• August 28, 2015

From Graduate Student to Faculty Member

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Jenny: If you're making the transition from the role of graduate student to that of either postdoctoral fellow or faculty member, expect to have a challenging year. You may find yourself at an institution unlike any other where you've studied or worked. You may be asked to teach courses in fields far outside the boundaries of what you're comfortable teaching. You may become overwhelmed by the idea of balancing research and teaching. In addition, you will probably be surprised by how often departmental history that predates your arrival (and may even go back decades) can surface, sometimes complicating your service duties.

Julie: No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how much you've taught before, starting a new faculty position will be eye-opening. To get a sense of what most surprises new faculty members, we spoke with four of them.

Jenny: René Luis Alvarez, an assistant professor of teacher education at Northeastern Illinois University, had taught in many contexts, including at a high school, before beginning his tenure-track position. His Ph.D. in history prepared him to teach classes about 20th-century American history and Mexican-American history.

Making the transition to teaching in a College of Education, however, meant that he had to familiarize himself quickly with "the latest research and recent literature about how students learn and how teachers teach at the secondary level." Additionally, René had to change the way he taught to serve his students' needs. He told us, "I had become comfortable utilizing traditional methods of instruction, specifically lecture and discussion. Teaching about teaching requires a more direct approach. I find myself guiding students throughout my courses more than I had in my previous experiences. My own instructional methods have become more practical, enabling students to apply concepts immediately rather than compelling them to contemplate some esoteric or abstract idea."

Julie: Uzma Rizvi, an assistant professor of critical and visual studies at the Pratt Institute, was surprised to see how different her students at Pratt were from those at the Ivy League institution where she had previously taught. Her Pratt students were more independent. The campus culture was new for her because, she said, students there "have active social, political, creative, and intellectual lives in the City of New York." That makes them exciting to teach, she said, but their demands and expectations were different from those of her previous students.

Jenny: Todd Wolfson is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He was pleasantly surprised by the energy and receptiveness of undergraduates at Rutgers, and faced the added challenge of teaching his first doctoral-level seminar. Moving from being an adjunct to his new role as an assistant professor brought a new level of commitment to his teaching. As a member of the faculty, he helps create the communication school's vision for its students, a responsibility that is not part of an adjunct's job. He told us: "Understanding what my department wanted to achieve through different classes led me to think about my teaching differently."

Julie: A fourth junior faculty member who teaches at a highly selective institution was happy to talk to us but preferred to remain anonymous. The students he encountered were the opposite of energetic and engaged. He said the most surprising aspect of teaching was the extent to which students needed to be guided in good "studentship," including classroom etiquette, regular practice, and punctuality with assignments. Because the university where he teaches is considered elite, he was caught off guard when so many students didn't know or ignored basic rules of student behavior.

Jenny: Both René and Todd said they had been warned that moving their research goals forward would be challenging in their first year. Still, they were surprised by just how challenging that proved to be. Carving out enough time to get anything done was difficult. At the same time, they have both heard from department colleagues that it will be easier to spend more time on research in the second year, particularly because they will have done the prep work for the courses they'll teach.

Uzma and René emphasized the research support they received from their departments. What was particularly helpful for René was that his first-year review required that he develop a research agenda, and that his department and institution are supportive and eager to see him execute that agenda during the next few years.

Julie: We also asked the four faculty members about their service experiences, First-year faculty members are often urged to stay away from committee work and devote their nonteaching time to research. Indeed, Todd's colleagues did not push him on committee work and instead expected he would take the first year or two to get situated at the institution. He hadn't expected that and was pleasantly surprised.

René, in contrast, was appointed to a search committee and became a co-chair during its first meeting. The experience taught him a lot about how his institution functions beyond his own day-to-day classroom experience.

Jenny: Joining a department means getting to know a lot of new people and how they get along (or not). The junior faculty member who chose to remain anonymous received some good advice on that: "The chair of my grad program told me that the best idea was to conduct an ethnography the moment you get into a department. You have to know who the players are and what the issues are. ... At the end of the day, oftentimes the decisions in committee meetings are not personal—they are historically based, and so you have to learn not to take them personally." That advice helped him keep a sense of perspective during faculty meetings.

Julie: To all of that advice from our four interviewees, we'd like to add two suggestions. First, talk with other new faculty members periodically in departments across the university. While expectations may vary from department to department, chatting with others who are "learning the ropes" will help you learn as well as think of questions to ask in your department. Second, get yourself a faculty mentor with whom you can discuss how you are doing on teaching, research, and service. A trusted mentor can be a sounding board for questions about departmental expectations and your own progress.

There's no need to go it alone when you're surrounded by colleagues who have been in your position before or are in it now.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources.They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to careertalk@chronicle.com.


1. osholes - August 27, 2010 at 06:40 am

I hope some senior faculty are reading this, too. It's our responsibility to help our new colleagues cope with their transition. Formal mentoring has its place, but informal mentoring from lots of people can help with the day to day details that mount up quickly, especially in that first semester. When I was chair of my department, I tried to drop in on new faculty frequently, but my efforts were insufficient. Fortunately, I wasn't alone; my senior colleagues were doing the same thing I was, and our young faculty benefitted from multiple points of view. All of us were first year faculty at some point; we should try to remember the challenges we faced and help others overcome them.

2. kabrams - August 27, 2010 at 11:47 am

Great article for me since I just started. There is one comment I am hearing a lot and really struggling with, and that is, "You look so young!" (Or some iteration of the same idea, sometimes polite, other times, not so polite.)

I went straight through college and graduate school but sustained part-time and freelance jobs to get "real-world" experience. I worked really hard to finish my Masters and PhD in 5 years, and now I am being judged for my age (27 years young).

