advice for new assistant professors

As I’m in an advice-giving mood, I thought I’d post here something I wrote quite a few years ago.  This began as a lunch conversation with a departing grad student (who is now a dean) who asked me if I had any advice for her as she took her first job as an assistant professor.  I wrote it down later and it evolved over a few years.   I’ve gotten feedback from quite a few people that this was helpful, and some of you will doubtless recognize it.

1) Don’t take anything personally, especially not at first. People will probably treat you as insignificant, not because they think ill of you, but because they are socially inept. Most of us are comfortable with the people we already know, and are not good at being friendly to new people. The old timers ought to go out of their way to be friendly and inclusive to someone new (you) but they probably will not, and you should just chalk it up to poor social skills and nothing else.

2) Help integrate yourself. Even if you are normally more productive writing at home, work in the office a lot during the first year. Make a point of loitering in the hall when it is near lunch time, so people will notice you and think of asking you along to lunch. Ask people’s advice about how things are done in the local administrative climate. Every bureaucracy is different, and no one will think you are an idiot because you have to ask how to get things copied, how the library system works, etc. Asking advice is one way to initiate a conversation and get to know someone. Similarly, you can readily ask what the local norms are about reading assignments, tests, papers, grading curves, TAs and grading assistants, etc. In a research-oriented environment, you can also ask advice about placing articles for publication, book publishers, etc. and can probably ask people to read and comment on your papers.

3) Your best friends are likely to be the other assistant professors, but do not avoid the senior people. Treat them with friendly respect. If they treat you as an equal, treat them back as an equal. Some older people prefer mild deference, even if they do not acknowledge that they do; others hate to admit that they are older or established, and want you to treat them as buddy buddy. Try to respond to their cues in this. The safest stance is one where you think well of yourself, but give mild respect to someone senior on the grounds that they have more experience.

4) Do NOT attempt to reform ANYTHING for at least a year, preferably two. No matter how stupid the curriculum or other things seem, leave them alone until you have been there long enough to know why they are there and whose interests are at stake. Similarly, try to avoid being drawn into factional disputes. Do your best to be friendly to everyone and to establish good working relationships with everyone you can. Most people will respect a stance of “You really sound reasonable, but I’m new here and I need to get oriented before I go out on a limb about something like that.” Also, avoid challenging anybody senior for at least a year, again until you learn who is who and what the real issues are. Some people have abrasive personalities or are so shy that they will seem “out of it” who actually are quite reasonable people when you get to know them.

5) Make sure you understand as soon as possible what kind of institution you are at and what it takes to get tenure. At a research university, remember that it is publishing that will get you tenure. Students who like you can be a great ego-trip and can make you feel good in the rough times of establishing yourself, but if you orient yourself to the students, you won’t be getting your work done. Be sure to carve out time and mental energy for your own work. And remember that a high proportion of your “social” time should be getting to know other faculty, so don’t so surround yourself with students that you are inaccessible to faculty. At the same time, however, don’t “blow off” students, even at a research university. You need to treat students with respect and you need to do at least an adequate teaching job no matter how prestigious your department. Managing student relationships is one of the most difficult parts of professoring, and you will discover that it is a topic you can discuss with other faculty and, in fact, is one of the conversation-starters you can use in getting to know people.

6) Similarly, remember that curriculum and other administrative reforms are very time consuming and will not get you tenure. Try to avoid all such hassles until you are established. Some things really seem like moral imperatives, but if you follow rule 4 and don’t do anything until you’ve been there long enough to really understand the situation, you’ll also be that much closer to being established. Someone who has tenure should be taking the lead in a major crusade.

7) If your institution is teaching-oriented, the advice about the proper mix is different. At teaching-oriented schools, you have to please the students, and being a good citizen administratively is important. You should have gotten clear messages in the hiring process about what is important, but you need to be a good field researcher in your first few years to make sure you know what is what. Research-oriented schools will have focused the interview on your research, while more teaching-oriented schools will have focused on their teaching needs. But schools can send very mixed messages about just what they want from young people. Deans “on the make” may be upping the research standards compared to what the older people did. Or departments may talk a research line, but really be oriented toward people “fitting in.” It is VERY important to talk to lots of different people and accumulate data. If you believe the first person you talk with, it could be a paranoid isolate who has no idea what the real system is. Talk to people in other departments, talk to tenured people not just other junior people, try to get to know your dean if you can. College-wide committee service can sometimes be useful for this, although it obviously runs the risk of over-burdening you with service.

