Starting Over, Part 1

August 15, 2014

First, congratulations. You got a job, which isn’t easy to do these days.

I know you’re probably very stressed out right now. I’ve felt that way four times. I have written elsewhere of my academic employment history, but suffice it to say, yes: four tenure-track jobs, four cross-country moves, four universities, four times I’ve started from scratch.

So, here’s my hard-earned advice about adjusting to a new place, managing your expectations, and getting what you really want. There’s a lot here, so I’m delivering it in two parts – today and Monday.

1. Find a mentor.

If your new department doesn’t assign you one, ask for one. And if you aren’t formally assigned a mentor, find yourself one and be grateful to that person.

Make sure you find a faculty member at the same rank as you or higher. It’s tempting to ask grad students for advice. They will give you an earful, but that’s not mentoring. That’s gossip. As much as grad students like to think they have seen “the man behind the curtain,” they really haven’t. Students are transient. You need to talk to someone permanent.


Beware the first person who comes up to you and informally volunteers to “tell it like it is.”

I taught in a department where no formal mentor was assigned. I frequently felt lost. So when the university created a mentoring program for junior faculty, I joined immediately. I was placed in a small group led by a senior faculty member. None of us came from the same department, and so we felt free to speak and worry and speculate. But after one year, the university disbanded the program. We kept meeting anyway because the group was safe, supportive, and revelatory. 

2.  Stop thinking and acting like a grad student.

This one’s hard, especially when you’re young and feeling a bit like an imposter, but your social life should not revolve around your graduate students -- and certainly not your undergraduates. Even though grad students are your age and share your interests. Even though they love you a little. Even though everybody else in your department is old and maybe a tad dull. Even though -- and especially when -- you’re lonely and bored.

When you were a graduate student, you saw faculty members only in terms of their value to you, but trust me, your needs occupied only a portion of their attention. What was the bigger picture? That’s what you must learn in order to shift your identity from “student” to “faculty member.”

Of course you want to serve the graduate students better! But understand: this is you trying to fix the program from which you yourself emerged.

Of course you want grad students to want to work with you! But understand: this is you trying to be your dream dissertation director.

Of course you want to mentor grad students! But understand: the best possible thing you can do for them is get tenure.

I learned all of this the hard way. 


No comment.

3. Grow up.

No more binge-writing. No more all-night grading sessions. Robert Boice’s excellent book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (which means “nothing in excess”) is brilliant in this regard. He advises you to “work in brief, economical sessions” and to “stop in a timely fashion.”


One night, a former colleague of mine saw me taking papers home to grade. He told me that during his first year of full-time teaching, his wife had just had a baby. He spent all day at school, but when he got home -- in the evenings, on the weekends -- she needed him for child care.

So right off the bat, he got into the habit of doing his grading and prep before he left his university office so that, at home, he could write and spend time with his family. Ever since then, I’ve pretended I have a baby at home -- even though I don’t -- in order to compartmentalize my teaching, something that gets harder and harder to do in the electronic age.   

4. Do the math.

It’s incredibly difficult to gauge how much work to assign students when you start a new job. I think you have to be at a college or university for at least a year or more to get it right.

But here are some things you can do to avoid mid-semester meltdowns.

  • Ask to see a sampling of syllabuses of the classes you’ll be teaching; how much work do others generally assign? They know what works.
  • Are you teaching on quarters or semesters? Are the courses 4 credits or 3 credits?
  • Ask how many classes students generally take a semester. If they take four a term, your course will probably need to be a little more rigorous than if they take five or six a term.
  • How many students will be in your classes?


My hardest semester of teaching was my first semester in my first tenure-track job. I went from teaching four classes a semester (eight classes a year) to teaching three courses a quarter (nine a year). I also went from teaching 15 students a section to 25. I made two mistakes: I crammed my semester syllabuses into quarters, and I tried to do for 25 students at College B what I'd been doing for 15 students at College A, and I almost died.

5. Think like a lawyer.

Imagine you’re a lawyer and keep track of your billable hours. The typical college professor puts in 50 to 70 hours a week, so let’s be really conservative and say you’re going to work 55 hours a week. That’s over nine hours a day, six days a week. Remember that for a typical tenure-track college professor, “work” is R, T, S:

  • Research/Writing
  • Teaching
  • Service

Strive for a R/T/S ratio of, let’s say, 30/60/10.

  • Research: 30 percent of 55 hours is 16.5 hours a week or 2.75 hours a day.
  • Teaching: 60 percent of 55 hours is 33 hours a week or 5.5 hours a day.
  • Service: 10 percent of 55 hours is 5.5 hours a week or less than an hour a day.

I hope this breakdown is clarifying to you. It should be.

If you’re teaching at a school where the research expectations are high, the ratio might be 40/55/5.

If you’re teaching at a school where the research expectations are low and the teaching or service expectations are high, the ratio might be 10/60/30.

I’m very glad that I spent two years as a non-tenure-track (NTT) instructor. Once you have a 4/4, you understand how to make the best use of a 3/3 or a 2/2.

Remember: my ratio applies no matter your load, which means – ideally -- you’re supposed to spend approximately 33 hours a week on your teaching no matter what your load is.


The first time I did the math, I was teaching a 3/3/3 with 25 students per class, and I was dying. I argued with myself. Didn’t the students at College B deserve what I’d given the students at College A? Sure, but I also needed to give them what College B was paying me to give them. And so I found other ways to be an effective teacher without writing a treatise on every single assignment and meeting one-on-one with students on multiple drafts.

Whether they understood it consciously or not, students chose to go to College B (which devoted fewer resources to writing instruction) than College A (which devoted more resources to writing instruction). I decided that it was not my responsibility to give students at College B the same quality education as students at College A, because this could only be achieved at the expense of my own writing time, which was already limited, and my personal life, which I was trying very hard to have.

That was the beginning of an important process for me: becoming a more resourceful, effective, and healthy teacher instead of the humble and selfless servant I’d been raised to be.


Part 2 of this column will appear on Monday.


Cathy Day is an associate professor of English at Ball State University.

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