Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm a Professor, Now What?: The First Year on the Tenure-Track Or As a Visiting Professor

As if we didn't have enough trouble with casualization*, the current economic crisis destroyed even more professorial positions. Many extremely gifted young academics who got their doctoral degrees this year didn't manage to get any kind of academic employment**. Those who have been lucky enough to get a Visiting Professor position or - something that has become almost extinct - a tenure-track position are now busily preparing themselves for what has been their dream for many years: their first job as a "real professor." I have been a "real professor" for two years now (first as a Visiting P and then as a tenure-track P) and I want to offer some advice for those of my colleagues who are only starting on this journey now.

1. Just Say No. As with any relationship, once you get into a certain kind of a dynamic, it's extremely difficult to change it years later. New hires who are grateful to have been hired at all and who don't always know what they are or are not obligated to do tend to take on an insane number of duties and obligations in their first year. Then, everybody gets used to them agreeing to everything and fulfilling endless responsibilities, and it is very hard to break that cycle. So, if you want to avoid having no time for research and eventually burning out, learn to say no to things that are being thrust at you. Find out what exactly you are obligated to do in terms of service and stop enlisting in every committee that ever existed. But how to discover how many committees will be enough? This brings me to my second piece of advice:

2. Read the Operation Papers. The Operation Papers are kind of a boring read but they will be of invaluable service to you. From them, you will find out exactly how much service (and what kind of service) you need to do in order to pass the retention review and the merit review.***  You might even discover that no service is required from people who are in their first year on the tenure-track. Of course, you can always ask your colleagues what they did in their first year. Remember, however, that everybody's priorities are different. A colleague who was gunning for an eventual position in the administration will not offer good advice to somebody who only cares about research. This is why my advice is to peruse the Operation Papers and devise your own plan based on your career goals. You don't want to spend your first year wasting time on 15 committees you didn't need to volunteer for and failing to visit that one 2-hour long workshop that would have changed you merit rating from Meritorious to Excellent.

3. Save Every Scrap of Paper. The first purchase you need to make as a new professor is a huge folder. You will need to print out everything that might come in useful later on in the merit review or mid-point tenure review, for example, and save it in the folder. If you give a talk at a conference, save the program and the letter of the organizer thanking you for participating (don't worry if it's in a foreign language.) Print out and save your articles. Print out any proof you can find that the journal where your published is a) peer-reviewed, b) prestigious. Most importantly, print out every e-mail where a colleague (and especially the Chair or the Dean) thank you for something. Even if you are being thanked for something pretty minimal, print it out anyways. You can never have too much paperwork for your tenure or merit review process. And it's easier to print out those things the moment you receive them than have to hunt for them five years from now.

4. Close the Door. I realize that this is the opposite of the advice that you will get during your orientation. "Keep your doors open and many great opportunities will walk in," you will be told. Once again, this is something that depends on your priorities. My biggest priority is my research. The scariest thing that can happen to me is to discover that I have no time or energy to do my research. So this is where you have to choose for yourself: chatting, gossiping and going for endless cups of coffee with your colleagues (which, granted, is tons of fun) or publishing? If publishing is important, learn to close the doors to you office (or not come to campus) at least three times a week. An added bonus of this strategy is that while you are unavailable for contact, people won't be able to invite you for even more committees.

5. Think ahead. If you are paid on a 9-month basis (which, in all probability, you are), take care of next summer's income today. Believe me, you will be drained after your first year as a professor. If you are Visiting, you will also be exhausted by going on the job market yet again. So I strongly suggest that you request your salary to be paid out to you on a 12-month basis. This way, next summer you will not have to work at all and will be able to prepare for the next stage in your career. The difference in your monthly salary will not be significant but the difference in your level of well-being next summer will be immense.
*CASUALIZATION: a process of eliminating professorial positions and hiring lecturers and adjuncts instead. In this way, universities save money (lecturers and adjuncts get very tiny salaries and no benefits) and have a teaching faculty that is terrified of losing their positions (lecturers and adjuncts don't have a contract and can be left without employment at any time). As a result of casualization, universities end up with the teaching faculty that is afraid of introducing any innovations for fear of being fired, doesn't do any research (who has the time with their insane workloads?), is constantly stressed out, overworked, and suffers from burn out.

** In the Humanities, having to leave academia even just for a year after getting your PhD, effectively makes it impossible for you to get back in.  This, of course, produces an insane level of anxiety among young academics. They feel that they need to hang on by any cost, often accepting exploitative and post-doc positions. This anxiety is exploited for all it's worth by college administrations.

*** From the Operation Papers, you will also learn that retention review and merit review are two different things and that it is never too early to start preparing for them.

Good luck, dear friend!

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