I don’t mention this to dismiss or even criticize ze’s feelings of frustration or worry. While I think some of ze’s expectations are out of touch with reality, I also recognize that they partly emerge from the stress, fear, and pressure of how ze will attain tenure while being pulled in a thousand different directions. Having to balance your own research with the demands of teaching and service work do seem insurmountable. For many, the task appears so daunting that having a year off appears the only way it will actually get done. Nobody, though, gets that year off without doing some hard work to attain it (Find a grant, young man (woman/genderqueer), find a grant).
It got me to thinking that the transition from graduate student to junior professor is often the most difficult one that people make. Few people ever discuss how hard it really is.
There are definitely good parts to that transition. Your annual income triples or even quadruples. You get genuine office space. You also can finally claim to have a real “career” rather than appearing as if you made “poor life choices.”
But there are also real struggles to that transition. As a graduate student, you are given free reign to do almost anything that you desire and have few demands placed upon you. Your adviser and/or committee members probably read things that you wrote with a critical eye and gave good feedback. You are shielded from internal squabbles between faculty members, if you are even aware that they are occurring. With the exception of the occasional TA assignment, your job has been one of luxury, simply reading and writing all day. It’s a rude awakening to find out how many other things that you will have to do as a professor. Dirty, dirty things.
I also think that most junior professors have such a hard go of it their first couple of years because it is often the first job that they have ever had, ever. Since I have been working since I was 14 or 15, this astounds me. As an undergraduate, I also worked full time or virtually full time as a secretary. So, I feel that I had a sense of what it means to be an employee in a way that many (most?) of my junior colleagues didn’t. If you have never actually worked for wages before, it can be jarring to find out that your paycheck comes with many expectations about how you spend your time. You also won’t appreciate what a sweet, sweet gig that being a professor actually is.
This is the time of year that many people are learning whether they were hired into a junior professor position. I would never hold my own career out as a model (trust me), but I’ll offer advice to all those newly employed folks anyhow.
* Publish or perish.
The oldest cliched advice is still the best. If your department/college has specified that you must have a book and two articles (or equivalent) and you don’t have them by the time your tenure clock runs out, they will deny you tenure. It might break their heart to deny you tenure because you might have been a great colleague or a fantastic teacher. Or, if you are in a hostile department, they might delight in denying you tenure. Whatever the case, if you haven’t produced the scholarship, expect the worst.
* Wear comfortable shoes.
It's just better for your legs and lower back during an active day.
* Don't confuse yourself with your dissertation adviser.
Did you study at the feet of the most renowned scholar of the ancient Olmec? Is your adviser the ultimate authority on Beatlemania? That’s fantastic! It means that we all think that you received some very solid training.
It does not mean, however, you are the most renowned scholar of the ancient Olmec. It does not meant that you are the ultimate authority on Beatlemania. Until you have the publication record, your position in the field is more speculative. Your adviser became that expert through decades of hard work. That’s work you have yet to accomplish.
* Learn to drink as if you were a cast member of Mad Men.
Drinking helps ease the stress. Or I suppose you could learn yoga instead, but, whatever. . .
* Remember that teaching is seductive.
Teaching, while rewarding, is simply easier than writing and researching. You also get more positive feedback from it. It is therefore easy to allow it to consume all of your time. Fight this urge. Figure out a way to block teaching from your mind and your schedule to get those publications out. Six years can disappear real fast.
* Don't skimp on your home surroundings.
Many of us are still in grad-student mode when we move to our new town. We therefore get a crummy, but affordable, apartment. Given, though, that most of us in the humanities do a lot of our work at home, make sure that it is a pleasant place to be. The quality of both your work and rest will vastly improve if your home is a mini-sanctuary from the daily toil.
*Be generous to your fellow junior colleagues.
