From Grad Student to Prof

Congratulations, you’re hired. Now get to work! Here are a few things new assistant professors don’t usually count on:

PERSONAL

1. Get sentimental.

Whatever your relationship to graduate school, there are some things you will miss when you’re gone. Try and figure out what they are and enjoy them as much as possible. Like your friends, for instance.

2. Bury the hatchet.

It is more than likely that you were involved in some kind of interpersonal psychdrama while in your program that seemed like a big deal. Here’s the thing: in most cases, it’s not. Arguments that seemed big will seem small in two years when you run into your old classmate at a conference and realize that the two of you share a common set of references and orientations. More importantly, you’re going to be able to help one another professionally, so take advantage of that.

3. Get ready for culture shock.

People who work at universities take professors much more seriously than they take graduate students. Or to put it another way, you’re almost done with the extended infantilization that graduate school inflicts on its inhabitants (yes, 50 is the new 40 and 30 is the new 20 and all that, but still). The new responsibliity is great but also can be taxing. I found my first semester as a prof completely exhausting just because of the sheer amount of learning I did — along with all the work I had to do. I also had to learn to act like I was entitled to certain things. Even if you don’t quite think of yourself “that way” yet, other people will and there’s nothing you can do about it. You are the position.

4. Get organized

This means different things to different people, but as Ms. Mentor says, you might want to be a little more laid back about those dust bunnies and that special coffee or condiment you like. Arrange your errands so you can run them once a week. Block off some other non-work time. But expect to work a lot to start out. There’s a hazing process. You’ll have to find a way to negotiate that.

PROFESSIONAL

1. Get ready to run the gauntlet.

At some schools, there is a month of orientation activities, beginning of the year parties, special events and so on. Additionally, many of your new colleagues will want to take you out for lunch or coffee. You should oblige them, smile and listen and make friends. But remember that while they may speak freely about your shared colleagues, you may wish to reserve your judgment.

2. Give yourself a break.

Apart from finishing your dissertation, which you’d best do as soon as possible if you haven’t already, don’t expect to get much done that first summer other than moving and getting settled in. Frankly, I don’t get a lot done the second summer after a move either, because that’s when I can finally get a sense of the place I’m in.

3. Get to work.

I know I just said you could take a break, but keep in mind that within the first year or so, you should aim to send out an article for publication (at least) and if you’re at a research institution, you should get down to the business of publication. Job #1 is mining the dissertation for material or shopping it around as a book manuscript.

4. It’s ______ or perish (depending on the school)

Any given institution has real and fake criteria for tenure. The official criteria are more often than not fake. You’ll see this as you watch senior assistants go through the tenure process. Of course you should be aware of the criteria (schedule a meeting with your chair if they don’t do it first) and aim to meet them. But keep in mind that there is a bottom line in any place you go. If you are at a research school, yes it’s a good idea to do some special service and all that, but if you don’t publish none of that will matter. And if you do publish a lot — and it’s good and it’s in the right places — none of it will matter (because the publications will get you tenure). Of course you should be a good teacher and colleague, because it’s the right thing to do and there will be other problems if you are unnecessarily difficult. But keep a perspective on things. At a teaching school, it’s the converse — publishing a lot won’t help you if you’re a bad teacher or bad colleague. Though it may help you move if you hope to move, so keep that in mind.

5. Build a Network Outside Your School

You need colleagues who will read and comment on your work, and you need confidantes who will help you make sense of thorny situations. While you may eventually develop both of these are your school, it is always good to have remote people who aren’t involved in the same stuff as you.

6. Seek Out Colleagues at Your Career Stage at Your School

This one is obvious but rarely done. New assistant professors are so busy that they often don’t make an effort to befriend other assistant profs in other departments. This is a big issue if everyone else in your program is tenured and 20 years older than you. Even if you’re an introvert, make the effort. But like anywhere else, not every relationship you initiate will blossom into a great friendship. That’s okay too. A little history over coffee or dinner will be good when you find yourselves together on a committee years later.

7. There’s Less Time Than You Think

At many places, you’ll hear that there’s a 3rd review and that you have 6 years to make tenure. This is not true. If you have a 3rd year review, you will be judged on your accomplishments over the first two years. It’s even more the case for tenure. Your tenure dossier is assembled at the beginning of your 6th year, which means you really have five years to get it all done. Some schools allow addenda to a tenure dossier (e.g., your book comes out or you get an award or something) but as a general rule, plan on having five years to make tenure at a school that says you have six.

FINANCIAL

1. It’s Really Expensive

Studies show that the most financially difficult time in a prof’s life is between finishing graduate school and starting the new job. This is because your first paycheck can come as late as the end of September. Except that you’re supposed to be already living the hotshot assistant prof’s life. And you’re moving, which is always expensive even if you’re lucky enough to have landed a job at a school that “pays for everything.” Inevitably, something goes wrong during the move or something that was supposed to be covered in advanced will be “reimbursed” later. I am not an expert on cost saving measures. I’m just saying plan accordingly and do whatever you do.

2. You’re Moving Into the Middle Class, Act Like It

Well, with housing costs as high as they are today, perhaps you’re not moving there right away, but the assistant prof job is a move in that direction. It’s time to start thinking about bourgeois issues as you move into your new place.

a. Planning to buy a home? If you can swing it, you’ll save the moving costs if you buy right away and let your new employer cover the costs. And if you’re planning to have kids, that would also be the time to think about schools. . .even if it’s a few years off.

b. You’re going to have benefits with your job. Be smart about them. A good rule is to contribute as much as possible to retirement from the beginning or at least as much as your school will match. Also, buy lots of life insurance. It’s cheap and that way your family is covered if anything were to happen.

c. A home office is tax deductible in both the U.S. and Canada. If you have one, you can deduct it. Also talk with a knowledgable tax consultant about other deductions related to your professional life. For instance, let’s say that your school doesn’t cover all your travel — in the U.S., that comes off the taxes.

d. Start saving money, or at least start paying down those credit cards.

IF YOU’RE MOVING BETWEEN CANADA AND THE U.S.

(may also apply for movement between other countries, but I wouldn’t know)

1. Moving will be more expensive because all your stuff has to clear customs. Speaking of which, you’re not supposed to buy stuff right before you move, but if it looks like your old stuff and is a better deal, well, I’m not suggesting that you break the law or anything. Regardless, you may have to pay some fees to import your stuff. Be ready.

2. Pets and kids need their papers in order too.

3. That other country that seems kind of the same? It’s really actually quite different. Be prepared for some level of culture shock — it’s the little things that get you, but they can get you. To start with, Canadians take more vacations and they’re right. American academic culture is more productivist, and if you’re doing critical communication studies, it’s harder to get external grants. On the other hand, nobody expects you to get grants so it’s not an issue for tenure.

4. Change of address from the U.S. to Canada is shockingly difficult. I wouldn’t know about the other way, but you’ve been warned. We lost a few subscriptions in the move.

5. You know that great credit rating you built up through student loans? Forget it. Your credit history disappears when you cross the border, and it’s also hard to move money across the border. We paid our first month’s rent in Canada in cash because making cash machine withdrawals was the easiest way to get money across the border quickly and without fees. Keep a credit card and bank account in your home country. It will come in handy.