Ask the grumpies: Advice for a new faculty member?

Steph asks:

What advice do you have for a new faculty member?

Here are some book recommendations that we found useful.

Some things to ponder.

First year on the tenure track.

Should you write a book or stick to articles?

Summarizing Boice.

But I think the main main thing is to remember academia is just a job.  It’s a job with nice perks, but it’s still a job and if you got a TT job, chances are you have valuable skills that could transfer elsewhere.  Remind yourself of this fact when things get to be stressful or when you’re at a faculty meeting where mountains are being made of molehills (because the stakes are so small).

Grumpy Nation:  Do you have advice for new faculty members?  What would you suggest?

38 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Advice for a new faculty member?”

  1. Michael Nitabach Says:

    Alotta the answers to this question are hugely context dependent, such as humanities vs social sciences vs natural sciences, and arts & sciences faculty vs medical/professional school, etc. The “it’s a job” advice, however, is excellent, general & true. The minute someone starts talking all “we’re a family” or “passion for research/teaching”, it almost alwayz means they’re laying the groundwork to try to get you to go along w having your labor exploited and/or otherwise violating appropriate boundaries.

    • Steph Says:

      I’m in the physical sciences at a SLAC, for context! I definitely appreciate the wording to look out for – there’s a lot of phrases like that going around to explain covid decisions in particular…

      • Michael Nitabach Says:

        “I’m in the physical sciences at a SLAC”

        Then you absolutely need to figure out by both reading the faculty handbook and/or other applicable legalistic materials AND by finding trustworthy senior faculty to consult with exactly what the promotion & tenure expectations vis a vis teaching, research, service are. And then you need on an ongoing basis to carefully calibrate your effort to conform to their relative importance. AND you need to make sure you are getting ongoing (at least every year) feedback on how your teaching, research, service are perceived relative to those expectations. Especially at a SLAC, where local expectations for research, teaching, service can vary WILDLY from institution to institution (or even department to department), you can’t know how to allocate your effort unless and until you find out. Just putting more effort into what you enjoy more can go VERY wrong if your goal is to get promoted & tenured. And general rules like some of what is being proposed in this thread can’t possibly be assessed for their applicability to your situation without you finding out these local expectations.

  2. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Remember that even if you feel you can’t say no to someone, sometimes you can enlist more senior faculty members to go persuade your chair/boss/whatever out of whatever terrible idea they’ve just had. (Work the system!)

    Document everything in writing even if you think you don’t need to.

    Also, whenever possible, say ‘Let me think about that for a bit’ instead of ‘yes’.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great advice all around!

      I’m a proponent of the “Yes, but…” though with my current chair there’s been a lot more, “No, ask [prof who is just like me professionally except she punts on service (and also has a lot fewer personal obligations)]”

    • Steph Says:

      These all seem super helpful, thanks! I’m historically not great at departmental politics, it’s something I’m trying to get better at, partially for these purposes!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I really like the book “Crucial Conversations“. But also… if politics are icky, you can just keep your head down (recommended), or get involved and decide if they don’t shape up you’ll go someplace else (my method– they shaped up because I was right and they weren’t terrible colleagues, YMMV).

      • Steph Says:

        Politics within my department seem fine, so I’m mostly worried about how my own anxieties and foibles affect my relationship with colleagues, and that book sounds like a good resource for that. There may be some ickiness at higher levels though, I’m still relatively sheltered from that

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If your colleagues are fine, then I am positive your anxieties and foibles won’t be a problem!

      • omdg Says:

        Steph, I’ve found it useful to assume that people like me. If I worry too much about how I’m coming across, that’s when I say dumb things. It helps me be a happier person. Also, when in doubt do first, apologize later. It’s much more efficient than asking and getting an answer that doesn’t work for you, and fighting to get the answer you want and pissing people off that way.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I constantly say dumb things– but my colleagues are convinced I mean well, so they put up with me.

