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Some Advice for New Faculty Members

Wendy Martinek, Professor, Department of Political Science, Binghamton University

I am now more than two decades away from earning my Ph.D. And, as any even casual observer of the professoriate and academic world more generally can attest, a lot has changed in those two decades. I am also keenly aware that my experiences as a new faculty member are shaped by the fact I was in a particular department in a particular institution in a particular state/country. This made me wonder if I had any useful advice to offer to new faculty members. Upon reflection, however, I realize I do have two pieces of advice that are not specific to an institution and are not stale-dated by virtue of my degree date.

Figure out what your department values and do that (Spoiler alert: You are probably already doing it.)

Stating the obvious, institutions are not all the same as to what they value. Knowing what your particular department1 values is important for constructing a record that will result in desirable outcomes, which presumably includes tenure at some point. Of course, savvy new faculty (who were once savvy job candidates) have already gathered a lot of information during the interview process. Departmental documents, faculty handbooks, and the like are useful references, too. But policies and their application are subject to change over time. There might be formal changes that are clearly (or not-so-clearly) communicated, but there might also be informal “drift” in terms of how policies are interpreted. This makes it important to consult widely and regularly to ensure you continue to share the same understanding of what is valued as those who will be instrumental in your personnel decisions (e.g., senior faculty in your department).

Don’t stop there, however. The crucial next step is to think about what you already do (or what you want to do), and work on framing that in terms of what your department prizes. Hiring departments obviously thought there was a match when you joined the faculty. But, as you progress from brand-new faculty member to advanced junior faculty member, the burden will be on you to make the case that the match is still there. This emphatically does not mean you need to turn yourself inside out or into something you have no desire to be. You have a lot of agency in shaping your identity for others. Don’t sit back and allow others to define who you are as a teacher and scholar. Certainly, use opportunities such as annual reviews and contract renewals to communicate who you are but also take advantage of less formal lines of communication (e.g., meetings with senior faculty or hallway conversations with colleagues). Regardless of the conduit of communication, the broader point is to be explicit for others in drawing the connection between what you do and what your department values.

Think programmatically about both teaching and research

Starting as a new faculty member can feel like taking over for Sisyphus.2 It is challenging to juggle multiple classes (probably for the first time) while simultaneously keeping research activities from grinding to a complete halt3 and fulfilling whatever service obligations you have. So taking time to work out a multi-year plan for both your teaching and research might not seem like a productive use of the scarce time you have available. But doing so will have several benefits.

With regard to teaching, thinking programmatically means constructing a coherent roster of classes that you intend to teach on a regular basis over the course of your time as a junior faculty member. Preferably, they should be classes that enthuse and excite you. Doing this requires, of course, bearing in mind departmental needs. And how many courses make their way on to your roster is going to vary based on your standard course load. But avoid the temptation of volunteering for a lot of different classes, something that is easier to avoid when you have a preferred sequence of class offerings in mind. Multiple new preps each semester are time-consuming, often resulting in poorer course evaluations,4 as well as being personally draining. Thinking programmatically about what you teach also has the advantage of letting you plot a rational sequence for the development of your courses. For example, it might make sense to offer a particular course as a seminar before developing it into a course intended for a larger group of students. Or you might realize that one course should be developed first because it serves as the foundation for other courses.

With regard to research, thinking programmatically means determining the scholarly identity you want for yourself. That is not as dramatic as it may seem. All it means is constructing a coherent set of questions on which you want to focus as a junior faculty member. It may seem premature when you are first starting out as a new faculty member, but think ahead to what you would like to say in the statement of research you are likely to have to produce for a renewal or tenure and promotion application. What is the arc (or arcs) of scholarship you would like to be able to discuss then? This is a useful exercise because it will serve as a blueprint of sorts to guide your research, particularly as you move beyond the dissertation. It will also make it easier to identify and prioritize those projects that contribute to the scholarly identity you are building for yourself. Thinking programmatically about your research will also make it easier when you have a pet project that is orthogonal to your other work but that you do not want to let go. You can simply move it down in your research agenda and take comfort in knowing you have not jettisoned it, just postponed it!

One last thing

One size definitely does not fit all, of course, and the logistics of putting these pieces of advice into practice will vary. Find a set of mentors at your institution as soon as possible so they can help you tailor your choices to the specifics of your institution. Notice that I used the plural. No one person is going to have the same exact perspective or provide the same exact advice. You, as the most important active agent of your career, will need to think through those perspectives and that advice to chart your best course. But you’ll be much better informed in doing so if you have a team of mentors.5

References

Chavez, Kerry and Kristina M.W. Mitchell. 2020. “Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity.” P.S.: Political Science & Politics 53(2): 270-274.

Martin, Lisa. 2016. “Gender, Teaching Evaluations, and Professional Success in Political Science.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49(2): 313-319.