Lessons Learned as a First-Year Assistant Professor

When I was finishing my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and going on the academic job market, I got a lot of great advice from my dissertation committee, other academics, and friends from around the country about how to survive the first year. The typical advice was to work really hard, be nice to everyone, and to do everything possible to lay the groundwork for the rest of my career while somehow getting to the middle of May.

I got a great job as a tenure-track assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and it’s safe to say that the first year flew by. It feels like I just moved to New Jersey a few weeks ago, but instead I’m taking a break in between rounds of grading student papers to write down things I learned from the first year on the tenure track. The three basic principles that I outlined above definitely still hold true, but I wanted to take a minute to share some other lessons that I learned this year. (Note that some of this advice is most applicable to tenure-track faculty at institutions where research is a key expectation of tenure.)

(1) Try to get courses prepared as far ahead of time as possible. New course preparations take a lot of time. I estimate that I probably spent 30-40 hours preparing the syllabi for each of my solo course preparations, including finding the assigned articles, thinking about potential assignments, and posting materials to Blackboard. I then spent about 6-8 hours preparing lecture notes for the typical week’s class, which is a pretty big upfront cost but I’ll only need to spend a fraction of that time updating the course for next year.

There are three major concerns with advance course preparation. First, course assignments can change, so wait to spend too much time on a course until it’s definitely yours. Second, you may not have access to your new institution’s library and technology resources until close to the start of the semester. If that might be a concern, talk with your new department to see if they can help. Finally, there does need to be some flexibility in the course based on whether your expectations of the class’s knowledge or your pace are accurate. I built a flexible day into the schedule this spring semester, which came in handy when New Jersey got 62 inches of snow during the winter.

(2) Budget blocks of research time far in advance. Teaching will take up a lot of time during the first year, and service responsibilities such as advising and committee work will vary considerably across colleges. But research cannot be neglected during the first year, particularly given the amount of time between submitting an article to a journal and finally seeing it in print (two years is not uncommon). Keep a close eye on submission deadlines for conferences and small grants, as these proposals are good ways to continue developing a research agenda and meet more senior researchers in your field.

One word of caution: Although conference proposals don’t take that much time to write, keep in mind that the papers must be written if the proposals are accepted. I submitted three paper proposals last fall for conferences this spring, and was pleasantly surprised to see all of them accepted. The drawback was that I had to draft three papers in a six-week period, which was a lot of work. However, my previous work to get ahead of the curve on course preparation allowed me the time to write the papers.

Some people like to dedicate certain days of the week and/or times of day to focus on research and writing. I would advise not trying to write in more than two-hour blocks due to diminished returns after a long period of concentration, but people quickly find their own style. What is more important is finding the time of day which you have the most energy and placing your most cognitively difficult tasks (research or lecture preparation) in those periods. Save the tedious data work or editing for another point in time.

(3) Make time to be a public scholar, but proceed with caution. Many of us in academia entered the profession due to a strong interest in shaping public discourse on important topics. I’m no exception, as I have a strong interest in providing policy-relevant research in the areas of higher education finance, accountability, and policy. For this reason, academics tend to be defensive against criticisms that we don’t care about public policy. My blog post on the topic in February got a large amount of traffic and was covered by other media outlets.

With that being said, proceed into the public arena with caution. Make sure your statements can be supported with research and it’s ideal if they fit well into your research agenda. Not every department is supportive of young faculty members who are engaged in policy discussions, so talk with your colleagues to get their thoughts. I’m thankful to be in a very supportive department and university, which allows me to engage policymakers and advance my teaching and research.

(4) Plan goals for the summer after the first year and beyond. The summer after the first year is certainly a good time to take a break. It’s been a busy first year and many new professors haven’t had a proper break for years. But that summer is also crucial for thinking about grant applications, planning new projects, and looking ahead to the tenure review process. Given the long arc of many projects, it’s not unreasonable to expect a project that is started right after the first year to bear fruit not long before the tenure application is submitted.

Friends and colleagues in academia, what other suggestions would you have for new faculty?

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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