My Top Tips for New Faculty Members
The transition from graduate student to faculty member can be disorienting. Here are some pointers for balancing teaching and research in your first year on the job!
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Transitioning from a PhD program to a new faculty position at a college or university can be disorienting, and I remember it all too well.
In April 2017, I accepted a visiting lecturer position after dozens of exhausting job applications and several campus visits; in June, I defended my dissertation after a two-month writing sprint; and by August, my family and I had relocated 2,000 miles to a new state so that I could begin the new job. Two days after defending my dissertation, I was in a virtual meeting about curriculum for the new job, and I spent the rest of the summer trying to figure out how I was going to teach three classes at once, do research, and apply for tenure-track jobs. And one of the classes I was scheduled to teach was at the graduate level!
[Whispers]: I have only been out of graduate school for three months, and now you want me to teach people who are basically my peers? Gulp.
I just want to take a moment to recognize how significant this transition is. Graduate school can be demanding, and we can often find ourselves stretched too thin. When you become a faculty member, you are immediately thrown into a whole new set of responsibilities, such as teaching more classes, advising students, serving on multiple committees, and figuring out how you are going to get any research done without the dissertation as a milestone. It can be dizzying, and the more stressful the last several months of graduate school were, the more challenging it can be to jump right into a new job.
[Whispers]: You will now have even more demands on your time and intellectual energy than you had in graduate school. Double gulp.
On the other hand, it is thrilling to be able to put years of hard work into something tangible like a career after finishing graduate school. It is exciting to contribute to the academic community and have a meaningful impact in our field of study and the students we teach. And, with some concerted effort to orient ourselves, plan our time and goals, and become acquainted with our communities, we can set ourselves up for less stress and greater fulfillment in our new position.
So, in this edition of Publish Not Perish, I want to share with you my top tips for new faculty members to help you navigate this exciting and nerve-wracking time of transition from graduate school.
Take Time to Let Your Brain Adjust
Let’s assume you’re moving to a new city to start your new job. It is critical to give yourself some transition time so your brain can adjust to all the new information it will have to process. Simply learning to navigate the city, find everything you need in your new grocery store, set up your new apartment, and find new walking paths for your dogs requires your brain to map all kinds of new spaces, which can deplete your mental energy in unexpected ways.
In addition, you may need to switch from Blackboard to Canvas, set up Microsoft email instead of Google, determine how many clicks it takes through the library databases to actually download an article, and locate all of the student resource links to add to your syllabus. None of these appear to require much brainpower on their own, but when combined with learning a new city, your brain is working much harder than you realize to develop all those new neuropathways, and you find yourself completely exhausted at the end of the day from just trying to do these seemingly simple tasks.
In my experience, many new faculty members underestimate how taxing a move to a new job can be, so do yourself a favor and give yourself some time to just get acclimated. Moving in the middle of August for a job that starts two weeks later? Then maybe you should not promise to have that book chapter done by the end of September. Above all, be kind to yourself and recognize that your brain is working extremely hard, even if it is not immediately revising your dissertation.
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Experiment with Time Management Strategies
Balancing research, teaching, administrative tasks, and personal life can be overwhelming—especially when starting a new job. And, for most of us, the PhD program provided significantly more unstructured time than a faculty position will. The difficulties you encountered managing your time while pursuing a PhD will continue into your new job without some intervention.
Never fear! Time management is something you can learn, not something you are born with. Experiment with various time management strategies to see what works best for you. There is a lot of advice on how to do this "correctly," but at PNP, we value variety and experimentation over dogma.
Here are a couple PNP favorites to get you started:
If you have links to other strategies that work for you, please post them in the comments because you might have the strategy that someone else needs!
Determine Your Research and Writing Goals
Several factors will influence how and when you conduct research and write during your first year on the job, but there are two major ones: 1) How much do you want to do this work personally? 2) How much does your job require you to do?
Read How to Marie Kondo Your Academic Career for strategies for striking a balance between what you want and what your employer wants.
Let’s just consider how much your job requires of you for the sake of brevity. The expectations for a teaching-focused job will be very different from those for a research-focused job. In either case, I believe that, depending on our roles and the type of institution, most of us can afford to pause research for several weeks, the first semester, or even the entire first year at a teaching focused institution or job.
I didn’t research or write for the first eight weeks of my new lecturer position. If I had intended to stay in that position indefinitely, I would have waited longer to return to my dissertation and begin converting it to a book. In graduate school, I also gained a lot of experience teaching my own classes, so while I had never taught three classes at once, I felt a lot more confident than someone with little experience.
In your first year and beyond, you should learn to set research and writing goals that are both achievable and considerate of your other time commitments. It is also crucial to guard that time in your schedule from being eaten up by other work-related activities or distractions. About eight weeks into my first semester, I began setting aside time specifically for writing and strictly adhering to that schedule. Whether you have 30 minutes or three hours, make sure that you do not let other things interfere with your writing and research time.
The post Writing While Short on Time has a useful perspective on the value of using even small chunks of time for writing.
Adopt a Less Is More Mindset for Course Preparation
One of the most difficult challenges for new faculty, particularly those with little teaching experience, is devoting far too much time to class preparation. Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome, and one way to deal with it is to prepare, prepare, prepare because we are afraid we will not know the answer to a student question or that the students will discover we do not know everything. This would include things like preparing two hours of lecture materials for a 50-minute class or spending weeks deliberating over which readings to assign.
The truth is that students learn better when they have more time for discussion and activities and shorter lectures. Likewise, preparing a 20-minute lecture takes significantly less time than preparing a 50-minute one. Less really is more when it comes to classroom learning.
I discuss my approaches to teaching efficiently and effectively in At the Intersections of Time Efficient Teaching and Good Pedagogy.
Cultivate Work-Life Balance
I have met a lot of graduate students who postponed cultivating work-life balance until they finished their programs, then became faculty members who postponed it until they were tenured or reached some other milestone. They will wake up one day and realize that the past 12 years have flown by while they were too busy working. Life is short, and no career is important enough to prevent you from living the life you want to live right now.
Keep in mind that self-care not only improves your long-term productivity and happiness but also lets you develop into a whole person with a wide range of unique passions and interests.
The post A Surprising Productivity Hack goes into greater detail on the many benefits of restorative activities or hobbies.
The common thread among these suggestions is to treat oneself with compassion, to give oneself time to adjust, and to make concerted efforts to position oneself for a career that minimizes stress while maximizing fulfillment. I would encourage you to reflect on each of these tips throughout your first year to see where things are going well and where they could be improved, so that your success and well-being complement each other.