Ryan  Burns, phd
December 2, 2015

Advice for Junior Faculty

With my first semester at Temple wrapping up, I am now able to reflect on where I started, where I’ve arrived, and the journey between. This semester was intensely difficult in many ways. The extension of capitalist relations into higher education has predictably resulted in the alienation of the producers (faculty; me) from the product of their labor (education; learning). There are reasons to be disheartened, like those (admittedly few) students with disdain for my dragging out critical analysis and synthesis, and these compete in my psyche with the reasons to be heartened, like the fact that this semester continues my uninterrupted record of students saying my course has changed their life. My courses do not churn out blossoming capitalists, but this resistance to dominant tendencies is a friction wearing me down. In short, reforms currently underway in academia make it an increasingly inhospitable environment. And to be perfectly honest, at times I wonder if I have enough tenacity and patience to keep it up. A couple weeks ago I was feeling particularly hopeless at the state of academia and, more specifically, my impression that I’m just not doing that great in it. Founded or not, imposter syndrome doesn’t disappear within a reasonable timeframe.

So, things can be tough in academia. But, as in all corners of social life, here there are modes of coping and sustaining ourselves.

Ever since beginning my doctoral work I have worked to foster and maintain economies of care with those around me. By “economies of care” I’m talking about helping people take care of themselves, mentally, physcially, and interpersonally. At times this will take the form of bringing food to people who are taking their comprehensive exams; sometimes it means organizing happy hours away from work; sometimes it means collectively addressing structural sources of anxiety and stress. And of course, sometimes it helps simply to know that, despite appearances, others are often struggling with similar concerns as you; sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing you’re not “alone” in your struggles. Of course there have been long periods when I’ve forgotten to put in that hard work of care, and I may not be super great at it, but I consciously put effort into it because these mutual relations of caring and support are relatively subsumed to the individualistic and competitive nature of academic work. We can do better1.

So I went to Facebook to ask my colleagues for advice, and to let others know that they’re not alone if they’re struggling through academia. Below I have pasted their comments verbatim. Some of them are rather long, but I’m including them at length here so I don’t mischaracterize their intent and content. I have provided some comments to place them in broader conversations and contexts.

Here is my original question:

for all my academic faculty and post-PhD friends: what is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before or during your first year out of grad school? i’m not finding a whole lot of great advice out there, and academia has never really come naturally for me. first semester’s almost finished, but i did feel a bit like a fish out of water for a good part of it. any advice and/or thoughts welcome.

And then two addenda to clarify the context for my question:

addendum 1: I haven’t really sought out advice, either, so it’s not that i’m getting bad advice; i could also certainly do a better job at seeking it out. addendum 2: while it feels extremely weird putting this post out there, i think it’s important for other faculty and grad students to know that if all this feels a bit awkward, you’re not alone. addendum 3: i did find a book written by geographers, which i will skim through over thanksgiving break. and i hope to attend the AAG’s GFDA for early career faculty next summer. so those two things are probably a good start.

The first response was profoundly impactful for me, touching on all sorts of insecurities. It hit me so hard I had to get up and take a walk after reading it:

I’m probably not supposed to say this but: don’t work so hard. You need and deserve a break. That’s not always easy to find but you should seek respite, fun, non-academic aspects of your life. If you’re teaching, don’t expect your students to work as hard as you did in graduate school. They won’t. And if they do, good for them. But more importantly, don’t make yourself work as hard on your teaching as you did as a graduate student. Believe in your abilities as a teacher, writer, and researcher. If you’re on the job market, accept that you can do only so much to land that job. Most of it is luck. Most importantly for me after grad school was to restore my health and relationships that had been nearly destroyed in graduate school.

A good number of the responses focused on mental and physical health, both in terms of managing a reasonable workload and in terms of recovering from the damages sustained in graduate school. The simple comment below, for instance, received a lot of positive reinforcement from other comments and “likes”:

Number one piece of advice: take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, socially.

And:

…most importantly, take care of yourself. Make time to exercise, even if you don’t want to, and take care of your mental health, because grad school can really do a number on it, and you’re still having to recover from it in a lot of ways. And read mindlessly. Brain candy is good for you.

Along similar lines, many comments suggested picking up (or restoring your love of) extracurricular hobbies. These comments implicitly highlighted the fact that graduate school effectively turns into a very isolating and time-absorbing endeavor (the extent to which this is necessary is up for debate - I think this is something we as faculty can help to transform, but that’s another conversation). After graduate school has “concluded”, though, for many of us we gain the privilege of being able to restore our pre-grad school hobbies.

Watch more TV/movies/internet. You’ve probably missed out on a lot during the PhD, so now is a time to catch up on pop-culture. … Oh yea, and gain an interesting hobby so when during your next interview you are having dinner with the search committee and somebody asks “what do you do for fun?” your answer should not be “work” or “make maps” or “write journal articles”.

I loved that comment. Also a separate conversation, tenured, tenure-track, and relatively stable non-tenure track faculty often do acknowledge that this sort of thing is a privilege for those with steady employment – in contrast with adjuncts or those on the job market for an extended time period – and I think a lot of us are working to change those relations.

Similarly:

you have been working hard all your life to get to where you are today. Slow down take a break and smell the flowers before you get too old to enjoy it!!

Very much aligned with the question’s original intent, some encouraged strategically strengthening interpersonal and research networks. For these people, strengthening these networks is beneficial for your overall well-being and for finding networks of support and engagement; but also, they can be useful for jumping into the next stages of your research and general academic work.

be a good colleague to your dept. people, if not BFFS, at least be cordial. I am also realizing it’s good to have MANY mentors. Whereas you might have had your committee before, you should branch out and not rely on just one person to help you through struggles, reach out to people at different institutions or at your new school and “compartmentalize” the help. also do good networking on campus. arrange coffee breaks with people outside your silo, including staff people (not just professors).

