The Duck of Minerva

The First Year on the Tenure-Track: Wanting to Give the White Whale Back

10 September 2014

As a grad student, I used to the think longingly about the day when I would finally hold a tenure-track job.  I could almost taste the thrill of the teaching and the joy of faculty resources.  You mean, someone will pay for my copy of [insert software you’d like to use legally]?  And, textbooks will be free? I also fantasized about how wonderful it would be to not be under the thumb of my advisors.  Of course, I thought I could live like a queen on a faculty salary, too.  The tenure-track position was my white whale.

Three months into the job, however, I wanted to give my white whale back.  Everything in my life seemed like a mess – my relationship with my SO was rocky, I hated teaching, I just knew I would never get anything published, and I felt like I had no time for anything fun, ever.  I’ve talked to other first year professors over the years and I think this is a common position to be in during the first year on the tenure-track.  And, like all the other loads of unsolicited advice I’ve doled out on the Duck, I thought that I’d spread the word about the “first-year” blues.  Although everyone – EVERYONE! –  I’ve ever met is so thankful for the tenure-track position, a lot of us feel the learning curve is pretty steep.  Perhaps if I had had realistic expectations about what to expect that first year, I would have been better able to deal with all of the changes that come that first year.

There are some strategies I’ve heard for improving your transition from grad student to professor.  Here are a few of them.  Michael Flynn, a current first-year professor at Kansas State University was extremely helpful in providing me comments on this post.  His suggestions are also included below.  Hopefully, others can leave their advice in the comments section.

  1. Bargain for teaching reductions.  Don’t take them your first semester, though.  Teaching reductions can be so helpful for research productivity.  Of course, be concerned with the department culture and norms when you ask for any teaching reductions while on the market.  If you are lucky enough to get teaching reductions, try not to take them in your first semester.  Things are so crazy anyway that semester that they will probably be wasted.
  2. Feel like it is ok to close your office door. At my first job, I was so concerned that someone would see me as not collegial that I became Dr. Collegiality.  Unfortunately, Dr. Collegiality has to work overtime to keep up on things. You want to be part of the department culture but you don’t want to let it overtake the more important things.  As Mike remarked, “Closing my door helps, and if people really need me, they can come by (and they do—often just to check in). Working from home may also be an option on occasion if you need to rehearse lecture materials. You want face time with everyone, but this has to be a balance like everything else, and I think senior faculty will understand this.”
  3. Look for mentors. Ideally, your advisors consider you still part of the herd and are there for you during your whole career.  You’ll want to find new mentors, however, both in and out of your department.  Don’t be too needy, of course, but you should feel empowered enough to ask people to read your work, confidentially comment on a stressful interaction you’ve had with a colleague, or provide you feedback on your career plans. Mentors can also be people you ask for slides and syllabi.  As Mike said, “I’ve been given a ton of support in this particular area… First, it just makes planning much, much easier if you can see how others have done it. Also, some of the best advice that I’ve been given is that you’ll be able to teach these courses several times, so the first iteration doesn’t have to be perfect, or even original… I’ll gradually make it my own, but that’s not going to happen in the first semester.”
  4. Look for another academic newbie friend in your community. At my first campus function, my SO and I met a couple where one of them was starting in the agriculture school.  They turned out to be some of the best friends we have in the world.  And, within my department, another first-year assistant and I became publishing buddies.  All of these people were up for cards, drinks, movies, etc and had similar stresses during that first year. New faculty unite!
  5. Set your expectations low. I’ve heard that the key to a happy life is to have low expectations.  Here is a situation where this advice could really help.  You aren’t going to ace your teaching evaluations, get that book contract, and publish multiple times your first year.  Mike suggested doing anything possible to “de-clutter your thinking and schedule.” Something has to give and you don’t want it to be your sanity. This job is a marathon, not a sprint. Mike’s advice: “you’re going to be here for a while, so it doesn’t all have to get done right away.”
  6. Think about class management before you step into the classroom. This point came from Mike and was something I definitely wish I would have heard before my first semester. I had never been a solo instructor before and was literally pale and shaking the first time I taught in front of 150+ students (most who really didn’t care to be there).  Mike’s sage advice: “Figuring out how to respond to disruptions  and how to discipline in-class has been tough. I think being young there’s an urge to establish your authority early on, but figuring out the line you want to walk can require some bumps and bruises. It’s tempting to crack the whip any time you see a student snickering or whispering, but I think most people realize that, objectively, this isn’t really a viable strategy. I have a hard time divorcing myself from those sorts of in-class interpersonal dynamics (my first instinct is to take it personally, because this subject matter is awesome!), so learning how to cope with and/or manage so many young students who really don’t want to be there is a difficult adjustment. But this is another area in which I’ve been talking to other faculty members and trying to learn what strategies/approaches work for them.”
  7. Don’t plan on APSA that first year. This was a big mistake for me and one that took me a while to recover from.  APSA timing sucks.  APSA really sucks, however, if you are a first year assistant professor who is trying to teach a large class for the first time.  Just sit that one out.
  8. Consider moving early in the summer. This technique really works.  If at all possible, moving to your new job and gaining access to your office a month before the start of the semester can really help in the transition.  Try to at least get your new email address early.
  9. It gets better. Trust me.  The first semester can be a killer.  However, the subsequent semesters get to be pretty awesome.  It might never be exactly what you dreamed it would be but it is still a pretty sweet gig.