History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)


By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure.

As I prepare to start my second year as an Assistant Professor, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the highs and lows of my first year, the successful changes I made over that year, and my strategies for success going forward. I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned as a first-year faculty member. Some of them are pretty common cries from new faculty, but these are a few things I wish I had known (or accepted) before starting my first year.

Perfection REALLY IS the enemy of good enough. This holds true for teaching prep as much as it does for manuscript writing. Over the course of my first year, I learned to stop prepping after 3 hours. I only allowed myself minor tweaks beyond this. Turns out, I am actually more comfortable with less prep and a more flexible outline. I’m finding that teaching that is more organic is not only a more honest expression of my knowledge but also a better way to communicate with my students. Some tips:

  • Create an outline before you dive in. This may seem like a ‘duh’ statement, but you’d be surprised at the number of faculty who don’t.
  • Focus your lectures on topics, fields of study, and research that you can speak freely about. Avoid the common pitfall of catering to a textbook or ‘must-learn’ definitions associated with prepping a lecture. I often use pictures from field experiences or simple figures from scientific papers as a backdrop to my lectures. Some students will hate the concept-focused, PowerPoint-free lectures, but I’m confident they are more likely to retain information taught in this manner.
  • That said . . . I have never found it to be a good idea to throw my hands in the air and give up on prep. If you’re exhausted from a week of prep and lecturing, spend an hour putting together a simple activity or use some of the resources over at TIEE.
  • These tips will save you a ton of prep time and allow you to teach to the interests of the class and topics at hand.

The best lectures are student-, thought- and experience-driven. Keep current in your field, even if you are at a teaching-focused institution. It’s easy to prep a course and just stick with it for simplicity. Problem with that is that your students don’t progress as they need to, and you fall prey to boredom. Maintain the enthusiasm, and learn to go with the flow. My best lectures are driven by student inquiry and my ability to discuss a variety of topics. If I don’t know the topic, I make sure I have knowledge to share on the subject at the start of the next class. My main point? Let your students, the day’s news, and the recent papers you’ve read guide your lecture. You and the students will benefit from this type of instruction.

It is all about the students, but it is also (a little bit) about you. I learned two months in that students would take any time I was willing to give them. Interaction time slowly increased, and my research/personal time rapidly decreased. Five versus eight office hours? Both vaporized. Demanding an immediate response to nighttime emails? Of course. Expecting interaction on a weekend? You betcha. Yes, I am here to serve the students, but I’m also 1) a person and 2) a scientist. I discovered that I was losing both my personal time and my sense of self by giving every free moment to a student need. So, I set some ground rules:

  • On the first day of my second quarter, I initiated a policy (which was clearly stated in the syllabus and on the first day of class) that I did not respond to email after 5 pm or on the weekend. Of course, I did check my email and did respond if I felt something needed to be addressed, but I also felt that I needed to set some boundaries. Most people are free from work tasks once they leave the office. Why should a professor’s free time be any less valuable?
  • Office hours are for reviewing complex material, advising, and mentoring. Office hours are not designed as one-on-one lecture time for students who miss class. I advise students to get notes from their peers and come see me for clarification. Harsh or not, this helps protect my time and reminds students of their own role in their education and in the learning process.

I am your professor, not your drinking (or climbing, or surfing or . . .) buddy. I am a young, active female. I can’t say that I’ve felt this was a problem in the past, but it did pose a problem for me as a new faculty member. Some of my students were my age or older, and quite a few of them felt that I was close enough in age for me to be viewed more as friend than faculty. I also found myself continually running into students on trail runs, at yoga, or while enjoying the local wineries. I look young, I don’t have kids, and I am pretty active. I think this blurs the lines for some students. It’s challenging to be an authority on a subject when your students interact with you like you are their peer. So, again, I set some ground rules:

  • To my students, I am Dr. Bisbing rather than Sarah. This was a tough one for me. My professors throughout my academic career (B.S to PhD) have predominantly been older men who all went by their first names. I always liked having that casual relationship with my forestry and ecology professors. I just found that this casual interaction was not a good fit for me at this stage in my career. So, Dr. it is.
  • I do my best to dress appropriately for both my field of study and for my career. I am a forest ecologist. Given the time spent in field labs and doing research, Chaco’s and Patagonia are often the uniform of choice for this field. This attire, however, does not scream professional woman. So, I’m attempting to find a balance. The majority of the time, I wear (moderately) professional attire, which includes nice jeans, boots, blouses, and/or skirts. On occasional field days, I will still toss on the ole Chaco’s and Patagonia. There is a time and place for everything, but the classroom is where I need to separate myself. I think Dr. Mellivora’s post on this over at Tenure She Wrote perfectly captures this struggle.

