Repost: What do you own?

Oct 20 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the most important things one does is write letters of recommendation. They may not get read. They might be ignored. But then again, they might not. One of my favorite old posts is "What do you own?" So, I'm putting up here, as a starting point for thinking about writing letters for others:


What do you own?

When you are a grad student you own your thesis. period. Maybe you are lucky and have an undergrad who is helping you with some of the tedious pars). And while you may care about the undergrad, you don’t own their success or failure.

When you become a postdoc you own the project. Maybe you own part of a grad student’s career – because what happens to them reflects back on you in ways that the work of an undergrad doesn’t.

When you become a TT person (or sometimes, in some very big labs, a senior postdoc fellow, who is figuring out a non-TT career), you own the lab or your part of the lab. You all of a sudden own the careers of a technician, and any trainees you’ve got. What they do reflects on you. And what’s more you own your career, in a way that wasn’t really so obvious when you were a postdoc and you just owned a project.

The transition to ass prof (as opposed to a full ass prof) is a bit more subtle. You can continue to own your lab, the classes you teach, and your family (remember them?).  Or you can do more and start owning other junior faculty.

Now obviously I mean “own” not in the slavery sense, or the apples for the grocery store sense. I mean it in the “take ownership of a problem or process” sense. It is a way of identification of things for which one takes responsibility. It is the sense in which another person’s successes or failures not just reflect on you, but are things that you truly care about, prioritize and work on. Understanding what you do and do not own is a critical ability for academic success. Not to mention personal mental health.

One way of assessing leadership (another douche term), that is now so corrupted that it can mean anything from inspiring and directing others to achieve more than they could on their own to have double digit R01’s), is to see what a person thinks they own.

When you are a junior faculty and own your lab, you can be very successful with trainees, they got lots done, they get jobs, you’ve got lots of grants that make all this possible. But their successes still have your name on it. Mature “ownership” (if you will) means that when you start working with other junior faculty, that you work towards their success, and that to you, their success matters, even if you do not get your name on their papers. Even if you are not included for 10% effort on their grant. Even if your department head will not acknowledge your activity as part of your job.

This is harder. All of the previous ownerships had some assignable outcome (papers, grants, invites to sit on study sections), most of which can show up on your CV. When you take ownership of other faculty, or even other groups of people (as the Chair of the Support for all those XX, Brown, disabled or  people we have to let in, even though we wouldn’t live next door to any of them, unless they were rich and good-looking), it may turn up as “chair of the…” or maybe not even that.

The decision to do something like that is a decision based on knowing what kind of person you want to be. You do it for you, when no one else is looking. Maybe you do it because someone else took a risk and did it for you ages ago. Maybe you do it because you have a spiritual basis for such behavior (I will admit to being hugely suspicious of this one, but acknowledge that it is possible). Maybe you just like helping. But to me, that's part of leadership or maturity or whatever  – when you recognize that as a senior person you’ve got stuff to share, and ways to help,  and acknowledgement of ownership doesn’t matter.

7 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Even at the senior level you still need to be able to tell the story of you. So as you allude to, instead of merely informally mentoring, you set up a committee of faculty mentoring and became its Chair (yes?).

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes. I have in fact done this at multiple institutions. It is one of the things of which I am most proud in my career. That and getting CPP once.

  • Michelle says:

    the reality of the situation is that at this point in my career, i'm not able to be the gracious and giving mentor that i want to be. one day, yes, i will hopefully be able to give much more than i am able to at the moment. hopefully soon. but it isn't today. today i'm just trying to keep myself afloat. as the stewardesses say, put the air mask on yourself first before assisting others.

  • potnia theron says:

    It is dismal. But its part of the dysfunction. People (not us, natch) think its NIH that's not functional. But its too many mouths, again. Its also that tenure / the imperatives of tenure have screwed up things, too. It distorts the power relationships, etc.

  • […] is the flip side of what do you own? (which ties back to the chair from hell, who didn't know what it means to be an ally). This is the […]

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