Omar K. Farha is a full professor of chemistry at Northwestern University. In this interview, he talked with us about the struggles and opportunities he encountered in his journey through academia (which included quitting business school), his advice for determining which things are urgent or important in terms of time management, and how to be a confident (but not cocky) scientist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Farha, your journey through academia has been a little bit nontraditional, but in a good way. Would you mind giving us a brief overview of how you got where you are today?
I finished high school in West Bank, Palestine. After high school, I applied to several universities. I actually was rejected by most of them. That’s when I came to this country. I went to a two-year college called Fullerton College in southern California. Then I transferred to UCLA and finished my undergrad. I stayed at UCLA to do research with a specific PI (for my Ph.D.) and after that, at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, I came to Northwestern.
I did my postdoc; for some personal reasons, I decided to take a job as research faculty instead of a tenure track. In 2017, I had an opportunity to switch to tenure track, and I took the opportunity. And I am right here. So, this is my story in a nutshell.
Were there people, experiences, or other opportunities that shaped you but don’t necessarily show up on your CV?
Yes. One thing that doesn’t go on my CV is how many schools said no to me for undergrad. Another one…I actually attended business school for two weeks.
During my Ph.D., I thought I really wanted to be a product manager at a pharmaceutical company. So, during my last year, I worked really hard, and I interviewed at multiple top-notch business schools. I got an offer from the Anderson Business School at UCLA, and I attended for two weeks. That’s when I realized, “Oh my god, that’s not what I wanna do.” So, that’s another thing that doesn’t really show up on my CV.
You know, I could think about not being accepted somewhere, or going to business school then quitting after two weeks as failures. I don’t think I look at them that way; I look at them as opportunities to grow that led me to doing what I do right now, which I love. I wouldn’t have gotten to do this if I hadn’t gone through these difficulties and made these hard decisions—leaving my country to come to another one and quitting a school I’d worked really hard to be admitted to in order to go postdoc. I thought, “I don’t want to do something I don’t enjoy.” But I [still] have a business mind. A few years after coming here, I started a company. I did it without an MBA, and I think I did okay without having to go to Anderson for two years.
Do you think that being an immigrant has made your experience in science and academia different from that of people who were born in the United States?
I [can’t speak to] the experience of people born in the United States, but I think immigrants work hard. They appreciate and don’t take opportunities for granted. For somebody like me, all these opportunities didn’t even exist. I didn’t even get accepted to colleges. What we think here is, “Everybody can go to college.” It may not be Harvard or Caltech or Northwestern, but you can find a college where you can get accepted. That wasn’t the case for me.
So when you come here, you realize that these opportunities should not be squandered. For me, that means this country without Immigrants would not be where it is. As an American right now, I would do anything for this country. Why? Because this country took me in. I was able to be educated and do everything I love without anybody telling me what to do and what not to do, so in return, I will do anything. Yeah, but how American-born students feel…I don’t know. Maybe you tell me!
When you were in grad school or your postdoc, was there a time when you struggled or got discouraged or failed? Was there a project that did not go your way or things you wished you were better at?
I joined a group in my Ph.D. where the mentality was “sink or swim.” That’s sometimes tough because you really have to be as independent as possible. You start to think you are failing more than other people because a lot of your ideas and experiments are not working, until you realize that if you are really working on hard problems, a lot of failed experiments come with the territory. It’s not you, that’s just chemistry.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I think it helped me a lot for my postdoc and my career right now. Look at the failed experiments and what they are trying to tell you. A lot of my cool discoveries were actually not planned for. A lot of your failed experiments actually might be giving you something better than what you wanted to go after, and the idea is recognizing when that happens and being able to build on it. So yeah, we all go through rough times, but they can also be educational. It depends on how you think about it.
Are there things you still struggle with today and wish you were better at?
We all struggle in different ways. One of the struggles I work really hard at—and I always say it’s a work in progress—is time management. It doesn’t matter whether you are an undergrad, a grad, a postdoc, or faculty. This is something that’s not going to go away, because we all have responsibilities.
