Kat Milligan-Myhre, 2020
Congratulations! You’ve been hired to a new university or college as a faculty member! This is a huge step in your academic career. For some of you, you have been working towards this for a while, for others, this came more quickly. In any case, welcome!
I am starting a tenure track position in biology for the second time in five years. Given how much I learned the first time, at a large primary undergraduate institution with almost 50% underrepresented students and with open enrollment in my home state, I thought I’d share those lessons with you as I start my second position, at a large R1 institution with a primary white student body that is literally a country away from my home state. This is targeted towards tenure track faculty with teaching, research, and service in their workloads, although this advice may be applicable to other situations as well.
First and foremost, this is an unusual time to start a new position, which will add to all the things that can overwhelm new faculty. This is not the first time that faculty have had to start in situations that are overwhelming: think about those faculty who started shortly after a natural disaster, 9/11, at campuses that were facing financial crises, or personal loss. If you have someone in your department who has started under such situations, reach out to them to find out how they successfully navigated all of this *gestures wildly all over*. Please be patient with yourself and those around you over the next year.
You are likely overwhelmed with all the new information coming at you in faculty orientations, emails, faculty meetings, in addition to the *gestures wildly again*. Here are the things that I learned my first five years that I will be paying attention to as I start again:
People and structures to learn:
- Administrative staff: Take a minute to understand who you are working with. Which administrative staff are the go-to people for help with your classes, your research, budgets, grants, building maintenance? Hopefully, you were given a list of these people. If not, make a list. If you did get a list keep it handy and add the people not included on the list that you think you may need in the future. Treat them like the colleagues they are. They are a large reason you will be successful or not, for a million small reasons you do not fully understand yet.
- Administrators: Take a minute to look at the administration (President, Chancellor, Provost, Deans, Graduate Program Directors, etc) structure and find out what each administrator can or cannot help you with. You may or may not get this at faculty orientation, on a website, or in a faculty handbook. At some campuses these positions turn over frequently, at others people hold positions for years. Some of these people will look at your promotion and tenure files, so it helps to know early on who they are. If possible, get to know them.
- Union and other faculty governance: You never know when the union or other faculty governance will be needed, so it is important to know what the faculty governance structure is, especially in our current situations. Tenuous budgets lead to stress within education systems. In the best cases, Unions and Faculty alliances/senates will help make sure that faculty are not taken advantage of. Changes you may want to make may have to go through a faculty senate, so get to know these governance structures.
- Student Support Services: You are on a campus and a primary concern for faculty is the health and well-being of our students. At some point you will have a student who needs support for academic concerns, mental health, or other personal or academic issues. Find out who to contact for these concerns so that you are not spending precious time emailing/calling/searching websites when a student is in need. This may include information for military students, international students, students with disabilities, first generation students, and how to report abuse (physical, sexual, racial, or others). Keep this information handy so that in an advising session you can access it quickly. Update yourself on FERPA rules and other rules that govern student interaction.
Promotion and Tenure preparation:
- Determine what is needed for your Promotion and Tenure. This may be available in a handbook for your department and university/college or on a website. Some departments provide vague P&T guidelines and others are more specific. Speak with the head of your department and/or mentor and/or members of your department’s P&T committee to get more guidance. Get guidelines in writing. If your department does provide P&T guidelines, determine whether that is the maximum or minimum that is required. Ask more senior faculty for a copy of their dossier from their promotions or tenure packages. These are helpful, especially if they went up for promotion or tenure recently.
- Start a folder and a living document in which you place documentation for *EVERYTHING* you do. This is especially important for the promotion and tenure packages and for annual reporting. Documentation can include class evaluations, peer evaluation, fliers for seminars that you give, pdfs of posters that you or your students give, copies of any papers that you publish, documentation of grants that you submit proposals for, service outside the campus such as editing papers or sitting on editorial boards or grant panels, or anything else that relates to the items that your program and administration values in promotion and tenure packages. My folder is divided into subfolders that include the three things I am judged on for my P&T: Service, Teaching, and Research. My living document started as a resume, and then I added everything to it.
- Mentors: Find MULTIPLE mentors who can help you navigate the academic career. At least one mentor should be in your department, one outside of your department, and, if possible, someone on another campus. The person in your department should be someone who knows the department history and can give guidance about P&T and who knows the strengths and challenges within the department. People with perspectives outside of your department and campus will help you gain perspective of your position. The outside mentor may be able to provide an outside letter of support for your promotion and tenure packages, but should also give perspective about your field that people in your department may not have. It is also OK to change your mentors if you find that someone is not working out for you. Set up regular meeting with your mentors with discussion topics to get the most of your mentoring.
