The First Year in Academia: What to Expect, What to Avoid, and How to Make it Through in One Piece

Like mountain climbing, teaching in academia takes persistence and stamina. Photo by Donna Au, A08, G11

While teaching in academia isn’t a contact sport, it can definitely leave a bruise (typically an internal one). Like many athletic contests, an academic life demands agility, stamina, persistence, and sacrifice—and there are definitely times when an audience of intellectually ravenous students is much scarier than a blitzing linebacker, a ninety-five mile per hour fastball, or preparing to summit New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. But the life of a faculty member is survivable—even enviable—and in this post Graduate School of Arts and Sciencesalumni share what they did (and what they didn’t do) to make it through the first year in one—albeit slightly frazzled— piece.

Manage Your Expectations

First-year faculty members are an ambitious bunch. They arrive on campus revved up, eager to pursue their research agendas and affect young minds in the classroom. But it’s important, especially in the first year, to manage your own expectations.

“One of my main challenges during the first year was trying to gauge the amount of material I could cover in a semester,” said Angela Speece, who earned a master of fine arts from GSASin 2011 and is an adjunct professor at the University of Houston. “I highly overestimated what I could get through—setting out to cover much more material than I had time for—and I should have factored in time for lengthy and thorough explanations of specific concepts. I also overlooked how much time I needed to answer student questions and to clarify information at the beginning and end of each class; activities which interfered with my designated teaching time.”

Natasha Seaman, an assistant professor at Rhode Island College who earned a master of arts in art history from GSAS in 1997, recommends a particular reflective exercise at the end of each semester—an exercise that can help first-year faculty members both improve their teaching and keep their ambitions in check.

“One of the most useful exercises I did (and still do) to improve my teaching was to write a self-analysis narrative of each class soon after I submitted final grades,” she said. “I considered what had gone well and what had not, and tried to think of solutions to problems and ways to expand on what was successful. My first year, this process made me realize I could have avoided killing myself and my students by having fewer, but more meaningful graded assignments. Plus, these narratives are useful for preparing your tenure application.”

Do Your Homework

It's important to exercise your (academic) brain–reading books and articles about teaching–during your first years in academia. Photo by Boaz Yiftach

Homework doesn’t end—at least for faculty members—with the final test or paper. For those new to academia, it’s essential to rely on the experiences of seasoned faculty members, many of whom have written about the craft of teaching or are willing to provide advice over a cup of coffee.

“I worked really long hours during my first year; it felt like graduate school all over again,” said University of Virginia Assistant Professor Neeti Nair, who earned a  master of arts and Ph.D. in history from GSAS in 2000 and 2005, respectively. “I relied on articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education which provided advice for those on the tenure-track. I also sought out advice from mentors, both inside and outside of my department, when I felt particularly overwhelmed.”

Natasha Seaman took a similar approach, reading books aimed at, primarily, first-year teachers.

“Three books really helped me develop my teaching,” she said. “These books were: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student; McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers; and The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. I also read, and still do, pedagogy blogs and articles on The Chronicle of Higher Educationwebsite and the “Professor’s Guide” from U.S. News and World Report; the guide is intended for students, but the material is useful for the ‘other side’ as well.”

Prepare for (Possible) Double Duty

Some new faculty might find themselves in a precarious position: having a one-year appointment which makes it necessary to both teach courses and search for a full- or part-time position simultaneously. This was a predicament encountered by Nathaniel Goldberg, an associate professor at Washington and Lee University who graduated with a master of arts in philosophy from GSAS in 1999.

“Teaching a heavy course load while simultaneously being on the job market presented some challenges, specifically how to do it all and not attract the ire of my superiors who were not so approving of the time spent on job searching,” said Goldberg. “I overcame this challenge by getting to my office before 6:00 am and not going home until 8:00 pm; my weekends were full, too.”

Find What Works for You

It’s essential to find the right technology and approaches to time management to support YOUR particular brand of teaching. Photo by Melody Ko

Every teacher is different. Some bring fiery emotion to their teaching, while others are more, well, subdued.  Because of this innate uniqueness, it’s important for new faculty members to find things—whether it’s technology or a new approach to time management—that supports his or her particular brand of teaching.

For Kara Miller, who graduated with a Ph.D. in English from GSAS in 2008 and is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, her first-year was made easier by sticking to a schedule (as much as she could), as opposed to trying to “juggle” everything at once.

