Reflecting on ASPA: My Advice to New PA Academics and Students

I still feel new to this whole professor thing, but after a few days at ASPA, and having the privilege of serving as a Founders Fellow mentor, I realize I am becoming a grizzled veteran. I had several great conversations with younger faculty/students/job seekers and many asked for advice. I do my best thinking after reflecting, so I didn’t have much to offer at the time beyond telling folks to hang in there. But I can do better than that, so here are my lessons and advice for new and aspiring academics.

Be nice to people. It is so simple and easy. When you smile at someone they tend to smile back. If they don’t, who cares, it doesn’t hurt you at all! I read about academics with rivals and I just don’t see the point. If you are kind to people you can build strong relationships even those you disagree with.

Be productive. Talk is talk. We all meet people that have a lot to say about their ongoing project, or their superstar friends, or their successes. That is fine, but talk is no substitute for the work. So how can you be productive? I write down ideas constantly, most don’t pan out. I work with anyone willing to work with me, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I listen. I always say yes to new challenges, why not!?

Fail a lot. This is the real key to productivity. Most failures are larger in your mind than in others. You will write papers that aren’t great. You will have promising collaborations fall apart. You will bomb interviews/lectures/talks. You will have journal rejections. When you fail, take a day to feel sorry for yourself, reflect on it, and move on.

Don’t let your affiliation define you. Affiliation is a signal for many things, but it isn’t always ability. Let your work speak for itself. Think of bears. That junior scholar with the famous mentor at the big university is probably more threatened by you and your success than you are of theirs. Do the work and you cannot be ignored. That said, your affiliation will define you in some people’s eyes. It will lead to desk rejections, weird interactions, and all kinds of silliness. But who cares, let your work and productivity speak for itself.

Be you. If you love teaching, teach. If you love practice, practice. If you love research, research. If you love it all, do it all. If you want to be clinical faculty, be clinical faculty. If you love service, serve. We make it too complicated on ourselves by acting like there is one true path to being a successful academic. There are many paths to a meaningful academic career, however you define it.

Walk and chew gum at the same time. Someone explained to me this weekend that their advisors say they really need to choose between being an activist and a scholar. I say nuts to that. Do both, do research that impacts practice. Testify at hearings, write op-eds, we are an applied field, so apply your work! The same goes for crossing discipline lines, it is both possible and ok to be an expert in more than one thing.

Celebrate success, be it yours, or others. A new job, a publication, a media mention, or any good thing is worthy of reflection and celebration. If it is you celebrate accordingly. If it someone else, reach out.

Others’ successes don’t devalue yours. When colleagues, friends, or total strangers have a publication or job success be happy for them! Academia It is not a zero-sum competition. If you view it that way you will only guarantee that you lose.

Don’t always listen to mentors. Mentors can give great advice, but they are not you. Take control of your own career, you are the one that has to live it. So pay attention to mentors, but ignore them when warranted (that includes my little list of advice here).

So my plane is about to board so I am all adviced out. For those still at ASPA, enjoy!  And come to MPAC2019, where I will do my best to live out some of this advice.



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