If I Only Knew: Reflections for New Faculty Members

Now toward the end of his career, Lance D. Fusarelli looks back and offers three pieces of advice to just-minted professors.

August 6, 2020
 
 
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As a graduate student, I often heard professors complain about how much they worked -- about how life in grad school was so much easier than life as a professor. Quite frankly, it didn't look all that difficult to me. I looked at my adviser and thought, “He has lots of free time. How hard can this job be?”

Now that I’m on the other end of the career spectrum, I reflect and realize just how little I knew about my new career. Here I offer three key pieces of advice to newly minted professors.

At most places, research trumps everything else. Most colleges and universities expect pretenure professors to divide their time between the “holy trinity” of academe: research, teaching and service. Lofty pronouncements notwithstanding, the ordering of this trinity, in many places, is intentional. What can be counted gets valued in higher ed. Publications and grant success are metrics reported in U.S. News & World Report rankings -- which means administrators value them. With the exception of small teaching colleges, research productivity always trumps teaching and service.

Bringing in grant money helps, too. Every administrator’s favorite color is green. Higher education institutions are nonprofit only by the tax code. Take it from a former department head -- the more money faculty generate in grants, the more money is available for a host of other pressing needs. Administrators know the percentage of overhead generated by different grants, including that mother lode of overhead -- National Science Foundation grants -- for a reason. It’s no accident that research faculty who publish like demons and bring in millions in grant money get paid far more than their peers. Money and prestige matter in higher ed -- a lot.

As for the other two parts of the supposed trinity, teaching and service, neither matters much, service least of all -- and usually only in a negative way. During my second job interview while finishing my dissertation, the search chair picked me up at the airport one early evening and had to swing by his office. While there, we ran into the department chair, who was working late. I excitedly told her how much I loved teaching and how much I looked forward to meeting the students.

Two decades later, I’ve never forgotten her reply: “I don’t like teaching. Never have. It’s not valued here and won’t help you get tenure.” That wasn’t official university policy; it wasn’t written anywhere. But in its own way, the advice was helpful. I also knew instantly I wouldn’t get the job.

Another encounter I’ve never forgotten occurred two weeks into my first job at Fordham University. A salty old professor pulled me aside and said, “Fusarelli, good teaching won’t get you tenure, but consistently bad teaching can be enough for your enemies to vote against you.” I didn’t know I had any enemies -- I’d been there only two weeks! But his point was well taken. Unless your institution explicitly values teaching (and usually, the best marker is how many classes they expect pretenure faculty to teach), you don’t need to be a great teacher or even a good one. Just don’t be consistently bad. Don’t kill yourself trying to make every lesson perfect -- it’s a waste of your valuable time.

As for service, do the minimal amount necessary to be considered a good citizen but no more. Service is another one of those metrics that has value only in the negative. Doing twice as much service as others and saying yes to every service opportunity will kill you and your career. In fact, engaging in too much service will hurt you. Department voting faculty often adopt this view: “Well, they aren’t much of a scholar, so they put all their efforts into teaching and service as a back door to get tenure.” When that happens, the outcome is never good.

Speaking of service, be sure to attend program, department and college meetings, but be measured in how often you speak in those meetings. Attendance is crucial because tenured faculty notice who is present at those meetings. If they are spending their valuable time there, you better be, too.

So spend your time preparing journal manuscripts and writing grants. If that’s not your thing, don’t bother applying for tenure-track positions at major universities -- even regional institutions often get caught up in the rankings game.

Develop a clear, focused research agenda. Be prepared to answer the question "What's your research agenda?" You’ll get this question not only when you apply for positions but also frequently after you have landed your first job -- such as when chatting with faculty before a department meeting or in front of the dean at a faculty reception. (That really happened to me.)

This question takes you back to your grad school days and is equivalent to, "So how much progress have you made on your dissertation?" Like that question, you must come up with some answer, no matter how fabricated. I was often tempted to reply, “My research agenda is whatever BS I made up when I was interviewing here.” But, of course, that's not an appropriate response, particularly not to a dean. So you often end up elaborating on that article you have been meaning to write for the past six months and hope they lose interest and move on to the buffet.

One reason why it’s an uncomfortable question is because, quite frankly, most new faculty members spend most of the first semester just trying to find the bathroom, paper clips and other assorted necessities of life in academe. Truth is, most of us haven't had time to even think about tomorrow or the day after, let alone five years into the future. We are just hoping to stay one chapter ahead of our students. One thing a new faculty member quickly realizes, however, is that eventually they must confront this issue because it will define them in the eyes of their colleagues.

More important, given research and publication timelines, successful candidates for tenure must be forward-thinking. Developing a clear, focused research agenda allows you to conduct research now, while writing up past research for publication. Once this process gets started, it operates like an assembly line for future productivity.

You will actually have more free time your first semester in the academy than any other, because you haven’t yet gotten buried with paperwork, grading or advising students. So start now -- preferably the summer before you begin your new position (when you thought you would be lying on a beach celebrating your accomplishment). It’s one of the shocks of academe. You move from the pinnacle of success by finishing your dissertation to the bottom of the food chain as a tenure-track assistant professor. Welcome to academe, where there’s no rest for the weary.

Remember, institutions don’t have souls. This final piece of advice is difficult to hear -- particularly now -- but it’s true. People have souls, but institutions do not. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your college or university does. You are only as valuable as what the market at any given point in time says you are worth.

For example, deans often offer different salaries to newly hired assistant professors -- even those in the same department or program -- based on their priorities, how badly they want you and how many other offers you have. Figure out what is most important to you and negotiate like hell for it.

Often, new faculty members feel like they win when they negotiate for items they would get anyway (say, a grad assistant, reduced teaching load, new office furniture or equipment). But you can’t eat office furniture. You have only a few leverage points in your career: your first job, when coming up for promotion and when another university is actively recruiting you. Don’t waste them. Your base salary directly impacts how much summer salary you can earn through teaching and off grants as well as how much money is contributed pretax to your retirement account. Over time, this multiplier effect can be significant.

Many people drawn to the life of the mind are shockingly naïve about this process; seasoned administrators recognize this and use it to their advantage. If I can hire you at $60,000, there’s no incentive to offer you $70,000, even if that would be equitable. Female faculty, particularly women of color, rarely negotiate as aggressively as their white, male counterparts. I’ve seen more than a few faculty members get lured by promises that go unfulfilled. Get everything in writing; if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.

I’ve also seen careers sidetracked by faculty doing favors for department chairs or deans -- helping them out in a pinch by doing extra service or expanding a graduate program in response to fiscal pressures and declining revenue. If you spend all your time doing that, you won’t have time to conduct research, publish or obtain grants. Institutions depend on people’s altruism, but never make the mistake of believing an institution has a soul. Higher ed is a business. If you think otherwise, consider the extraordinary measures colleges and universities are adopting to bring students back to campus this fall.

Parting Advice

When you land that first academic job, don’t try to change the world. Focus on your research. Commit to daily writing. Do the best you can with teaching, show up at meetings and learn to tolerate debate and discussion ad nauseum.

Many distractions will pop up. It is very easy to find all your time consumed by administrivia, teaching and service obligations. That’s a common mistake; don’t let it be yours. Be vigilant about protecting your time -- guard it as you would your laptop!

Bio

Lance D. Fusarelli is a professor and director of graduate programs in educational leadership, policy and human development at North Carolina State University.

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