The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job


This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

I also like all of the advice of Karen Kelsky about starting out your first year. I wrote this before I saw her piece, and the similarities are more than conincidental.

8 thoughts on “The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

  1. Thanks for the insights Terry. I largely agree. I would like to highlight Terry’s comments about freedom. THIS IS THE MOST CRITICAL MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER, AND ONE THAT CAN DESTROY IT! If you are expected to publish at all, and most of us are, then you really need to carve out time to be moving your research program forward. You need to do this each week! This is more than finding time to go to the field or work in the lab. This is finding time to write (publications, grant proposals, etc). Find a time (daily or weekly) and stick to it. Don’t let anything or anybody interfere with moving your writing forward. The writing HAS to be done, just like the prep for class has to be completed, or the papers need to be graded. Everybody and everything will compete for that time. But, once you have decided on a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to your writing, keep it sacred! Otherwise, a year or two will slip by and suddenly you will find yourself scrambling for your 3 year review or tenure application. If you haven’t read it already, I strongly recommend reading “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” By Paul J. Silvia, PhD:

  2. This is a really wonderful document. In the area of identifying senior faculty that you can count on for advice, it can be useful to identify one or two as mentors (some departments may even do this formally) who see it as their role to help guide you. This can be especially useful for guidance about getting tenure (yes, your first semester may be the time to start thinking about this, at least as far as keeping good records of what you’ve done), finding students to fill you lab, prioritizing, time management, and avoiding department politics that have been going on for decades before you arrived!

  3. That’s great list, too – many of them are generalized, others important (I would guess) for R1s.

  4. Nice post, Terry. One of the things I would add (as I finish up my 1st year as an asst prof), is to stay on top of grading. Faculty who land jobs in the liberal arts setting will soon find that these often come with many more assignments than you are used to seeing. These will pile up if you put them off… and things will come up where you want/need to put grading off. Once you start a backlog of grading, it is very difficult to get back ahead.

  5. A great list! I would also add that it is EXTREMELY helpful to create and maintain your tenure file from day 1. This can be either digital or hard copies (or better, both). Creating the portfolio is still going to be a challenge and take a lot of time, but if you have a “tenure box” you will save so much time. I made sure to update mine at the end of semester. Also, include more than you think you will need.

    Along those same lines, be sure to periodically update your CV.

  6. Oh my gosh, yes to this. Document document document.

    Keep a running file of any document that shows you did anything, because your tenure file will need documentation. At my university, you can’t list any committee, any public presentation, even any manuscript review service, without actual evidence that you did so, in the form of a flyer or an email or minutes showing your attendance. If you keep all of this stuff labeled as “tenure file” at the outset, your life gets a lot easier when you turn in your file. Also, print an extra copy of exams and assignments for this file, too. (I’d bet that six years from now, it’ll still be a thick binder at most universities, reluctant to switch to digital tenure files.)

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