“Once in a Lifetime”: Starting your first tenure-track job

"Same as it ever was?" Not even close, pal.
I just saw that a new advice essay on starting a new tenure-track job invoked the timeless wisdom of Talking Heads, and I thought, “perfect!”

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself yourself
My God!…What have I done?!

Across the country, and in your home institutions, newly-minted Ph.D.s are starting a strange new journey in brave new worlds… and it can seem rather surreal. (By the way, did you know there is an upcoming free webinar on coping with the “impostor syndrome”?) All of us that were once in that position recall your swirling mix of conflicting feelings — exhilaration, caution, bravado, fear, enthusiasm, terror… keep going…

There was a great piece in the Chronicle four years ago with highly advisable advice for new tenure-track faculty… if you’re starting a new job this year, you should read this. Right now.  But for today I’m sharing a thoughtful and useful piece by four junior psychology faculty in a range of different institutions, providing advice to first-year tenure-track faculty after just completing their own. It’s worth checking out (and sharing with new colleagues, if they don’t yet subscribe to this blog!), because the position of the first-year tenure-track faculty member is certainly not the same as it ever was.

And besides — the authors are down with David Byrne. They must be wise.


Once in a Lifetime

A tenure-track job is finally yours. Now how do you make it through the first year?

Careers- First Year Tenured Track

Creative Commons

We were in precisely that position last fall as we began our first years as assistant professors of psychology. Like diligent young scholars, we had read books and articles about how to succeed in academe and they had helped us map out some goals. But they were less helpful when it came to some of the day-to-day challenges, especially those that seemed unique to our departments and institutions.

All sorts of unexpected questions kept popping up all year, things like:

  • “The class test scores were awful; what do I do?”
  • “I ordered something a month ago; should I follow up with a staff member, or am I being too impatient?”
  • “Should I bother my chair about something that might be insignificant?”

Our reading didn’t provide clear answers to those questions, so we started asking each other. We are four friends who, after earning Ph.D.’s in psychology at the University of Virginia in 2013, accepted positions at institutions that vary widely in size, mission, and student population. As we moved into our assistant professorships, we organized weekly video chats to compare notes, share our triumphs, and troubleshoot our challenges. At the end of our first year, we realized that our experiences might be useful for faculty just starting out at other institutions. So here are our for-what-it’s-worth insights.

Teaching: new students, new schedules. Our classroom experiences varied substantially because our institutions have such different teaching expectations. That was true when it came to course loads (from one course for the entire year to three courses each semester), class sizes (from 16 students to 60), and time spent on course prep and grading (from probably too much time to definitely too much).

We all had access to teaching assistants (graduate or undergraduate). Two of us teach at liberal-arts colleges and didn’t make use of teaching assistants, though we wish we had. The two of us at research universities did work with teaching assistants and found there was a learning curve for supervising them, even though we had been TAs ourselves not so long ago. We had to learn: how long it would take for them to complete assigned tasks (to avoid exceeding institutional restrictions), which tasks were better done ourselves (regrading what your TA already graded is no fun!), and how much oversight each task required (for things like compiling slides for a review session).

We had all taught courses independently before beginning our tenure-track positions, but we found that new students (and different demographics) sometimes required new approaches. For example, one of us teaches on a campus where many students seem accustomed to getting As, and she found it necessary to help them cope with Bs and Cs. In contrast, some of us found that exam averages were significantly lower than we had expected. We responded in a variety of ways: adapting our exams, managing student expectations, and offering opportunities for test corrections.

This was our first time teaching more than one or two courses in a given semester. To our surprise, we discovered that we had some say about our schedules, and that we could arrange our course loads in ways that took best advantage of our energy levels and research productivity. Some of us preferred to “stack” our classes on just two days each week, reserving other days for research. One of us resolved to avoid teaching once-a-week, three-hour courses in the future, since spacing class time over two periods seemed better for student learning than jamming it all into one long session.

Faculty control over teaching schedules varies from campus to campus, but the earlier you can figure out which schedule works for you, the better you will be able to lobby to get the one you want.

Research: a rebuilding year. Most four-year institutions, even teaching-intensive liberal-arts colleges, expect junior faculty in psychology to conduct research. Despite the best of intentions, we spent much of our first year preparing to do research, rather than doing it.

One of our first major hurdles was identifying and preparing laboratory space. We all found it was important to convey our specific needs for furniture and other accommodations early (ideally, over the summer). It can take months longer than expected for approvals to go through, particularly for items that are necessary but unique (e.g., an in-lab sink for EEG research; an infant changing table). Departmental colleagues and friendly staff members were crucial advocates for such requests.

At many institutions, faculty members share lab space. That was the case for two of us. We were fortunate to be able to pool our resources with a colleague for basic lab set-up (e.g., painting party!), but we also had to establish clear, common protocols for managing the labs. At times, compromise was hard, but it also helped us get to know colleagues and learn from their lab experiences.

Once lab space is established, first-year faculty members must decide how and when to begin mentoring student researchers. Our institutions consider student involvement in research to be an important part of tenure and promotion. You may feel some pressure to take on a lot of students right away. However we found it best in our first year to work with only the most capable students, whose skills would complement our research goals. In coming years, we will accept promising students who require more hands-on mentoring.

Professional development. Rookies are usually encouraged to develop relationships with a mentor—a senior scholar in psychology or some other department. Three of our institutions have formal mentorship models where we participated in choosing our mentors, and all of us developed informal mentorships, as well. We chose people whose scholarly interests complemented our own, who supplied expertise we needed (in teaching, for example, or grant writing), and, in some cases, who would not be party to our formal evaluations. We have found both formal and informal mentors to be critical to both our success and our happiness in our new positions.