Teaching the how is just as important as the why. I’m at a learn-by-doing school. Although lecture is, of course, still a huge part of our curriculum, we emphasize field-based labs and weekend field trips. I absolutely love this about my institution. The entire reason I became a forest ecologist was because of my experiences in my undergraduate field labs. My thoughts on teaching ecology:

  • It’s important to provide students with the opportunity to connect abstract concepts to reality.
  • Do more than tell them about ecosystems. Show them how things are connected. They will remember the connections long before they remember the definitions or scientific names. And really, this is the most important part.
  • Take them outside, give them a dataset to work with, or assign them homework that requires that they spend time enjoying the topic of study (e.g. I assign a hike with required plant collections that compels my intro class to spend some time outdoors.).

Work smarter, not harder. Be efficient. Keep track of your time, and set up a time management plan. I attended a time management training as part of a PhD fellowship, and it did wonders for my productivity. Check out Meghan Duffy’s post on succeeding in academia over at Dynamic Ecology for tips to success. I personally use my Calendar to separate out all of my time, including exercise, social engagements, and even manuscript formatting. This way, I can look back and see where all of my time went that week.

Take some time for yourself every single day. You may have a stressful career, but you are still you. Make sure to keep the pieces that make you YOU! Doing so will save you from yourself and provide for much-needed breaks from the grind. Go to a yoga class. Bake a cake. Whatever your fancy. I found that exercise and wine (and chocolate breaks) keep me sane. Missing these, I am one cranky professor. Find your happy moments, and make them a regular part of your routine. There is always more to do, and those few moments of freedom are invaluable. Make some you time a priority. Add it to your calendar if you must!

Remember that you have a (potentially) permanent job. If you’re still struggling with the workload required for tenure or the stress of the teaching load, learn to relax a bit and just appreciate that you have a job. The job market is tough, and many amazing ecologists are struggling to secure a position. You may just need to re-frame your idea of this new position. Dr. Radhika Nagpal suggests that you consider it as a 7-year-postdoc and learn to find you own path to tenure. Appreciate what you have.

Finally, be yourself. Seriously. The tenure-track is hard enough without adding more pressure on yourself. Don’t make waves but also remember that your fellow faculty chose you to be their colleague. I’d bet they don’t have any disillusions about who your really are. Teach in your own style, research what interests you, and be ready to learn and adapt as you find your way. You have been successful thus far. Be confident in your ability to move forward.

P. S. Give up on your goal of having no to-dos. There is always more to do.


Sarah Bisbing is a new Assistant Professor in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Management. You can connect with her via Twitter @SarahBisbing, email her at sbisbing@calpoly.edu, check out her lab at sarahbisbing.com,  or follow her periodic blogging adventures over at Early Career Ecologists.

6 thoughts on “History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)

  1. Funny – as I was reading this blog I was thinking – this sounds a lot like Cal Poly. Yup. Great job surviving your first year and great advice for everyone, regardless of whether you are just starting or have been teaching for several years!

  2. Great advice. I need to include something in my course outline about not using office hours to go over material missed in class—good idea. Re: the name stuff, I have struggled with that, too. My solution has been to sign emails with my initials, and if students persist in addressing me by my first name, I then sign replies “Dr.” and hope they take the hint.

  3. Great advice. Life balance is always one of the toughest things to work towards, especially when getting stressed out over tenure. Darwin famously always took a one hour walk at noon, which was when he claimed he was able to his best thinking. Frequent walks did that for me too. Or at least got me recharged. I agree that when you talk about things you are interested in, new research, recent projects, recent observations in the field it makes it more interesting and memorable both for you and your students. There is so much information available for students now. One of the most valuable things a professor can give students is inspiration, excitement, and bringing some meaning out of all of this information or data. It was a real epiphany for me when I learned that what really sticks with students are key concepts, ways of looking at things, and things they learn themselves in labs or experiments, not all the endless detail that overflows from textbooks. So following through a good example or story is usually much more effective than “covering” all the concepts and details.

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