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Ask a Senior Colleague- Summer 2016

Question:  I am starting my first tenure-track position in the fall and I was wondering, what are some of the “mistakes” that new faculty make during their first year? 

Response 1

I think the most common ‘mistake’ that I’ve noticed is that new faculty members often take on too much in the beginning. A new job is exciting, but it comes with a lot of new decisions. How much time do you spend on teaching vs. research? Should you go to coffee with new colleagues regularly? How do you decide which committees to join or how to say no? While many of these decisions may vary based on the culture of the university, they all pose new choices that may be different than those faced in graduate school.

I’ve noticed that many new faculty members say yes to many of the new opportunities, without recognizing that each yes is a new commitment that may take more time than valued during the tenure process. To navigate these decisions, I suggest balancing the new and the old. Instead of focusing on only the new collaborations or projects, also make sure to spend time finishing older projects.

In contrast, I’ve also seen new faculty who fail to take on the new roles in their respective universities. They continue to write with only their mentor, don’t expand their network, and don’t take on new challenges. This is also problematic for different reasons. Ideally, decisions at your first job should support the process of becoming your own scholar and defining the type of researcher, teacher, and contributor that you want to be.

Response 2

New faculty members make a variety of mistakes, but the most impactful might be underestimating the time required and failing to adequately plan sufficiently to meet the demands of projects, teaching, and/or service. I often tell graduate students that after I finished my dissertation, which took over a year to complete, I realized it would probably only take a couple of months to do it again. As I often explain, that’s because, having completed the dissertation, I had already made all of the important decisions. While I think many graduates feel something similar, in a new career you don’t have the benefit of hindsight.

Many new professors begin thinking that the career is somehow less time consuming than the training. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true and, as we quickly learn, most of us really cannot complete projects as quickly as we might initially believe. One of the reasons this problem becomes so challenging is that it isn’t just research that works this way. Teaching and service activities require large time commitments as well, and, as many first-year assistant professors learn, we rarely control when the time for these tasks needs to be given. Beyond that, new demands for you time will be ever present.

Taken together, underestimating the time required to accomplish ongoing tasks and the generally constant demand for time for new tasks makes it very easy for things that we can accomplish quickly to take months or even years.  I’ve often wondered upon completion of a task why it took so long, and the answer is nearly always the same – because I had to clear so much off my desk before I could get to it. That is why scheduling is so important.

As a new assistant professor, you have to schedule and plan in advance when you will do things. The freedom and flexibility of the academy can quickly become its own vortex where little to no time is left under your control. While planning cannot make time, it can provide you an honest assessment of what time you have so you can make informed decisions about how you’re going to spend it.