Tyro Tracts

Time on Campus

New professors need to learn how much they will be expected to be visibly in offices (or labs), and the unofficial answers may be as important as anything in the handbook, writes Nate Kreuter.

September 4, 2013

One of the most difficult negotiations for junior faculty members is how much time we should spend working on campus. This seemingly simple matter isn’t simple at all. Ignoring or misunderstanding expectations within your own departmental culture can lead to problems with colleagues, and perhaps even problems with tenure reviews down the road. Unlike other professions, where hours are set and we are either at work or at home, the boundaries are much blurrier in an academic career. Blurriness can lead to confusion, miscommunications, and misperceptions with the potential to hurt junior faculty members’ careers.

Within the culture of most institutions of higher education, very few hours are fixed for faculty members without full-time administrative responsibilities. Generally, the only times that faculty members are absolutely required to be on campus are for teaching and for holding mandatory office hours, the number of which is usually dictated by college or departmental policy, and for attending mandatory meetings.

Otherwise, faculty members in non-administrative appointments are generally free to come and go as they please, and are trusted, whether working on campus, from home, or from a field location, to get their work done on schedules of their own creation.

Following policy though might not be the same thing as meeting expectations. Some institutions and some departments may have very specific expectations for when you should, or should not, be on campus. How much time to spend on campus working in your office is primarily a matter of institutional and departmental culture. I know of very few colleges or universities that explicitly state a number of hours — outside of teaching and office hours — when faculty must be on campus.

While it is somewhat antiquated for departments to mandate, for example, that faculty members be on campus for 40 hours a week or five days a week, departments with any specific and rigid expectations actually do junior faculty members a favor by making their expectations explicit. Such expectations, in my experience, are more likely to occur at small universities or liberal arts colleges where community between faculty members and students is built into the tradition or mission of the institution. At larger private institutions and state universities, such explicit policies are unlikely to exist. Somewhat counterintuitively, I have heard of cases at research universities where junior faculty members who spent many hours on campus beyond their required ones were assumed to be shirking their research and writing obligations.

It bears repeating: your colleagues will have their own expectations for you. While none of us should be beholden to the arbitrary expectations of others, we still need to be aware of those expectations and treat them strategically.

At least at the beginning of your appointment, I think that the savvy move is to spend more time on campus (or in the lab, or the in the field, or wherever your department expects you to be) than might seem necessary, but within reason. Better to be the new person that everyone always sees around and working than the new person that no one has seen since the semester’s opening department meeting.

The best bet, though, is to find a mentor and solicit specific advice. Ask what the expectations are, how much they matter, and how to meet them. From the inquiries I’ve made, expectations about how much a faculty member should be working in his or her office vary so much that it’s difficult to generalize any advice. So find out what local expectations are, early, and figure out how to work within those expectations.

For better or worse, perceptions become realities. I don’t mean this in a cynical way, but managing your colleagues’ expectations is part of the job, part of how we acculturate ourselves into a new department with new colleagues at a new institution. As you prove your merit to your colleagues, it will become easier to adjust to hours and work habits that focus on your own needs, rather than departmental expectations.

How we spend our time on campus is also important. In addition to working, which sort of goes without saying, circulate amongst your colleagues from time to time. Part of an academic career is engaging in conversation with colleagues. Such engagement, when undertaken sincerely, is key to departmental collegiality. When you are on campus I think it’s a good idea to interact with your colleagues frequently. Ask them what they’re working on, and explain your own projects. If you’re lucky and indeed part of a collegial department, not only will your new colleagues provide ideas and advice for your own projects, but more formal collaborations may develop as well.

It’s also a good idea to attend departmental functions that occur outside of normal working hours. Sometimes we just need to get away from the people we work with, no matter how much we like them. While you certainly don’t need to spend all of your social hours with colleagues (and it probably wouldn’t be healthy to anyway), it is a good idea to attend major departmental functions, whether it is regular speaker series or research colloquium, or the department holiday party. If you are exhausted or not feeling up to socializing, consider at least making an appearance. If your department sponsors any high profile events on campus, attend those as well. Your colleagues need to see that you support departmental endeavors. And in a few years, you may be the person responsible for organizing the event.

How much time to spend on campus is one of the details of academic life that we sometimes forget to consider. Once you’re a faculty member though, you’ll be much more accountable for your time than you were as a graduate student. Taking stock of local expectations can prevent misunderstandings and smooth your transition into a new departmental culture.


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