Advice for Your First Year on the Tenure Track

This is a repost.

Update 8/22/15:  Dialogue on my FB page made me realize that I need to provide fuller context for this post.  This dates from early years on the blog when I used to do special request posts to respond to reader questions.  “Tricia” was at an R1 institution, and my advice was focused on responding to her concerns about her situation, but I didn’t make that clear.  Much of this advice would not be appropriate for a teaching intensive position.  I’m sorry that I didn’t clarify that in the original post, or in the re-post this week.

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Tricia, who asks, “What advice would you give someone about to start their first year as an assistant professor?”

My advice is: be selfish.

Your job is not to advance the academy. It is not to change the academy. It is not to improve the academy. It is not to make the academy a safe space for women. It is not to defend the humanities against the corporatization of the institution.

Your job is not to be friends with the undergraduates. It is not to rescue the graduate students. It is not to fill gaps in the class schedule with independent studies. It is not to be a therapist to frightened ABDs.

Your job is not to rehabilitate your department. It is not to fix the curriculum. It is not to chair committees. It is not to represent the department on the Faculty Senate.

Your job is not to represent women, or feminists, or queers, or people of color on department and university committees.

Your job is not to win a teaching award.

Your job is not to participate in edited collections or symposia proposed by your new colleagues.

Your job is to be selfish, keep your head down, and get through the year.

Your job is to make friends with other junior faculty in your department and in other departments, and go out to coffee or lunch with them on a regular basis.

Your job is to find a trusted senior colleague as mentor, and to meet with that colleague at least twice a semester. If you are a woman, that mentor should be a woman.

Your job is to schedule a meeting with your Head and find out the expectations for tenure. Your job is to follow up on that meeting with an email that clarifies everything that you discussed, in writing.

Your job, during the Fall, is to apply for at least one significant internal and one significant external fellowship which will buy you at least one full semester, and ideally one full year of research leave in your second year. If these applications are unsuccessful, you will find out why and prepare to apply again in year two.

Your job is to teach your classes as well as you are able. Your job is also to explore avenues for minimizing the amount of time you spend on those classes. Your job is to study how senior faculty in your department cut corners in their teaching in ways that are considered acceptable within the departmental culture.

Your job is to not get any serious writing done for the first semester, and possibly the entire first year. Your job is to not beat yourself up about that. Your job is to forgive yourself for feeling overwhelmed and coming home at the end of the day and binge-watching Scandal. You will be able to do this because you know that you applied for leave time in your second year.

Your job is to serve on only one major committee. The speakers committee or a search committee are the best committees for you. The speakers committee allows you to reach out to and host senior scholars in your field. The search committee allows you to shape the future of your department and have social capital to spend at your national meetings.

Your job is to be agreeable to everyone in the department. Your job is to have opinions that you clearly state in faculty meetings instead of sitting there like a passive mute mouse. Your job is to have a conscience and your own point of view, which you defend, while remaining pleasant and collegial. No one respects a doormat. Your job is to meet with your trusted mentor prior to faculty meetings to thoroughly understand the history and politics of contentious issues before you vote on them in the faculty meetings.

Your job is to avoid departmental factions and civil wars. If things escalate, keep your head down and do not allow yourself to be recruited to “sides.”

Your job is to suck up to the department secretary. If you go on a trip, bring her back a present. Chocolate is always welcome. Bring enough for her to share with other staff in the office. You have no idea the difference she is going to make in your job satisfaction.

Your job is to learn where the money is on campus. You may construe your job as including organizing a symposium or workshop or conference on campus, for which you contact departments and centers around campus to collect financial support. You may feel confident about your use of time in this way because through this you learn how to get money to accomplish your goals, increase your campus-wide visibility, and get the chance to invite “big names” to campus for your event, big names who may someday be your tenure letter writers.

Your job is to go to as many conferences as you can afford. You may feel justified in cancelling class or showing a video or bringing in a guest lecturer or asking one of your TAs to cover.