As students, we received grades to let us know how well we were doing. As faculty members, we have reviews. Review processes, criteria, and frequency vary widely. It was easy to find general advice about these reviews but what we really needed was institution-specific advice. For example, one of us learned that her review would require letters from colleagues representing several departments, so she joined a committee with representation from across her college. Some of us asked colleagues who recently underwent reviews to share their documents.

From such examples, we learned to hoard supporting materials, like thank-you cards from students and electronic records of university workshops we had attended. We all make a point now of writing down our activities as we go, rather than waiting until the annual report is due to remember which panels we served on or what research we presented.

Money. As graduate students, we were mostly protected from the administrative, bureaucratic aspects of faculty life. Some of us may have naïvely thought that academic careers would allow us to avoid the responsibility of managing finances, but obviously that is an important part of scholarly life.

For some of us, securing grant money is an expected part of tenure and promotion. Among the things we wish we had known early on about grant application and management:

  • The application process can have a major influence on the rest of your workflow. It is time-consuming, often delaying other writing projects, and you have to be prepared to begin the research right away if one of your grants succeeds.
  • Institutional or state policies largely determine how external grant funding can be spent. Some places require you to include the tuition and benefits of your graduate-student employees in the budget, while others prohibit you from paying for students’ wages unless they are concurrently enrolled (e.g., in the summer). Sometimes the purchase of supplies is limited to particular vendors (because of university contracts, licensing, or tax-exempt status), and allocation of indirect costs also varies.
  • We were lucky in graduate school to have an excellent grants coordinator in our department. Unfortunately that is not standard. The administrative aspects of grant writing are enormously complex, and the presence or absence of knowledgeable colleagues and administrative staff can make or break your chances.

Start-up packages provide another source of money for many assistant professors. All institutions (especially public ones) have internal rules about how that money can be spent. Those rules are often just as complicated as rules about external grants. Some of us learned (to our dismay) that we could not use start-up money to pay for summer salaries, society memberships, or conference registration, while others could. Some of us found that we did not have to pay for office computers and software licenses, while others did.

The documentation, justification, and effort required to purchase an item may vary as a function of its cost and type. Purchases over a certain amount (usually $1,500) require more paperwork and have to pass through several approval processes before the order can be placed.

Delays can also occur when the purchasing staff is unfamiliar with the item you want. For instance, one of us aimed to purchase an assessment tool that largely consisted of a box of toys and scoring sheets. That was utterly confusing to staff members, leading to at least five phone calls, three additional sets of justification paperwork, and one conversation explaining that this was not, in fact, a contractual relationship requiring the signature of the university president. Several months later, the product arrived. Knowing more about the ins and outs of purchasing could have saved a few episodes of hair-pulling, but we learned to be patient and thankful to all the people who helped us through the process.

Deadlines for when to spend money also matter. Some institutions have cutoff dates (e.g., before the end of the first fiscal year). Others apply a fiscal calendar that can play an important role in determining when you should purchase different items and how students get paid. They may even prevent you from using money until the next cycle begins.

Social transition. As developmental psychologists, we would be remiss to ignore the social aspects of moving from graduate student to assistant professor. When we started our tenure-track jobs, we had been in school (with 0 to 4 years off for good behavior) since the 1980s. We found ourselves wondering: How do people who aren’t students make friends?

Some of us met most of our new friends at faculty orientation, and others found that it was key to say yes to any social invitations. One of us would organize an informal lunch or walk with other new faculty about once a month. Although we sometimes felt pressure to just work-work-work, we all agree that it was important to actively build a support system and show that we were invested in the place.

One of the key social challenges was going from being a senior graduate student to the most junior of tenure-track faculty members. When should we suggest a policy change in a faculty meeting, or voice a criticism? The adage “pick your battles” applies here. We tried to avoid suggesting policy changes until we had built some rapport with our colleagues and knew more about the backstory and relationship dynamics involved. In particular, we recommend patience and politeness when discussing logistics with administrative staffers. They are some of the most important people in our academic lives.

One of us is a tall, bearded man, but the rest of us were often mistaken for students. That experience ranged from amusing (convincing a police officer who wanted to talk to the professor that “I am the professor”) to flattering (standing outside the classroom before the first meeting, overhearing students talking about all the great things they’ve heard about this professor) to mildly annoying (reassuring parents that “yes, I am old enough to have a Ph.D.”). One of us was mistaken for a student more than once a week; commiserating with other young faculty members was a good coping strategy.

Our first year as faculty members involved a lot of change: new states to live in, new places to work, new colleagues, and new responsibilities. In the midst of all the new, it was wonderful to see a group of familiar faces once a week. Our weekly video chats provided invaluable support as we each learned to understand a different institution in the context of our similar graduate training. These meetings provided a relaxing space to share our triumphs, lesson plans, and “stupid” questions.

Of course, we still have a lot to learn. This fall, we’ll surely still ask ourselves “how do I work this?” as we begin to fulfill duties we were released from as first-year faculty members, such as advising and committee work. As graduate school grows more distant in the rearview mirror, we may increasingly turn to our new colleagues for advice. But we’ll be glad that we kept our graduate-school buddies close by.

All four authors are assistant professors of psychology: Rachel G. Riskind at Guilford College; Carolyn M. Palmquist at Amherst College; Robyn L. Kondrad at Appalachian State University; and Matthew D. Lerner at Stony Brook University.


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