8) Everybody hates their job in the first year or two. This is normal, and it is unlikely that there is any job anywhere that you wouldn’t hate. However, if you realize that your current job does not fit your long term goals, you need to work on being mobile. This means keeping your research up and going to conferences, even if you have to pay your own way, and letting your friends and acquaintances know that you’d prefer a different job. But don’t speak ill of your present colleagues, even if they deserve it. It is more likely to make you look bad than them, and there is always the risk that they’ll hear what you said about them before you find another job. Similarly, you need to keep doing a good job (or at least an adequate job) at the job you have. A reputation as a “bad citizen” will haunt you.

9) Pay attention to the possibility of gender or race or ethnic or political discrimination, but don’t be paranoid and don’t be oversensitive. Even if you privately believe someone is racist or sexist or anti-male or anti-white or homophobic or whatever, keep it to yourself and give the person a break while you get to know him/her better. This does not mean you have to demean yourself — you can and should always act like a person who expects to be treated equally, but you can do it cheerfully, without a chip on your shoulder. You can defer somewhat to an older person on the grounds of their age and experience without compromising your integrity. Similarly, if you are doing some sort of “radical” or controversial research (or doing qualitative methodology in a quantitative department or vice versa), begin with the assumption that they liked that kind of work and that is why they hired you. If people argue with you, respond cheerfully with the assumption that it is normal for scholars to disagree, and intellectual argument is the whole point of academics. You are trying to create the kind of relationships in which people know you as a person and can respect you while disagreeing with you. Notice that your half of this relationship is to offer the same kind of respect to people you disagree with. You can and should be friendly and collegial to all your colleagues, seeking to discover the points upon which you do have something in common, even if all it is is the desire to have a good department and a good working relationship.

10)  But it can happen that people really are trying to “get” you or really are discriminating against you, and it can be crazy-making if you deny this. If you suspect this kind of problem, watch for evidence, but don’t openly accuse the person. Instead, work on making as many friends and allies as you can, and work on doing a good job. It is absolutely impossible to counter discrimination without allies. The more difficult one person is making your life, the more urgent it is that you network with everybody else you can. Talk to these other people about your problems, but in a guarded way, that tells your side of the problems, but leaves open the possibility that you are simply misunderstanding the person who is giving you difficulties. Leave the door open for the difficult person to back off or reform. But under no circumstances let yourself be isolated away from contacts with others in the institution. If extreme things happen (e.g. sexual harassment, racial slurs, locking you out of your own lab, threats to “get you”), it is important to keep a diary of events and dates, and right away to tell your story [as calmly and reasonably as possible] to someone else. But, realistically, you will not be believed unless other people have gotten to know you or that person has already given other people trouble. So, integrate yourself, integrate yourself, integrate yourself. And don’t be paranoid. The majority of people in any job will seem weird to you, and have peculiarities that make you uncomfortable. These you just need to learn to tolerate. The percentage of actually evil people in the world is pretty small.

11) I’ve realized that the above paragraph is about overt hostility, not unconscious prejudice or discrimination, which is a more common problem. This is a subtle and complex problem which is too much for this kind of “quick hit” memo. I’ll just give a few hints I’ve learned over the years. First, unfortunately, the nature of unconscious prejudice and discrimination is not only that the person does not know s/he is doing it (and thus is not really capable of making a conscious choice to change), but the person is likely to react very defensively if such a possibility is pointed out. Thus, dealing with this overtly is very risky. Second, in most of these cases where you think you might be being treated unfairly, the situation is ambiguous and capable of multiple interpretations. Maybe you really do deserve to be paid less, or given a worse teaching assignment, or treated as less competent than a colleague; maybe you are discounting the qualifications of the other person. Dwelling too much on this can depress or infuriate you, without giving you anything concrete you can actually do about the situation. You would not be the first person to decide to just do your work and ignore it, and there is nothing immoral about just letting it go. The more other people get to know you as a person, and the more cheerfully assertive you are about your work and your competence, the smaller the problem of unconscious discrimination is likely to be. Third, it may be a positive move to talk privately with a senior (tenured) person about your concerns, if you believe you have identified someone who can be trusted to keep them confidential and not react defensively, nor go off on a political crusade that hurts you more than it helps you. Sometimes senior people are able to intervene in an unfair situation and provide some remedy without provoking a fight. Occasionally, a fight is appropriate and in your interest. It depends on the circumstances. Even if they cannot intervene, a senior person or mentor may be able to help you sort out your own feelings and decide on the best way to respond.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