Your job is to thoroughly investigate how smoothly your predecessors’ tenure cases went, and to use all of the detective skills you can muster to learn whether your Department Head is proficient, or an incompetent ass, in handling tenure cases. If the latter, you will begin the process of indirectly mobilizing your mentor and other senior colleagues to look out for and protect you.

Your job is to maintain some semblance of a home life and a relationship with the important people in your life.

Your job is to maintain a hobby or outside interest that feeds your soul.  This might be running, swimming, yoga, art, music, dance…only you know what it should be.

Your job is to make sure your people at home, if you have them, are pulling their weight in the housework. You are entitled to expect that.  Fight for it now, because the stakes only get higher later.

Your job is to hire a housekeeper and get daycare for your children so you can devote yourself to work.

Your job is to get a cute haircut and go shopping occasionally for clothes that fit, and that make you look like the young professional that you are.

Your job is to look after yourself. You can fight battles and defend the righteous later. Right now, you just need to survive to year two.

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Advice for Your First Year on the Tenure Track — 50 Comments

  1. Some great advice above! I would add that it’s very important to observe and pay attention to the interactions around you–between various colleagues, colleagues and administration, between faculty and students, etc. Every school is going to be a bit different, and there can also be very different dynamics within the same campus, so it can be very helpful to be sensitive to these details. It’s important to develop your own relationships with your colleagues, but you also want to do your best to get the lay of the land as much as possible so you can avoid the potholes.

    Remember that your previous experience, whether as a grad student or a faculty member is both valuable but also essentially different, not necessarily better or worse, from where you are now.

    • thanks, Erin. I would totally second that. Especially when you make the classic move from an R1 to a “lesser” school for your first job. it’s absolutely vital that you quickly adapt to the new culture, which may be really different—possibly less competitive, more concerned with collegiality and ‘being nice’, etc. Move very carefully in those first few months.

  2. Hello Karen
    You suggested that I comment on the blog re: my feelings on first year teaching. And as a blogger, I can sympathize with the desire to generate a healthy conversation in the comments section of my posts. So here I am (I’m supposed to be writing right now)!
    In general, I think this is really great advice for someone starting their first job. In particular, I was pleased that you mentioned “Your job is to hire a housekeeper and get daycare for your children so you can devote yourself to work.” I have done both–and while these decisions often fill me with guilt (I shouldn’t be commenting on a blog right now, I should be working because I am paying other people to take care of my children right now), I know that I am a working mother and as such, I need childcare and someone to help me clean my house if I am going to have the time to write, research, teach, do committee work, play with my kids, talk to my husband, exercise, shave my legs, and, for at least a few hours, sleep.
    However, one point I do take issue with is “Your job is to teach your classes as well as you are able. Your job is also to explore avenues for minimizing the amount of time you spend on those classes. Your job is to learn how senior faculty in your department cut corners in their teaching in ways that are considered acceptable in your department.”
    Yes, learning how to cut corners in your teaching is a necessary skill, one that anyone who taught during graduate school has probably already learned to some degree. However, given that most departments do not expect a first year hire to publish or serve on a major committee, I think the first year is the year to really focus on how to teach your new group of students. I was shocked by how different the students I taught as a grad student were from the students I taught as TT professor. The first year is when you start to figure out the cultural, economic, academic and departmental factors that define your students and how they learn. These factors will shape how and what you teach in your second year. So I would personally advise a first year prof to really focus on teaching and figuring out how to best serve your students. See what works and what doesn’t. Start playing with old syllabi and start planning new ones. Because soon enough, those committee assignments and research expectations will pile up and you won’t have nearly enough time or focus to put on your teaching.
    Just my 2 cents.
    Otherwise, really enjoyed the post!

