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Essay of advice for those starting careers as assistant professors

Advice for New Hires

August 28, 2013

This is generic advice for new assistant professors, which began as a conversation over lunch in the 1980s and has evolved over the years. I have been told by quite a few people that this helped them or that they wished they had seen it sooner in their careers. My first job was in a deeply factionalized department, which doubtless influenced my perceptions of how things can go wrong. But even a collegial department like my current job can inadvertently include potential land mines for new faculty, and over the years I’ve learned of many situations in other departments that have influenced how I think what can happen. Also, some of this seems dated as the times have changed and now many people’s first job is as an adjunct instead of as an assistant professor, but I think I’ll just let that stand.

1. Don't take anything personally, especially not at first. People will often treat you as insignificant. This is not because they don’t like you, but because they are socially inept. Most of us are comfortable with the people we already know, and are not good at being friendly to new people. The old-timers ought to go out of their way to be friendly and inclusive to someone new (you) but they probably will not, and you should just chalk it up to poor social skills.

2. Help integrate yourself. Even if you are normally more productive writing at home, work in the office a lot during the first year. Make a point of loitering in the hall when it is near lunch time, so people will notice you and think of asking you along. If needed, ask them to lunch. Ask people's advice about how things are done in the local administrative climate. Every bureaucracy is different, and no one will think you are an idiot because you have to ask how to get things copied, how the library system works, etc. Asking advice is one way to initiate a conversation and get to know someone. Similarly, you can readily ask what the local norms are about reading assignments, tests, papers, grading curves, teaching assistants and grading assistants, etc. In a research-oriented environment, you can also ask advice about placing articles for publication, book publishers, etc. and can probably ask people to read and comment on your papers.

3. Your best friends are likely to be the other assistant professors, but do not avoid the senior people. Treat them with friendly respect. If they treat you as an equal, treat them back as an equal. Some older people prefer mild deference, even if they do not acknowledge that they do; others hate to admit that they are older or established, and want you to treat them as buddies. Try to respond to their cues in this. The safest stance is one where you think well of yourself, but give mild respect to someone senior on the grounds that they have more experience.

4. Do NOT attempt to reform ANYTHING for at least a year, preferably two or three. No matter how stupid the curriculum or other things seem, leave them alone until you have been there long enough to know why they are there and whose interests are at stake. Similarly, try to avoid being drawn into factional disputes. Do your best to be friendly to everyone and to establish good working relationships with everyone you can. Most people will respect a stance of, "You really sound reasonable, but I'm new here and I need to get oriented before I go out on a limb about something like that." Also, avoid challenging anybody for at least a year, again until you learn who is who and what the real issues are. Some people have abrasive personalities or are so shy that they will seem "out of it" who actually are quite reasonable people when you get to know them. Conversely, some sociopaths are friendly at first.

5. Make sure you understand as soon as possible what kind of institution you are at and what it takes to get tenure. At a research university, it is publishing that gets you tenure. Students who like you can be a great ego-trip and can make you feel good in the rough times of establishing yourself, but if you orient yourself to the students, you won't be getting your work done. Be sure to carve out time and mental energy for your own work. And remember that a high proportion of your "social" time should be getting to know other faculty, so don't so surround yourself with students that you are inaccessible to faculty. At the same time, don't blow off students, even at a research university. You need to treat students with respect and you need to do at least an adequate teaching job no matter how prestigious your department. Managing student relationships is one of the most difficult parts of professoring, and you will discover that it is a topic you can discuss with other faculty and is one of the conversation starters you can use in getting to know people.

6. Similarly, remember that curriculum and other administrative reforms are very time consuming and will not get you tenure. Try to avoid all such hassles until you are established. Some things really seem like moral imperatives, but if you follow rule 4 and don't do anything until you've been there long enough to really understand the situation, you'll also be that much closer to being established. Someone who has tenure should be taking the lead in a major crusade.

7. If your institution is teaching-oriented, the advice about the proper mix is different. At teaching-oriented schools, you have to please the students, and being a good citizen administratively is important. You should have gotten clear messages in the hiring process about what is important, but you need to be a good field researcher in your first few years to make sure you know what is what. Research-oriented schools will have focused the interview on your research, while more teaching-oriented schools will have focused on their teaching needs. But colleges can send very mixed messages about just what they want from young people. Deans "on the make" may be upping the research standards compared to what the older people did. Or departments may talk a research line, but really be oriented toward people "fitting in." Research departments vary in how they “count” publications and what kinds of profiles they want people to develop, and teaching departments vary greatly in how they measure good teaching. It is VERY important to talk to lots of different people and accumulate data. The first person you talk to could be an isolate who has no idea what the real system is. Talk to people in other departments, talk to tenured people and not just other junior people, try to get to know your dean if you can. Collegewide committee service can sometimes be useful for this, although it runs the risk of overburdening you with service.

