Truths to Be Told: The First Job

Terri E. Givens describes her first job and some of the lessons she learned.

September 28, 2017
University of Washington

In my last post, I focused on my time in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the transition to my first job. Some people might say I was lucky to get a tenure-track job at a top-notch program straight out of grad school, but luck had little to do with it. If you walk down the hallway of any top college or university and look where the professors received their degrees, you’ll see the same top 20 institutions repeated over and over again.

As found in a 2012 study of political science placements and reported by Inside Higher Ed, “The top 11 institutions were collectively responsible for the doctoral education of about half of those in tenured or tenure-track positions at all ranked institutions, leaving more than 100 departments to ‘contest the remaining 50 percent of openings.’” I knew that going to a top program at UCLA would put me in a good position for a job -- but of course, I also had to do the work of getting published and finishing my dissertation.

Going to work at University of Washington was a dream come true. I was back in my home state, close to my family and at an institution with a strong program in European studies. I felt confident, but that didn’t keep that monster, impostor syndrome, from creeping in and feeding my anxieties. How would students react to an African-American woman professor teaching European politics?

On the personal front, my husband and I were hoping to start a family and had the heartbreak of a miscarriage while I was finishing my dissertation. I also worried about all the admonitions I had heard about waiting to start a family until after tenure, but I was already in my mid-30s and did not want to lose any chance I had at having a family. We continued trying, and with a little help from the fertility doctor, we were blessed to get a start to our family. My son would be born in September 2000, after my first year on the job.

I had a lot to learn that first year. My first day in the classroom was a disaster -- the AV didn’t work, and I was flustered. However, I managed to move past that bad start and took full advantage of the great center for teaching and learning at UW. The students were responsive and engaged once I had a chance to get settled into the classroom. Although I think some wondered if they were in the right spot when an African-American woman walked into a class on European politics, my reputation soon spread, and I had full classes. I loved teaching, and it was great to be running my own classroom.

It took me a while to get a sense of the departmental politics. My department chair warned me that I shouldn’t get too involved with the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, as apparently there had been frictions between the department of political science and the Jackson School in the past. However, the Center for Western European Studies was located in the Jackson School, so that advice didn’t make any sense, given that my research focus is European politics. In the end, I was able to develop a good relationship with the faculty and staff members who were connected to the center, which was helpful for developing connections to departments outside my own, as well as with potential research collaborators. And I learned that following a colleague’s advice, even when it’s your department chair, may not always be in your best interest. It’s important to consider other factors that might not be part of that person’s calculations in giving the advice.

I taught my first graduate students, which was one of the more rewarding parts of the job. Since I knew I had to publish and turn my dissertation into a book, I was glad to have eager research assistants who became co-authors on many of my publications. However, one of my proudest moments was getting my first single-authored article published in a top comparative politics journal.

The first year seemed to get off to a good start. My husband and I had purchased a house, and I was able to get through the school year without my pregnancy getting in the way. With the arrival of my son at the beginning of my second year, I was enjoying living close to family and had developed good relations with most of my colleagues. My husband got a job in Seattle after telecommuting for a year, and we were settling into a regular rhythm. By the end of that second year, I was proud to have my parents join me at the poli-sci department graduation ceremony. Sadly, it was only a few weeks later that I would lose my father to a sudden heart attack.

I had planned that I would focus on turning my dissertation into a book that summer. Those plans fell apart as I struggled to deal with overwhelming grief at my father’s loss. I had to hold it together for my now 9-month-old son, but it was not the productive summer I had planned on. We headed to Europe later that summer so I could conduct research on my book project. It was a welcome relief from my ongoing grief and the issues it had raised for my mother and the rest of the family.

Things seemed to sour for me in the department during my third year. Some of my senior colleagues weren’t as supportive as I had hoped they would be, and I didn’t feel I was getting the mentoring that I needed, so I had to rely more on my mentors from outside the university. It was time for my third-year review, but the chair didn’t give me the timeline until the last minute. I scrambled to put together my materials, although I wasn’t particularly worried about the outcome. While I thought I had a handle on the departmental culture, however, some aspects weren’t clear to me, even after two years. In particular, I learned that you can’t take departmental support for granted -- the landscape can change relatively quickly.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I received a fellowship from the Ford Foundation that would allow me to take a year of leave. But our lives were upended when my husband lost his job during the dot-com bust and the prospects for another position in Seattle were nonexistent. He was able to find employment in Silicon Valley, so we made a temporary move to the Bay Area, and I would spend my fellowship year writing my book and looking for a job where we would both be able to pursue our careers.

I can thank my friend Gary Freeman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, for encouraging me to apply to UT. Although the job would take me away from my family in Seattle and my husband’s family in the Bay Area, we eventually decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Austin. The University of Washington was in the middle of a budget crisis and unable to make a counteroffer that came close to my offer from UT, and my husband was able to find work in Austin right away. It was a risk moving to a new job so early in my career, but taking that risk led to new opportunities and definitely had a positive impact on my career. I was able to get tenure on time, and my marriage survived.

My first job at UW had helped me to understand the importance of mentors and connections across the campus. I was able to move on to my next position with the confidence that I had a research agenda well underway. My first book had been accepted by a major university press, and I was becoming well established on the conference circuit.

My story ends where it began a few months ago, with the story of my time in Austin. This series of columns was motivated by the passing of my friend Mark Sawyer, a professor in UCLA’s political science department whom I had known since graduate school. Mark and others like him have played a vital role in encouraging young scholars of color to go to graduate school and become faculty members. I hope that by sharing my experiences in higher education, I have encouraged others to be more open about the highs and lows of being a professor.

We need to develop better strategies for mentoring and supporting all graduate students and faculty members. Academe is facing many challenges, and it is vital that we work toward a more inclusive environment that is welcoming to people from all orientations and backgrounds -- both in the classroom and in the ranks of the faculty. I will continue to do my best to pursue those goals.

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Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.


Terri E. Givens

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