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New Kid on the Block

October 22, 2010

Being the new kid on the block -- a junior faculty member newly arrived on campus -- presents multiple challenges you’ll need to manage to lay the foundation for a successful career.

As a beginning assistant professor, you’re likely to be struck by how different everything feels, even as you engage in the teaching and research activities you’ve been doing for years. What’s different now is that you have a title, status, and independent responsibility. You’ll also be teaching and conducting research for the first time without the direct support and guidance of your adviser.

At the same time, a lot more is riding on your performance. From now on, you’ll be building the record that will determine the success of your eventual bid for tenure. Recognizing what’s at stake for you, your department chair or other senior colleagues may advise, “Just keep your head down and do your own work.”

While this advice may resonate with your own sense of urgency to focus on the high-stakes work of teaching and research, I encourage you to take a longer view. Even as you pour yourself into building your teaching and research portfolio, bear in mind that you also need to build relationships that will contribute to your career success and satisfaction. First and foremost among these is your relationship with your new colleagues.

Why is this worth doing? In the short run, your relationships with your new colleagues can make the difference between sailing toward tenure and fighting a headwind for six or seven years. It’s simply a fact of human nature that we’re more kindly disposed to those with whom we have a cordial relationship than to those whom we don’t know. (To get a feel for the difference, consider how you respond to a manuscript written by a friend compared to one by an author you’ve never met.) Your colleagues will eventually sit in judgment of your work, and it just makes sense to ensure that they know you and your work and value you as a colleague.

Perhaps equally important, relationships begun now can make your professional life far more successful and satisfying than it would otherwise be. When I began my first job fresh out of graduate school, I assumed I’d be moving on in a year or two and consequently didn’t see the need to build relationships. Half a dozen years later, I hadn’t moved on, and it dawned on me that some of my colleagues might be down the hall from me for my entire career. My short-term thinking and bags-are-packed attitude didn’t damage my career: my colleagues were too wise for that. But paying too little attention to building relationships did diminish my satisfaction with my work in those first years.

What I’m recommending here may be a stretch for some new faculty. Academics are often introverts who thrive in the comparative isolation of academic work and don’t feel the need to form personal connections. Others may find building new relationships to be an additional stress during an already stressful time. Still others may find the idea of working consciously on building relationships contrived, perhaps even downright dishonest.

So let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that you suck up to your new colleagues or try to ingratiate yourself in any way that might compromise your integrity. I am suggesting that putting intentional effort into building and maintaining cordial, respectful relationships with your colleagues should be part of your professional agenda from the start.

Beyond self-interest, becoming a valued colleague is integral to becoming a mature and happy professional. If you haven’t already seen him or her, you surely will: the academic “star” who’s a poor — and therefore alienated — colleague. Striving for scholarly success without regard for making personal connections can ultimately be an arid and lonely enterprise.

So don’t neglect this obligation to yourself and others. Find ways to develop and sustain relationships with your new colleagues. If you’re at a loss how to begin, try expressing curiosity about their research and teaching. It’s is a surefire way to spark lively conversations: we all love to be asked about the work we’re doing.

A word of caution: resist the understandable temptation to rely on committee or department meetings to build relationships with your new colleagues. Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll quickly discover that faculty meetings are more likely to reveal the strains in existing relationships than afford opportunities to forge new ones. Developing relationships with your new colleagues is best done individually and informally.

Next to your faculty colleagues, your relationship with your undergraduate students deserves careful thought. You may still think of yourself — and be — young and footloose. Your students, however, will think of you first and foremost as their professor. (Remember, you have a title and status now!) Like it or not, your students will look up to you not as the trembling newbie you may feel yourself to be but as someone from a loftier plane of existence. Don’t be tempted to blur the line between being friendly and becoming your students’ friend. Students don’t need you — and, in the end, don’t want you — to be their friend. They need instead your expertise, guidance, and high expectations for them.

The same advice holds true for new faculty who work with graduate students. Because you’re likely to be close in age to your graduate students, it may feel very natural to you to behave like the graduate student or postdoc you were only a short time ago. Trust me, though: having your picture posted on Facebook, Jello shot in hand, hot tubbing with your students will not be a career builder. And that’s not the worst that can happen if you fail to respect the boundaries that come with being a professor.

Finally, let me say a word about a group of people often overlooked or taken for granted by faculty settling into new positions and institutions: the administrative staff in your department office and around campus. They’re not academics, but they make the academic trains run on time. Treat them with the same respect and consideration you give to your faculty colleagues, and they’ll move mountains to help you achieve your goals.

The bottom line is this: even in a profession that places a premium on intelligence and individual intellectual accomplishments, ours remains a human institution in which relationships do matter. Devoting conscious time and attention to building strong relationships is worth doing, even as you strive to meet the many other demands of your new role.

Bio

John P. Frazee is director of faculty relations at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

 

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