Five things I wish I'd known in my first semester as a professor

Five things I wish I'd known in my first semester as a professor

Twenty years ago almost to the day, in May 1997, I defended my Ph.D. thesis at Vanderbilt University, then a few weeks later moved off to start my first academic job, as an Assistant Professor at a small liberal arts college. In the space of six months I went from stressed-out grad student struggling to prove his dissertation's main theorem and land a job, to new faculty member teaching four classes and trying to navigate the landscape of my work (and still stressed out).

So this past week when I put out a request for blog post topics, I was very happy to get some requests from folks who are just finishing up grad school and moving into new faculty positions in the fall, or just finishing up their first year as faculty -- asking questions I should have asked myself 20 years ago. The first one of these I'd like to write about is:

What served you well during your first semester [of being a faculty member]? What should new faculty know?

Before I answer this, you should know that I didn't have the world's greatest first semester as a faculty member.

Grad school for me was 5 years of 70-80 hour work weeks, working on courses and then my dissertation as well as teaching three classes per year (with full responsibility for the courses). I lacked the mathematical talent that most of my Vanderbilt classmates had[1], so I had to make up for it with dogged persistence and a lack of inhibition about trying things and failing at them. As hard as it was, I enjoyed it and came to love working on big ideas with brilliant colleagues and exceptionally talented students day in and day out. When I finished my thesis and landed a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college, it was a dream come true, and I couldn't wait to start.

I ran headfirst into a wall almost on day 1.

What knocked me over in my first semester was not only the quantity and difficulty of the work that I had to do as a new faculty member but the sheer diversity of it. Whereas before, I was teaching at most two sections of a single course per semester, now I was teaching four different preps every semester. Before, I had basically no service responsibilities; now, I was one faculty member out of around 70 for the entire college, and one of only two faculty in the Math Department, and everybody had to do everything all the time. And while my new school had essentially no research or scholarship expectations, I still needed to publish my dissertation --- which I found to be all but impossible in my field of algebraic topology, where the half-life of your knowledge of your niche can be measured in days. Add on the expectation at a small college that you'll be available 7-10 hours a week for office hours and will participate in student life[2], and I was back to working 70-80 hour weeks again, and this was way before I had any kind of system for managing the work.

Not only this, but my experience working with the top tier at Vanderbilt did not translate into success working at a not-top-tier liberal arts college. I mean no disrespect to this institution; the fact is that the college wasn't known for academic quality, and many of my colleagues and students did not have the same values about higher education as I did. I struggled to fit in. In fact, I never really did fit in. Three weeks into the job, I was already searching the math job sites for new jobs. When the semester ended, I received the worst teaching evaluations that semester I'd ever gotten. On top of this, I had personal issues including thousands of dollars of credit card debt I'd racked up during the summer before moving when I had no income, and isolation from being in a new place where I knew nobody and didn't fit in with anybody.

Nothing in my graduate school experience prepared me to handle this.

I bring all of this up because my answers to those questions are cautionary tales, what I wish I had done in my first semester and can finally understand 20 years later. If you are entering a new job this fall or just finishing up your first year, here's what I wish I had known that I hope you can learn:

