Tuesday, June 11, 2013

This is NOT advice for first year faculty

Hello again, PYM readers. It is now June and I just finished my first full academic year as a faculty member at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Chambana). Having just passed through the rabbit hole, I have returned mostly unscathed to blog a bit about my experience. As this is just my first year, I don't have any advice that will help others who are transitioning to professor-hood, rather, this post reflects some of the things that I think people (like me) deal with during their transition to a new faculty job. Onward!

I. It's lucky when you're not alone.
Allow me to set the scene for you: You just finished graduate school or a post-doc in another state. You and your spouse travel cross-country with all your belongings in tow to a new city with new people, food, colleagues, and a new job title. It's all very overwhelming. It could be even more so if you're the only one  facing these changes at the time. Luckily this was not the case for me. I was lucky enough to start at Chambana with three other psychology faculty members-- all working through the same kind of transition I was. Facing the faculty first year transition with a bunch of people helps make identifying the important challenges easy, because we are all facing them at virtually the same time. And, while our small group didn't necessarily have SOLUTIONS to the challenges, we did find support as a group-- mostly over local craft beers with funny names.

II. People want you to succeed.
I've heard horror stories about people feeling unsupported as first-year faculty, but my sense is that this sort of poisonous atmosphere would be rare and here is why: When you are hired for a faculty job, the University is making a substantial investment in you. They have spent a long time diligently vetting the record of hundreds of other applicants in order to find the very best future colleague-- a person they expect to become a member of their community potentially FOR LIFE. Add the fact that getting the University to agree to a faculty hire in one's department is difficult to begin with and you've got yourself a recipe for a supportive environment. Basically, it is in the very best interests of your home department faculty members to support you, rather than out-compete you.

In my own anecdotal experience, the faculty at Chambana have been incredibly supportive of me. I've had regular contact with more senior members of the faculty who have been very receptive to answering my questions about grant writing, human subjects approval, teaching strategies, career development, and mentoring. And though I am still expected to develop my own unique research program, if I have questions along the way, there are a number of people I can turn to for help answering them.

III. "Your graduate students will cry, usually in March*."
Before I started at Chambana I was at a dinner with a couple of faculty members at a major west coast University. We were discussing the talk that one of the faculty members had just given when the subject turned to my new job. The two faculty members teased me a bit about how difficult it is to mentor graduate students. I can best sum up what was said with this quote delivered by one of the faculty members, "Your graduate students will cry, usually in March."

Mentoring graduate students is the great mystery of a faculty job. I think the hardest part about mentoring graduate students as a first-year faculty member is the challenge inherent in switching your role from teammate to coach. In graduate school, you act like a supportive teammate: You encourage and support your fellow grads with enthusiasm and reassurance. As a grad student, you often prop up your fellow grads by suggesting that faculty members "got it wrong this time," or are "being particularly unreasonable" with a deadline.

As a faculty member, I find that the role of coach is much different than supportive teammate. During times where I would be reassuring, I sometimes have to be stern. I'm still trying to figure out the best mix of tough and tender.

*When I asked the faculty member "Why March?" S/he suggested that March is when both faculty and grad students can reasonably assess an academic year as either productive or wasted.

IV. When are you coming back?
This one is about family. My spouse and I met in high school and so our parents live about two miles away from each other in a suburb outside of San Diego and we both went to college near the Bay Area. When we left to Midwesteros they all had one question: "When are you coming back?"

I think this thought process is a natural one for one's close friends and family: It's typical for a person to live and work close to where they grew up or attended college-- especially if it's a nice place like San Diego or the San Francisco Bay. And while moving for work happens, it's rare to move to a place that you can't locate on a map beforehand. Such is the life of an academic-- jobs are so rare that choosing a university by its favorable location is not likely to be a fruitful endeavor.

Whenever family and friends ask this question, my spouse and I usually deflect it by saying something like we will try to return "in a few years." But, I do think it would be a mistake on our part if we didn't give Chambana a fair shake as a final destination. After all, that's the only way to really get to know a city and one's colleagues.

V. What do I do with all this money?
Hooray! You negotiated a favorable start-up package for yourself with all sorts of funds for the various projects that you are planning pre-tenure. Now all you need to do is spend that paper! While some people have no problem spending their start-ups, I am gripped with fear about mine. Mostly, I fear that the money will run out and I won't be able to do all the fun things I would like to with my research that I haven't thought of yet. I want to research ALL THE THINGS!

I've had advice about start-up spending that ranges from "Spend it, grants are coming." to "I'm tenured and I still have my start-up." I'll probably end up somewhere in between these extremes (because sequester). Right now, it is nice to have funding to do some of the neat things I had been thinking of doing in graduate school, but didn't have the funds to execute.

So there you have it! Some observations from my first year as a faculty member. It is my hope that this post will help you anticipate the challenges of job transition. Happy transitions!


  1. > What do I do with all this money?


    1. and yet, even such a clear answer has questions like: Do I splurge on shipments from Peets? Do I care enough to pay for fair trade coffee? Can't I just bum some coffee off my office neighbor/resident coffee overlord?