Week One on the New Job

What to do and what not to do

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

August 12, 2013

During my initial week on the tenure track, I set an example of incompetence that, to my knowledge, no other assistant professor has emulated. I lost the key to my new office—twice.

I still remember the moment I opened that door for the first time and scanned the room, bare except for a desk and a computer. I had never in my life been in possession of an entire, unshared room called "my office."

Mine, all mine. Oh my precious!

Unfortunately, shortly after my key was issued, I lost it. Then I lost the replacement key. I was so embarrassed that I did my work in the library for a few days, until the gods took pity on me and I found the original key in a jacket pocket. Newly minted career saved.

Your first week on the job as an assistant professor is crucial because it is your opportunity to (a) establish a positive first impression; (b) set the stage for your performance in your first year; and (c) mentally affix the attitudes and habits that will carry you through the pitfalls and risks of the years to come in academe. Here's what you can do to avoid tanking during your first week on the job.

Check out your classrooms, materials, and equipment. Your first week on the job, presumably the "prep week" before classes begin, is the time to make sure you are technologically and logistically ready to roll. In my case, I was scheduled to teach a media-writing course. I thought myself too busy to visit my actual future classroom. Fast forward to the first day of class, and I found, to my shock, that the computers were IBM 386s—this was in the Windows 95 and DOS era—and I was (then) a Mac person.

Visualize how awkward it was for a new faculty member to admit to his students that he did not know how to operate the technology in the classroom. If I had checked it out the week before, at least I could have scrambled to train up.

That was a long time ago, but such discordances can still occur. So go to your classrooms, turn on the technology, and run through your presentation exercises. Likewise for your institution's course-management software: Don't assume that all Blackboard look-alikes are alike. And scrutinize whatever you are using for your research, from the archive in the library to your lab. Make sure all is well and humming.

Attend all orientation functions and complete all training. Every college or university has its own protocols and rules, but each contract is likely to contain some variation of the following sentence: "Your employment begins on August 14. You are required to be on campus on that date and attend the new-faculty orientation." Such statements are not requests or suggestions. No excuse save death in the immediate family or exotic Amazonian illness will be a legitimate opt-out for the required sexual-harassment workshop, online lab-safety training, etc. Furthermore, arrive early, informed, and enthusiastic for your department's fall faculty get-together.

Don't be complacent on that front. Try to be fully informed on what to do and when to do it. Check in with the chair, the office manager, and other relevant offices on the campus. Remember that sometimes groups with longstanding traditions forget to inform newcomers about them. A new assistant professor at a small liberal-arts college described being startled when he met a senior colleague for the first time (since the job interview) in the hallway and the older man's greeting was, "Sorry you missed the curriculum meeting; it's always held on the Thursday before classes begin." So ask around and be present and accounted for.

Showing up is not just about reputation management. Some faculty members, unfortunately, take for granted the considerable autonomy they have over their time, and forget that they are employees who are in dereliction of duty when failing to fulfill required tasks—like, say, keeping office hours or attending the workshop on sexual-harassment policies. You might as well get into the habit now of knowing what is "must attend" and what is optional. And when you are on the tenure track, always err on the side of attending.

Meet your colleagues, but be cautious about your opening words. The first week on the job is also the time to begin the long self-training in the "people and politics" skills of the tenure track. I am still learning about that, 23 years after my first week.

Take the time to wander around the department, looking for open doors and introducing yourself. Certainly try to get some time with the chair. And don't ignore staff members. They, too, are your colleagues and will play an important role in your time on the job. In manner and tone, confirm their initial positive impression of you from the job interview: that you are collegial, serious, ready to join them in the labors to come.

But friendliness should not become familiarity too soon. A senior professor at an arts college still furrows his brow when he recounts the new tenure-tracker who dropped by his office the first day and proceeded to reveal (a) his self-doubts about his skills and abilities, as in "I dunno, do I really deserve to be here?"; (b) that his marriage was in trouble; and (c) that he had a painful rash. The first week is about light introductions, not psychotherapy and self-immolation.

Don't commit to anything. How to say no to something without angering, alienating, or making someone feel bad is one of the most critical personal-communication skills to develop in our trade. If you survived graduate school, you probably have developed your deflection skills to a point, but the great challenges are to come. Assistant professors are vulnerable on the first week because, quite rightly, they are in an eager-to-please zone.

Scenario: You are sitting in your new office, loading files on your new computer, when a shadow crosses your open doorway. A silverback senior on the faculty joins you, all smiles, handshake, and welcome. Within minutes he asserts, "I'm so glad you have joined us," because he has been working on a major research project for years, and you are the perfect scholar to join him on this mighty and rewarding quest. So, when can you start on it?

I repeat: Do not commit yourself. The project may be truly wonderful and lead to a Nobel Prize, but you simply can't have enough information that soon to know its value. Your options include pleading that you are "too busy to give the work justice," noting that "I am going to meet the chair tomorrow to review my work path for the year to come," and other forms of polite redirection. Try to be positive in the way you are saying the negative—you do have to work near, if not with, this fellow for years to come. But don't sign away your future on your first day.

Don't whine and complain (too much). There is a community college I have heard of that regularly practices bait-and-switch on its new hires. It promises them a salary amount when they are offered the job, but when they show up to start work in August, they are told: "There was a budget shortfall," and "take it or leave it; this is your new salary." Most Week One surprises on the tenure track are not that jarring. But it is unlikely that everything will be fine and exactly what you expected it to be.

Nevertheless, the first week is the time to fix any initial problems—a broken office chair, an eyewash station that isn't working. But tone and manner mean a lot. Don't start off the tenure track with a whine. A department head described a newbie who stormed into his office with a list of "outrages." The chair recalled that the problems were minor and fixable, but the assistant professor had set a precedent that he was going to be "difficult," which he indeed proved to be. Does it seem unbelievable that new assistant professors would behave this way? Well, some do. Just don't be one of them.

Reward yourself. You are the single most important variable affecting your own progress. Your morale and mood are crucial. I see too many assistant professors who get caught up in the hustle and labor immersion of their first week and fail to relish their good fortune.

You are indeed skilled and talented—or you would not have gotten the job—but you are also lucky. (Visualize the army of jobless graduate students and underemployed adjuncts envying your situation.) So take a moment that first week to sit back in some meaningful way and reward yourself. Go to a movie and dinner with your spouse, have a picnic in a park, buy a somewhat expensive toy.

Why engage in personal gratification? Because academe breeds an attitude of one victory begetting a misery. The tenure track can be a particularly joyless pathway, perhaps because we have heard so often that it must be so. I'm not saying you have to be a happy warrior or cultivate masochistic tendencies, but it's not all bad, really. And a lot of it is quite pleasant.

Now, in your first week, is the time to reflect that good times are possible. So enjoy it. Cover the bases of responsibility. Be genial and positive. And hold on to that office key.

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.