Five Things to Do in Your First Year of a Faculty Position

April 15, 2020

You did it! You got your first faculty position! All that hard work and effort has finally paid off. Now what? You’ve heard all the classic advice for your first year of a faculty position - hire a great lab manager, negotiate for a lower teaching load and make a transition plan with your previous mentor to transfer critical reagents.

But no one tells you the practical things to do that become oh-so-obvious after you’ve spent some time in a faculty position. Start doing these things from day 1 to ensure that you are off to a strong start.

Keep Track of Your Time Down to the Minute

This is not about time management - it’s about documentation. Everything seems fine until your chair asks you for the number of hours you took to prepare a lecture for graduate students last week. Suddenly your calendar that only shows seminars doesn’t cut it.

Your time is valuable, and everyone in the chain of command up to the university’s accreditation association wants to know how you’re spending it. Using a detailed calendar that tracks your time will help you answer questions about your time. Use your calendar to plan your days and  adjust the entries to match what happened at the end of your work day.

Tracking your time also helps with future planning. For example, I can look back and see that it took me 4 hours to write the informed consent document for my IRB application. So now if I am submitting another IRB application, I can plan out 4 hours for the informed consent document. It’s the worst when you thought you had plenty of time for something, but then it takes you way longer than you expected.

You also need documentation of your time for your annual evaluations and when you apply for the ever-sought-after promotion/tenure position. Having this information in a searchable format reduces the time it takes to collect all the information about your activities. I use Google calendar and label my entries. The entries start with a broad topic and then narrow to a specific task - for example Grant - R15 - Facilities. This lets me search for “Grant” or “R15” to see the time I spent on those tasks. I also use color to visualize my efforts - anything that has to do with my research efforts are green while meetings are purple.

Understand What Projects You Can and Can’t Work On

It’s super easy to chat with someone about helping with their event, only to have your chair tell you that you’re not allowed to work on other department’s activities.

Making decisions about your time (oh look, a tie-in to #1!) might not be entirely up to you. Little things like this exist for every department and the chair. It is better to have a conversation with your chair when you first arrive to understand what they expect from you. Are they laissez-faire about joining committees? Do they care about how much teaching you are doing? You can’t know until you talk to them. And trust me on this one, it’s better to have that conversation before getting chewed out for spending too much time on “non-essential” tasks.

Know Your Colleagues and Find Mentors

Networking – eeewww!

If you are anything like me, networking sounds great on paper but in reality, it’s an awkward nightmare. The thought of having to leave my office to network with the people at my institution and outside my immediate group makes me wrinkle my nose in distaste.

However, networking has helped me way more than I expected it would. I had a social butterfly (and a great mentor) on my team who made me talk to others. In less than a year, these connections have paid off for me. After knowing a member of the Physical Therapy department, the university admin selected me to be a pivotal contributor to our research program strategy based on her recommendation. Every member of the faculty is an expert in something and has experience in a vast swath of other aspects. It just takes some initial effort to meet the people around you and learn about their expertise.

Leveraging your service requirement is a great way to meet faculty outside of your department. Serving on the Institutional Animal Care and Use (IACUC) or Biosafety Committee gives you a broader network while staying within an area of interest. Depending on your institution, you may have opportunities to serve on college/university-wide committees. Be selective about which committees you serve on with an eye to who else is on each one.

Faculty development is another place to meet others who might not normally cross your path. If you see a faculty development opportunity that is even vaguely of interest to you, go to it. Often there is time built-in to network over coffee and snacks. A useful strategy is to ask what brought someone to this event. This easy question opens the door to introduce yourself and what your interests are and to learn the same from them.

Maintain and Reflect on Teaching

Maybe you only teach a few hours a term to graduate students. Or perhaps, you’re in charge of the intro biology class across 5 sections. Or, you are teaching students in the lab to give presentations at ASM Microbe. Either way, teaching is part of an academic’s life.

Just like you want to show your best efforts on your research, you want to show your best teaching efforts. Take a few minutes to write and reflect on what worked and didn’t, and think about what you would change in the future. Keeping track of your teaching record makes putting together annual evaluations and promotion packets much easier. It shows that you take all parts of your job seriously, not just your research.

Adjust Your Career If Needed

We’re told for so long that becoming a professor is THE path. It becomes so blinding at times that grabbing any faculty position seems like a good idea. If you think you made a colossal mistake by becoming a faculty member, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate. And that’s ok! Changing your path, from tiny adjustments to massive changes, is fine. You are supposed to find the parts that work for you and build on those.

To re-evaluate, first ask yourself what you are interested in doing in your faculty position that you aren’t currently doing. Also determine the activities you like doing more than others. For example, I learned that I am not into writing grants all the time so I readjusted to focus on a more teaching-based path. These moments of self-reflection are a great time to talk to your mentors and your chair. Your mentors can help you identify what you need and recommend paths to fill those needs.Your chair can directly help you adjust your duties to match your needs. Your chair is invested in you as well.

Lastly, if you’ve tried ways to implement the missing pieces into your professorship and still feel like a faculty position isn’t for you, then don’t stay. Look for positions at new institutes or a new path altogether, and remember to use your mentors and network. Either way, you oversee your life, not the “path” that has been laid out by those around us.

Now that you have the right advice to start off strong in your new faculty position, good luck!

Author: Amy E.L. Stone, Ph.D.

Amy E.L. Stone, Ph.D.
Amy E.L. Stone, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Touro University Nevada.