Unsolicited (by most of you) advice to young scholars starting in the academy

I got a very kind email from a young scholar who is going to start in the fall. I wrote a response, and I decided it was pretty good advice, so I’m sharing here because I am too brain dead from my trip to think of urban-y things to post so here.

My advice to young scholars starting on the tenure track:

1. Take care of your health. I always, always put work before myself, my friends/family, and I regret it. The first few years of being a faculty member are a grind—and that’s unavoidable, but think carefully about when the marginal benefit of grinding away is less than the marginal benefit of exercising or relaxing or being with people who are important to you.

This advice is easy to discount if you, like me, were coming from a situation where there was no back-up.

Jobs will kill you if you let them, and this one is no different.

2. Some senior faculty members are jerks, and some are jerks without even trying. They can’t help it. Avoid them. Seriously. If there is one benefit in the academy, it’s that you have lots and lots of reasons to not be near people you can’t stand. Archives! Field work! Private writing time! Have office hours early in the morning. Work in a coffee shop instead of your office. Close your door. Filter their emails into a special folder and read them only when you’ve have a glass of wine and don’t care about nonsense.

It’s not worth getting into power struggles early on—I did—as you don’t have much power. I found over the years that people will respect you if you speak out for students or people who have less power than you, but it’s best to keep your powder dry over most things. Do your best to think about what matters and what doesn’t.

Some people use this as an excuse only to show up and advocate to feather their own nest. This works immensely well, in fact. I haven’t done that, and I have probably paid a professional price for it. But I still have my integrity, and that matters to me more than being able to flounce around over titles or the other fripperies that universities hand out to their cherished show ponies who only show up for themselves.

3. Pick and choose among the shit jobs that will come your way; i.e., don’t say no to everything. Yes, everybody tells you to learn to say no. Sometimes, that results in junior faculty acting like divas who are too good to do the things that the rest of the senior faculty has been sucking up and doing for years and years, and they will be resentful if you don’t pick up some of the team work. If you are SUCH a research star that you need nobody’s goodwill at tenure time, fine, say no. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to pick a few things that don’t seem awful to you, do a good job on them without complaining, and then use those as a rationale for why you have to say no to some other things. “I wouldn’t mind teaching “intro to introness” to the undergraduates, but I already said I would teach the graduate stats class and I don’t want to get overloaded.” Or “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do a good job on the PhD committee since I am already on the undergrad committee. Ask me again when I cycle off the undergrad committee. Sorry I couldn’t say yes this time!”

Your first year, just say you don’t want to get overcommitted, and that you are learning the job, but ask again later when you’ve got a little more time under your belt.

IOW,be strategic AND generous about service to both yourself and other people.

4. Set and keep your own deadlines. I suck at this. My friend Sonia Hirt at VT (who is now a dean at Maryland) mapped out what she wanted to have done and published over two years at a time. I don’t know what I am going to do most days when I get up in the morning. Seriously. I have vague ideas, but I am sooooo capricious I can’t help it. I suspect that Sonia’s approach is better, even if you have to rework the schedule. I would be different if I could be, but alas.

5. Pay yourself first. Research in the morning, prep for teaching in the afternoon and evenings. I find that teaching prep expands to take up as much time as you let it. The morning work time to do your stuff is very important. Your research will define you, just like the songs define a musician, not the record label.mIn fact, universities are a bit like record labels. They are great and everything, but they benefit when you stand out as a scholar and the way to do that is make sure you are doing your research, first and foremost. That way, if you don’t get tenure, you still have a package of work to define what you have do and how you do it.

6. It takes a long time to learn how to teach as yourself. Many of the things you loved about your favorite proffies and their teaching style are things you can adopt. Others are things that just won’t work for you. You have to experiment, find out what fits you as a person and what fits the content and the context.

Sometimes, things go badly. Do the best you can, and be patient with yourself and students. They are young (some are not, but most are), and you are learning your job, and all that is a messy and difficult process that takes time.

Good luck to you. I’ve had so much fun, and I hope you do, too.

One thought on “Unsolicited (by most of you) advice to young scholars starting in the academy

  1. I am so glad I subscribed to your blog. I love it. I am not an academic but this is really nice to read. I hope a lot of people read it.

    Best,

    Caroline

    Sent from my iPhone

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