- Peer mentors: Set up regular meetings with other junior faculty at your institution and/or join the New PI Slack group (see @NewPI_Slack on twitter). These peers are good sounding boards for research and teaching ideas, and the New PI Slack has great resources for all aspects of your first few years.
- Professional development resources: Take advantage of these. These may be offices dedicated to teaching or grant writing/submitting/reporting, or workshops dedicated to promotion and tenure, or mentoring students, or budget writing. Determine which of your skills need strengthening and seek help. As a tenure track professor, you are now running a small business (a research lab), teaching, participating in multiple committees, and more. These all require skills you may not have had a chance to sharpen yet.
- Be mindful of your appointment workload. If you know your breakdown of teaching/research/service, make sure your weekly workload aligns with that breakdown. Of course some weeks one of those things need all of your attention, but don’t loose sight of the workload that you will be judged on for tenure.
- Balance: It is really easy to get sucked into the 80-100 hour work week. This is a fabulous way to burn out early. Learn what works best for you and regularly check in with friends and family to make sure you are not stretching yourself too thin. If possible, outsource help for personal things, like cleaning, meal prep, or childcare.
- Empathy: You are in a position in which you will have to work with a lot of people on a daily or weekly basis. To support your students and colleagues you need to understand their challenges and strengths even though they are different than yours. Empathy is critical to do this.
- No: Learn how to say no. If you have a mentoring committee or department head that support you saying no, you can say that they recommended that you limit your activities at this time.
- Yes: Figure out your priorities early and say yes to the things that align with your priorities. This is different for every professor and will likely change as your career advances.
- Procrastination: Some tasks suck more than others. Consider tracking your time in a spreadsheet or using a time tracking app to determine where you are spending your time. If your scheduled time doesn’t match up with your activity time, learn what tasks are best to do when (maybe you’re an early AM grader) and schedule them accordingly. You likely won’t report to anyone on your daily schedule, so it’s up to you to control it in the best way for you.
Advice specifically for Underrepresented (UR) faculty:
Whew, you are in for a ride. Hopefully you are on a supportive campus, but we all know that even at the most supportive campuses, challenges can and will happen. Here is some advice specifically for my fellow Underrepresented colleagues.
- No: I said it before, but it is especially important for UR faculty. You may be asked to serve on more committees so they appear “diverse”, or you may have more students to advise, or you may have colleagues at other Universities who ask to put you on their grant because they think the grant will be more likely to get funded with “a minority” on it, or you may be asked to be a faculty mentor for UR student groups, etc. You will be compared to your non-UR colleagues when it comes time for promotion and tenure. You need to make sure your teaching and research are at (or for some Universities, above) their level. If service is not valued at your school and you are doing a lot of service, this will hurt your ability to continue.
- Build or join an UR support system. Meet regularly with other UR faculty, staff, and students, and if you can, join a non-academic group of people who share your background. This may be in a mentoring or support group, a strategy group, or a casual hiking/biking/other activity group. These people will be important if (when) you face a hostile work situation, or when tragedies hit your family or friends outside of work, or for a million other occurrences. Non-UR folks will be able to build these support groups easier because there are so many people who share their background. You may have to actively seek out a group that you can relate to.
- Learn the reporting system. At some point someone may cross a line between microaggression and abuse against either you or someone you mentor. You will need to know who to contact about this abuse and what documentation they will need for the complaint. Make sure you document everything and have a plan in place if your complaint is not addressed.
- Pick your battles. There will be many things that anger you about academia, just as there are in any position. Make sure you pick which battles you put your time and energy into. If you don’t, you will burn out quickly.
- Don’t try to be the perfect X. In my case, it was the perfect Inupiaq. I was certain that if I failed, no other Inupiat would be hired in my position. This. Isn’t. Your. Job. Your job is to be the best faculty member you can be, not be the best X or best faculty member ever. If your department or university/college is using you as a model for the rest of the people who share your ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexuality, etc, that is their problem, not yours.
- Find joy in your job. It is so easy to focus on the things that go wrong, but this can be an amazing job. You get to mentor students, serve as the role model you might not have had, teach the classes you wish you had taken as an undergraduate, work with colleagues that help you build on your body of research. You have a chance to change your field, or your campus, or your department, or your student’s lives. Embrace those moments of joy, write them down or put them into a folder that you can refer to when you feel like you want to leave. If you are on a great campus and department, you may never need this. But at least it is there if you need it.
I know I left things out. I am assuming that by now you know how to schedule your days, for example, or have situations that are specific to you. I really do wish you (yes, you personally!) the best first year and second year and third year and beyond. I am rooting for you, and I know you have others who are rooting for you too. Remember to breathe, and remember to take care of yourself and the ones you love. This is a job, not your life.
Big thanks to Drs. C. Savio Chan, Jen Biddle, and Dave Baltrus for their feedback!