Starting a new faculty position is challenging, no matter what type. There are multiple things that take time and energy: endless decisions about purchasing and organization, deciding how to be an effective mentor and advisor, and learning the ropes at a new institution, to name a few. The transition to a new faculty position can be particularly difficult when changing gears from a research to a teaching focus, especially if you (like many researchers) have had little to no training or experience with teaching. The metrics for success in teaching are very different from those in research.
During my training I never had a certain type of academic position in mind – I didn’t feel a strong pull in either the research or teaching direction. Through a combination of circumstance and choice I ended up at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution). The teaching load, although lighter than at some institutions (and in many fields) is a lot higher than those of my peers at R1 universities. I was warned by multiple colleagues at teaching-focused schools that life would be different – and a lot harder – the first year of teaching after a career as a researcher. Some things I was prepared for due to the timely advice of friends, but other things caught me off guard and some of them I still haven’t figured out.
Some of the things I’ve found most difficult
- Getting used to a rigid schedule: One of the many nice things about a research-focused job is that you largely make your own hours and schedule, and rarely come up against hard and fast deadlines: the occasional conference or invited talk, or a paper revision (which, let’s be honest, you can easily get an extension on!). Not so with teaching. There are multiple weekly deadlines – eager and attentive students waiting to be taught the world’s secrets, who (understandably) get irritated if you try to reschedule or just don’t show up, and also have expectations about turnaround times. It all means that you have be on time, and ‘on’, a lot more often. I’ve had to learn to keep a much more regular schedule than I used to, and to stop procrastinating.
- Giving up most of my ‘luxuries’: I work a hell of a lot more during the school year than I used to during my research positions. That means that a lot of things that I knew were luxuries (long hikes, artistic endeavors) and things that I didn’t realize were luxuries until I had no time (cooking fresh food, exercising) have completely fallen by the wayside.
- Balancing my career and ‘family’: Luckily for me my ‘family’ consists of canine companions, which are a lot more forgiving than human companions. Nonetheless, working extremely long hours means that they get a lot less attention than they are used to – and unlike with people, I can’t tell them why (and tell them that, hopefully, it’s a relatively short-term issue).
- Being in a new place with no time to build a social network: Perhaps more so than some I require a strong social network to be happy and productive. Arriving only two weeks before the start of teaching didn’t leave me a lot of time to build a new support system – and my department is both small and older than me.
- Having to basically abandon research (for now): I know that in the summers and during future teaching semesters I’ll have time for research – in fact, it’s required by my job and I’m excited to have graduate students. But for now, with trying to juggle teaching three new classes, setting up a lab, and settling into a new place, there just isn’t time for research. I didn’t realize how much I loved it until it was gone, so to speak.
So given the challenges inherent in switching your focus, how do you keep sane while doing a good job in the first year or two? I’ve talked to a variety of people at different stages in teaching-focused careers and compiled a list of some pointers that have helped.
- (Mostly) wait to start prepping until the just before classes start: If it’s your first time teaching, it’s a giant waste of time to spend days agonizing over every detail of your semester’s schedule. It’s hard to guess how fast you will go through the material, and what topics you will have to spend more time on. So much depends on the particular pool of students you’ve got that semester. Building an arsenal of backup plans/approaches is way more effective than having a single rigid course plan. An exception to starting prep early is choosing books – I was caught unawares (and I shouldn’t have been) when two months before classes began I needed to order the books I wanted to use. If you get to choose your own books, contact publishers well before when you need to tell the local bookstores, so that they have time to send you instructors’ copies for you to peruse.
- Implement a work/life balance schedule early: Carve out particular times to accomplish specific tasks such as grading or dealing with paperwork. The feeling of accomplishing discrete tasks is always good for maintaining motivation.
- Don’t always be available: You don’t want to give your students the impression that you are always accessible (even if your gmail window rarely gets closed like mine, you don’t want to be getting frantic calls/emails at late hours/last minutes before deadlines). State right in your syllabus that you can and will take up to 48 – 72 hours to respond to emails – this gives you the weekend free from the pressures of student expectations.
- Limit time spend prepping for class sessions: It’s true what ‘they’ say… preparing lectures takes as much time as you give it, particularly if you’re prepping classes for the first time. I’ve gotten my average prep down to 3-4 hours per one-hour lectures, which I’m quite proud of but still adds up to a huge portion of the week. Of course I only figured out the minimum time required to make a decent lecture after a few duds that I underprepared – luckily, students don’t mind getting let out early. Related to that..
- Don’t beat yourself up when something doesn’t work: Some lectures or lab activities are going to be complete flops. Luckily most schools don’t expect you to be a perfect teacher when you first arrive – they want to see improvement, and dedication to being a good teacher. Some failures are inevitable, but your students will forget them (a lot faster than you will!).
- Develop a network of teaching colleagues: Chatting with colleagues from different fields can give you ideas about new course exercises or strategies, or a new perspective on a persistent problem with getting across a complex concept. And there’s always comfort in swapping stories/complaints. Many colleges have learning centers where groups of faculty chat about teaching, and social tools like Twitter can also be a great place to find a network of fellow academics.
- Figure out the one or two things you can’t live without: I’ve given up a lot of the things I used to see as critical to my day-to-day life to survive this crazy semester (see above). But there are a couple of things that I know that I can’t live without and be happy – and I think that everyone must have them. Maybe for you it’s running or knitting or World of Warcraft – whatever it is, don’t give it up! (And definitely incorporate it into your schedule – it’s just as important as scheduling your work tasks).
- Remind yourself that it gets better: Know that the experience gets easier with time and logged hours. You will figure out what works and what doesn’t for you and your students, and by the second (and particularly third) time you teach a class the amount of stress and effort required will decrease substantially.
Preparing for a (possible) teaching career
Ph.D. programs, at least in the sciences, are in the business of training students to do good research, and not much else. Students leave most programs with little knowledge of if they like teaching or how to do it. Of course, given the funding situation of your university, you might get a lot of experience as a course assistant – but grading and running labs is just a small part of being a teacher. The process of designing course goals, choosing readings, writing individual lectures, and all the others details that go into running a class are hard to get from the position of a course assistant. If you can take the time to teach a whole course during your training, or even take a semester or year to adjunct, it will make your application to any school that cares about teaching stronger – and chances are, it won’t set your research back as much as you might fear.
When I applied for all teaching and mixed teaching/research jobs my lack of teaching experience was a hole in my CV. During my graduate career I was an assistant in a grand total of three classes (i.e. one year), only one in which I ever lectured (once) and helped design assessments and discussions. However, I was able to show a genuine interest in teaching since I took campus-based teaching classes (and workshops, seminars, etc…) during both of my postdocs. These didn’t give me any *real* experience, but it meant that I have a least a foundational understanding about how to be an effective teacher. These types of classes are available at many universities, and can make a candidate with no real experience a lot more acceptable/competitive/attractive. They often require minimal time, so they won’t set back your research as much as teaching a full class will – this was important for me, since many postdoctoral advisors, who are training researchers, don’t see the value in spending a lot of time on teaching. Perhaps that should be the topic for a future post!