    • thanks Amanda! I appreciate this. Here’s how I would respond. Everything that I write on this blog is not motivated by a higher ideal of the academy, but rather comes directly out of lived experience with graduate students and assistant professors. And what I’ve learned in my career is this: assistant professors (especially women) routinely spend too much time on their teaching to the detriment of their overall welfare in the department. So, while I agree that caring deeply about teaching is a good thing, I do NOT believe that the vast majority of actual young assistant professors (especially women) need to be told to care deeply about teaching. What they NEED to hear, is care less about their teaching. Because if they ratchet down the caring, they might hit closer to what is an actual appropriate investment of time and energy in their teaching that is going to sustain and support them through tenure. Again, not speaking of the ideal, but the reality. I’ve seen way, way, way too many junior faculty women end up in the classic trap of thinking their their excellent teaching is going to serve them in their path to a tt job and to tenure, and then finding out the brutal truth—teaching gets you mostly nowhere. For another view on this, read the wonderful post on The Thesis Whisperer, Is the University a Bad Boyfriend?

  3. Just saw this and am going to forward to my women’s Writing Accountability Group, which includes grad students, junior faculty, and tenured faculty. Everyone should read this! Have you considered writing for the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Ed?

  4. This is a terrific post. As a full professor who has seen all the mistakes (and made many of them), I think the advice is dead on the mark for everywhere except a Research 1 university, where you’d better hit the ground writing because you will have to do a fair amount of it to get tenure. That’s why it’s crucial not to let your teaching suck up all your available time. But you have to learn to write in the corners–find out (if you don’t already know, from having written your dissertation) what time of day is your best writing time, and make sure you spend at least 3-4 hours a week working on something. Karen’s right that you aren’t expected to get anything accepted for publication the first year, but you must begin as you begin to go on, and if research is just as big a part of your workload as teaching is, you’d better be devoting at least a little time to it on a routine basis.

    If you are teaching in a liberal arts college or a community college, where teaching is at a premium, you do need to focus on your students. But even there, most places require that you publish a bit before they’ll give you tenure. So, bottom line is, don’t let anything push your writing off the back of the desk.

    • thanks for writing in, Hilde. I always appreciate faculty who write in with their real names. I think it adds a lot to the discussion. Now, I’m going to actually disagree with you, though, on two points. Not in “principle”, but in “practice.” Here’s what I mean. The mission of The Professor Is In is to always reject the dead ideals of the academy, and deal exclusively in the lived realities. I also come from an R1 career, and was a department head in one, where I mentored 5 junior faculty through successful tenure cases. I know that all junior faculty SHOULD start writing in year one. What I also know is that no junior faculty actually do. They just don’t. It’s too overwhelming. And what happens then is that they beat themselves up for it. The point of my post is to tell them, don’t beat yourself up. Use your time to get a plan to hit the ground writing in year two. If you apply for research leave in year one, you will be in fine shape to get all the writing done that you need to starting in year two. AND, you will protect your mental health and your relationships with your friends and family. And that’s also key to a good, healthy balance.

      The second point I want to add a disagreement on, is Liberal Arts Colleges most DEFINITELY expect more than “a bit” of publishing. Whatever you do, LAC asst profs, do NOT be misled by their blahdeddy blah about teaching being most important! They WILL judge you on publications when you come up for tenure, and they WILL turn you down if you don’t have a robust publishing record, in some cases equivalent to an R1 tenure case! I am actually in the midst of a post on this very topic. It’s one of the lies of the academy that has ruined the lives of many young faculty.

  5. Good post and comments! And I’m glad you don’t say not to speak in meetings for the first 2 years. We hire people because we want their input. It doesn’t mean we want them to take over running the place or harangue us on how to change, but it does mean we want their input – they’re hired for their expertise, after all. I am really against the idea that people shouldn’t speak until after 3d year review or after tenure because (a) I don’t think it’s true and (b) I find that normally, if they don’t, they don’t speak afterwards either.

    I agree about getting advice from people who know the lay of the land before meetings but I insist, really make sure you know who it is you are asking.

