Essay on how to make new arrivals in an academic department feel welcome
We’ve come a long way in this series on how to mentor new faculty members. I kicked off by suggesting that you make a strong start, then we explored a new model of mentoring, and last week we covered how to reposition yourself as a coach instead of a guru. As important as each of these steps are to establishing a positive mentoring relationship, I want to put all of it in a larger context.
Having worked with many faculty transitioning from graduate student to professor, it feels clear that the first year is not only full of a wide variety of needs but, more important, there’s a hierarchy to those needs. In other words, upon arrival on a new campus, new faculty members are concerned with their most basic needs: Where will I live? Where do I shop for food? How soon will my moving reimbursement be processed? Good, bad or ugly, the relocation stage will pass, new faculty will get settled in, faculty orientations will take place, semester plans will be written, initial mentor meetings will take place, classes will start, and the first year will get underway. Basic needs will be met and that’s when many mentors make the mistake of shifting into "hands off," “leave the new person alone,” sink or swim mode.
I want to suggest that mentors take the opposite approach. First and foremost, the first semester is a critical time for mentoring new faculty because once they get settled in, that’s precisely the time that all kinds of new needs (information, contacts, and resources) will surface. But, even more important, the first term is exactly when the new person will be seeking social connections, professional acceptance, and a place within the department. In other words, it’s a time when a critically important (but frequently overlooked) need emerges: the need for belonging.
So how can a mentor cultivate a new faculty member’s sense of belonging, encourage their ongoing inclusion in the life of the department, and socialize the new person into the culture and practices of the campus? To answer this question, I went straight to the source by asking a group of tenure-track faculty: What makes you feel a sense of belonging in your department? Let me offer some suggestions (from simple to complex) straight from their feedback:
Know how to say and spell the new person's name. This sounds painfully obvious, but one of the most frequent responses we heard from faculty about what makes people feel a sense of belonging in their department was to have people know and correctly pronounce their names. One person said: "This sounds simple, but SPELL MY NAME CORRECTLY. Pronounce it correctly. I have a colleague of four years who still doesn't address me appropriately. Ugh!!!!" Mispronouncing, misspelling and/or repeatedly calling someone by something other than their actual name communicates a lack of respect. While it’s highly unlikely that you will make this faux pas if you are reading this series, I’m mentioning it so you can step in and correct others when they make this error (particularly when people do so repeatedly and consistently).
Ask questions that communicate interest. I can’t say it any more clearly: The expression of interest in new faculty members’ lives beyond work communicates a sense of care and concern for them as a human being. One faculty member suggested asking simple questions like "How is your transition to ______ going?" "How is your partner liking the area?" "How are your kids/goats/chickens/cats/iguanas?" You’re very likely to do this as an assigned mentor, but it’s great to encourage others in your department to do the same.
Proactively schedule time with the new faculty member. I know everyone is busy, but it only takes a few minutes to stop in and say "hi" when a new faculty member’s door is open. It only takes 30 minutes to have coffee or take a walk. And while it may take a few hours to invite someone over for dinner, it sends a message that you want to get to know your new colleague. And if you say "Let’s have lunch," actually follow up to make it happen. It’s the informal conversations, coffee dates, and meals that were cited by faculty members as an important way that colleagues made them feel welcome.
Celebrate and acknowledge achievements. During the first year, new faculty members are finding their footing, and it helps to heap on reassurance while the new person is building confidence and finding a place in the group. It could be as explicit as publicly celebrating their achievements (publishing an article, winning a grant) or as simple as acknowledging what you appreciate about the new person’s contributions to the department such as statements like "I appreciated your comment about ______ at the meeting." "I admire the way you __________."
Tell your new colleague why you’re glad they have joined the department. Given that the new faculty member was hired over hundreds of other candidates, it may feel obvious to you why you’re glad they have joined the department. But guess what? It may not be clear to them. Saying so directly, is simple, quick and powerful. One faculty member said it best: "I felt most like part of the community when scholars approached me about collaborative projects and commented about how my presence in the department helped fill gaps in research coverage and teaching. In other words, I felt most connected when colleagues found ways to let me know my presence mattered and were specific about how and why my presence mattered."
Take your new colleague seriously. Most new professors’ sense of belonging is catalyzed by senior faculty communicating respect for them as a colleague (as opposed to condescension or treating them as children). This can be done in a variety of ways that include asking for their opinion, incorporating their ideas, offering to read their early-stage work, or sharing ideas about teaching strategies. One faculty member summarized it by saying: “Approaching junior and new colleagues with the attitude that they are bringing something useful and necessary to the department. Not approaching their presence with the attitude that they are lucky to be there/have a job or that they are trouble-making radicals threatening to overhaul the department in detrimental ways."
Make the unspoken rules explicit. Department cultures vary dramatically on flexibility (from highly flexible to rigid) and cohesion (from disengaged to enmeshed). New faculty members need to know quickly whether it’s "normal" that people spend time together socially or whether people come and go with minimal interaction. And they need to know if the group as a whole is highly flexible and open to new ideas or if there is rigid adherence to the way things have always been done and new ideas are perceived as problematic challenges. One of the most powerful ways you can make a new faculty member feel welcome is to make the invisible and unspoken rules visible and transparent. Having this conversation before or after faculty meetings may be particularly helpful during the first term.
I hope that as you’re reading this it’s becoming clear that the first semester isn’t just about adjusting to a new campus and new colleagues, it’s a time of adjusting to a new professional identity. Your mentee will need extra support during the identity transition from graduate student (or post-doc) to professor. New faculty members make this transition most efficiently when they feel part of the departmental community. A small number of strategic actions can go a long way toward supporting their transition. And best of all, these short-term investments in cultivating a sense of belonging will pay long term dividends in retaining these same faculty members down the road.
This week I challenge you to:
1) Remember how you felt during your first semester in your first tenure-track job and how easy (or difficult) it was for you to fit in to a new department. Try remembering specifically what types of behaviors helped you to feel welcome and like you truly belonged in the space.
2) Review the list of behaviors that faculty shared with us as nurturing their sense of belonging and becoming a valued member of their new department and ask yourself: Which of these am I already doing and which ones will require some effort?
3) If you haven’t set up your initial mentoring meeting with your new faculty mentee, go ahead and make the call.
4) Consider sharing this column with your colleagues who could use some gentle encouragement or a reminder about the kinds of things that foster belonging in new faculty members.
I hope this week brings you a willingness to experiment and openly discuss how your department welcomes new faculty members and lets them know how much you value their presence and contributions.
Peace and positive mentoring,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore