Saturday, March 07, 2009

Advice for the Newly Hired - Regional Comprehensive Edition

Gayprof over at Center of Gravitas has a great post up in which he gives advice for those lucky few who've secured t-t positions in this hiring season. I love that Gayprof, and I love that he always has nifty pictures of Wonder Woman to illustrate his posts. I'm lame about illustrations. Clearly I don't use all of the tools at my disposal for making my blog attractive and pleasing to the eye. I often leave Gayprof's blog (and Historiann's, and Tenured Radical's, and...) thinking that I should step it up in this regard, and yet, well, I'm lazy and I lack the motivation really to make that little extra effort to find good pics. But I digress.

In his post, Gayprof explores the difficulty of the transition between grad student to tenure-track professor, and I'm board with his general premise:

It got me to thinking that the transition from graduate student to junior professor is often the most difficult one that people make. Few people ever discuss how hard it really is.

There are definitely good parts to that transition. Your annual income triples or even quadruples. You get genuine office space. You also can finally claim to have a real “career” rather than appearing as if you made “poor life choices.”

But there are also real struggles to that transition. As a graduate student, you are given free reign to do almost anything that you desire and have few demands placed upon you. Your advisor and/or committee members probably read things that you wrote with a critical eye and gave good feedback. You are shielded from internal squabbles between faculty members, if you are even aware that they are occurring. With the exception of the occasional TA assignment, your job has been one of luxury, simply reading and writing all day. It’s a rude awakening to find out how many other things that you will have to do as a professor. Dirty, dirty things.

But as Gayprof moves to discuss his tips for the newly hired, I noticed that some of his advice differs widely from the advice I would give. Lots of his advice is oriented around keeping publishing front and center as the primary job duty that one must fulfill. This is great advice if one gets a job at a research university. Excellent and important advice. But lots of us end up on the tenure track at institutions that are not research universities, at universities that don't even gesture toward becoming research universities (whether those are research-oriented slacs or large institutions with graduate programs that produce the next generation of the professoriate). No, lots of us end up in that elsewhere of the 4-year regional comprehensive or the 4-year mediocre slac. No, these are not community colleges, and there is still some component of research that is part of the job. Lots of times people act like there are only two choices: R1 or Community College. NOT SO! Indeed, there are LOADS of institutions that fall in the elsewhere in between those two poles, and a different set of advice is in order if you happened to get hired at one of those institutions.

And so, with that in mind, I thought I'd give my own set of tips for the newly hired from the perspective of one who works in the elswhere. Like Gayprof, I'm not holding my career up as some sort of a perfect model, but hey, I have learned some stuff in the past 6 years, and perhaps what I offer here will be of use to some new hires.

*Do publish, but use your time efficiently, recognize that this is not the primary thing on which you need to spend your time, and don't be surprised if your senior colleagues care a great deal about your work that isn't research-related, in terms of recommending you for tenure.

This first piece of advice probably goes against everything you've ever heard from your mentors or anecdotally about what it means to be a college professor. It goes against your training. It even goes against Gayprof's first piece of advice, kind of. I agree that if your university has a publication requirement for tenure that you need to be sure to meet it. But, and this is an important but, if you get a job with a 4/4 load (or even a 3/3 load where you're teaching around 100 students a semester with no TAs and with multiple preps), it's likely that your publication requirement doesn't exceed a few well-placed articles and regular presentations at conferences. So no, I'd never advise people to drop research altogether, but I would advise that slow and steady wins the race. If you devote yourself to your research, letting other things fall by the wayside, you may well fail to achieve tenure. Think about your university's mission. Is the mission about service and teaching? If so, you'd better meet the minimum standards there, too. You'd better not say no to every request to serve on committees, and you'd better be innovative and invested in your teaching. If you want to publish more than the bare minimum, recognize that you need to take the time to make that happen out of your own personal time, and not out of the time that you need to spend on your other job duties. Find ways to let your teaching prep double as research, and involve undergraduates in your research where appropriate. Don't waste your time publishing on stuff outside of your teaching areas prior to tenure (because it takes more time), and be sure that you place your publications (even if they are few) in venues that definitely "count" toward the tenure decision. Recognize that you were not hired to be a scholar first and a professor (with all that entails) second, and recognize that your colleagues may fear that you are trying to "publish your way out" or to use the job as a "stepping stone to better things" if you appear to be excessively oriented to research, and that you'll need to assuage any fears that they have about that or run the risk of appearing "uncollegial."

