First Steps for Faculty

That Thousand Step Journey 

Being a new professor is like being a juggler with too many balls in the air.

There is no way you can do it all at once. And there is no way you can do it all alone. Pretty soon you may feel as though there are as many balls falling to the ground as there are in the air. Here are a few tips for a successful juggling act.

Develop New Social Support Systems
Make a Six-Year Plan

Develop New Social Support Systems

There is much less institutionalized, overt social support for new faculty than there is for graduate students. This lack of support is amplified by several factors:

  • Adjusting to a New Environment – You’ve probably moved to a new area, where you know no one, but unlike the transition to graduate school, you don’t have a cohort of peers with whom to commiserate and bond. This can be a lonely time.

  • Kindling Envy – To get this new job, you’ve worked hard, showed talent and been lucky. Unfortunately, your success may generate envy. Many students I’ve worked with find that their excitement about landing a tenure track position is marred by the reactions of their peers. They are surprised and saddened to find that their less successful graduate school friends sometimes react with envy and withdrawal. Rather than celebrate in tandem with your friends, you may feel as though you’ve been slapped with their jealousy. I hope that your close colleagues are able to handle your success.

  • Leaving Your Dissertation Chair Behind – After you defend your dissertation, you may go through a natural developmental shift in relation to your advisor. After several years of dependence on your chair, it is natural to move away from the relationship as you develop your professional identity. Some students, with ambivalent or negative relationships with their advisor, are delighted to gain the freedom that comes with the Ph.D.. Others, who have had a close mentoring relationship with their advisor, may be a bit bewildered to find that the relationship has changed significantly. It is appropriate for distance to develop, at least temporarily, during this phase of your professional life.

It is critical that you find new ways of generating social support in your work life.

  • If you are ever going to hire a coach, this is the time to do it.

  • Foster friendships with junior faculty in other departments at your university.

  • Work diligently on finding mentors to help you towards tenure.

  • Take advantage of campus-wide career support systems such as the Center for Teaching and Learning, or various faculty associations.

  • Make time to stay in touch with friends, colleagues and family in other parts of the country. In the excitement of starting a new job, it is easy to neglect long-distance relationships. Use your calling card. Send out email updates to a list-serv of good friends. Spend vacations visiting with people that will help you recharge.


Make a Six-Year Plan

As a juggler on the tenure track circuit, you’ve got to decide which balls to toss in the air first.

The demands on your time are enormous. You’ll be expected to:

  • Teach
  • Publish
  • Write Grants
  • Start research projects
  • Mentor students
  • Serve on committees
  • Review papers for journals
  • Present at conferences
  • Get to know members of your department
  • Somehow maintain a personal life!

There is pressure to be engaged in all of these activities. And there is no way you can do them all well.

Remember that you have six or seven years before you come up for tenure. It is essential to set your priorities and expect your focus to shift over the course of your tenure track years. Exactly which tasks you should emphasize will vary as you progress. Assistant professors will differ in their priorities depending on their institution and departmental expectations.

For example, small liberal arts colleges will place a strong emphasis on teaching. Grant support will be the primary criteria for success in many fields at large research institutions. Publishing numerous articles peer-review journals is a premium in many institutions. However, some university departments may emphasize quality over quantity: having a book that is considered a major contribution to the field may be the most important criteria for tenure.

Your first task is to find out the values and standards of your particular department. All institutions avow that they value undergraduate teaching, but do evaluations from students really count? Yes, you must be seen as a willing participant on committees, but people are not granted tenure on the basis of their service to the department.

Try to plan how much time you will devote to various aspects of your position. For example, most junior faculty find that they need to devote huge amounts of time to teaching during their first year in order to get their classes up and running.

If there is any way to teach the same classes each year, do so. This is not the time in your career to create innovative seminars. Stick with your basic assignment, take the time to create a reasonable course, and then wait a couple of years to tweak and improve it greatly.

Ask for advice about whether your other goal during the first year should be to get new research off the ground, and grant proposals submitted, or whether you should focus on publishing papers from your dissertation work. Of course, ideally you should be able to do both at the same time. But each week you are going to need to make day to day decisions about how many hours to devote to a particular project, it will help to have a master plan for your priorities for the year.

For many academics I’ve worked with, it is easier to get caught up in smaller projects with firm external deadlines – such as sending off abstracts for conference deadlines – than it is to work on papers that you wish to send to prestigious journals. Beware of getting wrapped up in projects that are relatively unimportant. Don’t be seduced by short-term commitments that are less anxiety provoking than your biggest chores.

Once teaching becomes more routine, once you’ve gotten some of your research projects funded, once you have papers or a book accepted for publication, you may take on the vast array of secondary tasks that you will need to master.

Some of these secondary tasks include:

  • Networking – During your first few semesters, it may be wise to keep your attendance at conferences to a minimum. The travel will tire you out and distract you from writing. You can decide to make networking a top priority during the third or fourth year that your tenure clock is ticking. Before you become known nationally, you need to have papers and research projects worth being known for.

  • Mentoring – At some point in your career, it is important to mentor students and to have doctoral students who wish to have you chair your dissertation. But generativity is a luxury for later on your tenure track. Helping graduate students takes significant amounts of time. And in the tenure committee’s eyes, being second or third author on a student’s paper will never compare to being the first author on your own work. When you first arrive at a university, you are likely to have graduate students flock to the door. Their interest in your work is flattering, and you may wish to provide them with excellent mentoring. Beware of this commitment during the first couple of years. You can easily tell eager grad students that you’d love to chair their committee, but that you fear that it would harm them if you have to leave because you don’t get tenure. Offer to take a secondary role on their committee – even when the theme of their work is close to yours.

  • Serving – Yes, you must serve on departmental committees. But not all committees are created equally. Stave off the impulse to join important, political and time-consuming committees. For example, it is rewarding to have an impact on which applicants are granted admission into your department, but reading applications is enormously time consuming. When you first start your job, ask (or beg) your departmental chair if you may serve on non-controversial committees that meet infrequently. Make it clear that you are more than willing to shoulder significant departmental responsibilities later on. When you do serve on more political and/or time-consuming committees later on, you’ll be much more saavy about the personalities of the other players and thus in a much better position to play an influential role.

  • Reviewing – Although it is flattering to be asked to review articles for journals, you may want to decline some of the requests at first. Make it clear to the journal editor that you would like to be considered again as a reviewer at a later date. It is seductive to be the judge rather than the judged, for once. But it will eat up your time if you do a thorough job. Also, when you begin to review articles, make sure that you return them in a timely fashion. Beware of being late with your reviews and getting the reputation of being unreliable or uncommitted. Journal editors are often important players in your field, and are the type of people who are asked to provide outside recommendations when you come up for tenure. Wait until you can do a good job before taking on the responsibility of being a reviewer.

Again, remember that you have many years to do it all. Plan to tackle secondary tasks at different phases of your tenure pursuit.