Grad Student to Professor

Having just made the transition, Julia Mortyakova offers some advice.

July 8, 2011

Concluding my first academic year as a faculty member and the transition from graduate student to a full-time music professor, I want to share some reflections:


One piece of advice I received years ago about teaching is to "be yourself." I still believe in this philosophy, more so after my first teaching experience. I am naturally a friendly, informal person. When I started teaching, I noticed myself (late 20s) to be close to my students' age and among the youngest of my institution’s faculty. This proximity of age made some students view me as more of a friend. Although I am not a dictator in the classroom, the friendship model would make it difficult when it came time to decide about my students’ grades or other academic matters. As a result, I found a better way of approaching my new position -- as a leader.

Through my leadership experience, I learned that what matters in a leader is not age, but experience, knowledge and ability to lead. Viewing myself in such a light enabled me to make difficult decisions and explain those decisions to my students in an understandable way. For example, one day in class we were discussing the entrepreneurial elements of Mozart’s life. I then had the class discuss how they were planning to promote themselves in a tough economy, which led to a mini-workshop on résumé writing. In this scenario, not only did we learn music history, we also applied the skills to our daily lives, making it relevant.

Likewise, leaders are tasked with seeing the larger picture, or what could happen years ahead, as a result of their decisions. Sometimes, the decision that seems to hurt students’ feelings at the time is the decision that will later save them from a bigger mistake. This approach is particularly applicable in my field of music. Students come with different musical backgrounds prior to entering college. In some cases, having equal expectations for all is impossible. Some students learn faster or work harder than others.

It is also very important to note what career goals students have, such as where to teach, perform, or work in the case of music. Discussing future plans with students helps guide them on their path to goals that are both realistic and useful. Some students have visions of greatness, lack the desire to improve, and need to be initiated into the reality of the competitiveness of music. Other students lack confidence, even though they may have a stronger progress ratio and commitment to work. Applying the same standards and expectations for all students is easy, but that standard is not always what is best. I always remember that students and teachers are tied together throughout the rest of their musical careers. Students list their teachers on their résumés, and prospective students often ask teachers about their former students and what they accomplished.

The most important trademark of leaders is the ability to make decisions and confidently seeing them through. This trademark is important regardless of how much private deliberation goes along with each decision. Confidence makes students entrust themselves to the professor. I was in a situation recently in my music appreciation class where I could not get the technological aspects of my lecture to cooperate (PowerPoint, sound, Internet), and it was the beginning of the semester, so the students did not yet have books. I took the class to a piano laboratory next door and had them learn by playing the instruments. This quick decision, although not a part of the class curriculum, made them understand the concepts “hands on,” and I think they had fun.


Most graduate students have teaching experience as teaching assistants while in school. Some assistants design their own syllabuses and have complete control over teaching and evaluating students. However, a teaching assistant’s course is usually a part of a curriculum overseen by a professor in some way. Additionally, course content is either decided, suggested, or adopted by the department. When one becomes a professor, though, all course decisions fall on that professor. In my case, I started my new faculty position mid-semester. This provided very little time to plan my semester goals. I was forced to think fast, and could not worry and obsess about course content decisions.

Once I settled in my job and got to know the students, I realized the role I play in their education. For students who do not plan to go to graduate school, my music history class will be the history they will remember. As for those who will pursue graduate studies, what they learn in my class will prepare them for future placement examinations. Since my class is a survey course, I am limited in my depth of coverage of any one topic. Through my content choices, my students are limited to my point of view on what events or people are important enough to be included in lectures. I encourage them to have their papers focus on composers of their choice, regardless of whether we covered them in class, and they share their research with the rest of the class. However, I still agonize over my decisions and wonder in what situations my students will find themselves later in life. Have my classes adequately prepared my students to face future inquiries intelligently?

Another responsibility of mine is being an official or unofficial adviser. What do you tell students when they ask, "Should I go to graduate school now or work for a few years first?" Obviously, I know, or think I know, the answer for someone wanting a similar career path, but what about students pursuing other choices? I involve my colleagues and have them speak to the students, but I still consider other suggestions. One useful method is to have students read autobiographical literature written by people whose career path they aspire to follow. This way, students consult the experts even if no one is available to offer advice.


As a graduate student, I had a very busy schedule. During my last year as a doctoral student, I wrote my dissertation, played my final solo recital, took a full class load, and served as the president of the University of Miami Graduate Student Association and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. I also presented at seven conferences.

Those experiences best prepared me for the expectations of being an academic, a teacher, and an artist simultaneously. As an example, I taught five lecture classes this past semester, played several solo and chamber music recitals, and planned a national piano competition. Two of those five classes were not in my primary field, resulting in my working twice as much to prepare. Although I did not have much time to practice for my recitals, I had a consistent daily routine. Because of my experience of having a busy schedule in graduate school, I successfully balanced my time as a professor and a concert pianist.

I believe the path to balancing one's professional aspirations with daily duties is about setting clear, attainable daily goals and following through with each priority. An academic should not waste time to stress about the lack of freedom in a busy schedule. Many graduate students tend to focus on their academic research more than their extracurricular activities. I personally found my ability to balance various leadership roles with my academic work in graduate school best prepared me for my present schedule.


One of the hardest tasks for a busy professor is finding time to spend with one’s colleagues. It is too easy to be consumed with one’s own class preparation and creative work. For a young academic, it is imperative to find an unofficial mentor, someone who can be approached for advice regarding university policies of conduct and traditions. In my case, my department is small and different from the ones I experienced as a student. While a faculty member in my graduate schools for the most part focused on one teaching area, most of our faculty have two or more areas that we teach.

Therefore, I needed to leave my assumptions about how academe works and observe the environment around me to stay in tune with other faculty and their work. For example, I was always checking my e-mail as a student, and my students now use other forms of communication: social networking sites, cell phone, etc.

An important point is to try involving others in departmental projects, even if all that matters is their attendance. From my experience, I organized several concerts and events my first year to bring our department closer and showcase our work to administrators.

Nobody wants to be the “lone ranger.” Besides the obvious support one needs in later attaining a higher rank and tenure, support of other faculty is needed for issues of trust. If a situation arose with a faculty’s advisee, that person would know you kept them in the loop about what was happening and took all possible measures to resolve the problem. While students arrive and graduate, faculty members have to stay and work together. Having that respectful atmosphere is very important to achieving this end.


My experiences are unique to my faculty position, my field, my department, and my institution. I am sure other professors have different thoughts. However, my goal was to start the conversation and paint one example of a graduate student who transitioned into the life of a faculty member. I hope the readers will add stories of their first year of teaching in the comments below.


Julia Mortyakova is assistant professor of music at Alcorn State University.


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