*Wear comfortable shoes.

This is good advice no matter what kind of institution hired you. Note, however, that comfort doesn't have to mean "not stylish." Who doesn't love shoes that are both stylish and comfortable?

*Don't confuse yourself with grad school colleagues who ended up at research universities, with your dissertation adviser, or with that colleague down the hall who for the past 25 years is the "person in the department who publishes."

This is not unlike Gayprof's piece of advice, in which he notes that junior faculty have to put in the time and the work to prove their status as researchers. However, there's another layer in the context of a university like mine, in that junior faculty do need to adjust their expectations for what is achievable in this institutional context. It's not just about putting in the time and the effort to get those lines on the cv, though surely that's part of it. It's also about holding your tongue and maintaining perspective about where you work. Nobody likes that junior colleague who complains ad nauseum about how it's "impossible" to do "good work" at an institution like mine, least of all the people who are managing to do "good work" in spite of the challenges of doing so at this sort of institution.

*Look for the positive in your own institutional context, and look for how you can exploit the positive.

This goes along with adjusting one's expectations, as I suggested in the previous tip. One thing that's great about working at a place where the research expectations are low is that they are typically also pretty flexible. You have the freedom to pursue new interests in your research, you can teach outside of your dissertation field which allows you to explore new ideas and approaches, and you can feel a lot less pressure about publication, which for some people (i.e., me) can actually make research a less fraught enterprise. I've felt a lot of freedom in terms of my research precisely because I'm not at an institution that has high expectations for it. I've enjoyed my research more in this context than I ever did during graduate school, where I felt a lot more pressure about it. I'm a lot more fearless about sending stuff out or trying new things because I'm not doing it to try to jump through a hoop or over a bar. That can, ultimately, be a really positive thing, and I do think that if one sees it that way, it can have positive effects on one's profile outside of the university at which one was hired.

*Drinking, ah, drinking. Keep it in check or you'll suck in the classroom.

We people with 4/4 loads can't afford to be fuzzy in the classroom, and we're there more than we're at home chilling with our ideas and our manuscripts for our books. That said, a well-placed bottle of wine can do wonders. :)

*Teaching multiple preps, whether at three or four classes a semester, most of them outside of the area of your dissertation, is hard freaking work. Don't think that you can be a good teacher without putting in that work. That said, also learn to work efficiently as a teacher, or you'll become a zombie who is a slave to grading. Teaching expands to fill the time you give it. If you give it an infinite amount of time, it will take an infinite amount of time.

I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who got a t-t job at Top Ivy right out of grad school, who was teaching a 1-1 load. He was astonished that I'd managed to publish anything or to do any research (as are my grad school mentors, come to think of it). In conversation with Top Ivy friend, it became apparent that he would spend whole days prepping for his one class, spend whole days grading. Let's just say that this is not a sensible approach to teaching, particularly with a heavy teaching load. You've got to cut down on the prep time and the grading time in order to save yourself from ultimate collapse. Easier said than done, right? BUT, if you don't do that, you will come to resent teaching and you'll be a crappy teacher. The best advice I can give is the following: 1) Take lots of time on syllabus design and assignment design, making sure that you think about how assignments affect your schedule and about what assignments are supposed to do for students. It's better to have three well-designed assignments than 7 crappily designed ones. That time spent on the front end makes a huge difference during the semester. Winging it typically does not do you any favors. 2) Teach the same material (or use the same assignments), but in different ways, in multiple contexts. This means that prep for the survey can double as prep for the intro course, for example. 3) Once you've got a course "in the can" don't change more than one or two things in a given semester to freshen a course up. 4) Use rubrics or checklists to minimize writing the same comments over and over again. 5) Let students do the work for you. Active learning is better than passive learning, and spending the time to design active assignments for students pays off in terms of what they get out of a course and in terms of the time that you need to spend on the course once it's up and running. 6) Understand that you need to work really hard to figure out what works in the classroom, to educate yourself about different learning styles, and to grow as a teacher. If you phone it in without putting in that work, your evaluations will show that. And yes, evaluations do matter.

