Investigator. Both grants are internal to UNAM, and each is for a maximum amount equivalent to around $10,000 USD, enough to buy some small equipment and consumables for the lab. A lab space wasn’t originally part of my hiring package, but by joining forces with a professor in Biology and another in Mathematics and collectively bringing in funding from a few different sources, we now have a collaborative space that is used for both original research and training activities. One of my grants is for a research project to study aging in the hippocampus, both computationally and experimentally. All the code, data, and research products generated will be shared under open licenses. The other grant is a teaching grant to develop electrophysiology laboratory practicals for the Biomedical Physics undergrad program. All the materials produced under that grant will be shared as open educational resources. Overall, I’m hugely grateful to have funding and a lab space I didn’t think I would ever have. But I must admit it is daunting and slightly terrifying to now have to deliver all the things I promised in my proposals!

So, that’s where things stand nearing the end of year two. What comes next? Year three is a critical year. Right now, I am not yet eligible for promotion or tenure. To become eligible, I will first have to win a public competition for my position (another, apart from the one I successfully won to be given the position in the first place). In short, a job description is written up, reviewed by internal committees, and then published in our university newspaper. The ‘test’ materials that have to be submitted for the application vary by department, and in my case will most likely include at least a research proposal and a critical essay on some aspect of the plan of study or core course in Biomedical Physics. Departments may also ask for other ‘tests’, such as oral presentations or essays on current issues in your field.

Although you are intended to be the ideal candidate for the job — the description is such that it fits your profile and you have a history with the university after having taught there for three years by the time the process is complete – -anyone can apply for the position. And the position can be taken away from you if the review committee prefers another candidate in the competition. It is not clear how often this happens, but it has happened enough that I know of multiple cases. If this occurs, that will most likely be the end of my stint as a faculty member at UNAM. My position will be taken over by the new person, and I will be asked to leave. It is possible I could be offered the equivalent of an adjunct position, paid per class, but I would not be eligible for promotion and tenure. This is why it is so important that I have all the boxes checked (good course evaluations, papers published, projects funded, students graduated, etc.) and can strongly demonstrate my worth to the department by the time the public competition for my position opens.

The departmental process of writing the announcement, going through rounds of edits with internal review boards (there are rules about how these things should be phrased and what can be specified or not), and finally publishing the competition announcement can take up to a year. If you’re wondering why it takes so long, here is a flow chart provided by the Faculty of Science that explains all the steps involved in preparing and publishing the announcement:


Totally clear, right?! Anyway, this process should begin in August so that it is complete by the time I finish my third year. If I am successful in winning the public competition, the position will then officially be in my name. I’ve had some difficulty understanding exactly how all these processes work, since they are few official guidelines. But if I understand correctly, I should then be able to immediately request promotion and tenure. I am not sure exactly what I will need to submit to accomplish this or what the criteria are for a successful application; these are things I’m hoping to verify after the publication competition. Tenure comes with obvious benefits and stability, but promotion has its perks, too. Moving up to the next level will reduce my minimum teaching load from 9 to 6 classroom hours per week and allow me to advise doctoral students at UNAM (there are sometimes ways to do this before moving up, but it’s more complicated).

So, that’s about it. In sum, I’m feeling very positive about how things have been going so far, but also a little apprehensive about what comes next. The only thing I can keep telling myself is, I am giving this my best shot.





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