And:

I’d add, reach out - because, no need to reinvent anything, or suffer on your own. Most of us, esp non-TT PhDs have similar experiences, struggles so take advantage of what we have learned from the experience. Also, at a human level, it’s healthy to let it out, plus likely to find out you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. But, first and foremost, be kind to yourself (says someone who was exactly the opposite for 3 yrs :)

Lastly, a friend provided a link to a somewhat institutionalized network of support:

Thanks for posting Ryan, I still feel like a fish out of water and I’m in my 5th year! We have a resource page that might be helpful to several :)

In contrast with the interpersonal networks of support, underlying many of these and other comments, if not implicitly, is encouragement to self-care. Some of the comments encouraged intellectual “promiscuity” in order to remind yourself how exciting it can be to stumble on amazing new ideas:

Maybe “put down the dissertation and do some exploration.” I found it incredibly helpful after graduation (admittedly, only in May) to put down my dissertation entirely, with the exception of R&Rs. Jumped into a new project that had been brewing in my head for a few years. It helped me come back to my convictions, connect with the outside world, gain domain knowledge, and have a bit of fun to boot.

Self-care can also mean limiting your service commitments and prioritizing your own work, in the interest of maintaining a vigorous love of what you do:

My advice is play the game, but try to do so as much as possible on your terms. So, do whatever basic requirements are needed to satisfy the bosses, then spend the rest of the time on what you think is strategically useful. Most of my enjoyment and successes as an academic have come from the latter. … Pretty much everything my bosses didn’t want me to do, I did - such as write a textbook or a monograph or get a small soft money grant. They wanted refereed articles in good journals - one or two a year - and grant from blue-chip funded. So I did the 1 or 2 papers, got a grant, then did what I wanted. The what I wanted is what I am best known for. Those two books are in my top 5 most cited pieces and gave me fledgling reputation. And the small soft money grant opened up a good network and led to some good papers and funding. What the dept wants and what’s best for you (and by associated them) is not always the same thing. To get efficiencies I doubled stuff up - using papers for lecture material, using lecture material for textbooks, etc.

Limiting service commitments was a recurring theme across multiple comments:

One thing I’m realizing in the first year of the TT position is that you HAVE to say no to service opportunities. It goes against the inclination of PhD students who want to be involved in as much as possible, especially in ways that might improve their universities. But unless you’re in an incredibly progressive department, peer-reviewed publications still matter more than anything else (external grants might actually be higher at R1’s). Sadly, service - to the dept, university, discipline, or outside community - is a single check-box on the tenure evaluation. It doesn’t take much to get that boxed checked off, so if you want to take care of yourself, exercise, read non-academic texts, etc., you have to really guard the hours you spend on service. Last week, between teaching, student advising, meetings to discuss an upcoming hire, and meetings to plan 3 new minor fields we would like to offer in our college, I went a week without doing anything that will actually count toward tenure. While that’s maybe okay for last week, that’s really not okay if it becomes even a somewhat regular occurrence.

And:

Yes, don’t get sucked into every service opportunity, but DO take part in any professional development you can. They’re usually small seminars, maybe an hour or two, and it helps you become a better instructor–and it looks good on a CV!

On a personal level, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the differential structural hindrances to men and women with children entering/continuing in academia. For instance, the absence of lactation rooms on campuses affects women more than men, while at the same time sending the message that parenting is the woman’s job. A few years ago an image circulated through social media showing Licia Ronzulli - a female member of the European Parliament - bringing her infant daughter to parliamentary meetings. The image raises many questions about the lack of economic value placed on parenting, the role of women in child-rearing, work-life balance (here seen to be a challenge faced by women - but where are the men?), and more. For me it raised the question of whether new parents are really welcomed into the university when (1) only one gender is seen to struggle with parenting + schooling and (2) it’s such an uncommon practice to bring children to school. In a future blog post I may explore these ideas in more depth, and my own commitment to challenge these processes, but in the meantime, one of the comments on my post raised some of these concerns:

I (surprise!) found out I was pregnant while finishing my dissertation and had a baby 1 week before I got my degree. So I was a brand new mother my first year post-grad-school and my first year teaching full time (no time for maternity leave!). Since parenting was so new and scary my first-ever academic position seemed a little reassuring and familiar. I didn’t know enough to feel uneasy about the academic job stuff until the newness of parenting began to wear off….. and both are still scary (parenting and academic job) but the one still more than the other. Learning not to worry is a major challenge for me, but I try to follow my passions and believe it should all work out :) Also good new mentors (old and young) help a lot.

And then there were many lighthearted comments that encouraged being, well, just a good person!

Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” And it’s not worth doing any other way.

And my favorite:

Don’t turn into an asshole. Because undoing the asshole-ness is really hard work (i know this from experience).

To which I added:

i think it was anne galloway who said, “Everyone in academia is smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.” boom!

As good a place as any to end this post!

    1. Throughout this post, I want to make explicit my understanding that “we” is an unfair grouping. Adjuncts, grad students, non-tenured faculty, and so on, should not be “responsibilized” in the same way as, for example, tenured faculty and administration. I also acknowledge that “dealing with” acadmia is often charged to the individual level, claiming that if you have a hard time dealing with big strucutral problems in academia, it’s your fault. That’s not my intention here.

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