I often jokingly tell graduate students that I wish someone had told me about the sheer number of meetings I would have to attend as a faculty member — not to dissuade me, but to clue me into the bureaucratic reality of what it’s like to be a faculty member. This is my attempt to distill my experience as a tenure-track assistant professor at two large, state research universities and the lessons I learned about the reality of what being an assistant professor is like with an eye towards preparing future faculty for the everyday reality of professorship. As usual, it’s largely based only on my experience — other people surely have different experiences (even at the same institutions), and the experiences of friends at other kinds of institutions clearly differ from my own.
Briefly, my own institutional biography: I accepted a job at Wayne State University while finishing my dissertation in early 2007. I spent a year there — I actually started teaching in the summer term — and then moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was at UCSC from 2008 through 2015, and went up for tenure there in 2012. So, in total, I spent one year as an assistant at Wayne, and four as an assistant at UCSC. Generally, the experiences were not significantly different in their broad contours.
The big change from being a dissertating graduate student to being a tenure-track faculty member is that you move from being almost entirely self-directed to suddenly being beholden to the needs of others — in the classroom, but also in your department and the university and profession more generally. Usually, this is referred to as “service” and it can include everything from being a department chair, to serving on job search committees, to giving guest lectures in other people’s classes, to serving on M.A. or Ph.D. committees — and so many more permutations, especially outside of one’s departmental home. Service happens at the level of the department, the level of the division, the level of the university, and the level of the profession. So, on the one hand, I had ongoing commitments — like serving on Ph.D. committees, the number of which steadily increased over time — and new, one- and two-year commitments that changed with each academic year. In any given year, I tended to accept two to three new service roles, most of which changed the following year — and these included things like serving on the graduate admissions committee, the professionalization workshop I ran, prize committees for undergraduate and graduate students (both at UCSC and through the Society for Medical Anthropology), the academic review committee for students in danger of being expelled or suspended, the university’s committee on faculty welfare, and a variety of one-off activities (like guest lecturing, serving on external grant agency review panels, and a host of peer-reviewing for journals). On any given week, it probably amounted to 2-4 hours of work and meetings — sometimes, though, it was dramatically more, like when I had to write a report for a committee that I was serving on (which probably took something like 10-15 hours in one week). And any peer-reviewing I did tended to take 3-4 hours, usually once or twice each month.
There are many more meetings — and emails, and telephone calls (still — some people actually want to talk on the phone!) — which range from meeting with eager or delinquent undergraduates, to meeting with current and prospective graduate students, to meeting with teaching assistants, to faculty meetings, to university-level meetings. At Wayne we had biweekly or monthly Friday morning faculty meetings; at UCSC we had nearly weekly faculty meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Most of these meetings required no preparatory work on my part, and on average I would spend 3-5 hours each week in meetings. It could be dramatically more though, especially with university-level and meetings to support the discipline, and in a couple of cases I easily spent 10 or more hours in meetings in one week.
It’s easy to minimize the amount of time it takes to prepare and teach new courses, but it can be all-consuming. At Wayne, I was tasked with teaching a two-semester sequence of theory in medical anthropology at the graduate level — which was an entirely new course and not one that was particularly portable — and also an introduction to cultural anthropology for undergraduates. When I moved to UCSC, none of these classes were usable, in part because at UCSC the senior faculty protected the junior faculty from teaching the very large (~400 students) introduction to cultural anthropology course. But, also, I designed my intro class to resonate with the life experiences of students in Detroit, so a lot of the content would have needed to change as well. When I got to UCSC, I was asked to teach an introduction to medical anthropology course for undergraduates, and from there it was up to me to design my curriculum — so, I came up with graduate courses in science studies and experimentation, and undergraduate classes in the biology of everyday life, medicine & colonialism, and, eventually, I took on the service requirement of teaching the introduction to cultural anthropology, ethnographic methods, and cultural anthropological theory. (You can see my syllabuses on my Teaching page.)
Each of these preps took a few weeks of part-time work before the term began — and in most cases, took a lot of work at the stage when I had to propose the course at the departmental and university levels in order to get approval to offer the class and to garner general education breadth designations. During the term I first offered the class — and to a lesser extent with later iterations — there was significant work throughout the week, reading material, preparing lectures, writing assignments and exams. On top of service requirements, commuting, childcare, running errands, and everything else, this meant that I got very little new writing or research done during the term. (Over time, I was able to develop a rhythm wherein most of my writing and research would get done in terms with old classes or during the summer, and editing work or revisions on articles were saved for the intensive teaching terms.) Only late in my time as an assistant professor did I get to the point where I was teaching classes I had taught before, and then had more time for research and writing — but then started teaching more new classes, and also developed some fatigue related to teaching some of my steady classes. All told, it tended to be about 5 hours per week in the classroom, plus another 15-20 hours per week in preparation, emailing with students, office hours, and other sundry teaching support (which goes down to 5-10 hours per week with a retaught class).
Then there’s things like giving colloquium talks and attending conferences and workshops, all of which can be edifying, but also time consuming. Until The Slumbering Masses came out in 2012, most of my invitations were based on my social network — after the book came out, the invitations started to widen. I developed a rule pretty early on that I wouldn’t give more than one colloquium talk per term and wouldn’t travel to more than one conference per term. I also wouldn’t travel over the Mississippi River more than once per year, since I tended to lose too much time to travel. There were exceptions, but having the rule meant that I really paid attention to my schedule for the year, and that I would try and avoid excessive travel — and maximize the travel I did do. I also tend to only present new work at conferences and colloquia; if I recycled the same talk, I might approach things differently, but given that I was always working to produce new material for talks, I wanted to make sure I had the time to do the necessary writing. In any given week, these kinds of speaking engagements had little effect, but when I was traveling, it tended to take 3-4 days (plus the writing to support the talk).
