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!)