Pillbox

Fresh Faculty

Being dropped into a new role, like coming to the first day at college, can be one of the most traumatizing events of one's life. But unlike students, professors are expected to have a clear direction. Nick Yeung, an assistant professor of psychology, says that he was "not nervous, but it did take time to adjust to having the freedom to set my own research agenda" on his first day as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "As a PhD student and postdoctorate you always have a supervisor guiding your research," he said. "So it was an interesting experience, on my first day at CMU, to sit down at my desk and think ?Right, so what shall I do with the rest of my life???

But once professors settle in, their unique perspectives can add a lot to the classroom. Although they are given the freedom to set their own research agenda, first year professors at Carnegie Mellon University are still expected to have material prepared to teach every Monday morning. Certainly, these novice professors are already experts in their fields by the time that they arrive on campus and they continue to be some of the most active participants in research at CMU. Although students sometimes overlook these young professors in favor of tenured faculty, they're often some of the most innovative leaders in research and teaching today.

[BOLD]Psych strikes towards a CMU research future[BOLD]

Young professors are drawn to the University by research opportunities, but research also helps professors teach their classes. Even for Oxford and Cambridge-educated Yeung, CMU had a strong research draw in his eyes. "[CMU has] some of the most influential and impressive people in psychology," he said; "One of my interests is developing computer models of cognitive processes, and Pittsburgh is really strong in that."

Yeung, who teaches a cognitive psychology class in addition to actively researching the cognitive process of attention, describes his research as very relevant to teaching: "An aspect of research is explaining what you are doing to other people, that skill is rather important. As a researcher, you don't want to just develop your ideas; you want to be able to convey them to other scientists and the general public. That skill is very relevant to teaching."

Thiessen agreed with Yeung that the research here at CMU is what brought him and many other professors here in the first place. "Carnegie Mellon, especially the cognitive psychology department, is really renowned," he said. "Carnegie Mellon has a really unique approach to doing psychology: very mechanistic, computer modeling based. It is really well known as being a different approach. I've long been aware of the research people do here."

Thiessen agrees with Yeung that his new research as a first-year professor has improved his teaching ability. "When you do research, you really become an expert in an area and you often find that you talk to people that don't know as much about your research as you do?." He likened his research methods to how he reacts in the classroom: "You know a lot more about psychology than the people who are trying to learn from you," he said, "and if you use jargon that goes over everyone's head, they won't be able to learn from you. So you have to be able to unpack it and explain it in a way that people who aren't experts will understand."

[BOLD]Creative collaborations in visual and verbal forms[BOLD]

Outside of the psychology department, professors such as Susan Hagan, a postdoctoral fellow in the English department, focus on a different form of research topic all together. Hagan graduated from the doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon last year, and now works as a first-year professor, specifically a post-doctoral fellow. Her work focuses on the interplay between visual and verbal communication ? and is one of the only ones teaching in this interdisciplinary field at CMU. "More specifically," Hagan explained, "what I've developed is a framework for the study of visual and verbal meaning collaboration."

Hagan noted that many professors attempt to integrate their particular area of expertise into the classroom. "Often times, when you can, you try to weave some of [your work] in." But at a university with such strong writing and design programs, often Hagan's classes are the only ones that actively attempt to combine the two on an undergraduate level.

Hagan's situation is unique in that she has been at Carnegie Mellon since 1995 but only last year transitioned from the role of doctoral student to that of professor. The transition had to happen gradually, she said: "The day I defended I didn't feel like I crossed over a threshold. I had satisfied all the requirements but I hadn't satisfied some internal requirement. Over this year I've come to something I feel ... I'm ready to publish on." Hagan's increased direction in her research is a testimony to the benefit of what a year of teaching has added to her perspective on the work.

[BOLD]What Students Can Add to the Work[BOLD]

Yeung and his colleague, Erik Thiessen, know what it's like to be sitting in a student's desk in their classrooms. After all, it wasn't so long ago that they were in the same position. So when they do their research, both solicit the help of undergraduates. Yeung even teaches a research-training course for first-year and sophomore students. Because of the course requirement for students enrolled in psychology classes to participate in three one-hour research experiments, they're never short of interest, either.

Perhaps because these young professors were so recently students themselves, they see the impact of interacting with students as highly influential in their work. A student may open up the possibilities in a fresh field by suggesting ideas the professors never thought of. The research areas are so new that there are still possibilities that have no been explored. In short, 20 to 100 heads are better than one.

Hagan is excited by how much she can learn from her students, as well. "I benefit so much from my students and I enjoy that interaction, I really do learn a lot," she said, noting how teaching enhanced her knowledge of the research she was conducting. "The challenge students bring is probably more helpful than they know."

Yeung and Thiessen also discussed the benefits of having students provide new perspectives to their research. As Yeung found, "It's really exciting to hear about what people think about this sort of stuff and what they think about the interesting questions. It's a really good reminder to me personally about what outside the people outside the field think is interesting."

[BOLD]Giving guidance[BOLD]

In addition to the research opportunities, young professors are also excellent mentors to students who do not yet know what they want to study. Because the professors have had to struggle through formulating a dissertation, they are close to the problem of focus that can enter a student's mind. Students often question which direction they will take their major or their own related interests.

Thiessen explains that he started off as physics major at Stanford but was turned off by the long, laborious experiments. "When you want to do work in physics," he explained, "you go into a lab and do experiments and it takes a long time. When you are a psychologist, you can often do an experiment in a week or two. So there's something about asking questions and having answers really quickly that appeals to me about psychology." Thiessen understands first-hand the quest to find something you can relate to but makes you happy. He managed to stay in the scientific community, but in a way that was more rewarding to him.

Yeung had a similar experience in college, where he intended to be biology major before considering a zoology major. "Then I found that the areas I was interested in zoology were complex human behavior. So kind of gradually, my interest developed into what it is now: cognitive psychology focusing specifically on what goes on in the brain as we perceive the brain and move around," said Yeung.

Hagan also found herself experiencing a large transition from a time when she was unsure of what she wanted to study to a more focused approach. As a graduate student, she said, you were not always expected to verbalize what you were working on, but as a doctoral student she gained more structure. "It's really difficult," she said of determining her focus, "It takes a lot of back trading and clarification. Then, as you study the filed you get close to what it is you want to do that is different than what they [others in the field] have done."

Students make various changes throughout their time in college, and often experience a confusion about their future. New professors like Thiessen, Yeung, and Hagan are able to provide students with a look at various opportunities and can understand the process of developing through one's education.

[BOLD]Taking a closer look[BOLD]

New professors can offer many things to their students in the field of research and beyond. Their enthusiasm adds a new dynamic to their class and makes their classes enjoyable to students. Undoubtedly, first-year professors' enthusiasm becomes unmatched when their classes touch upon the particular areas of their current research. They are not only able to give students great references to learn from: they are able to give first hand accounts of what is going on in the field at that very moment. As Hagan noted, having command of your research interests is "a very situated sense of command"; in three to four years, she said, she will look back and say, "'I didn't know anything then.'" The process of growing along with students works both ways.

New professors are often the closest to their research topics ? and on the cutting edge of their fields. Sure, they might not have reached tenure status yet. But these professors can offer some of the best opportunities for students to get involved with research. Students who have the opportunity to interact with a professor who is new to the other side of the academic world should highly consider it; they may discover that new professors have something fresh to offer in a variety of fields.