    • Katherine Says:

      Saying “let me think about that for a bit” is GREAT advice, and it applies to requests from students as well as administrators and other faculty members. In my experience, student requests often feel much more urgent than they actually are. I can think of many times where I could have saved myself a lot of work and heartache if I had declined to give an answer right away and bounced some thoughts off of a trusted colleague or my chair instead of trying to decide in the moment how to deal with certain teaching situations or requests for policy exceptions.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        ooh–adding to this– another good piece of advice for this is to have a policy in your syllabus you can point to for exception requests— I cribbed mine from #2, but it basically says they have to make them in writing within a certain time frame. It makes it super easy to not have to be put on the spot in the moment. I just say, use the process in the syllabus so I can look at it later. Which also gives me time and keeps a record if I do say yes (grade changes especially– I tell the students I need the paper record or the grade change won’t actually make it into the gradebook because I will forget).

      • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

        I too have learned from my more eager and naive younger self! There’s a young, tt female faculty member in my current department who… basically needs to do all of these things and only does the in writing one. (I’m about to sit down with her and gently suggest she push back more, because she’s clearly miserable, and even though I’m only a visitor, I’m an older, more experienced person who has more oomph because I’m old, cranky, and married to a tenured member of the same department….)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I have had that conversation with junior faculty and with the senior faculty who push excess service on them!

  3. af184793 Says:

    The first semester or year of full time teaching is overwhelming. If you’re not at a place where you have to hit the ground running research-wise – you should know this already, but ask your chair and colleagues if you don’t – let yourself off the hook on research until you settle in to the teaching. Find some university working group or regional conference where you can present your research (research you’ve already done, but then use the low-key presentation as a reason to do a little more) next spring or summer. Avoid service if you can – put requests off until at least next semester, with teaching prep as the reason, and by then you’ll have more of a feel of what’s required, what’s interesting, and what is likely to be a miserable slog. Take workshops on teaching to meet other new faculty and make connections outside your department.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I 100% disagree with the advice to let yourself off the hook on research your first year unless you are at an institution with low research requirements. You NEED to focus on research. Cut yourself slack on teaching and don’t let it take over your life. Borrow as much as you can from other teachers. Read the Boice chapter on teaching about how to focus on take-aways and how to let others do the work for you in a way that will make you a better teacher. And if you’re using a textbook, don’t do anything creative with it– just follow it in the order it was written. The students prefer it that way. You can get more creative incrementally as you get to be a better teacher.

      Every person who has not made tenure or who has *barely* made tenure at our department and a related department that I have done service for has thrown themselves into teaching year one. A few years back a few assistant professors in that other department told me that they cut themselves slack because a guy who was just about to get a terrible 3rd year review (who ended up barely getting tenure after an extension and now does very little of anything for their department) gave them that advice, which resulted in a “Come to Jesus” meeting (as they say in the South) with their P&T head disabusing them of that notion.

      You need early pubs to get your citation count up. You need time to let your papers filter through the editorial process, especially if you are in a book field. You need evidence of a strong pipeline. Your first year, at least if you are at an R1, Research, not teaching, is your #1 priority and you cannot slack on it. There’s a lot of waiting in research so you need to get stuff out ASAP. If you’re in a grant field, you need to make yourself more competitive for grants by getting pubs. Really, you cannot afford to burn that valuable first year with teaching. Allow yourself a limited amount of time to focus on teaching (I did my prep on Saturdays, but YMMV) and do not let yourself off the hook for research.

      Plus, departments love evidence of improved teaching. This is much easier to do if your ratings your first year are less than stellar.

      • Steph Says:

        I’m at a SLAC, so the advice I’ve heard here is closer to what af said. It’s something I’m really struggling with though – I submitted a grant over the summer, but I’ve done zip on my own work since classes started (working on some co-authored stuff, but I know it’s not the same). There seems to be some flexibility re: COVID, but I can see it snowballing.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’m at an R1 and that advice floats around, but it’s still really bad advice for our R1! (And we do value teaching here, even more in that other department, so it’s not that teaching is meaningless– it’s just that there are ways to be more efficient with it so it doesn’t suck all time and energy and still get great evals.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My SLAC friend says a lot of this depends on the teaching load– a 2/2 will allow more time for research than a 4/4. She says where she is you can’t bomb at teaching your first year (though I think she’s exaggerating because I know I’ve heard her complain about people who are still terrible at teaching after a few years), so that will be a constraint. She says to “at least try for a little balance.”