  1. The most important thing in your first year is forming relationships. The job itself is described in terms of teaching, scholarship, and service. But the glue that makes all of this make sense and hold together is relationships with other people. This includes students, of course, as well as your departmental colleagues. But it also includes colleagues in other departments; administrators; the support staff, especially your department's administrative assistants; the janitorial staff; your landlord; your neighbors. This doesn't mean you have to like everybody. It means that you have to have a sense of how other people in your life do their work, what their needs are, and how you can help them meet their needs and vice versa. You will be saner as a result, and honestly it's probably more valuable for progress toward tenure than your teaching or publications. Put relationship-building at the top of your list for what to do in semester 1, or even beforehand.
  2. The second most important thing in your first year is making mistakes and learning from them. True story: My very first class session at my first job, I was beginning a lecture over the syllabus. I picked up a marker and started to write on the board --- only to realize after making a couple of strokes that the overhead projector screen was still down, and the marker I was using was a permanent marker. It wasn't a good omen. But it was not the last mistake I made. You too will make a lot of mistakes in every area of your work and personal life, in ways that you didn't even imagine, and in far greater quantities than you did in grad school. Be ready for this. Have a plan for how to deal with it, professionally and emotionally. Most importantly, leverage your network of people (see point #1) to help you see the mistakes and unpack them in a caring way. We want students to learn from failures and we have to lead by example.
  3. Learn how to manage your work. Grad school is hard work, but it's not a complicated life. Most grad students are mostly doing one of two things when they're not sleeping: Doing research, and preparing a small number of teaching tasks. As I mentioned above, this all changes in the first semester. If you don't have a system in place for managing the onslaught of work, you'll be washed away. This summer, buy and read two books: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen and Zen To Done by Leo Babauta (and read them in that order). Then go back to my GTD for Academics series and, at least six weeks from your starting date, start implementing a GTD system that works for you. Practice using it with the relatively simple life of summertime. Don't skip this step. You need a system or you will be roadkill.
  4. (a) Keep it simple and (b) Say no. That is, don't take every opportunity that comes your way, and don't complicate the opportunities you take. I made the mistake in my first semester of trying nearly all of the neat ideas I'd learned about through Project NExT over the summer. None of them went very well; I didn't know the institution or its students, and it's just very hard to have success with more innovative teaching techniques without that knowledge. I also bought into the NExT mantra of "just say yes" and got involved in too many things. As a new faculty member, you'll get a lot of requests from all over to get involved with campus or departmental initiatives. Say "yes" to a small number of these that you feel strongly about and which could help you advance in your position; say "no" to the rest. Also keep your teaching simple; my advice to new faculty members is not to adopt any "innovative" teaching practices, including the ones that I champion here on this blog, during your first year unless you are already skilled at them. Instead, focus your energies on building relationships (see above) and learning the culture and personality of your institution and its students.
  5. Take care of yourself. You are not a machine. You are a human being with a certain skill set that most people don't have; you also have emotions, a need to interact with people, a limited store of energy, and requirements for existence like proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. When you start your first faculty position, the work will be so overwhelming that you'll be tempted to cut corners on these things: Eat crappy takeout, stay up until 2:00am grading, holing up in your apartment all weekend to plan for Monday's classes. Don't do it. Self-care is at least as important as the care that you give to your work, your students, and your colleagues if not moreso. Give yourself the time and care that you need in order to be happy, balanced, and functioning --- even if it means setting hard boundaries around what you will and will not do for students and your institution.[3]

As a special case of self-care, make sure to take care of your personal finances. My first semester as a prof was the first time I'd ever received a paycheck with a comma in it, and I thought I was rich! And after five years of living in poverty, I wanted nice things. I took no care of my finances, didn't keep my books balanced, made stupid financial choices, and ended up in so much debt that it took me almost five years to pay it all off. This summer, in addition to setting up a GTD system and using it, learn everything you can about personal money management. I recommend Dave Ramsey as a starting point.

It's taken me about 20 years to figure these things out, so hopefully you are a little less slow than I am. Good luck if you are starting year 1 or 2 of your jobs -- and ask questions (and share your advice) below in the comments.

  1. It's not impostor syndrome when you really aren't qualified for the job. ↩︎

  2. For example, this was a religious college with a de facto expectation that faculty will attend student chapel services three times per week. It's like having an extra class or committee assignment. ↩︎

  3. Way too many colleges -- it seems the worst offenders are smaller colleges that have an otherwise laudable emphasis on close student-faculty relationships -- maintain the profoundly unhealthy belief that the more time you spend on campus, the more "dedicated to students" you are. I've professors routinely lauded as "dedicated to students" because they come into work at 6:00am, leave at 6:00pm, and then come back at 7:00pm to hold office hours or conduct labs; meanwhile their colleagues who value their personal and family time and "only" work 7:00am to 5:00pm are flagged as "not as dedicated" and passed over for awards year after year despite having better classroom outcomes. This is nonsense, it's unhealthy, and it's time for colleges to stop with this sort of thing. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.