    I disagree about not writing in year one — I wrote great things then and I am glad I didn’t break my stride, I had good ideas and projects going and it was really good for me psychologically to allow myself to do something positive — it would have been so depressing to renounce research. It also got me a better job than the one I had.

  6. P.S. I later did things that allowed me to push writing off the back of the desk. This was on advice from mentors and so on: put your “life” first, put teaching first, put service first, etc., etc. I took the advice because it was presented as instructions for survival in a world I did not understand but it felt like walking on knives, and still does. You have to do what you came for and re another post in this blog, I’d say that it’s when you don’t have the means to do that that you should consider leaving.

  7. And P.P.S. – I have increasing difficulty taking all advice at once. One is supposed to go to all possible conferences, have good hair/clothes and a housekeeper, etc., but one is also supposed to remain free by not having too much debt. I’ve rarely made enough to do all of this at once and the only people in arts/humanities I know who do (and they still live comparatively modestly) are at the best schools.

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  10. Some really excellent advice here. One thing I’d not so much challenge as add two important footnotse/qualifiers to is the advice to get onto a search committee. This can indeed be a great bit of service that will be valued by your colleagues, where you can contribute a lot (the younger folk often know the field better than the dinosaurs), and where you can help to make the process better than the one that you likely suffered through. I also think that — if you wish to stay at your current university — there is no better committee for return on investment of blood and sweat than a search committee, since you’ll be choosing someone who might be a colleague for 30 years or so.

    My footnotes/qualifiers, though:
    (1) search committee work, if you take it seriously, can be a whole lot of work. And you likely will take it seriously if the scars of your own search are still upon you. I’m a full prof with many committee responsibilities, some of them exhausting, but none quite as exhausting as a search ctte. So be warned.
    (2) don’t do this (yet) if your department has fractious politics, or if you don’t yet know if it does. Egos, political divides, and infighting rule supreme surrounding searches when a dept doesn’t get along, and thus being on a search ctte. may lead to the very opposite of the other advice of keeping your head down.

  11. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for the advice! I take your point on not getting any writing done in practice, but what would be a realistic balance in theory? If they ask me what kind of balance I expect, would it be okay to say something like 50% research, 40% teaching, and 10% service (at a university that places high value on research)? Or is that too unrealistic?

    • What you SAY is whatever your contracted percentages are for your position, which at an R1 are: 60% research, 30% teaching, 10% service. What you do, however, is secure research leave time for as many subsequent years/terms as you can get away with.

      • Thanks, I don’t know what my contracted percentages would be but it is helpful to have a baseline to compare it to (60-30-10). And yes, if I get the job I will negotiate for as much research leave time as I can! Thanks again for your advice, really appreciate it.

  12. Hi Dr Karen,
    Thanks for this – I haven’t checked back in since your blog helped me into my ideal job in September, but I’m glad I did today – some sage advice here, and very timely!

    • Be sure and check out my Webinar, Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track. You can check it out under Webinars. I[‘m not offering another live version for awhile,but the recording (also on that page, if you scroll down) is filled with insights that go beyond this post.

  13. Hello Karen,
    Reading this blog is very informative as I’m just starting a TT job at a low ranked R1. I graduated from a very top notch R1 but due to the vagaries of the job market, this turned out to be my one option. The teaching is 2 X 2 and the trouble is that I have not taught my own courses before. Now, I do have 2 publications and 3 more under review and 2 more to be submitted before starting the TT. I’m also working to get ‘bites’ from editors for my book project (based of course on the dissertation)..My question pertains to what you mean by applying for research leave. During my campus visit, the Dean made it clear that there are no course reductions, or buy-outs and that the only special ‘leave’ provided is the research intensive semester off from teaching that most take after their 3rd year review. In that case, how does one go about applying for research leave? There are certainly no internal grants: this institution doesn’t even provide research funding or conference support or RAs (a big culture shock from my graduate program where even as graduate students we got one to two conferences covered every year, and summer funding !!). That leaves external possibilities: where are these announced (I’m in the social sciences)? I’m also uncertain about how tolerant the department would be if the faculty they hired to teach is going on research leave almost off the bat in the 2nd year…