12 thoughts on “advice for new assistant professors”

  1. There’s lots of helpful advice here.

    I may have missed this, but just in case it’s not in the above: seek out mentors from other departments at your university. This can be tremendously helpful for figuring out how to deal with situations that may arise in your department.

    Also, don’t befriend anyone too much too early. That is, be collegial and friendly for sure, but don’t assume to know someone enough to know that they’ll be on your side in the future so keep various sensitive opinions to yourself.

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  2. Many good suggestions, thanks for sharing the list.

    One thing I did not realize while finishing grad school was how much mentoring I’d still need while an assistant professor. It’s helpful to figure out which colleagues have an open-door policy and are willing to give you advice about various professional issues that will come up (e.g., how do I say no to yet another request to do something?).

    I recommend keeping in touch with friends and mentors from graduate school. The friends are going through something similar so it may be helpful to share experiences. Mentors already know you well and if you had a good relationship with them then likely won’t mind mentoring you a little more (I’m not suggesting bombarding them, but the occasional inquiry may be just fine).

    By the way, I don’t recall hating my job my first year (or subsequently, for that matter, except for certain service-heavy weeks).

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  3. I’d say that you usually spend the first year trying to figure out what the €%”& is going on at work and what you are doing. It is only after a couple of years you begin to figure out if you like the place or not.

    I should add that I did my fair share of short-term jobs at various places during my academic career.

    Oh, and one of the best things you can do to younger colleagues is to remind them that you too were pretty freaked out the first time you were in charge of a class. :-)

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  4. VERY good advice.

    I wonder if something should be said about developing “work habits that work”? The first year tends to be relatively light (comparatively) in terms of teaching, advising, service and publishing. I suppose it is a common mistake for folks to add on responsibilities in Year 1 that are untenable in later years. First impressions are sometimes hard to change. For example, if you will won’t have time for 6 hours/week of office ours in Year 2, you probably shouldn’t offer them in Year 1. Keeping your eye on the 5-7 year plan is a good idea.

    I also feel like “work habits that work” cultivation includes considering alternative philosophies of work and adopting one for yourself (if you didn’t do so in school). Some of us are “write a book in 10 minutes a day” folks, and some of us are David Allen (Getting Things Done) people. Use this year to figure out what kind of worker you are (and I’m obvs. not saying you need a self-help guru to legitimize that style) and then insist on protecting the needs that you have (e.g., try to avoid teaching morning classes if you write every morning).

    And do we have “learn how to say ‘no'” on the list? Note: I am NOT saying that you should say ‘no’ to every request (you can’t afford to do that, and hopefully, there are some welcome requests). Rather, I’m saying you should learn the 40 different kinds of nos (the polite no, the ‘not right now but maybe later’ no, the ‘you shouldn’t ask me to do that’ no, etc.) and use them when necessary. Get a no tutor. Practice your nos.

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  5. This is so on target that every new asst prof. should print it out and tack it to the wall over the desk. This is a real contribution, olderwoman.

    The smart editors at Inside Higher Ed should link this asap. Are you awake over there, folks?

    Jeremy, at least you did get to read it as an asst. prof. And you had its wise author voting on your tenure as well.

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  6. I also want to chime in with my thanks for the helpful advice. I really love your long-term approach to life. Just because something is infuriating or frustrating or exhausting at the moment, it is so helpful to see it as just one part of a longer trajectory that is likely to swing in another direction. That’s not something I’ve been great at, and it really helps to have a reminder now and then. I suppose that is what maturity is all about.

    Speaking of which, there is a move afoot to change your name to WiseWoman. Hard to argue with that.

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