      • af184793 Says:

        My advice is not for an R1 or someone who wants to move to one! I am at a directional state university, where research barely counts and teaching is heavily weighted. I came from a top grad program where the assumption was that you needed to start cranking out books right away and have a second book by tenure – so it’s important to know that this is decidedly *not* the expectation at many places. They want to see you connect with students and be a decent colleague. I am assuming that someone fortunate enough to snag a tt job at an R1 knows they need to hit the ground running and send articles out in the first year.

        The main lesson is: know what matters where you are.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That is definitely good advice!

        At SLACs this varies a lot too!

      • Michael Nitabach Says:

        Sorry I missed this subthread & repeated the “know what matters where you are” advice, wrongly thinking it hadn’t been said! Apologies!

  4. CG Says:

    Find good people to collaborate with. Ideally professional, generous women who will help show you the ropes and reassure you that getting a bad review is not a good reason to put the paper away and never look at it again. I wholeheartedly agree with the advice to try to be as productive as you can research-wise early on, but also, if you don’t think things are going as quickly or as well as they should be, don’t despair. Trust yourself–you have figured out how to do everything you needed to do up to this point; you will also figure out how to do this job. This blog, written in part by a friend of mine, has a lot of good advice about being an academic, including mental health and work/life balance, in addition to more field-specific stuff. https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com. Don’t put off the rest of your life while you do this job. Professors can and should live a full life including partners/children/pets/hobbies, or whatever your particular life goals are, and they don’t have to wait until tenure to do it. Also, if you have other things going on in your life, work drama is less likely to overtake you. And congratulations!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Definitely don’t despair! But there’s a difference between things not going perfectly (which is to be expected– there’s a lot of rejection in those first few years) and not getting things done and out. You need that early start primarily because research outcomes are lower stakes those early years. You have time to aim higher, get rejected, hopefully get good feedback, etc. to learn the processes rather than having to get lucky later when the stakes are much higher.

      I have a junior colleague who nursed the same two papers for 3 years (one coauthored with an advisor so not even worth much for tenure) instead of getting a lot out while zie was getting rejections and waiting to hear back from journals. Now zie is touch and go for tenure even though zie has picked up the productivity– it may not be enough (and the citation count will likely be low– remember, working paper citations count in google scholar!). I have another friend who kept writing even through rejections (she didn’t know how to write a good response to referees so she got rejected after R&R which is really unusual in my field) and then (she learned how to do a polite referee response and) everything hit all at once and suddenly she went from almost being denied tenure to getting offers from way better schools and a huge raise.

      The focus in the early years isn’t on acceptances so much as keeping being productive and learning about the field and getting your name out. That way you are in a much better position when it gets closer to decision time.

      Definitely do not put off your life– I should dig up our post on that as well. Because tenure is not the end all and be all– it is just a job. It’s better to have the number of kids you want and an industry job than to have the tenure track shape those decisions and still not get tenure. It’s just a job, not a vocation, even if they sell it as such.

      • CG Says:

        I guess I’m reflecting back on my first couple of years where it took me a really long time to revise my dissertation into articles and then get them through the process. I’m at an R1. I went up for tenure with 11 articles, most in very good journals and several in our top two, and six of those articles have publication dates within the two years before I went up (some were actually published online before that, of course). From what I heard I was a slam-dunk tenure case, but I had a really slow ramp-up. I’m certainly not advocating for this approach–it was very stressful–but it also can work out okay if you don’t give up.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        But you were working those first two years, right? Imagine if you hadn’t been working on research because you were spending all your time on class prep and started revising your dissertation in year 2 instead? I did keep working (while my dissertation papers made their way down the rejection chain), even though my articles didn’t come out right away (there’s a 2-3 year initial gap on my cv, though of course articles were R&R and accepted some time before they were published) and by my third year, I was not at all worried about tenure because I had some solid pubs and my pipeline was solid with a clear path forward.

