Advice to starting profs

Someone on Reddit was nervous about starting as a new professor at a new school and in a new city. Here is my idiosyncratic advice:

  • In the first few months, you’ll probably get quite a few invites from people for a coffee/beer. Obviously, take them up on this. But once that academic tradition is done, it’s easy to be kind of left on your own. You’ll need to make an effort to find likeminded people and get together on the regular.
  • I’ve never done this, but the new academic faculty who seem to be happy have formed informal support groups among the other new faculty. These don’t need to be in your field / department / unit. At least then you know you aren’t the only one feeling like you are on Mars, and often those in this cohort will find resources that are super useful locally at the university or in the city. If your university does some kind of an intake workshop at the university level, this is a good chance to find these folks, but otherwise just start looking for new starts and do that coffee/beer thing. This is easier if you are in a large department/school that has done a lot of recent hiring, since you may have a group of folks in cognate fields.
  • Make friends with the department admin staff. Doesn’t have to be social, going out bowling friends, but bend over backwards to be nice to them. Often they get the brunt of institutional pressures without a lot of recognition for this. And they know how things actually work. If you don’t pretend you know what you’re doing, and you don’t assume it’s their job to help you, but instead actually go out of your way to be nice and even help them out if it’s something you can do, it will be to your benefit. One such person actually saved my career at one point of political intrigue. So, you know, be nice to everyone, but especially the lead staff people.
  • Make friends outside of your unit. It’s kind of crazy to assume that the people in your own small department are going to be the ones you are most simpatico with. Some of the people I was most interested in talking to were always in some far-flung department other than my own, and sometimes I missed these folks by being focused on what was happening in my unit. If you engage in some form of university level service, it may be one way to run into these folks.
  • Be thinking about your next job. No one will tell you this and it’s not something I would tell my own new hires. And consider where this advice is coming from: someone who has switched TT jobs twice. Of course, you should understand the explicit expectations for tenure, but I have always looked to what will make me look good on an application to another university or outside of academia. Since you need external reviews anyway, it’s basically the same thing as moving toward tenure, and if you actually can move it opens up your possibilities quite a bit if this university–or academia as a whole–isn’t a great fit. I was already doing this in grad school, and so continuing as faculty wasn’t that much of a change for me. And when the university did a major restructuring a couple of years before tenure, it bothered me less than some, since I knew I could likely jump ship and get a good position elsewhere.
  • Don’t worry, be happy. Honestly, it’s an adventure. The academic life front-loads so much of this with sunk costs in terms of getting the doctorate and a research portfolio before even landing your first job, if you are so lucky. Those sunk costs make people worry too much about screwing up instead of having fun with what they have. You wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t think you could do the job. Mostly, keep doing what you’ve already been doing. Mentoring is what you’ve already done with colleagues as a grad student. Your research is likely already on a trajectory for tenure: just keep building a research agenda and producing solid work. And add to this a bit of fun. Remember why you started all this and don’t put off that odd project until post-tenure. Be bold.
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