8. Many people have culture shock or hate their jobs in the first year or two. This is normal. However, if you realize that your current job does not fit your long-term goals, you need to work on being mobile. This means keeping your research and teaching up and going to conferences, even if you have to pay your own way, and letting your friends and acquaintances know that you'd prefer a different job. But don't speak ill of your present colleagues, even if they deserve it. It is more likely to make you look bad than them, and there is always the risk that they'll hear what you said about them before you find another job. Similarly, you need to keep doing a good job (or at least an adequate job) at the job you have. A reputation as a "bad citizen" will haunt you.

9. Pay attention to the possibility of gender or race or ethnic or political discrimination, but try not to be paranoid or oversensitive. Even if you privately believe someone is racist or sexist or anti-male or anti-white or homophobic or whatever, keep it to yourself and give the person a break while you get to know him/her better. This does not mean you have to demean yourself -- you can and should always act like a person who expects to be treated equally and with respect, but you can do it cheerfully, without a chip on your shoulder. You can defer somewhat to an older person on the grounds of their age and experience without compromising your integrity. Similarly, if you are doing some sort of "radical" or controversial research (or doing qualitative methodology in a quantitative department or vice versa), begin with the assumption that they liked that kind of work and that is why they hired you.

If people argue with you, respond cheerfully with the assumption that it is normal for scholars to disagree, and intellectual argument is the whole point of academics. You are trying to create the kind of relationships in which people know you as a person and can respect you while disagreeing with you. Notice that your half of this relationship is to offer the same kind of respect to people you disagree with. You can and should be friendly and collegial to all your colleagues, seeking to discover the points upon which you do have something in common, even if it is just is the desire to have a good department and a good working relationship.

10. But it can happen that people really are trying to "get" you or really are discriminating against you, and it can be crazy-making if you deny this. If you suspect this kind of problem, watch for evidence, but don't openly accuse them. Instead, work on making as many friends and allies as you can, and work on doing a good job. It is impossible to counter discrimination without allies. The more difficult one person or group is making your life, the more urgent it is that you network with everybody else you can. Talk to these other people about your problems, but in a guarded way, that tells your side of the problems, but leaves open the possibility that you are simply misunderstanding the person who is giving you difficulties. Leave the door open for the difficult person or group to back off or reform. But under no circumstances let yourself be isolated away from contacts with others inside and outside the institution.

If extreme things happen (e.g., sexual harassment, racial slurs, locking you out of your own lab, threats to "get you"), it is important to keep a diary of events and dates, and right away to tell your story as calmly and reasonably as possible to someone else. But, realistically, you are not likely to be believed unless other people have gotten to know you or that person has already given other people trouble. So, integrate yourself, integrate yourself, integrate yourself. And try not to be paranoid. The majority of people in any job will seem weird to you, and have peculiarities that make you uncomfortable. These you just need to learn to tolerate. The percentage of actually evil people in the world is pretty small.

11. I've realized that the above paragraph is about overt hostility, not unconscious prejudice or discrimination, which is a more common problem, but also subtle, complex and very difficult to deal with. I'll just give a few thoughts on the topic. First, the nature of unconscious prejudice and discrimination is not only that the person does not know s/he is doing it (and thus is not really capable of making a conscious choice to change), but the person is likely to react very defensively if such a possibility is pointed out. Thus, dealing with this overtly is very risky when you are in a subordinate position. Second, in most of these cases where you think you might be being treated unfairly, the situation is ambiguous and capable of multiple interpretations. Maybe you really do deserve to be paid less, or given a worse teaching assignment, or treated as less competent than a colleague; maybe you are discounting the qualifications or circumstances of the other people. Dwelling too much on this can depress or infuriate you, without giving you anything concrete you can actually do about the situation.

You would not be the first person to decide to just do your work and ignore it, and there is nothing immoral about just letting it go, or waiting until you are in a better position to deal with the situation institutionally or in collaboration with others. The more other people get to know you as a person, and the more cheerfully assertive you are about your work and your competence, the smaller the problem of unconscious discrimination is likely to be. At the same time, you need to seek out sources of social support to keep you from internalizing others’ negative reactions or treatment. Third, it may be a positive move to talk privately with a senior (tenured) or institutional support person about your concerns, if you believe you have identified someone who can be trusted to keep them confidential and not react defensively, nor go off on a political crusade that hurts you more than it helps you. Sometimes senior people are able to intervene in an unfair situation and provide some remedy without provoking a fight. Occasionally, a fight is appropriate and in your interest. It depends on the circumstances. Even if they cannot intervene, a senior person or mentor may be able to help you sort out your own feelings and decide on the best way to respond.

12. Keep your job in perspective. Work hard, but don’t let it ruin the rest of your life. Take care of yourself and your relationships. In some department cultures, you’ll be aware of other people’s families, relationships, hobbies, and politics. In others, the public department culture makes it appear that everyone is always working and people hide their personal lives. So you have to learn the culture before you decide how much to disclose. But regardless of how much you let others see it, seek to develop a sustainable lifestyle that involves enough sleep and exercise, human interaction, meaningful activities, and fun.

Bio

Pamela Oliver, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is embarking on her second term as department chair.

 

 

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