I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too!

As of last week, I have officially survived my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor! I’m sure there are a lot of you out there just getting started, too, and so I wanted to share some advice and reflections, while they’re fresh (Year 2 is already upon me, and it’s already a different animal!). I was told a lot of this before I started, myself, and it didn’t really sink in until I lived it. Still, just having someone normalize your experience is so incredibly valuable, and so here’s my own:

1. You won’t get anything done in Year 1. This is actually not really true, but it feels like it. Everything takes much longer than you’ll predict — getting your office set up, getting phones turned on, figuring out the email client and Payroll and the archaic student course software (or softwares!), ordering equipment. There are meetings and orientations and everyone wants to invite you for coffee and to talk about collaborations and to invite you on committees. You’ll basically find that you get to the summer break and all of your ambitious plans to publish (even if you have a teaching release!) and write grants and collect amazing data all went out the window, and you will very likely feel like a failure. Even if you were crazy productive just before you defended, you’ll find that you’re paying the price now, and finding it harder to focus with so many new demands to your attention. But here’s the thing: everything you’ve been doing, from the thinking to the planning to the figuring out what your space situation is, has value. It’s part of the process. When you hit Year 2, it should all be settled.

What you can do about it: Be strategic about your time, and block off a day (or a half a day) that is sacrosanct. Put it on your calendar. Do not treat it as time for scheduling meetings– treat it as a meeting between you and your computer. Invest in some time management software like RescueTime. Get those last PhD and postdoc papers in the pipeline. Make it a goal to apply for a grant or two, even if you have startup funds. Don’t stay at work too long. I didn’t figure any of this out until recently, and I’m trying it out for Year 2.

2. You’re not just starting a new job; you’re starting a new life. You’ve probably also just moved, so life takes a lot more time than it did when you had a smooth routine. You’ll need to buy new things, get established at new doctors and dentists and find hair stylists and daycare providers and every other thing that takes way more time than you’ll think, and you’ll feel like every thing you do during business hours is taking away from work. You may be away from your partner if you’ve got a two-body problem, or you may have a one-body problem and are trying to figure out dating in a new place, or you may have recently welcomed new family members.

What you can do about it:  Block out dedicated time to work on Life Needs, including some time during business hours. If you put it on your calendar, you’ll feel less guilty (if you’re like me). Forgive yourself for taking time to be a human being with needs. Getting a house-keeping service, having your pet food delivered by mail, meal planning, or any number of other strategies can help you from feeling too overwhelmed. Figure out what you really hate doing, and see if there’s a way to automate it. Listen to audiobooks to make chores more fun. Block out time for fun (happy hours, trivia nights) and exercise. Go to the happy hours and socials, even if you don’t feel up to it. The relationships you forge are worth it.

3. You will over-prepare for teaching and still feel like you’re not doing enough. You’ll be developing one or more new classes, and often feel like you’re just a step ahead of your students in terms of content. There will be equipment to order, space to figure out, vehicles to reserve, field trips to plan, and AV to work out, and you may not have nearly as much time as you’d like to work all that out. A common response to this controlled chaos seems to be to over-prepare lectures, because the thing we’re most afraid of is (often) seeming incompetent or uneducated in front of our peers. With demands on our time and attention, teaching prep can feel validating — it’s something concrete we’ve spent time and effort on, which means we feel like we’re still in control of something even when all the other balls are dropping. The problem with this is that there are a lot of demands on our time, and teaching prep could, in theory, be infinite– it’s never really done. And you need to get things done.

What you can do about it: Read the teaching section in Advice for New Faculty Members closely and carefully, and reread it periodically! Give yourself a fixed amount of time to prep lectures. Get comfortable saying “that’s a great question! I’ll give extra points on the exam to the first person who emails me the answer after class,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you next week” (and actually follow up). Ask your colleagues (including your new ones) for their syllabi and teaching materials. Don’t try everything you want to experiment with in the first semester– make a list of things to tweak each time, though ideally not all at once. Remember, you’ll want your teaching evaluations to be a trajectory through time. Give yourself somewhere to go. 🙂

4. Your university is really happy you’re here, and they’re invested in your success. Assuming there was nothing weird about your hire, you might be surprised at how friendly and helpful everyone is. Folks will stop by your office and check up on you. A common question seems to be “where are you living?” as it’s a nice, neutral topic. Your department admins will go out of their way to make your transition smooth — I found the secretaries were especially solicitous, making sure I had office furniture and knew my way around. You’ll be invited to a lot of new faculty events, formal and informal, and departmental welcome events, and to join teams and book clubs and journal clubs and informal lunches. People are just as excited about you as you are to start your position, but they’ll also be checking up on you to make sure that you’re doing okay during the transition, and aren’t too stressed.

