Thriving in Your First Year as an Academic

Marcelle Dougan offers five tips that she has learned along the way to help you flourish in the beginning of your academic career and beyond.

January 26, 2023
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You have landed your dream position in an institution of higher education. It was a competitive process, and you beat dozens of other highly qualified people. You get to influence tomorrow’s leaders and carve out your niche in an area that has sparked your interest for years. You may feel some trepidation about achieving tenure, but you fancy your chances—otherwise you would not have chosen this career in the first place.

And then reality sets in. You feel like you are “drinking out of a fire hose,” as one colleague put it, as the work seems to keep coming and coming. You confront a seemingly endless number of tasks to prepare for your classes, pursue a research program and fulfill multiple service commitments.

In my first year in academe, I found myself working all the time—regularly getting up at 5 a.m., even on weekends, as I scrambled to prepare for my classes, get my research agenda started and serve on various committees. It was not surprising that at the end of my first semester, I was completely exhausted, becoming ill with the flu for the first time in years as I struggled to submit grades before the deadline. It took me a while to realize that this situation was not sustainable. I’m now in my sixth year as a tenure-track faculty member, and I offer these five tips that I have learned along the way to help you thrive in your first year and beyond:

  1. Get to know your department chair. The relationship with your chair is an important part of your academic career. In the beginning, you should schedule biweekly or monthly meetings with them. Then later, you may want to set up time at least once a semester to ask questions about different policies, key resource people at your university whom you may wish to connect with and what the expectations are for tenure within your department/university. You may also wish to keep them apprised of your research. Department chairs can be very resourceful and can help provide a sounding board for navigating any issues you’re dealing with, as well as connect you with relevant funding sources or recommend conferences where you can present your work.
  2. Find your people. The academy can be a lonely place. Most likely, few people within your department or university are engaged in a similar area of research as you are. Yet you will often find yourself deeply entrenched in your research and teaching, and to sustain you on that journey, you need to find people that you can be yourself with—preferably outside your department.
    That’s not to say you can’t find your people within your department—which is, in fact, beneficial. But as a new faculty member in the process of figuring out whom you can trust, it may be helpful to identify other sounding boards outside your department hierarchies so you can have a fresh perspective and a broader view of what is happening across the campus. A common way to meet faculty members outside your department is to attend professional development workshops at your institution.
  3. Actively move your research forward. That can be difficult, as unlike the built-in accountability for preparing your classes, there are no real deadlines when it comes to research. You can always opt for the next go-round for funding or move the date for submitting your paper another month or so, especially in your first couple of years when you’re likely to have some start-up funds that you can rely on for your research. But if you aren’t actively moving your research forward, time will pass very quickly with little to show for it in the way of productivity, such as evidence of publications or grant funding.
    One way to make sure your research doesn’t slip is to form an accountability group with other faculty members on your campus. I have been part of one for a few years. We started as a group of five and now number six, and we meet once a week for three hours during the semester and sometimes during breaks. We check in and talk about what we will be working on. Then, while staying connected via Zoom, we do our own work for 80 minutes, come back and report our progress, and then work for another 80 minutes or so and then wrap up.
    This type of built-in accountability can help you keep moving toward your goals. Another benefit of a group like mine is that you can workshop your research ideas, gain feedback for presentations or articles, and strategize about responding to reviewer critiques. You’ll also have the opportunity to identify areas of collaboration, which is usually a win-win for all parties.
  4. Keep student evaluations in context. At the end of the semester, you will receive the sometimes-dreaded student evaluations of your teaching effectiveness. A few negative comments could cause you to spiral downward. But you should not take those comments personally. A body of research suggests that such evaluations are ineffective when it comes to the ultimate goal of teaching: assessing student learning. Sometimes students say things that are completely false. Evidence also shows that these evaluations can be biased, with women and people of color often disproportionately impacted. In addition, evaluations can also depend on the complexity of the material being taught. (See here for a summary of research on the topic.)
    Nevertheless, evaluations are usually a necessary part of your career in the academe. One strategy is to review the comments with some detachment. Instead of overly focusing on a few specific comments, search for themes and assess what you can change. In going through your annual reviews, you may wish to address negative comments while avoiding coming across as defensive. Simply acknowledge any themes and highlight what you would do differently—such as pursuing additional training in a particular method of instruction or trying a different type of assignment.
  5. Prioritize self-care: This may sound like a cliché, but it is important to prioritize self-care. As I quickly found out, the “freshman 15” doesn’t apply to students only. In my first year, it wasn’t until spring break, a semester and a half into my time on the tenure track, that I managed to make it to my Zumba class. Standing in the class and staring at the mirror in front of me, I knew something was off. I summoned the courage to step on the scale the next morning and found I was at least 12 pounds heavier than I was when I started my tenure-track position. As a public health instructor, I was not following what I was teaching my students as far as the role of modifiable factors on health outcomes.
    I started an exercise program and began to be more mindful about what I was eating. It took a few stops and starts, but I can finally say I’m in a good place in terms of taking care of my health. This includes regular meditation, recognizing when I’m tired and taking breaks, eating well, and exercising. Actively engaging in a hobby also helps. During the pandemic, I started taking piano lessons weekly, after a 30-year hiatus, which has helped me use my brain in a different way and provided me with a creative release. Over all, I find that I am mentally sharper and can weather the academic storms better than I used to.

Life in the academy can be highly rewarding but also highly stressful. To reduce your chances of burnout in your first year and beyond, actively cultivate a community of support within your university and prioritize your physical and mental health.

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Marcelle Dougan is an assistant professor at San José State University. She teaches epidemiology and biostatistics and researches the effects of the coronavirus on marginalized populations, in addition to breast cancer survivorship.


Marcelle Dougan

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