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Transition to Academia: Negotiating Your Way to Teaching Sanity

After a highly charged period working on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb, the famous Nobel physicist and teacher Richard Feynman faced a period of depression when he first joined Cornell University as a faculty member. He found that he seemed to be getting nowhere in his research until he realized how time-consuming good teaching could be:

"I now understand it much better. First of all, a young man doesn't realize how much time it takes to prepare good lectures, for the first time, especially--and to give the lectures, and to make up exam problems, and to check that they're sensible ones. I was giving good courses, the kind of courses where I put a lot of thought into each lecture. But I didn't realize that that's a lot of work! So here I was, 'burned out,' reading The Arabian Nights and feeling depressed about myself."

(From "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!")

Make no mistake about it, your early years as an academic will likely be a baptism under fire no matter how many years you have spent teaching as a graduate student or postdoc. Even though we are expected to achieve excellence in research, teaching, and administration, our training as scientists does not necessarily prepare us to become anything but dedicated lab rats. Furthermore, to do each of these jobs well, we have to devote significant amounts of time and effort to each, such that academia often becomes three full-time jobs in one. The biggest challenge I found was that, instead of having whole days or weeks to concentrate on giving a presentation, writing a paper, or planning an experiment, I had to fit lecture preparation and other work responsibilities into fragmented segments of an hour here and there. There was no room or time to wind up slowly and get into the "mental groove" that produces good teaching or research.

Besides the baptism by fire, there are several certainties in an academic's life cycle during the early years. First, you will be asked to document your teaching achievements as you prepare for tenure and promotion. Often, this comes in the form of developing a Teaching Dossier. We all religiously maintain our research-laden CVs, but just how do we put down on paper what a great job we are doing as teachers? Second, the department hired you because of your unique skills, and they will eventually ask you to either take full responsibility for redesigning an existing course or else to develop a completely new course to your own specifications. And lastly, when you finally find some time to fit research into your schedule, the media is going to get excited and will come knocking on your door for an interview. In the following series of articles detailing "The Junior Faculty Experience," I will try to reflect on my experiences with these milestones and some strategies that can be of great benefit during the transition to academia. Some come from personal experience, while others come from the regret of hindsight.

Before you start worrying about milestones, you first have to get the job and survive the first year. What are some strategies to consider during your job hunt and first months on the job? Prior to your interview, carefully analyze the course calendar! Read the course outlines and the faculty research profiles to get an idea of which faculty is teaching which courses, and also which courses you might be asked to teach. Determine which courses you are best suited to teach. Ideally, these are the courses you should target during the interview and negotiation stages and convince the department to let you start with, as they would involve much less preparation time than courses either completely outside your expertise or courses you have never taught before.

During the interview, keep an ear open for which of your targeted courses are actually going to be available. One good clue to courses you might be asked to teach is if a sessional instructor had taught the course for several years. Some courses may only be free for 1 year while the incumbent faculty is on sabbatical. If you target these courses or wind up being assigned to them, make sure you get a commitment from the department that you will be able to keep the course for at least a few years. Nothing is worse than spending a huge amount of time teaching a course for the first time, only to turn it over and be assigned another new course to teach in your second year. Some courses may not be available because they are the pet courses of a particular faculty, while other courses may not be popular with anybody and end up passed around like a hot potato. Resign yourself to the possibility of teaching a course like this as a right of passage. At the same time, you might score a lot of points with the search committee by coming up with an innovative approach to a hot potato course.

Negotiate a reduced teaching load for the first 1 to 3 years with the department prior to your arrival. Getting a reduced workload beyond your first year may be contingent on your getting some grants in your first year, but try to obtain a written guarantee for a reduced load in at least your first year. Some departments will have this either as a formal or informal policy, but request it explicitly rather than assume.

Prior to, or immediately upon your arrival, meet with the incumbent instructors and dig up as much information and material--texts, course outlines, exams, presentations, Web site access, etc., as possible. Determine exactly how much of the material you wish to maintain. Remember, you'll be busy enough as it is without trying to deliver the "perfect" course right away. I found myself wanting to do everything in my first course the very first time out, from reworking all the lectures, to setting up a course Web site by myself, through rewriting all of the labs and exams. I quickly learned to be selective in deciding what goals and tasks were the most critical and adopted a long-term approach to "perfecting" my course. Remember, there comes a point where "better is the enemy of good enough."

One major challenge of structuring a course is understanding exactly how it fits into the overall curriculum. Try to establish what the guidelines and expectations for your courses are. What are the key goals that students need to be able to achieve by the end of the course? What are the outlines and goals for the prerequisite courses, and for the courses that students may take afterwards? Acquiring this information now will save you from having to radically revise the course later on, or stepping on another faculty's toes. You can ask the incumbent instructor to provide you with this information. An even better strategy is to request that such a discussion take place during the first departmental meeting of the year. It is surprising how rarely some departments actually review their curriculum to see if it makes any sense.

The best advice I received was to plan your schedule well in advance and to set aside one day for research. I arranged my schedule so that I didn't book any commitments on Thursdays. I would either stay home or else lock my lab door. If people tried to schedule a meeting for that time, I would just say that I was busy and try to be noncommittal about the reasons. If a full day is not possible, then try to set aside at least one or two half-days. A similar strategy can be applied with teaching preparation. I found that this was a much more effective approach than trying to fit teaching preparation or research into whatever little blocks of time became available. At the same time, I gained the discipline to use those small chunks of time for simple tasks and administration that did not require concentrated thought or warming up of the "mental machinery" (e.g., returning e-mails or phone calls, photocopying, data entry, etc.).

Finally, understand and adapt yourself to the rhythm of university life. Realize that the first month of each semester and the exam period are going to be primarily consumed with teaching. Plan your research program around this rhythm and do not try to run a heavy schedule of experiments or spend a lot of time on grant applications during those periods.

Portions of this article were adapted from S. S. Cheung, "The First Year Faculty Experience," FOCUS (Dalhousie University's teaching newsletter) November/December 1999, Volume 9(2). (