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Issues of an Assistant Professor

  1. Sep 4, 2015 #1
    Dear All,

    first of all I want to say thanks for this great forum!, which I am following since many years ago. I have never participated, but I have read almost everything for years hehe.

    But I currently have a personal issue, which I would not talk about with my colleagues and which is affecting me a lot. Therefore I decided to register and to share it with you. It is long, and therefore I thank you in advance for reading!

    Here is my story: I am currently an Assistant Professor in a east european university, which is one of the best of my origin country and also my undergrad alma mater (I have been here for one year)

    At high school I was a rather mediocre student at a rather mediocre school. I have to say that I was always bad taking exams, which I attribute to the fact that I am really a non-constant worker and I never finished learning all the material corresponding to an exam. I fought against this for years without any success. But well, somehow, and against all predictions of my teachers, I got very good results in the final national school exam and managed to get into one of the best universities of the country, the university where I am an Assistant Professor now (I was the second last in the list!).

    As an undergrad, I had a weak start, since my background was not the best, but I eventually got the rhythm and, although I was not consistently the best one, I managed to be on the top in several subjects and I finally graduated in the best 20% of the generation. Again, I was not constant in my studies and therefore could never answer all the questions appearing in the tests. I continued fighting against this, without success. But well, with the results I obtained, I qualified to apply to some research fellowships to go to Germany (where some great groups in my field of interest were located!). Of course, my chances were small, but I still qualified and of course applied!. Somehow, I managed to convince everyone I was the one! and I got all fellowships to which I applied, even when people with much better grades were also applying (I was the first one in the list of selected people for all fellowships I applied to!). I spent 2 years researching at different universities and finally went to a top 3 german university where I did my PhD (also with a german fellowship).

    In Germany, the PhD does not include attending any classes and I spent 4 years only doing research, learning from books, attending conferences and talks, etc, etc. During this time, I learned a lot and somehow filled some of the gaps that I had from my mediocre performance as an undergrad (at least these related with my research topic). I published a lot, got an excellence prize from the faculty (as recognition for outstanding performance during the PhD) and finally graduated with summa cum laude (highest possible honor). With these excellent results, I was recruited for my current position and here is where my problem begins.

    As I already mentioned, I was not really a good student as an undergrad and I do have the feeling that there are many things I do not really know. Since as a PhD student I was only focussed on research, I feel I did not have the chance to really fill the gaps that I have in my background and now I have to teach these undergraduate courses, which I passed with not so high scores. Although I am now able to understand every single equation appearing in the textbooks of the subjects that I am teaching, and to solve all problems I can found on them, I needed a lot of time to prepare my classes, since I do not really dominated everything before reading the textbook.

    So, my problem is that I have the permanent feeling that there are several things I do not really know. This feeling is disappearing in the subjects I am teaching, but there are other several related subjects where the feeling stays. This situation frustrates me a lot, since I do not have the time to relearn everything, and it is therefore interfering with my research activities, and life in general, since I spend a lot of time thinking about this, get anxiety, etc.

    Additionally, I think I have an issue with my poor grades as an undergrad. Currently, I am getting lots of applications of top students attracted by my CV, which, on the paper, looks very impressive (Also, several Senior Professors here see me as a very promising young talent and recommend top students to work with me). These students have much better grades than what I got as an undergrad (although they do not know that), and somehow this remember me all the things I do not know. The only thing that probably helps me is that talking with these students I realize that I know much more about science in general than they know. This helps me for a while, until the bad thoughts begin again =(.

    So, I am not really sure what I am searching for telling you all this. I guess I just want to know your honest opinion about my situation.

    I thank you in advance for any comment you could give me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2015 #2
    Your story really interests me because I feel I'm going to be in a position like yours where I'm going to be a good overall scientist and perhaps teacher(even though I'm not planning on being an academic),but won't have mastered the basics.For instance,my geometry and trigonometry knowledge is barely enough to get me through my degree.

    I'm only an undergrad but I can tell you this:If I learned that my professor had lower grades than me in his(I'll go with "he" for convenience) undergard days,even bad grades(i.e. 6/10),I wouldn't care at all.If anything,it would make me like him more,because it means that he probably put effort into changing how much effort he put into and his attitude toward the subject.
    Also,I've had professors who absolutely sucked as educators and I can tell they have all the knowledge in the world.
    I know people that ridicule-behind their backs,of course-their professors for not knowing something basic.But these are not the students you'd want to impress in the first place.I really couldn't care less when my professors can't solve an integral if they are good teachers.And every sophisticated,if that's the right word,person I know wouldn't either.
    I hope this helps.
  4. Sep 5, 2015 #3
    Hey Zel'dovich,

    This sounds a lot like Impostor syndrome. Let me qualify that I am not a professor (in any field) nor have any academic background in psychology. However the following quote from your post would raise a red flag if I were in your shoes.

    The human brain is a complex and wondrous object, but the damn thing can really get its wiring tangled from time to time. Perhaps a little counselling from a trained professional would help put the lie to some of your thinking. That path of logic is just poison, I went through something similar years ago.

    Wish I could be of more help, but congrats on the assistant professorship, you're living my dream! And yes, it sounds like you deserve it.
  5. Sep 5, 2015 #4
    A couple of years ago I had a fantastic professor in undergrad. He was a fantastic teacher, although he was not one of those who seems to know everything there is to know. There were several occasions where a student would ask him a question, he'd say "I don't know" (hard to come across a teacher who would admit that), and then later e-mail the student the answer and bring it up in the next class. Towards the end of the class, he told us that the reason he wasn't concerned with grades was because he had barely passed most of his courses in undergrad, and squeaked by just enough to get a PhD.

    You know what? That guy was one of the best teachers I've ever had. He understood what it was like to struggle, and he knew how to explain things multiple ways, since he had to in order to understand it himself. And that is what a good teacher should be like. It sounds like you are one.
  6. Sep 7, 2015 #5


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    You probably know this already, but much of your solution will come with teaching these related subjects. Request them!

    But in general you're doing great. The truly educated realize that the more they learn the more they increase the surface area of their ignorance. Knowing how to turn your own "I don't know" into "I understand" is the fundamental thing, and it sounds like you have learned that well. One reformulation in attitude you might want to try is this: think of accomplishing just enough to succeed as being efficient. Being efficient at solving your life problems is a rare skill that you seem to possess.
  7. Sep 8, 2015 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    This is very normal and simply indicates your commitment to providing a quality educational experience for your students. Related to this is the fear of 'making a mistake in front of the class'.

    As others mentioned, experience will reduce your anxiety. Also, your department/institution may encourage (or even have an official program for) mentoring of junior faculty by senior faculty- this can be extremely valuable, so I encourage you to find a mentor to discuss this.
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