What I Wish I Had Known

Kirstie Ramsey reflects on what would have been good knowledge when she was starting on the tenure track.

July 8, 2015

As I look back on my employment since graduating with my Ph.D., I realize that there are numerous things that I wish I had known much earlier in my career. This list is not intended to deter you from an academic career, or portray it as being the best job option available. It is simply a list of things that I wish I had known before I even graduated.

1. Many colleges and universities are going through a transition from a time when research was not that important to a time when it is imperative. If you are at one of these institutions and you were under the impression that a certain amount of research would get you tenure, you should not be surprised if the amount of research you will need increases dramatically before you actually go up for tenure. At first I thought that a couple of peer-reviewed articles would be enough for tenure, especially since I do not teach at a research university and I am in a discipline where many people do not go into academe. However, during my first year on the tenure track at my current institution, I realized that only two articles would not allow me to jump through the tenure hoop.

2. When you go up for tenure, look at successful tenure applications that were submitted within the last two years. If you obtain examples of successful applications that are older than this, the research expectations at that time may not accurately reflect what they are today.

3. She/he who gets course releases is more likely to get research done and she/he who gets research done is more likely to get more course releases and funding in the future. Note that I am an assistant professor at a liberal arts college where a person in my position is responsible for teaching 24 credit hours per year. I am thankful to be working at an institution that offers course releases on a competitive basis. Unfortunately it took me a couple of years to realize that I should be taking advantage of this opportunity. In the last several years I have applied for course releases at both the university and department level, and my success with these applications has allowed me time to work on numerous research projects.

4. A course release is nice, but it often does not save you much time if you do not plan accordingly. For example, in some semesters I was planning to teach three courses with two total course preparations. When I took a course release and ended up teaching two different courses, I still did not have much extra time. However, when I took a course release and was able to have two classes with only one course preparation, I did actually have significantly more time for research.

5. If you have a paper that has been accepted and it is being published after you are planning to take a full-time job, you may want to try to get your new institution’s name on it. If your old employer’s name is listed, it might not count toward tenure or promotion. My first peer-reviewed publication, which was published in one of the best journals in which I have ever published, had the name of the university where I worked during my first two years after graduate school. However, the paper was not actually published until I had been teaching at my current university for a semester. In hindsight, I should have contacted the journal immediately after signing my new contract and resigning from my first tenure-track position, but I did not do this. In the end it did not matter since I earned tenure anyway, although I spent years worrying about this.

6. A good research record could possibly increase your salary, even at a teaching-oriented college. A great teaching record will likely not increase your salary if it is combined with low research productivity.

7. If you are not getting denied from journals, this could very likely mean that you are not submitting enough. Think about it this way (and for now assume that all papers and journals are equal in weight, even though this is not true): by the time you go up for tenure, would your university rather that you had three papers submitted and published or 12 papers submitted and six published?

8. There may have been somebody who was denied tenure for not doing enough service, but I have never heard of it. Of the three areas (teaching, research and service), service is the one you could easily ramp up in a few years. With service obligations, you are not at the whim of reviewers or student evaluations. Additionally, I have even heard others say that you need to be careful about doing a fantastic job with your service obligations, because this could put you first in line for numerous future service obligations, which reduces your time for teaching and research.

9. At many nonresearch universities, external grants are not necessary to earn tenure. However, if you apply for one and/or receive one, this could put you in a much better position for your tenure application. It is a lot harder to deny people tenure if they are bringing money in.

10. If you went into academe to have the summers off, this plan will likely not pan out during your pretenure years. Even if you are paid for only nine months of work, you will probably have to work for free during the summers, especially before tenure. Research is important, and there is often little time during the academic year to get it done if you have significant teaching responsibilities. Before I went up for tenure, I took very little time off, especially during the summer. To be honest, though, even while on the tenure track, I did exercise more and I also spent more quality time with my family during the summers compared to the academic year. I always felt like I was working in the summers, but it may not have even been 30 hours a week. Another thing to consider if you have small children is that if you want to get work done during the summer, you will probably have to continue paying for day care, so be sure to plan your finances accordingly.

11. Look for internal or external opportunities for summer funding. I applied for an internal summer research grant during my second year at my current institution. I was denied, and unfortunately I did not even attempt another internal summer funding application until years later. I have successfully earned summer funding for the last two years, in large part because my publication record is now a lot better than it was years ago.

12. To save time, work smarter and not harder. For example, spend time up front making assignments that can be administered online, or at least partially online, so that you do not have as much grading to complete. Also, if you assign papers or projects, do not make them all individual assignments. Most people do not have time to read 60 papers in a weekend, although those teaching writing courses may be able to achieve that. It is more realistic to read a dozen group projects in a single weekend, and group projects also give students experience working with others, which they will likely have to do in the real world after college.

13. It is common to submit a yearly review in which you list and discuss all of your accomplishments, new teaching techniques that you have tried, projects on which you are working, professional development, service obligations, etc. Typically my annual write-up that I submit to my dean is five to 10 pages. This is a lot to remember throughout the year, but I have found success in writing emails to myself. I am continually forwarding the same email to myself, with additional information each time I try something new in my teaching, take on another service responsibility, publish another paper, give a presentation, etc. Then once it is time for my annual write-up, I basically already have a draft.

14. Work-life balance is extremely hard in academe. However, I have great friends in my field who did not take the academic route, and work-life balance is often extremely challenging for them as well. Therefore, it may seem that the grass is greener on the other side, but this may not actually be the case.

15. Despite how hectic and overwhelming your first year in academia is (or rather your first several years), things will get better. My first few years I had a lot of new class preparations, but now I often have semesters where I do not have any new course preparations. Additionally, I was extremely stressed during my first few years on the tenure track because I was very worried about research and publications and I was uncertain of the path that my research agenda was taking. However, I now have numerous projects in the pipeline in different stages and with various collaborators, which is often a key component to a successful research program.

16. If your first academic position does not work out, apply elsewhere in your first, second or third year of your first job. This is a good time to apply for another position since you already have a job, and it is clear that you are not in the situation where you are applying for jobs because of being denied tenure. I applied for about 35 positions at the end of graduate school, but during my second year on the tenure track at my first institution, I applied to only three positions. These were all positions that looked very good to me, and I could have taken interviews at all three universities, although I ended up accepting a job at my current institution before I was able to set up the other two interviews.

17. Seek out mentors! I have mentored two graduate students from my alma mater in their last years of graduate school before going into academe. Both of these people contacted me, and I was able to participate as a mentor in a formal program set up by my alma mater, which happens to be nearby. I am also informally mentoring a graduate student in another state who will be likely starting an academic career soon. I have shared many of the things on this list with my mentees. One reason for this is that I wish others had communicated all of this information with me. I was not as active as I should have been in seeking out mentors for myself early in my career, but I am finally becoming more proactive about networking, seeking out advice and finding mentors who can help me advance my career while usually maintaining work-life balance.


Kirstie Ramsey is the pseudonym of a mother, wife and associate professor in a STEM field.


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