        Slow ramp-ups are normal, but you have to put in the slow part to get to the actual ramped up part. And you can’t do that if you only focus on teaching and lose touch with your research.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    We talk a lot about Virginia Valian’s Solving a work problem throughout the blog. Here’s one of the times we mention it: https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/hacking-my-work-habits/

    • Steph Says:

      I appreciate all the book recs and I hope I can binge some of them on winter break! And thanks for all the other advice here – I should have specified my field/college type, but most of what you’ve said is at least broadly applicable to my situation.

      That specific link reminded me of how much I miss writing. I’m caught up to my data, and have no papers to write until I work on data reduction/analysis again, and I miss it so much.

  6. MZ Says:

    I strongly recommend the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity — as the name suggests, they provide tons of support and information for faculty and are very good at advice for new people. See if your institution is a member and if so, take advantage of all the workshops/courses/”Monday Motivators” (a weekly newsletter) that they offer. Their advice is generally spot on, not just vacuous bureaucracy-speak.

    • Steph Says:

      Ooh, thank you for reminding me about them, another colleague has mentioned them too. They have a new faculty program, and I *think* I requested startup funds specifically to join it

  7. Fiona McQuarrie Says:

    IME when you move into a new position, listening is really important. I don’t mean being quiet if you’re being mistreated – definitely speak up – but I’ve seen new colleagues get off to a bad start by blustering into a department and going “why don’t we have this program or this course”, thinking that they are showing how pro-active and innovative they are. Usually there are reasons why things are the way they are – sometimes good reasons, sometimes not – but sitting through a few department meetings and actively listening to what’s going on can give you the insights into departmental dynamics that are really important.

    • Steph Says:

      A good point, thanks. And I really should have sent this question in back in the spring, since I already f’d this up a little bit. Not over courses (it was made clear during my interview that they want me to overhaul the courses related to my subfield, starting in a year or two, so I’ve shared relevant thoughts there), but over some other stuff around department climate.

  8. Henry Says:

    A lot of good advice here.

    One thing which resonated with me which I haven’t seen mentioned is the idea that you should aim to be tenurable and promotable in your field, not just in your department and university/college. That is, that while it is important to be aware of the local expectations and to exceed them, that it is short-sighted to focus on only on those. Fixating on your immediate surroundings can get you tenure, but maybe also stunt your professional growth and lead to bad decisions like excessive local service.

    Your goal should be to have visibility and a reputation in your field which would get you hired into a tenure-track or tenured position at peer (or aspirational) institutions. With that as your goal, clearing the local requirements should come as a side effect of your broader career development. For example, it naturally leads to strong outside recommendation letters. It also naturally leads to job opportunities, opportunities with professional organizations, grant agencies, etc. you wouldn’t get otherwise.

    For me at least, keeping my eyes only on my immediate surroundings and grinding it out would have been a hard slog. Especially after tenure. If I didn’t have my engagement with the broader community, tenure would have seemed as much a life sentence as an accomplishment.

    P.S. Congratulations!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sorry, you somehow got trapped in the spam filter.

      This is EXCELLENT advice, and what my P&T head gave us my first year on the job. Don’t try to get tenure in our department, he said, try to be respected in the profession. Be able to move. I know so many stories of people at SLACs and other schools with reduced research expectations who did everything right for what their department wanted and still got denied tenure because they were female and/or their colleagues were nuts or they got an activist dean who reversed decisions because they wanted to improve the university’s research standing without providing resources to do it etc. If you are employable elsewhere then you don’t need to go through the nasty process of suing to overturn the decision so that you can keep your job at a dysfunctional place, you can just go someplace better.