All of us are in the same boat. All of us have the same stress. It therefore astounds me when I see junior colleagues going out of their way to be unnecessarily rude to other junior colleagues. If a junior colleague asks a reasonable favor (proofreading, helping out on a committee, etc), do your best to be a member of the community and a friend.
I also highly encourage you all to read each other’s work. My own research has benefited immensely from the advice and close reading of junior colleagues, even those far outside of my own field. Give your time (precious though it is) to do the same for them. Being secretive and coy about your own work will only make it weaker. Refusing to help others with their work will make you look like a selfish jerk.
If, though, I can’t appeal to you on the basis of common humanity or notions of polite society, let me remind you of this: Every junior person hired before you will advance to associate professor before you will. This means that they will vote on your tenure file, too. If you think that kissing up to the existing senior faculty can offset terrorizing your junior colleagues, you are mistaken. They will weigh whether they want to live with such an uncollegial and self-serving colleague when pondering granting you a lifetime appointment.
* Getting a job involved a lot of luck in your favor.
There were probably other candidates who were just as qualified, if not more qualified, who got passed over. Maybe people didn't read their files closely. Maybe they forgot to wear comfortable shoes. Whatever the case, good fortune smiled on you.
If you were hired with the rest of us, also assume then that we are all basically the same. We were all the stars of our individual graduate programs when we graduated. Don’t imagine that we didn’t all hear about how our work was so great and fabulous. Get over yourself.
* Manage your career for the expectations of your field, not your current university or your department.
There might be a general consensus about the requirements for tenure, but every university has its own set of rules and assumptions. Moreover, if you are in a department that praises one type of scholarship over another, they might offer advice and/or requirements that actually are out of step with where you want to be as a scholar. So, for instance, let’s say that you are hired into a department that specializes in legal history, but your work and training is all in cultural history. Chances are that the legal people are going to push your work to conform to their expectations. If, though, you never solicit advice from cultural historians outside of your department, your work will appear weak to them when it does come out. Even if you succeed at meeting local requirements, but aren’t well regarded in your field, then you will be trapped. If, on the other hand, you build a national reputation in your field and have a reputation of being a responsible colleague, you will have a secure place in your home unit.
* Think of yourself as an independent contractor.
There is no such thing as institutional loyalty. In any particular circumstance, an institution will have little trouble dismissing an employee. So, don’t imagine your career as being the same as the institution’s. If they hired you to put up drywall, satisfy the contract and put up the drywall.
Do not believe people, however, who tell you that moving jobs in academia is impossible and you must be committed to that university. This is especially true if you are in a hostile department. Is it difficult to move? Oh, yeah. If you are in a super competitive field (20th Century US History, for example), it might take several years of trying to find a new job. It is totally possible, however, to change jobs and institutions. Sometimes a move can be a really healthy thing, especially if your current work environment isn’t supportive.
* There is no “in” crowd in academia.
In the years that I have been around, I have encountered many, many academics who have felt excluded from the “in” crowd and felt like misunderstood outsiders. Yet, I have never seen an actual “in” crowd. Sure, there are cliques (some are vicious). There are also people whose scholarship receives more attention than others. In the end, though, we are all working to the same goals and find our own niches and friends. Stop searching for the “cool kids” lunch table.
* Tenure is not the end.
I have seen many newly tenured people think to themselves, "Ok, now I've made it! It's all a breeze from this point forward." Alas, the academic world doesn't work like that. Don't get me wrong. Tenure is a very nice prize indeed.
However, you still have to pay your dues and you still have to continue to work hard as an associate professor. While not a meritocracy, your status in the university will depend heavily on the number and quality of your publications. Gaining the label "trapped in rank" will start to feel mighty bad six or seven years from now.
* Never start a blog.
Seriously, it’s a bad idea.
UPDATE: Dr. Crazy has offered a fantastic alternative to this post here. My experience and advice are limited, especially in regard to SLAC's. Go read that post for important counterpoints to this post. My only quibble would be about the blog thing. What type of foolish junior professor would start a blog?