Publishing also loomed large, and my tenure requirements at both institutions were about the same: a few articles and a book. I tend to write an article or two each year, as well as working on book chapters. I was fortunate to get an advanced book contract rather early, and had a handful of article manuscripts by the time I started at UCSC, so most of the real, anxiety-inducing pressure was off, but I did have to work on actually getting everything written and published. I tend to work in fits and starts rather than in a steady stream of productivity, so I would sometimes work on edits or small writing during the term, but most of the heavy writing was left for periods when I wasn’t teaching. The biggest challenge was writing the book, which took 3-4 months of intensive work — which I spent at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, while my partner was in India doing her own research — and then was followed by another intense period of revisions, which happened about six months later (at which point we had a newborn). That was followed by needing to work with a copy editor and then to correct the proofs of the book. The intensive writing and revision work often took all day, every day that I could fit it in (based on teaching and family schedules); the editing and proofing work also took all day, and because there was often a very small window (like 2 weeks) to turn things around, it often meant squeezing it in whenever I could. And when I’m just writing — articles, book chapters, talks — I tended to work a couple hours each day, but that could be anything from actual writing, to editing, to reading in support of the writing project or transcribing old research. When I could, though, I’d binge on writing and work all day, but that changed significantly after having our first child.
I’ve hinted at it throughout, but it’s worth remembering that there’s all the duties and joys of non-professional life too, and spending time dating or with a partner, parenting, having hobbies, grocery shopping, commuting, talking to your parents, reading for enjoyment, fixing the toilet, cooking, and everything else that life is really all about takes up a lot of time. Developing a schedule to make sure that you’re not just working is vital to staying happy.
I’m pretty low stress, and my departments at Wayne and UCSC were supportive of me and my work, but there was still stress enough during those four years at UCSC for me to develop shingles twice (which my family doctor was sure was stress-related). Know that if you go into the professorial line of work that there are significant demands on your time and all sorts of stressors — but approaching them deliberately can significantly mitigate their effects on you. And make sure you sign up for health insurance — just in case.
4 thoughts on “What’s it like to be an Assistant Professor? (Research University version)”
Well-written and accurate in so many ways. As I tell my students, when I was an Assistant Prof my Dean at Univ of MD asked to meet with me one day. When we met, he told me there was a very important two letter word I needed to learn to say. It sounds like this maybe more of this kind of guidance that is so important in early years was needed. We all have to do service, and we are an under supported field (i.e., we don’t have staff to do much of what needs to be done to create and sustain strong programs, so we do it). A Full Prof, whom I greatly respected, pulled me aside after a meeting one day when I was an Assistant Prof and she said to me, “I never want to see you do that again.” I wondered what I done in the meeting that was so bad! She said, never open your calendar without having already marked off your course time and prep AND YOUR WRITING TIME. Schedule generously for both, so that you can give up some when needed, meetings will get set even when you need to say no to some days and times. She explained to me that is important to serve, but that must be balanced with all else that you are doing. Achieving balance is tricky, and we all get off balance at times.
Three things I’ve learned across 35 years in academia: 1. You can do it all, just not all at the same time. 2. Your career will be long – so remember number 1. 3. Travel is a time stealer, you lose about two days for every day you travel, so don’t fool yourself about what you are committing to. This applies to conferences, invited talks, and so on. Assistant Profs need to keep front and center what will get them tenured and launched on a meaningful career – more travel and more demanding service can come after tenure. By then, teaching for most of us has become much easier and a bit faster, and we are better at efficient committee work as well. Bottom lines: Find a department/university that has a plan for supporting early career faculty and explains that plan to you. When we hire you, we are investing in you significantly, and we want you to make it. Make a good deal going into your Assistant Prof job – it is possible to get a reduced teaching load these days in the early years. When interviewing for a job, ask about service expectations and supports for new Assistant Profs (like research funds you can compete for). Talk to your mentors before you interview and know what to ask for.
Stay on track and stay as balanced as you can. When you get off balance, work to get back on balance. Keep in touch with your early mentors from while you were a doc student, and seek advice as needed. Find new mentors on and off your campus, and ask for advice as needed. Among your mentors, triangulate data – listen, and see where they agree – this often is where the best info lies. Finally, don’t be surprised when you learn that expectations for service increase after tenure, ESPECIALLY if you are at an enlightened department/university that cares about and nurtures their Assistant Profs – they will give you some protection early, but once you are on solid ground, you need to pull your weight and not act entitled. Finally, if you didn’t find one of those enlightened, supportive universities the first time, don’t be afraid to move – we do that in academia. It’s not the simplest job or life, but I cannot think of anything I would rather do. Good luck.
Thanks for the comment, Karen — you’re prefacing the next in this series, about being an Associate Professor, so thanks for that as well. You’re absolutely right that blocking out time for writing and research is important, and that people should protect that time — and that saying ‘No’ is absolutely okay and a necessary skill.
Thank you for posting, and I look forward to the next one.