Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt

SP asks:

Any advice for my husband, who is starting his first TT job in January? He’s in a science field, if that matters. He’s read this article: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life if you have any opinion on it.

One area his struggles is with time management and deadlines. He meets his deadlines, but often will work on new research until he absolutely has to start preparing a paper, then is working until the very last minute. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!” He’s done fine in grad school and post-doc, but he is worried that his style won’t translate well to balancing teaching and advising with research.

My first advice is for your husband to ask for advice himself.  :-)  Specifically, he should ask his mentors and senior colleagues (respectfully) for advice when he gets on campus.

He’s right to be worried!  You can do everything last-minute on the TT, but it will destroy your health and your family life, and could be less-than-great for tenure.  One book he could read is On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James Lang.  This would be especially helpful if he hasn’t combined teaching and research before.

#2 points out that the excellent Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice is pretty convincing on the not binging and crashing research or teaching and also has great tips.  She has definitely found that starting early and doing a bit at the time really helps her subconscious to figure out tricky problems for her seemingly in her sleep, resulting in her spending less time on teaching and writing overall with higher quality results than when she last-minutes things.

It’s kind of ok to prep your teaching at the last minute, but there will be less sleep and probably more stress than necessary.  Doing a last-minute class prep is less likely to be successful when you have very little experience doing it and at figuring out how long it takes you, personally, to prep one class period from scratch.  Some of this may be inevitable in the first year, but after that it should be more measured.

#2 liked to spend her Sundays doing lecture prep that first year.  She also did a bunch of up-front prep work before school started getting the bones of the class down.  After each lecture she either changed her notes right then or she left herself post-it notes for what to change or keep– this helped her amazingly the next time she taught the course.

I wonder if his papers have been successful in getting published if he always does them at the last minute?  I would be concerned that they will get rejected rather than R&R because they are likely sloppy and do not show revisions or clear explanations, do not anticipate reviewer objections, etc.  Perhaps setting up a writing accountability program or group would help him be more productive in the long run  (click on our writing tag to see what we think about this).  Meeting deadlines is good, but having enough time to ask for feedback before the deadline may be more successful.

#2 notes that one of Boice’s big things is to “let others do the work for you”– that’s something you can’t do if you leave things to the last minute.  A grant is going to be more successful if someone proofreads it.  Reviewers will like your papers better if they make sense and are error-free.  He can always set himself earlier deadlines that will allow him to put down the completed paper or proposal while someone else looks at it so he can polish it at the last minute.

New research is shiny, I admit, and way more fun than revising the intro to the paper you just wrote about your previous results!  What’s his R&R success rate?  His grant funding rate?  Sometimes last-minute grant-writing will work, but it puts a big strain on the support staff and you might not be able to get it through the relevant campus offices as fast as you think.  At the very least, last-minute grant work will burn goodwill in the sponsored programs office on your campus, and you might need that later.  Again, it totally does happen sometimes, but if EVERY grant is last-second hair-on-fire sign-this-form-today, you may start to encounter resistance.

#2 notes that many faculty put grants off to the last minute.  If you get a reputation for *not* doing that, they will often love you and be more willing to go the extra mile for you.  I speak from experience.


10 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt”

  1. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Another recommendation about class prep–make sure you know what the standards are for each class in your department. Also ask for any class materials others are wiling to give you and take the previous teacher out for coffee if he or she is still in the department to ask for tips. (Start by asking for a syllabus or text recommendations and if you can meet–some academics are crazy and get touchy about sharing material, so tread lightly letting them offer to give you their notes. Friends outside your university you can ask directly, of course.)

  2. GMP Says:

    Sounds like the husband in question is in computer science or a related applied math field, and publishes at conferences as is the norm for these fields, hence there are strict paper deadlines.
    I am a bit of a binge worker myself, and have been able to produce good work is manic, last-minute, caffeine-fueled bursts. It’s just that such work style in sustainable while very young and with few obligations; as I got older and have a family that also depends on me, I need more time off work to do chores and just try to unwind, so I have realized at some point that I have to start early because I cannot take the stress any more, either physically or emotionally.

    I don’t know SP’s husband, but this was important for me: I could not do much about changing my habits until it really sank in, on a visceral level, that what I was doing was no longer sustainable. Trying to make changes before I was really ready didn’t do anything, but once I really was ready, I was able to make lasting modifications. It’s similar to quitting smoking: I quit a number of times and then started again. It was not until I was truly deeply sick of the habit and how much I had to bend over backwards to accommodate it (having to get up, quit work, go out to smoke, and freeze my butt off) that I was able to quit for good and not look back.

    For SP: I know it may be frustrating to watch someone struggle with what seem to be problems with clear-cut solutions, but sometimes implementing the solution so it sticks takes time and multiple failures, and a lot of patience and support are required from for those observing.

  3. link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] you missed yesterday’s post, do you have any advice for a first year TT […]

  4. Historiann Says:

    I second your first piece of advice, n&m: if his working style works for him, then leave him alone so long as he’s not shirking his other responsibilities. If it’s not working for him, he needs to decide where to get the help he needs.

  5. J Liedl Says:

    The advice about checking in with on-campus mentors is great – they’re the ones who’ll know what counts most and when. They can tell your spouse whether or not something will really “count” at the pre-tenure reviews, whether it’s teaching evaluations or service in a disciplinary committee or getting another grant, etc. This doesn’t have to be someone extremely senior – a colleague who’s recently been tenured might be better tuned into expectations.

    The problem is that the habits you practice in grad school and on the tenure-track can be hard to shake thereafter. Whether or not this approach earns him tenure, your spouse needs to evaluate if what he’s doing is how he wants to live the rest of his life.

  6. Perpetua Says:

    I also front-loaded my lecture writing for the first couple of years of the t-t. It was enormously helpful. I’d start in the summer and made sure I had a three or four week cushion before the start of the semester. That way, when I got slammed with grading, I didn’t have to juggle lecture writing too. I only needed to that until I got the hang of balancing everything.

  7. chacha1 Says:

    I am not an academic so I don’t speak from that perspective. But I’ve been a legal support professional for over 20 years and I know from “doing it at the last minute.” All I’m gonna say is … the person who routinely does things at the last minute always, but ALWAYS, eventually fucks something up in an irreparable way.

    Irreparable may have different meanings in academe than it does in law, but the career effect can surely be the same.

    The person who wishes to succeed over the long term is well advised to always leave a margin for error.

  8. SP Says:

    Thanks so much for answering my question. He’s definitely seeking advice through his normal channels and (from my view) seems to have good mentors / connections and people willing to help. I’m just neurotic and couldn’t stop myself from asking anyone who may have some nuggets to share. (and honestly started looking for academic blogs both because I like them and because I’m interested in his world).

    I also feel compelled to elaborate on “last minute”, but won’t beyond to say that he does (seem to, from my point of view) have collaboration and reviews and revisions, but to me it is inexplicable that he is ALWAYS still polishing up to the last minute. It may just be the norm, or his norm. Is it working? For now, but he’s going to have to juggle new things, and he has asked about systems for organizing himself with all the work. Or organizing how to manage e-mail better. I know what works for me, but I think his world (and his way of doing things) is pretty different than what I’m used to.

    thanks for the book recommendations!

    Also, sorry for the belated thank you comment – I’ve been destroying his (and my… but I’m not presently employed!) by going on vacation!

  9. SP Says:

    That Boice book looks familiar – I think he had it on loan from a friend during the application phase and found it helpful for that. More so than some other outdated book that advised applicants to ask if the university would provide a BITNET (?) connection.

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