Any advice for how I might respond to this initial comment I've been getting from people? Or do I just need to wait to prove my competence in the classroom and through research despite my age? Or perhaps hit the tanning both to promote early wrinkles? ;-)

I haven't necesarily heard it from the lips of other faculty (it's mostly grad students, staff, and a few undergrads), but I am now self-conscious of it and assume judgment on my age from all.

3. plclark - August 27, 2010 at 12:11 pm

@kabrams: you should take it as a compliment. In academia, if two people have the same position, the younger one is generally viewed as being brighter and harder working. Getting your PhD by 27 sounds very good to me (and, BTW, I turned 27 later in the month after I got my PhD). Anyway, it's not as though a 27 year-old professional is some kind of child prodigy: a lot of people at that age are doing serious work in positions of some authority (the successful ones!).

Should you prove your competence in the classroom and through research? Is this a trick question? Of course you should, at any age.

Finally, in present-day society aging is almost as much a matter of diet, exercise, health and fashion as it is pure biology. If you want to look a little older, you can dress the part by wearing more conservative, professional attire. (I did this a bit as a graduate student teacher -- at a time when I didn't look any older than some of the students I was teaching -- until eventually I realized that the students really didn't care how old I was or how I dressed.) Moreover, in ten years you will probably not look that differently from the way you do now, especially if you take care of yourself and stay out of the sun.

4. plclark - August 27, 2010 at 12:16 pm

"not look that different", I should have said. Sorry, I knew better even at age 27.

5. texasguy - August 27, 2010 at 05:45 pm

I cannot totally agree with the advice given above as it gave me the impression of fostering the "I have to be perfect in everything" paranoia of too many new faculty. The important is to be good in what that counts most, and this varies from department to department. It could be becoming a great teacher or developing a research progam bringing significant external funding but few departments will ask their young faculty to achieve both goals within their first two or three years on the job.

My advice is to listen, listen and listen and understand that different people have different visions of their department.

Focus on the essential: that is the way generals win battle.

6. plclark - August 28, 2010 at 02:07 am

@texasguy: I didn't say that anyone has to be perfect in everything. kabrams used the word "competent" and expressed her desire to be taken seriously by her professional associates. The explicit essentials of most academic jobs are research and teaching. At many departments, this is made extremely explicit, e.g. there are target percentages of one's time to spend on research and teaching (and, usually behind each of these two, service). I don't really see how advising an academic to demonstrate competence in research and teaching could be bad advice.

I also think that if someone is younger, would-be detractors will look for an absence of well-roundedness. ("Sure, she's doing great research, but she doesn't have the experience to be a good teacher...Sure, he's a good teacher but his work is callow.") Showing that you are strong in the two core components of your job will gain you at least the grudging respect of all your colleagues. Also being collegial is very important, but it's easier to do that when you feel comfortable in your own skin and are not so worried that everyone thinks you're a little kid.

7. duchess_of_malfi - August 28, 2010 at 05:22 pm

The advice seems to be directed mainly to tenure-track faculty. I'm full-time non-TT and have never applied for a TT job. My advice is based on my observations of my type of job and outcomes for TT faculty I have known over the years.

I agree with Texasguy's (#5) advice to focus on what matters, TT or non-TT, particularly in the first year when you are probably adjusting to everything's being new and different in your life. For many TT, that be a competent teacher but focus on your research program. Don't innovate or be too ambitious in your courses the first year; develop and refine based on how things go, but don't try to be perfect. If you are competent to good in terms of communicating and testing course content--and have an approachable, enthusiastic manner, respectful to students--then adjustments to the course are likely to bring only marginal improvements.

For the non-TT faculty member, it means being a good teacher and, in many cases, continuing to develop whatever will keep you employed or take you to the kind of job you want--teaching-focused or research-focused. Don't count on contract renewal or on continuing the duration of contract you were hired on (your contract may shift from multi-year to year-to-year). Even if you don't plan to job-hunt now, continue to build your CV with what you need, with online teaching or research presentations and articles or whatever will make you competitive.

On a personal level, too, learn how to let unimportant things go so that you can preserve your time and energy for the things that benefit you in your professional and personal lives.

We don't have faculty mentors or written policies at my level, and I didn't get the typical faculty training. Finding things out has been hard. Work immediately on building relationships at your level and with TT/T faculty so you can get the information you need about test and paper expectations, grade distributions, what to expect, how to get technical equipment problems solved, who to ask about X, what textbooks are good, etc. Be social, but be friendly rather than a friend-seeker. People like giving advice and sharing information if it is quick and easy, and if you have a job like mine, you will be in the dark unless you form those connections.

The biggest challenge I've seen people face from the grad student role to the faculty member role, and it happens to most of us, is the adjustment from the student population we TA'd or taught at our grad schools, to the lower academic preparation, achievement, and motivation levels of the students we teach in our jobs. Just realize that it's something you need to learn how to deal with in a positive way if you intend to be a good teacher and a content worker and human being. Some new faculty have gotten in the habit of being too friendly with students or trying too hard to be liked; if that might be a danger, Ms. Mentor's recent column will be helpful, about the difference between being nice and getting the job done.

8. mhamidouche - September 02, 2010 at 01:26 pm

I obtained my PhD before turning 27. This was 6 years ago. I am still in my second postdoc and haven't gotten any faculty position yet.
Although I don't know what your field is, but getting a faculty after the PhD means that you must be brilliant or lucky. In both cases, that's great.

PS: I am PhD in Astrophysics!

9. geppy - September 09, 2010 at 07:56 pm

Good luck, folks! I taught at both a large public university in one Southern state and a small private (pricey!) university in a Western state before getting laid off at the latter. Neither time was I offered an orientation or welcome session, even though I was hired full-time to teach (not tenure track). Sink or swim seemed to be the guiding principle. Make new friends fast is my one tip!

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