“I think that consciously dividing up your time can be really helpful,” she said. “Try to keep yourself on a schedule if you can; for example, Mondays could be for developing courses and correcting papers, but Tuesdays could be dedicated to research. A schedule like this can free you up in a sense, allowing you to focus on one task at a time, rather than trying to manage it all.”

Angela Speece relied on technology during her first year and hasn’t looked back.

There’s more to YouTube than videos of cats acting strangely. The site can also help enhance your teaching. Photo by jscreationzs

“There are many ways social networking, blogging, YouTube, and TED talks can enhance your teaching,” she said. “I have personally set up an interactive website where students can upload files for assignments and add to classroom discussions.”

For Neeti Nair, making time to write is critically important.

“Set aside time for your writing every single day,” she said. “It could be early mornings, evenings, or different times each day. Don’t rely on the illusory sabattical fellowship—it doesn’t exist! As for teaching, know that there will be good and bad days. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, but try not to make the same mistakes over and over again. And take the student evaluations seriously, especially the critical ones.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

Are you a first-year teacher in academia wh0 would like to share his or her thoughts? Are you a veteran teacher who would like to share other best practices? Are you preparing for your first year of teaching in academia and have lingering questions, concerns? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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134 Responses to The First Year in Academia: What to Expect, What to Avoid, and How to Make it Through in One Piece

  1. Laurie Sabol says:

    And don’t forget to make lunch plans with your department’s librarians! We can help you create assignments that integrate library resources and teach your students to effectively navigate the often turbulent waters of the Internet. And of course, we can support your research, keeping an eye out for new materials and resources relevant to your topic of study.

    Laurie Sabol
    Tisch Library Instruction Coordinator

  2. Sol Gittleman says:

    Some great insights and wisdom here. You never stop learning how to do it; after fifty years in the classroom, I find every day a new anxiety and thrill.

  3. Eric Clark says:

    This post is going to be extremely helpful for first year faculty. Ambition will get the best of us, and we need to understand that we might not cover all of the material that we planned for. Faculty, please don’t be too tough on yourself if you fail to meet your expectations. Truth be told, there is a good chance that you will not fulfill all of your goals and expectations. Utilize reflection and evaluation, these are great tools for personal/professional growth.

    Someone shared this quote on Twitter, and I find it fitting to share here.

    “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” ~ Dale Carnegie -

  4. Comment from @MWilson_History via Twitter:

    Good piece. I’m still a grad student myself, but will be useful when i get my first job :)

  5. Comment from @amc9885 via Twitter:

    @TuftsGSAS Wish I had this last year during my first year teaching college mathematics.

  6. Ashley Ciesla says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article – I actually forwarded to the leadership team in the Math department at my college so they can send it along to others in the first/second years.

    Scheduling specific times to do certain responsibilities really helped me, as it helped another person. I graduated Montclair State University in New Jersey, August 2010, with a Master of Science in Pure and Applied Mathematics, and started working as a tenure-track mathematics instructor at Brookdale Community College, the Monday after my thesis defense. It took me pretty much the entire first year to find my footing and catch my breath. I made the mistake of trying to do way too many different activities every class and my students got confused and frustrated. The next semester I did not do enough and my students were bored. Now, I am finally getting the hang of what works in one class and what is too difficult to execute successfully.

    One tip that works for me is to keep a spiral notebook in my bag at all times to write exactly what students have said to me after class – I have a tendency to be forgetful and I don’t want my students to think I don’t follow through.

    Thanks for putting this article together – great ideas!

    • Hi Ashley,

      Thanks for checking out the post and for sending it along to your colleagues. Although this blog is for Tufts’ GSAS, one of our top goals (and that of our Twitter feed) is to bring together faculty members and grad students from a number of different instiutions for discussions of best practices related to teaching and grad life in general.

      Thanks again and have a great day!

      -GradMatters Blog Team

  7. Zbigniew Nitecki says:

    Nice article. After 40+ years of full-time teaching, I still use a lot of the tricks you suggest–for myself.

  8. Jane Stevens says:

    I heard teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in the world so I’m starting to dread starting my new job next semester. However, this guide has taken the heat off a little! Thanks! I’d definitely agree that sticking to a schedule is much better than trying to juggle everything at once.

  9. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for this. I think that it’s easy for new faculty to get burned out b/c of the pace and expectations. While there will never truly be ‘balance’ it’s nice to work for some work/life integration.

    Nice piece. Thanks for providing! I will share this w/ the graduate students I mentor.

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