* Be generous to all of your colleagues, including senior ones who got tenure without any publications, or who haven't published for 20 years but who have long institutional memories and do service out the wazoo.

On the one hand, I like Gayprof's advice about being generous to people in your cohort of junior faculty because those people are in the same boat with you and can be great allies if you all stay at the instituion and great colleagues even if they or you move on to greener pastures. But at my kind of institution, I think it can be much more typical for people to be in league with their fellow junior folks against the oldsters whom the juniors perceive as "dead wood." You know what I've come to realize? Those people who maybe didn't publish a lick and still got tenure are often the very people who make the university run. They serve on multiple university-wide committees, they decide on hires, they recommend people for tenure. Just because their career trajectory doesn't look like mine, it doesn't mean that they are worthy of my derision. And in fact, I've learned a lot from those people - maybe not about my research or about publication, but about all of those other parts of the job that I didn't get trainted to do in graduate school.

*Getting a job involved a lot of luck in your favor.

Yes, even at No-Name State University. Even at Middle-of-the Road SLAC. In this market, at least 25% of the people who apply for a given job at my university are probably "worthy" of being hired. Getting hired here doesn't mean that you were "special" or "most meritorious." On the other side of the coin, nor does it mean that you "weren't good enough" to get hired at a Research University. No-Name State University isn't "lucky" to have you, as if other candidates wouldn't have been able to match your qualifications, and you may well be a strong enough candidate to have been "qualified" for someplace better. Even here, in my department, in competitive fields, we typically see upwards of 150 applications. With that kind of pool, anybody who gets a job gets lucky. Even if the job is not a Dream Job, by your grad program's standards.

* Manage your career for the expectations of your field, not your current university or your department.

Yes, and no. Yes because if you don't then you'll feel like a loser. No, in that I do think that mobility from this sort of institution up the academic food chain is a lot harder to achieve than one might think. It makes sense to be happy where you are, and if you can't do that if your eye is always on what might have been or what might happen someday, that can be really demoralizing. I know that I became a lot happier in this job when I started thinking about my career as being part of my current institution. That's not to say I would never move, or that I think it's good to ignore the expectations of one's field. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle on this one: manage your career for the expectations of your field, but don't ignore the expectations of your current university or department in doing so. In saying that, I'm not advocating "drinking the kool-aid" and being unswervingly loyal to one's institution, but I am saying that regardless of what you achieve in your field, you may never be able to move someplace "better" - or if you are able, it may happen after a much longer slog than you initially anticipate, because you won't be able to keep up with people who start off higher up on the food chain than you do. Of course you should try to get out and make a lateral move if your department or university is toxic. But it's also important to be realistic about the fact that moving might not be possible, especially after tenure.

* There is no “in” crowd in academia, or, even if you are at an institution like mine, you may still end up in an "in" crowd.

I think what Gayprof says about there not being an "in" crowd and the pointlessness of trying to gain access to the cool kids' lunch-table is pretty good advice. I suppose I'd say in addition, though, that a lot of people mistakenly think that one can only be part of an "in" crowd if they are at a top research university. Not true, in my experience. There are lots of "in" crowds, and membership basically depends on being an interesting and engaged scholar. People care about your scholarship - not about your institutional affiliation - at a certain level. And if they don't, well, then why do you want to be part of their stupid "in" group?

* Tenure is not the end.

Agreed. I'll add that this is true both in terms of publications at my university but also in terms of teaching and service. Sure, you're not doing stuff just to bean-count anymore - adding lines onto your cv like clockwork - but rather to show continued investment in ideas, in students, in university governance. Those things matter, and, I think, should continue to matter.

*If you start a blog, be clear about what you hope to get out of it and about the risks involved.

