Monday, December 15, 2014

First-Year Faculty: Survival Skills

Evaluating advice. As a new faculty member, I've had a lot of people offer their advice on how to be successful. (I've also sought a lot of advice, as noted.) Much of what I've absorbed as been spot on and immensely helpful. Though I have raised my eyebrows in surprise and skepticism more than once, which also has been useful. As we come to the end of the first semester, here are my tips for surviving the first year.

(1) Read, read, read. You're not alone. Thousands have made this transition before, and hundreds have shared their advice in books and blogs. Make a habit of searching for their tips; download Kindle books, search Google and Twitter, follow links from blog to blog. No matter how busy you are in the few months before you start, you can set aside a few minutes per day to prepare yourself. My list included:

  • From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor - Cahn & Stimpson
  • The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual - Hall (particularly good for promoting self-awareness and reducing egotism)
  • What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School - Gray & Drew
  • Preparing for Your First Year as a Faculty Member - compiled by Brown University
  • Get a Life, Phd (blog) - Tanya Golash-Boza

(2) Trust your training. Much of what you'll read warns that an academic job is unlike training. It's true that you haven't done this job before, and that neither grad school nor postdoc fellowship prepared you for exactly the challenges you'll encounter in your first semester (e.g., politics, managing your own time, managing TAs, preparing lectures, choosing service "opportunities"). But if you made it through graduate and postdoc training successfully, then you know how to juggle classwork, academic writing, meetings, requests from supervisors, and student assistants. 

The difference is that no one tells you which of these to work on at any given time. This may require some adjustment, and might seem overwhelming at first. Rely on the techniques that got you through training - lists, designated work time, working (or not) from home, or whatever helped you be successful to this point. Those can keep working for you if you adapt them to your new situation.

(3) Work on long-term mind. You kept your eyes on the prize (an academic job) for years, and it helped get you through some tough moments. Well, it starts all over again, with the new prize of tenure several years away. As frustrating as this can be, you know how to do it. And what's different is that now you can work on the projects that are most meaningful to you. Write the papers that matter to you; choose your assistants based on your own values and goals. Chip away a little bit at a time and mix in some relaxation. Remember that you don't have to do everything at once. You have a few years to make your tenure case, so plan thoughtfully.

(4) Pick your battles, but stand up for yourself. As the new kid, well-intentioned colleagues will offer you their insights, and only some of these pearls of wisdom will be solicited. Some of it will inspire gratitude, and some of it will make your blood boil - particularly if it comes across as unnecessarily condescending. No matter what the culture of your institution or department, they hired YOU, and they hired you to be a colleague. As long as you're being reasonable, don't let seniority equal disrespect. When necessary, make your expectations known, and provide warm but firm feedback. (Because not everyone is willing to do this, unacceptable behaviors persist. Often, people are grateful when someone finally says something.) *If you don't preserve your self-respect, you may find yourself bitter and resentful right quick.

Of course, not every technique is optimal for everyone, so I refer back to #2 - do what works! Though do adapt it to your new environment.

I had a fantastic first semester, which included manuscript submissions/acceptances and earning a teaching grant to purchase materials for a new course. It can be done.