    • Institutions are not obligated to let you take research leave, and it sounds like your institution may say no, even if you get such a grant. However, it’s good to try anyway. But I agree, not in your first year to be off year two. I’d suggest holding the plan to apply in year two to take off potentially in year three, or even the year after that. There are many grants that buy you time out of teaching–some are residential (such as postdocs run out of Radcliffe, Harvard, Princeton, etc.) and some are not (ACLS, NEH, etc.) You’d need to check with people in your field to find the ones most appropriate to you.

  14. as follow-up I will add that the contract specifies 40 % research 40 % teaching and 20 % for service..the Department shields new faculty from service as much as possible and the Head tries to reduce the 2-2 load to 2-1 prep-wise but as you can see the R1 is R1 only in name..Not sure if this is relevant..

  15. many thanks Karen. I will ask my advisor. He has recommended that I might test the job market again especially because we hope that a few more papers will land by that time, and hopefully a book contract. I am guessing the postdoc applications would happen at the same time. Come to think of it, at my alma mater, two junior faculty took research leave in their third year, one was at Berkeley, the other at Columbia. We have guaranteed paid leave for a semester but I hear this is standard. At my alma, it was the same, and these junior faculty were paid one semester by the institution, and one by the postdoc. Both are R1s but my alma was top, so I am not sure if that would affect things. What I do know however is that junior faculty have started doing admin for various centers at my prospective institution, usually in their third year, and are on reduced loads..Thanks again!

  16. I love this advice, though I think the writing advice might be more appropriate for humanities scholars than scientists– I think if I went a year without publishing, let alone writing, that would look pretty bad (though correct me if I’m wrong!).

    • If you’re in the life sciences, you should be aiming for 5 to 6 published papers per year. It may be that you’ll end up publishing a bit less if papers are unexpectedly having to be shopped around to 4 journals or that sort of thing, and if your teaching load is heavy, but if you drop below 2 your career will be on life support. If data collection snags are holding you up, try submitting a perspective / mini-review somewhere. Aiming for one of the current research topics listed for an open-access journal can help to speed things up. One key to rapid publication is not to second-guess yourself unnecessarily. Remind yourself (particularly if you’re one of my fellow lady researchers) that you’re smart and important and wouldn’t be in this job unless several people thought so.

  17. Great advice, Karen. Made me rethink a few things. Also love the 5 year plan– made one the other day and realized tenure review is not actually in 2 years– but more like 1.5 years!

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  25. This repost assumes a lot about who they imagine is a tenure track Professor and where they teach. It is the kind of myopia that prevents collegiality and keeps the institution homogenous.

    1. My job is to make the academy a safe space for women. I teach at a women’s college.

    2. My job is to represent women, or feminists, or queers, or people of color on department and university committees. I teach at an HBCU and a women’s college. I am also a queer, feminist, female, person of color. Imagine that, we could be looking for advice about tenure too. I have to represent myself AND my students on committees, as a matter of service and duty to my institution.

    Well, I better go where “we” communicate. It must be too high an expectation to want educated people to be more considerate of a broader audience, especially those of us who DO, in do not–it seems–get to be so “selfish.”

    Repost should be entitled: Advice for White Folks on the First Year of Tenure Track at large PWIs.

    First sentence should read: Colored people and SLACers: you people work? Wow. The academy hires you? Double wow. Well scoot along now and find your own blogs. I am sure you people are writing about this somewhere too.

    • I categorically disagree with this. Women and people of color are routinely overburdened with extra service/mentoring expectations in ways that harm their overall life balance as well as their ability to protect the time to build a record for tenure. This is why women and people of color face such crushing odds at time of tenure (compared to time of hiring). It is very difficult to resist those expectations. This post is meant to speak directly to that tension.