I'd never say never start a blog, even tongue in cheek. Blogging has provided me with a great community of folks in academia, a sense of community that I don't necessarily get at my job. Working at this kind of university can feel alienating sometimes, especially as one makes the transition from grad student to the tenure track. Having bloggy peeps has really made a huge difference in my feeling connected to the wider profession. That said, it's important to define an online persona that reflects a persona that you'd be comfortable having even if real life folks found you out, and it's important to understand that blogging is not good if it takes away from the real academic work that you need to accomplish. If you think that a blog can be a transparent and thoughtless bitch-fest about your colleagues, for which you have no responsibility, I'd advise against doing it. But if you think that blogging will allow you to think about your life as a professor, about your discipline, or about issues in the profession, and you think that you can write on a blog in ways that don't upset you personally or upset your work or your job prospects, well, maybe it's ok. I'm so glad that I blog. I think that it's good for me. But it may not be good for everybody, and one has to exercise caution and think about consequences.


So that's my take on the whole transition thing, and some tips that I wish somebody had given me starting out. There are a lot of common points between what I write here and what Gayprof wrote, but I think it's useful to get a variety of takes on how this transition works in a variety of institutional contexts.


GayProf said...

It all seems very sensible to me.

What you say about teaching is more along the lines of what I intended (but said in a much more clumsy manner). That friend at the Ivy who spent all day and night on one class was not being particularly efficient (and might have been procrastinating about doing other work). That isn't to imply that teaching is a breeze or should just be tossed aside, even at an Ivy.

And, to clarify, while I generally encourage the drinking, probably it's a bad idea to do before any class, even at an R1.

* said...

I read GayProf's last night and yours this morning and commend you both. Great advice (and not only for new hires but for those of us who've been in the trenches for a little while). :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh GP - I didn't mean to imply that drinking before teaching was good at an R1 - just that one has more time outside of the classroom, which means that one can adjust one's drinking schedule accordingly :) And I thought that was what you probably meant about the teaching stuff.... and I think you're right that teaching is a GREAT procrastination enabler - perhaps because it's much more immediate than research, in whatever one's context. I really loved your post - just thought I could supplement it in a way that might be useful for some :)

Doctor Pion said...

Very nice.

Back in my "jobs" series, I posted one with its focus on keeping your job at an R1 (from the physics side of the aisle) and a separate one (with its entire emphasis on teaching) about jobs at a CC. Your article nicely fills in that middle gap (teaching intensive 4-year school where some publication is still required) that I skimmed over. I need to go back and add some links back to these two articles. The point that this is a major transition is rarely evident when in grad school.

It was also interesting to see how it all looks from the other side of the campus, where books replace research grants.

The only place where I disagree with Gayprof (and agree with you) is that teaching is not easier than writing and researching - unless you are much better at teaching than research. In the latter case, you might not be happy at an R1. We get plenty of failed applicants at our CC who think "anyone can teach" and don't get the job.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I love this post.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Man, where was this post 5 years ago?

(Still, there's good advice for those of us who are further along, so thanks for sharing. And did I ever tell you that you're my inspiration, you with a book and a 4-4? Seriously, woman -- you rock.)

Professor Zero said...

Good post.

The thing I would add is that remember that hires slightly newer than you also have fairly recent degrees from programs as good or better than the one you just finished in.

That means that if they have adjusted to this institution somewhat, and do not voice absolute horror the way you do, it does not mean that they are not aware of the modern world or that you are the only intelligent and educated person in the room.

You might ask questions, i.e., is there a reason we don't have a Y? or can we not do X? or make comments, but do not condescend and do not assume people are not aware of as many modern marvels as you are - they might, in fact, be aware of even more and just not be as callow as you.

Professor Zero said...

BIG CORRECTION: Above, I meant hires slightly OLDER than you.

So since I'm back, I'll clarify: new hires, even when horrified by the poor quality of the place you've landed, try not to be rude or insulting to your colleagues, who have been suffering under this regime longer than you and who have made serious efforts to remedy it, one of which was your hire.

Try not to insinuate that it is your colleagues' faults that undergraduates at this institution are not as well trained as those at the Ivy you came from. Try not to insinuate that they wouldn't know what a good school was if they saw it. Etc.

Dr. Crazy said...

Nice addition, Professor Z. (and I'm glad you clarified your original comment - it confused me when I first read it). And, without saying too much, just know that I whole-heartedly agree, especially given current goings on at my institution.