Prepare for the Unexpected

Rashawn Ray describes how to survive your first year on the tenure track.

September 12, 2013

The clock is ticking…. Anxiety is high…. The tenure clock started only a few days ago, but it feels like an eternity.

This is how I felt over the past few years. I hope what I have learned can be helpful to others. Below I detail a few lessons I try to abide by as I aim to thrive and not just survive the tenure track.

First, you won’t get much done in your first year. Accept it and move on. Part of accepting it is having realistic expectations and goals, and rewarding yourself for accomplishments that may not show up in your tenure file. For example, I moved from Maryland to California with a wife, two kids, and a cat. I completely underestimated how tumultuous the cross country move would be. While I was prepared for the fast pace of the tenure track, I was not prepared for the adjustment of my family. In short, life happens. It is difficult to prepare for how long it will take to find affordable, trustworthy childcare. I also underestimated all of the employment paperwork I needed to complete, especially when office staff do not properly file that paperwork and your benefits and dependents simply do not add up.

The point is that before you can even begin to actually work in your office you must take care of home. An unsettled home environment can at times be more detrimental than an unwelcoming work environment. As a result, be sure to celebrate accomplishments including closing on a home, finding your favorite coffee shop or gym, or discovering a quicker route to campus. All of these accomplishments will make your work life more productive in the long run.

Since I was moving to the University of Maryland after completing a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research program postdoctoral fellowship at Berkeley, I was a bit less stressed about publishing than I otherwise might have been. I was fortunate to have five articles accepted for publication and negotiated with Maryland to have my publications at Berkeley count toward tenure. My experience alludes to the importance of negotiations at the time of hire.

Having relatively clear tenure expectations is essential. If colleagues are ambiguous about what it will take to obtain tenure, review the records of those recently granted tenure. If there is no one who fits this criterion, meet with your chair regularly to discuss your progress. Do not wait until your review time. It is then important to create a tenure plan that includes a primary plan and a couple of contingencies to make your pursuit toward tenure manageable.

Time off also is important to negotiate. If you get time off from teaching, decide whether it is more important to have a reduced teaching load in the fall or spring. There are different perspectives on this. One perspective asserts that taking the course release in the fall is appropriate considering you may need time to adjust. Another perspective asserts that the course release in the spring is more important for research because you can have more time to focus on writing. I chose the former since I had to deal with childcare issues and a spouse interviewing for jobs.

Second, plan to allocate a set amount of time to get to know your colleagues. Do not wait for them to initiative a lunch or a coffee meeting. Take the initiative. One way to do this is to make it a goal to meet with one new faculty member each week. Remember, for the most part they want you in the department and want to see you succeed. However, it may be up to you to facilitate the networking part of this process. Your main goal should be to learn the departmental culture and politics. Meeting with your new colleagues is one of the best ways to accomplish these goals. Through these meetings, you will forge relationships in personal and professional ways that will be beneficial to your career. You will also quickly learn which of your colleagues are weird, or the ones who may think you are. Yet, by meeting with several faculty, it will be gratifying to learn that you are not the only one who thinks someone has awkward social skills. Accordingly, if you look young, be prepared for faculty and students who will perceive you as a student. Even though I have a hard time doing this myself, view it as a complement because we will not be “forever young.”

Third, learn how to protect your time. Figure out the two hours out of the day that you are most productive. Ensure that you write during those two hours. You will nearly double your productivity during that time. Another strategy for protecting your time is to fill up your schedule with blocks of time for writing, eating, and exercising. If you schedule time in your calendar to write, you are less likely to schedule meetings with colleagues and students during that time.

My strategy for making sure I effectively use my time is to write down daily goals on the white board hanging on my wall. I then decide how much time each task will take. Some of these tasks may include prepping a lecture, reviewing a paper, or constructing tables for an article submission. If I do not get the tasks completed, I stay up late to finish these tasks. For me, this means finishing the tasks after working all day and then coming home to prepare meals for my boys, give baths, engage in playtime, and then “go night night time.” After several nights of no sleep, I now make sure I get my planned tasks completed during the day. I also feel a daily sense of accomplishment because I write down my tasks and cross them out as they are complete. I then calculate how much time it takes me to complete each task so I know the next time an appropriate amount of time to allocate.

Next, take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. The pace that you kept while writing the dissertation cannot be the pace you keep for the duration of your career. Similar to graduate school, the tenure track is a marathon not a sprint. Learn a consistent, workable routine or else you will burn out. Aim to develop a doable work schedule that does not literally kill you softy. As I mentioned above, be sure to actually schedule physical activity in your calendar. You will be more productive because of physical fitness.

Finally, reduce the time devoted to teaching and mentoring. Teaching and mentoring students can be very time consuming, especially for under-represented minority faculty. We can all relate to the fourth year graduate student with no mentor. However, it is not your job to fill that void. Your job is to get tenure. Additionally, there are probably valid reasons as to why that student may not have a mentor. Talking to colleagues and reading the students’ graduate file can give you insight into any issues. This does not preclude you from meeting with the student once or twice to provide advice but serving as an advisor or co-dissertation chair might not be wise. Correspondingly, a 30 minute meeting is adequate for students, especially if you meet with them biweekly or monthly. Set an alarm to end the meeting if you need to. As you gain a sense of the student’s skill set, brainstorm with the student ways for you to collaborate on a mutually beneficial project. This is one of the best ways for students to actually learn the publishing process.

If you are prepping a new course, do not reinvent the wheel. It is ok to get the notes from a colleague who has taught the course previously. You can put your own stamp on it along the way. What is important for interacting with students and teaching courses is to allocate a set amount of hours on set days to focus on these tasks. I find it difficult to go from writing to teaching and back to writing. As a result, I try to allocate two days for teaching and meeting with students. I also aim to teach on the days we have faculty meetings or brown bags. I then allocate the remainder 2.5 weekdays to write.

In sum, remember the main purpose—Tenure! If you are at a Research-I university, the publishing expectations are high. While people appreciate your service and mentorship, it won’t matter if the publications do not accompany it. We are in this for the long haul.

Peace and solidarity.


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