I tried to put this piece together a few months ago, when there was still time left in the first year of my tenure-track position. But it has taken the full summer to allow for reflection; even now, I’m focusing on what I wish I’d known when starting the tenure-track path as well as what I’ve learned since I’ve been on it.
When I first started to write this essay, I’d sit down after something particularly memorable happened -- my first time advising an English major, my first annual review, a faculty meeting -- and I would struggle to think about how this fit into the larger picture. Setting out to address the differences (that was always the most basic word, “differences”) between my graduate school life and dreams and the day-to-day realities of being an assistant professor, I’d get jammed up. Maybe it’s because life -- and by life I guess I mostly mean the work -- would find a way of interrupting.
They weren’t always unwanted disruptions, and many of them were self-created and, indeed, also productive and enjoyable. For example, I once began a draft of this essay with a paragraph about preparing annual review materials, leading me to realize I needed to update my CV. And there were other good distractions: reading the introduction of a dissertation by a Ph.D. student who was both a dedicated teacher and passionate about his project; designing a new undergraduate course; joining a committee about ways to improve student success. Regardless, the metaphorical knock on the office door seemed to be constant.
Of course, my experience is no different than any teacher's, but it doesn’t lessen the cold-water shock of the transition from graduate school to a full-time position. In the vast majority of cases, you are going to have to do much more than you were asked to do in graduate school. And, for me, this fact was epitomized by one specific moment.
It was right after my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, and I was outside getting pictures taken with a few friends and family members who attended the ceremony. My dissertation supervisor joined us. We posed for a couple of photographs, and my supervisor, who in the six years I’ve known him has never been anything but open and honest in his career advice, said the words that shape this piece: “Congratulations again, but you know that the hard work really begins now.”
Head still buzzing from the dissertation, the extra elements required for getting a dissertation approved by the graduate school and all the other minutiae of graduation, that was not what I wanted to hear. But I needed to. Why? Because all of this -- the gown, the photos, the dissertation and all the other work that came up to this moment -- could now be classified as a means to an end. This was a good thing, certainly, because I had the job I’d always wanted: a tenure-track position in a dynamic department to which I really wanted to contribute.
Here’s a hard thing to write: I really thought elation would be my primary mood after getting my first full-time academic job, but in truth there was a strange swirl of emotions. Certainly, relief was the first feeling. In graduate school, I’d idealized the tenure-track position, and if you started graduate school especially in 2008 or 2009, it’s not hard to imagine why; it epitomized the safest option in an increasingly shaky world. The U.S. economy had taken a swan dive into an empty pool, and education was in the direct line of the resulting mess. Still, as graduate students, we read, wrote and took the necessary classes in order to complete our degrees.
But we also braced ourselves for the worst: as graduate students in the field of English, we were spending immense amounts of time and money for the proverbial shot in the dark. When hanging out we’d discuss the job market as if we were sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. But there was also talk about people who, through good guidance (not to mention luck), were securing jobs at a variety of schools. So along with our ghost stories, there were narratives featuring someone who’d bucked the odds. We talked about these, too, in order to alleviate the gloom. So, in being offered a tenure-track job, I felt a sense of relief and happiness, however, I’d be lying if it were all that simple.
I had got what I wanted, sure, and there was a level of security if all went well. And I understood that I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in this market, especially considering how many of my graduate school friends -- great teachers who are engaged in compelling research -- have yet to find a permanent and satisfying position.
I knew if I continued to do the right things, I’d stay on track. But it was that if that I obsessed about; it was if that threw a bit of a shadow over my first year. At the same time I was offered a job, two friends had been denied tenure at their respective institutions; another friend, who was in her first year in a tenure-track position, had been shaken enough by her first year to start making a very serious plan B. (She’s since left academia.) So, there’s no doubt that these recent events became inserted into my thoughts.
And there was guilt, too, because I’d got what I’d wanted, and others either didn’t have jobs or were unhappy in what they had. I should’ve been able to find comfort in having a job, but I too often found myself spending my time fretting about what I might not be able to do rather than what I could do. By the start of my second year, I realized that worry had to be put away and replaced by a new mantra: controlling what I could and focusing on what I really love (teaching and writing). While the first year may have left me somewhat reeling, I know I wouldn’t do anything else.
So, here are the things I’ve learned:
If you’re given a faculty mentor, use him or her. If you don’t have a faculty mentor, find one.
My mentor has been one of the best things about this past year. One afternoon, I turned up at her office to talk about some rather minor questions about preparing materials for the annual review, but it turned into a conversation that encompassed some of the bigger concerns I discussed above. Because of the relationship we’d developed, I felt like I could be open with her, and learning from her has made me both a better colleague and teacher.
Although there are other junior faculty members you’re likely to bond with, there’s no substitute for someone who has been in the department for a number of years. Also, the fact that he or she has run the tenure gauntlet and come out the other side is reason enough to look for a mentor’s guidance. I’m really not exaggerating the extent to which my mentor has been a very immediate support system.
I have another colleague who preaches the importance of “time for you.” About halfway through the year, I noticed that he was able to be incredibly productive while also being generous with his time for students and service. I went to his office to ask him what the secret to this juggling act: I guess I expected to see regimented calendars and other accouterments of a “highly productive person.” He writes constantly, but he also enjoys a work/life balance that I admire.
The first thing he talked about was the importance of exercise, getting away from campus and coming back fresh. But he also simply starts from a very clear position. He cordons off a schedule in regards to his specific responsibilities (teaching and service), but he makes sure that he has time for himself.
In my experience, the amount of correspondence that you engage with on a daily basis increases significantly once you transition from graduate student to faculty member. The best advice I can give is to get on it. This may be obvious, but responding to colleagues promptly makes a bigger difference than you can imagine.
But there is also other myriad other communication -- with faculty members from other departments, with human resources, with the dean’s office, with students -- that requires one to always be cognizant of other people’s needs and deadlines.
This may sound like the start of a yoga video, but stick with me, it’s important in this context, too. During my first month on the job, I was told that I would be advising undergrad English majors. I wanted to make sure these undergraduate students had the best experience possible, and so I kept double-checking to make sure I knew exactly what I was doing.
But I also took a moment to try and enjoy it: they’d decided to major in English, become better writers, hopefully read the best things they’d ever read and think about how these skills might help them in a big, undecided future.
Christopher Garland is assistant professor of professional writing and public discourse in the department of English at the University of Southern Mississippi.
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