Starting a Tenure-Track Career

This transition, while enormously exciting, can present some challenges and concerns, writes Melissa Dennihy, who offers tips on how to settle in your first year and keep thriving.

September 22, 2020
 
 
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With the fall semester upon us, some academics are making the transition from graduate school or contingent faculty positions to tenure-track professorships. This transition, while enormously exciting, can present a number of challenges and concerns for folks learning to navigate a new career and a new institution (during a pandemic, no less).

What should new tenure-track professors keep in mind as they begin their positions this fall? Below are some suggestions for how to settle in during your first year and continue to thrive in the next few years thereafter.

Learn the specific research, teaching and service expectations for tenure and promotion at your institution. Get clarification from your department chairperson or dean, if necessary. It can also be helpful to talk informally to tenure-track or tenured colleagues about their experiences and the work they have done on their way to tenure (and so it follows that getting to know your colleagues is also a good idea).

Keep your CV updated. The very first thing you should do after completing something like a conference presentation or taking on a new responsibility like joining a committee is add it to your CV. Otherwise you may forget about it, especially as your responsibilities pile up and more time passes.

Similarly, one of the best pieces of advice I received as a new assistant professor was to keep an annual “career narrative”: a short, one- to two-page writeup of all of the things you’ve done each year that wouldn’t necessarily make it on to a CV but still involved a lot of time and effort. These things may be able to become part of your institutional record in other ways -- for example, they may be useful to bring up during an annual review.

Keeping a written record or paper trail of everything you do -- teaching, mentoring, advising, recommending, grant writing, publishing, presenting, service work, curricular design and so on -- ensures that you don’t find yourself looking back at the end of the year unable to recall all of the details of your work or where all of your hard-spent time went.

Get to know colleagues outside your department. Especially during your first year, try to attend campus events and functions -- even virtual ones -- that will give you opportunities to meet and interact with your colleagues from other disciplines. Getting to know those colleagues is a good way to form friendships and mentorships, foster connections and collaborations, engage with your broader campus community, and make yourself visible as a member of that community.

Learn to make your teaching as efficient as possible. You may be excited by opportunities to teach a range of courses as a newly hired professor, but prepping for three different courses is a lot more work than prepping for three sections of the same course. Be strategic when making your teaching requests and consider the number of courses you feel able to take on in a semester.

Also, be strategic in how you use teaching downtime. For example, plan out what you might work on during your office hours each week if you aren’t busy meeting with students. I’ve found office hours can be a quiet time for class prep, grading and responding to student emails -- but this time can also be squandered if I don’t set my mind to accomplishing something in between student visits.

You can also talk to your colleagues about their teaching experiences: the types of assignments they use, lesson plans they have found particularly successful, challenges they have faced in the classroom and the like. As a new faculty member, you will understandably be less familiar with students at your campus than colleagues who have experience teaching there. Learning from them about what works well for students at your particular institution can be helpful as you plan courses and assignments. Talk to students, too! Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback from them as you are thinking through ideas for the classroom.

Protect your research and writing time. As a new faculty member, you may find a lot of well-meaning colleagues will ask you to take on service work or join committees, and some of those opportunities may sound quite interesting to you. Remember that you don’t have to say yes to everything -- even if it can feel difficult to say no.

If you are unsure of what a reasonable service load consists of, seek guidance from a mentor or your chairperson, and then choose the service opportunities that seem most meaningful or worthwhile to you. Don’t be afraid to turn down invitations by letting colleagues know that you’ve already committed to several service responsibilities and that you need to save some time for writing and research. After all, publishing is part of the job -- so it makes sense to be clear about your need to reserve some of your time to do that work.

Get comfortable talking to your department chair. This person will be your go-to resource for many of the questions and challenges that come up as you as navigate your first year. That said, it’s also a good idea to seek out and develop relationships with other mentors. If your department assigns you a formal mentor, make a point to keep in touch with them; if not, work on connecting with trusted senior colleagues whose mentorship you might be able to rely on as you acclimate to a new career.

When considering your publication goals and expectations, be mindful of the time it takes for projects to come to fruition. A journal article can spend years caught up in the publication process, from initial submission to revisions to acceptance to the time it finally exists in print. It may be helpful to take some time in your first year on the tenure track to write up a timeline of your publication goals over the next several years, even if this timeline is relatively vague as you start out. Remain mindful of the long game, even when you are bogged down in day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.

Observe the leadership roles and opportunities that exist for tenure-track faculty in your department and at your institution. In the first year or two of a new position, it may make sense to keep a lower profile as you learn more about your new institutional home, but as you get closer to tenure, you may want to take on a leadership role in your department or college. What are those roles? What are the risks and rewards of such roles? Remaining observant and mindful of the types of opportunities that exist on your campus, even before you are ready to take on such positions, will help you begin to carve out a long-term plan.

Starting a tenure-track career can feel overwhelming, even for academics who already have a great deal of experience in teaching and publishing. Remember, above all, to take care of yourself and work on achieving a balance between your different work responsibilities and between your work and your personal life. If the above list of suggestions overwhelms you, focus on tackling one or two of these things in your first year and then move on to other things in your second year and beyond. And don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help -- having a few trusted colleagues you can talk to can be a lifeline for those on the tenure track.

Bio

Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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