  9. Debbie M Says:

    My experience is as a staff member, not faculty. If, ahem, when you have to deal with some bureaucracy, do ask your staff for pointers, not just your fellow faculty. If there is a staff person in charge of whatever issue who has been around for a while, that person might give you some insights on how to deal with stuff, how to get stuff approved the first time, which deadlines are real (and why), which policies are enforced, and what some of your options are.

    They also will be up-to-date on the latest policy changes, etc., in a way that your fellow faculty might not be. On the other hand, if the staff member is new, they may have to be learning the hard way on the job, and it may be better to talk with faculty who have been around a while. Teamwork is so important and helpful.

    Also, if you have professional academic advisors, you might want to direct students to them for questions about policy, such as which of the five ways to drop a class is best for their situation, when various deadlines are, etc. Do not try to learn all of that crap yourself (unless you love it).

    Often staff get exasperated that people don’t understand their forms and procedures, because the staff has been working with these things for years and it all seems obvious to them. It is not obvious! Especially if you are at an old and big institution, a lot of weirdness has happened throughout history, and so a lot of tweaks have been made to deal with those weirdnesses, and now things are just a ridiculous mess. My apologies and condolences! But many staff become expert at thinking inside the box and have figured out strategies they would love to share with you. Common sense and brains will get you only so far!

    Also, you will be getting way too much information. Once a faculty member was surprised about something and asked why I hadn’t told him. I said that I had put a notice in his mailbox. He says he usually just pushes all that stuff into the trash can without looking at it. I asked how I can let him know things then. He just said, “touche.” With a big department, you probably can’t get special treatment, but sometimes it helps to let people know if you prefer e-mail, notices, phone calls, or whatever. Do get your mentor to help you with strategies on which mass mailings are not important, which lists to get on or get off of, etc. Y’all have too much to do to be reading every little thing that comes your way, but especially at large schools, there are so many resources and so many things happening, and some of them are amazing, so I don’t have ideas for sorting through them all, but surely someone does. (As in regular life, sometimes the most important things are in bright colors and big letters, but then sometimes self-important people steal those same strategies, so it’s hard to tell.)

    Actually, I’m remembering in one department where I worked, they had a team of academic advisors, and each one would specialize in something different (the computerized degree audit, orientation, First-Year Interest Groups, etc.), so whenever an advisor had a question, they always had a co-worker who had been focusing on the ins-and outs. Then at their weekly meeting, each person would update the others on their specialization. It seems like a similar study-group type of thing might be good for faculty, too. Then you only have to read all the stuff pertaining to your topic and you could count on someone else to keep you updated on the other topics. I don’t know; I was never good at getting mentors and finding study groups and stuff.

    Thank you to all you faculty who keep discovering and creating new things and passing along the torch to students (as best you can, despite their reluctance).

  10. omdg Says:

    Amen to the, “It’s just a job.” So often I hear from people, “BUT WHAT IF YOU FAIL?????” I’m sorry, but I fail to appreciate how completing an MD-PhD and then nabbing a tenure track job at a prestigious institution constitutes a failure in any way, regardless of whether I ultimately obtain tenure. I have a really awesome job that enables me to feed my family and help a lot of people for the next 6-7 years that will continue to give me valuable a) clinical, b) research, and c) management skills along the way. You do what you can, and take reasonable risks, and if it doesn’t work out, at least I tried, right? It’s not as though not getting tenure will me that all of my accomplishments go to zero.

    Anyway.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      And most TT places, you’ve got this guaranteed contract where they can only kick you out at certain pre-determined intervals (ex. 3rd year review, tenure itself) with plenty of warning. How many of jobs have that? At so many jobs it’s considered generous to be given a month’s notice instead of two weeks.

      In most universities, as a TT person you have to break the law or sexually harass a student to be kicked out at other times (and even then… sometimes they wait to just deny tenure: see, for example, David Albouy, who will happily tell you at great length it was ok because she was 18 or older and her mother had no cause to complain, and in the end he won his lawsuit vs. Michigan but doesn’t want to go back even though he hates Chambana, but boy isn’t sleeping with college girls an awesome job perk).


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