What you can do about it: Be gracious. Stop by with little thank-you gifts for administrators who helped you order thousands of dollars worth of equipment for your lab, or bring your grants office some cookies after they help you navigate your first grant. Have something ready to respond to the many iterations of “how are things going?” you’ll get from faculty. I would always have a positive accomplishment in my mental back pocket. Instead of “Totally insane busy and freaking out!” you’ll then be able to respond with “Great! I just had a small review paper accepted in the Journal of Early Career Accomplishments,” or “Fantastic! I just ordered some new microscopes, which is always exciting.”

5. There will be things you’ll want to change. There will be many moments when, instead of feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing, you instead feel like you’re the only one who DOES know what they’re doing. You’ve probably been raised in one or two academic settings, and you probably got used to how things were run. You might hate the new email client, have brilliant ideas for how to totally overhaul the graduate curriculum, or want to completely change the way the department seminar series is run.

What you can do about it: Make it a policy to say as little as possible during faculty meeting in your first year. Observe, learn, and figure out the lay of the land. Humility is a virtue, and nobody likes a person who comes in and starts telling everyone how they’re doing everything wrong. This is something I wish I’d thought more about in my first year (I’m opinionated). There will be plenty of time to make changes, and they’re more likely to actually happen when you’re trusted, known, and have clout.

6. You will discover all the negative things about your department, town, and university that you didn’t catch when  you were interviewing. There will be factions within your department, or a dean nobody gets along with, or a teetototaling president who revoked all the campus liquor licenses. Your town may not be as big, interesting, diverse, politically compatible, urban/rural, or safe as you’d like, and you may not realize it until you moved. You may discover your building has mice, a faulty HVAC system, a mold problem, or that your gorgeous office is suddenly not your office anymore because of any number of reasons. You may discover a sexist blowhard department chair, a cranky colleague you share space with, or a socially awkward mentor. Your university may be outright reneging on space or equipment promises, and you may find your research operations set back months to years. You may find yourself with double the teaching load you were promised. And you will discover all of these things when you are at one of the most vulnerable points in your personal and professional lives.

What you can do about it: Find a both mentors and advocates. Mentors don’t need to be formal, but they need to be someone who can give you trusted advice. Advocates have to be people in position to go to bat for you. Let them do the heavy lifting if there’s something weird about renovations or a grouchy colleague. Document things and file them away if you need to for later (e.g., sexist colleague or promises about space). Be polite but firm about your needs for space, teaching loads, or funding. Learn to communicate that these are the things that will set you up for success (remind higher-ups, gently, that you are an investment). And, most importantly, network with your peers — especially another new person– because having someone to grab a beer and vent with is worth more than most things. Try not to be relentlessly negative– if you’re in a new place, try new things. Open your heart to where you’ve landed, and give the place an honest try before deciding you hate it (you’re not exactly the best judge right now, anyway). Realize that your emotions may change on a dime, and don’t make any rash decisions: give yourself time to sleep on it.

I wish you the very best of luck as you navigate Year 1. Everyone’s experience will be a bit different, but one thing we all have in common is that we’re navigating a million new things. You’re not alone! Find people to share wisdom, happiness, and commiseration with, both at your university and in a safe outside space (e.g., Skype with a friend, start a pseudonymous Twitter account, write a guest post for us at Tenure, She Wrote). If you’ve got any pearls of wisdom to share, please feel free to do so in the comments!

(Edited to change the title, as some of our readers pointed out that this isn’t tenure-track specific advice!)

23 thoughts on “I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too!

  1. Yes to this: “Give yourself a fixed amount of time to prep lectures. Get comfortable saying “that’s a great question! I’ll give extra points on the exam to the first person who emails me the answer after class,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you next week” (and actually follow up).” – and not just in your first year, keep doing it forever. Also, if you are taking over a course that has been taught previously, just follow the legacy information (notes, websites, books – whatever) for the first time, then decide what you really need to change for next time. It isn’t ideal, but with everything else going on in your life it works that way, and you will have a better idea of what works and doesn’t work when you redesign the course to your own specs later.