Yeah, maybe your responsibilities are different from your adviser’s, but you both have them and have to manage your time. For instance, I want to be able to give enough time to mentoring, to my family, and to my editing job. When you start out, if you do it randomly, things become very chaotic very quickly, and you don’t get most of what you want done. But if you are able to manage your time better, then your day-to-day operations shouldn’t be as chaotic.
Do you have any tips or secrets for better time management?
Knowing what your goals are is your first task. They need to be “aggressive but doable.” Don’t set goals where you know you’re not going to get there. That would really be setting yourself up for failure.
But if you set goals that are high and aggressive but doable, that’s not enough either. You need to have subsets of “How do I reach these goals? What tools do I need? When would I consider this a victory?” and “What are the steps to get there, and how can I break these steps into ‘I do this today, I do this tomorrow, I do this the day after?’” You need to break a goal into something tangible so you can actually see when you’ve finished that particular task.
In my view, don’t be a perfectionist. If you are, you’ll never be satisfied with what you have done, and you’re going to say, “I’m going to work on it a little more to make it better.” I try not to be a perfectionist. Some people want to be a perfectionist, and that’s maybe okay. But for me, that will not allow me to get to where I want to go. But I have my to-do list. I do that every evening. The next day, I try to finish all the tasks on my to-do list.
Do you usually get there?
I try. Again, your to-do list should be doable. The worst thing that can happen is, you don’t get through most of your to-do list; that means it was already too ambitious. Nothing wrong with being ambitious, but you won’t feel that you accomplished a lot that day, versus when you entirely complete your to-do list.
I’ll show you an example. Even though this information is in my calendar, on my phone I have something like this: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … and I write down what I need to accomplish every day. I delete it as it gets accomplished. What I love is before I go home or go to bed, the list is completely empty. Feels good.
I have a rolling to-do list, but I know I can push off a lot of the things, so they stay there. Then I never check them off.
That’s another thing. Another tip is…do not put things off that you could get done!
Another trap people fall into is not understanding that there are things that are urgent versus important. Let’s say you are sitting in your office and somebody comes to you. If somebody wants something from you, it’s very urgent to that person. But if you don’t get it done, is it going to change anything? If you do it tomorrow, would that change the situation, or would it be just fine? If the answer is “just fine,” don’t stop what you’re doing because someone else feels it’s urgent.
You always need to break things into brackets from Urgent to Important. The first thing you should do in your day is the “Urgent and Important” stuff. That means, things with deadlines. If you have a fellowship that’s due this afternoon, guess what? That’s urgent AND important. Or, consider a grant that has to be finished versus, “I want to send that email replying to somebody about something that should happen in two months.” The email could wait until tomorrow if you don’t get to it today. So, dividing your tasks to Important versus Urgent is also important. I learned those things from other people; it’s not like I’m coming up with those concepts.
What kind of advice would you give grad students or postdocs who feel like everybody is a better scientist, both about becoming better scientists and feeling like better scientists?
Feeling that other people are better scientists than you are is normal. We all go through it. It’s “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Sometimes you might have been dealt a hand that is more difficult than other people’s because your project might be harder or have different difficulties. Maybe that’s why somebody else has already published a paper while you haven’t. It doesn’t mean the one who published first is a better scientist. The circumstances are just different.
In that regard, at some point, we all need to work on our confidence. I always say, “Be confident; don’t be cocky,” and that’s a very thin line to walk. So, Be confident; That means, be happy when your colleague is doing something great. Be happy for the person, but at the same time, don’t put yourself down. Because you’re not your colleague. You’re your own person. You go at your own pace. And if you need help, you ask for help.
Most of the time with graduate students, I think it all goes back to managing time and distractions, but surrounding yourself with good friends is also crucial. They don’t have to be in the same department. Sometimes having friends who don’t speak chemistry is actually refreshing because you might be talking about something that has nothing to do with work, and that’s okay. That’s good; that’s healthy. Because you want that few minutes to have conversations; then when you come back to work, you are more energized and fresh.
I don’t know whether I have any more tips. I wish when I was a graduate student I knew what I know now, but that’s always the case. You learn a lot by trying to mentor people as well. You try to come up with ways to help them out. I want to be a mentor who’s there for my students, because I enjoy it. That’s why I decided to go into academia.