• November 1, 2014

The Good Hello

A primer on post-hire etiquette at your new position

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

As of this writing I am in a new position at a different university in a different state. By academic standards my transition has been a whirlwind: I signed a contract a few months ago; my last day at my old office was June 30; my first day on the job here at Texas Tech University was July 1.

But as I wrote in Part 1 of this series on post-hire etiquette, the period between when you accept a job offer and when you start work is not a time for basking and relaxing. On the one hand, you owe the people still paying your salary a smooth exit (the topic of last month's column). On the other hand—and the subject of this essay—you have obligations to your new colleagues and employer beyond just submitting a moving bill.

Be thankful. A department chair once described a case of "buyer's remorse" he felt after hiring an assistant professor. The young scholar in question certainly seemed like a good fit during the hiring process: talented, high-achieving, pumped, and collegial.

But the moment the contract was signed, radio silence ensued. No thank-you note; no dropping by to check in while house hunting in town; nothing. E-mails that had once been returned within minutes took weeks to draw a response, and then the tone was in the vein of ­"really busy now, can this wait until I start?" Worse, every other faculty member reported no response to their "Welcome aboard!" e-mails and texts.

Chronicle Vitae

Yes, you are busy. But your new colleagues need validation that you are truly enthused about the consummation of your mutual courtship. And decisions have to be made soon: classes to teach, orientations to schedule, required university forms to file. So make sure the gratitude message is loud, clear, and repeated, and respond promptly to all procedural queries. The extra few hours a week that such activities may entail will be rewarded with good will when you start your new adventure.

Clarify the contract. A practical reason not to fall out of touch with your destination department is that some important details need to be worked out before you start. No contract or negotiations before a hire can cover everything. Examples include getting grant money for a summer research opportunity that just emerged, or obtaining tech training to help you teach a new course in a new way.

Be ready for surprises as well, as in, "We had to cancel the class we had promised you would teach because of low enrollment; can you teach another one instead?"

A contract is a contract, yes, and I have heard horror stories of truly despicable institutions that regularly wait until a new hire shows up, then announce they cannot make happen portions of the contract (or just ignore certain promises without explanation).

But the vast majority of contract nonfufillments are on minor points that indeed depend on circumstances—like low enrollment in a course. In those cases, I think going with the flow is the wisest approach, along with some circumspect inquiries: "Sure, I'll teach the other class. Could we try again in the spring for the original one? Once I am on campus, I can work to build student interest."

Move on mentally as well as physically. I have repeatedly observed a curious phenomenon among academics who have spent some time at one institution before moving on to another. Although presumably we leave one place because the grass is greener on another quad, we still tend to retain the perceptual lens of the prior gig. Of course, that can be a good thing. I have worked at four universities (counting a stint as a visiting professor) and am now starting at my fifth. I like to think those experiences give me a broad perspective on how institutions operate.

But the past can also be a drag on the future. A humanities professor described how, upon starting a new position, he found himself considering everything, from the curriculum to the parking, as either "better" or "worse" than what he had experienced in his old job. He caught himself saying several times to his new colleagues, "Well, I think we did this better back in ... ." Not surprisingly, he soon noticed that the new "we" did not appreciate being told they were failing to live up to the old "we."

So figure out how to retain the benefits of the comparative perspective without being officious and overbearing in your comparisons.

Control your expectations. The analogy between getting a new academic position and getting married can be stretched too far, but the parallels are many. In both, for example, idealism helps. No one should wed or take a job with a cynical, suspicious outlook about the new partner. Be happy and excited. Enjoy the anticipation. Be positive.

If your glasses are too rose-colored, however, you can set yourself up for disappointment. The new job is not a Disney prince riding in on a white horse who will rescue you from every problem. Happily ever after is hard work—and not always evident every day during diaper changes and curriculum-committee meetings. New challenges and difficult people often just replace the previous ones.

Case in point: I once talked to a scholar before he switched tenured jobs, and then afterward. He definitely suffered from over-optimism blowback. He had been desperately unhappy in his previous position, mainly due to a toxic departmental culture. Now, in his first months in his new department he described himself as being depressed that "some of the same personality types I didn't like before are here, too."

My advice to him was twofold. First, we enumerated a long list of improvements in his situation, from higher salary to better program fit. Second, we ended up agreeing that an academic department in which nobody is ever difficult—including sometimes us!—does not exist. Rather, the question was whether the culture itself was generally positive and collegial, which he admitted was the case.

The point is to temper optimism with pragmatism. Things should be better with a new job, but not in every way all the time.

Prepare adequately. Presumably the process of hiring and contract negotiations will give you a reasonably accurate view of what to expect in your new job in key areas like research and teaching. The lead-up to the move-in period is the time to make sure you are ready to take on the challenges to come.

If you are a new Ph.D. or postdoc starting your first tenure-track job, you will be expected to stumble on occasion. In the realm of teaching, for example, your first year in the classroom is one in which you will be expected to gain your equilibrium, perhaps even flop, learn, and get better.

But if you have already built a career and are switching jobs, the expectations others have of you are elevated. Your colleagues will assume that your skill set is superior to that of a rookie, and your error rate lower. That's why they hired you.

Prove them right. You risk being underprepared, for example, if you mistakenly assume that courses with similar titles and levels are equal. I will offer a personal example. For many years at one university I taught a large lecture class. Then, switching jobs, I took on a similarly titled and content-focused course—and stumbled. The second class (a) had a more applied orientation, (b) required more writing assignments, (c) included a larger number of TAs leading sections, and, most important, (d) maintained higher technology standards. I caught up and did OK in the end, but I should have spent some time during the summer between jobs thinking through my plans, consulting with my new colleagues, and boning up on what I needed to know.

Getting a new job or switching jobs in higher education should always be a time for reflective satisfaction. You have worked hard and are being rewarded with a brighter future. But you must also be vigilant in living up to the expectations of new colleagues in perception as well as deed. They have invested a great deal of time, effort, and lucre in allowing you to join them. Return the favor by making sure that they will feel, from the summer after your hire to years down the road, complete buyer's satisfaction.

David D. Perlmutter is dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book "Promotion and Tenure Confidential" was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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