      I am rushing to get this response up as it is very important to me, so I haven’t yet done substantial research, but please see this:

      “An analysis of 106 tenure-track positions at the University of Southern California revealed a promotion gap.34

      Between 1998 and 2012, 92% of white male faculty were awarded tenure, while the same was true of only 55% of women and minority faculty.35”

      Jane Junn, “Analysis of Data on Tenure at USC Dornsife” (October 19, 2012).
      Jane Junn, “Analysis of Data on Tenure at USC Dornsife” (October 19, 2012).

      Drawn from here:

      • Karen,

        Thanks for replying. My post is not saying your advice isn’t relevant to *certain kinds* of institutions, or that the essenve if your meaning isn’t conveyed in your list of imperatives.

        Please re-read between your own lines and observe how you are connecting with your audience. You do not imply what you said in this reply. There is no cue in your advice to suggest you meant to address the issue of PoC engaged in overwork.

        Your categorically disagreement is unnecessary, we agree. I have lived your observations–surviving both grad school and the job market. That experience highly affected my decision to teach at an HBCU for women. I had other offers, I could have chosen not to go here. Some of us want it both ways. Some of us will not turn a blind eye to slight even if it puts us at risk of being visible and feared. Some of us learned to negotiate the arbitrary boundaries of power with more finesse than (more or less) complacency. Saying no to correcting misperception affects my livlihood and survival. I will call foul when it is clear to me that shutting up will affect the integrity of my peofession and the college’s legitimacy. I know all too well how it felt to be “the minority voice” at PWIs, and am also cognizant of the work involved in tenure and promotion. It is expected that there will be a tendency for males to be more recognized as satisfying expectations than all “others.” Thus, we are well informed about the same issues.

        I simply ask you to better frame your advice. You have extensive experience at R1s and some of their cultures. However, you may not be as privy to the distinct politics of working at an institution that occupies the status of a SLAC, HBCU for women. It is different because te histories that shape our purpose and existence are different. It is important for people reading your blog to give you this feedback so that you recognize the limits of your counsel and understand the shifting political orientations and backgrounds of some of the junior faculty today. We may wish to disrupt the ineffective, soon to be obsolete, “lore” about orofessional training. There is lots of lore about compliance that would have caused me to lose my dignity and Self in grad school. I did not consider mentoring the very few underrepresented students to be a burden and I spent long hours working with TRIO students. I am trying to stress that this is part of my job as a person and professional. Again, if you did mean to include the freaks in your initial (re)post, it would then suggest that normalcy is our best course of action when we are disrespected by our senior colleagues. I don’t think you meant to advise that “others” ought to dissociate from their oppression. And I never have and never will. Failing to engage *when necessary* (and this is the tough call only an individual can make based on their strategy fir survival) does not come at the expense of the work I need to do to humanize My People.

        Fortunately, I am at a place where I can’t separate my embodiment from my student’s empowerment. The matter of representing our student’s interests as black women is connected to the broader political landscape that shapes the history and destiny of our college. Since the fight for human rights is embedded in the institution, we have an opportunity to teach, serve, and research as if we inhabit a world problem posing towards the ends of a wiser engineering for peace.

        Increasing access to the underrepresented and battling for basic rights to clean air and water depends on actively resisting toxic restrictive definitions of what being a “professional” ought to be. I have an obligation to try to improve, anytime anywhere now. When ignorance and secrecy and vagueness stink up the meeting, I will question authority. Later may not exist.

      • Karen, I posted the tldr post before I saw your clarification at the top of the post. Thank you so much for additional context! It is awesome that you acknowledge reader concerns.

    • Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy give very similar advice in The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul, especially as it relates to managing your time, saying no to overburdening service, and avoiding falling into a therapist or mom role to students. Karen may have phrased it a little differently but the general advice is very much the same.

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  32. This piece is just what I was looking for. But HOW do I turn down massive admin tasks assigned to me by the Head of the Department in our welcome meeting? Is there a good way of saying ‘no’?

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