    • This has been super hard for me, because I care deeply about students and I hate to think of them as guinea pigs. It’s so easy to just keep working on teaching infinitely!

  2. One comment about finding mentors: Great advice, but make sure that if you pick someone to hang out with and learn from, that they are good for you. I chose someone who seemed socially compatible but was very down on the department, and it had a negative effect on my psyche, making me feel like maybe this wasn’t a good place to be. After 6 months, I moved on to other mentors and felt a lot better.

    • This is really important. I also made a similar mistake and didn’t realize there would be some potential political ramifications of who I was associating with. It’s a vulnerable time when you’re just starting out and don’t know the politics!

  3. This is wonderful advice. I just finished year 2, and every single thing you mentioned rang true. I think your point 2 — you are also starting a new life, is one that I really really under-appreciated before I started. Usually, moving across the country to a new place with no support, family or friends, would be stressful and difficult enough. Also, starting an asst. professor position is not just starting a ‘new job’ — it is really an entire career change compared to a post-doc or PhD. The differences (in terms of demands on your time) are far greater than the similarities. Sometimes it amazes me that I got any research done!

    • Thank you! I really didn’t want this to be a litany of “here’s all the terrible stuff to look forward to,” because I do love my job and I don’t think that’s a healthy mindset. It’s hard to strike a balance between acknowledging stressful aspects of our work and not wanting to wallow in those.

  4. This rings true. What has been hardest for me is the extremely modest research progress, even with a light teaching load. I underestimated the amount of time it would take to write grants, and travel to give talks and participate in workshops has really hacked away at productive time. Then there were also moderate health issues, including roughly a month of anxiety-induced insomnia over intradepartmental politics, that made it hard for me to think deeply about anything during the day, and closing on a new house that turned really ugly and involved weeks of hand-wringing and last-minute affidavits and forms and logistical problems. In sum, it has been really hard to concentrate this first year, and the anxiety has snowballed (especially because my insurance company still won’t grant my doctor’s referral for counseling off campus!).

    What’s hardest is forgiving and having faith in myself when I know I am probably disappointing my department. It requires reminding myself daily that I’m here for the science, and I’ll give it my best while remaining a whole person. That might not be good enough for tenure here, but it’s the right way to live.

    • I’m so sorry your first years have been so rough– those other issues can sap so much of our energy. I’ve written a couple of posts on my ongoing issues (including severe anemia that really knocked me out last spring), and it’s so hard not to get in a negative spiral of feeling badly about yourself, which just compounds everything. Good luck to you as you navigate the next couple of years!

  5. I am starting year 5 and I still struggle (especially this time of year post-summer) with beating myself up about my expectations vs. actual research productivity. Teaching, grant writing, service all take up so much time and effort and, while I realize that, I still find myself framing research productivity from what I think of as a postdoc mentality…i.e., as if writing papers were my only responsibility.
    Given that we’re raised to believe that research is the only important part of the job through grad school, postdoc etc., it is hard to give yourself credit for all of the other things that you do in this job (and do well). I wish I did a better job of celebrating well taught courses or student mentees who are clearly making progress. Those are also great accomplishments that tend to get forgotten in our accounting of productivity.
    Anyway, my only specific advice to add to your great advice is one that others have mentioned before – keep a folder of positive feedback. Everyone has crap days, and it really helps to have some stuff to remind you that you make a difference and are doing a good job. I have a little collection of thank you notes and postcards from students on my wall and it makes me feel better just to look at them…they are right next to the fortune cookie note that says ‘it is not in your character to give up’ 🙂

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  9. Also starting on year 2 and totally agree with all these points. Love the idea of scheduling a couple hours of business time for “life needs”. I always feel guilty or something when scheduling appts, calling the bank, etc. now I’ll just build some time in. I also wish I had been quieter during faculty meetings but…oh well.

  10. Really great post. Just finished my second year and can relate to all of your points, especially the part about negative surprises along the way. My lab space was “shifted” to a different room just as we had gotten into the swing of things because the neighboring lab got some big grants and needed more space. I was really irritated at first, but you give great advice about not being too caught up in negativity when these types of things happen.

  11. I am just starting year 1 and definitely feeling behind in every way, so this was really helpful. I worry that it’s just going to get harder next year, when I don’t have a teaching release, and people start actually expecting me to do things.

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