Surviving the First Year: Challenges, Benefits, and Tips for a Successful Faculty Experience

Surviving the First Year: Challenges, Benefits, and Tips for a Successful Faculty Experience

Megan Moore Gardner
University of Akron
Jeni Hart
University of Missouri

The purpose of this five- part Developments series is to provide insight into making the transition from student affair practitioner to student affairs faculty. Contributors discuss career trajectories, the job search process, interview experiences, transitional challenges, writing for publication and offer general advice. Additional key points include insights into the pros and cons of moving from practitioner to faculty, the value of administrative experiences, faculty job searches, negotiating a faculty position, and tips for managing the first year as a professor. Each article includes real life examples, appropriate connections to the literature, and essential information for those considering the move from administration to faculty.

Life as a faculty member is different than that of a student affairs administrator and educator. However, many of the professional skills mastered as an administrator may be transferred to enhance faculty work. Increased autonomy, pressure to effectively balance teaching, research, and service, and figuring out an entirely new and different organizational culture are but a few of the demands of faculty work. Developing a good understanding of faculty culture and expectations, coupled with the application of skills already honed in an administrative position, will contribute to a successful first year and overall career as a faculty member. In this article, we review common challenges faced by faculty in their first year, characteristics of administrative work that may be used to enhance faculty work, and conclude with suggestions to ease the transition and assist with not only surviving, but thriving in the first year.


Professional autonomy is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of faculty work. Such autonomy, however, may also be one of the biggest challenges. New faculty transitioning from administrative positions that functioned according to a typical “nine to five” work day or that required the professional to be physically present on campus 40 plus hours per week may experience initial dissonance with the faculty time-clock. Faculty life provides opportunities to work outside of the traditional office or classroom setting with limited to no supervision of your work. This may present challenges to those who struggle to stay on task, who are frustrated by sometimes ambiguous expectations, or who have difficulty with professional self-discipline. The initial freedom is quite refreshing. This freedom allows faculty members to determine when and where they work best—which is often critical in the pursuit of research. It can also be a tremendous asset in juggling work and family. At the same time, many higher education programs offer courses in the late afternoons and evenings, which can challenge work and family integration (and perhaps the time of day when you are most productive as a writer). Even with such autonomy and flexibility, maintaining a personal schedule is beneficial in order to ensure you can effectively manage all teaching, research, and service activities.

A second challenge deals with the difficulty of balancing teaching, research, and service expectations. Particularly in the first year of faculty work, a great deal of time is spent learning about the culture and expectations of the new work environment. Many institutions allow first-year faculty to engage in a reduced course load in an effort to provide a transition period that helps create and maintain balance. Likewise, many departments try to “protect” junior faculty from service responsibilities, in order to allow you more time to focus on research and teaching. This may feel a bit uncomfortable, since many student affairs professionals have become accustomed to engaging in committee work and connecting with others throughout cmpus on a regular basis. This protection from service creates an additional tension. Most often, as a new faculty member, you are on a new campus and in a new community. Service can be a wonderful opportunity to meet others across campus—others who may become friends, colleagues, and collaborators. With this in mind, you may want to agree to service responsibilities (e.g., curriculum committees, policy committees, awards committees, etc.) in intentional ways. Accept invitations to committees that may help you in other areas of your position. For example, if your research focuses on women, agree to serve on your campus committee for the status of women. Or if you feel you need a setting to talk about teaching, agree to serve on the curriculum committee.

Creating new classes, forging a research agenda, and engaging in meaningful service could each easily be all consuming activities. It is necessary and important for you to be aware of the challenge of balance and to take the steps necessary to establish it at the beginning of your career in an effort to continue to have well-rounded professional experiences throughout your academic career. Moreover, for many new faculty the pressure to, and process of, publishing can be extremely long and arduous. Recognizing that you are a in a marathon, not a sprint when it comes to publishing is the key to surviving the publishing process. You may have colleagues in your department who are willing to read drafts of your work before submission, or you may have graduate assistant support that can take some pressure off your other demands. Do not be reticent to ask for advice and assistance, including suggestions on how to work with graduate assistants for the first time. Given the somewhat ambiguous nature of faculty work coupled with unprecedented autonomy, supervising graduate students feels quite different from supervising student affairs staff who have more delineated timelines and responsibilities.

Finally, faculty and administrative cultures are very different and the dichotomy can create some anxiety and frustration for new faculty transitioning from administrative roles. The faculty culture is one that is dominated by rank and autonomy. As mentioned in preceding paragraphs, faculty typically have a great deal of freedom of expression, time, and opinion. As such, it can be difficult to establish colleagues, find mentors, and create professional relationships. Moreover, faculty culture is often dominated by meetings; extensive discussion; and strict adherence to collective bargaining agreements, bylaws, and/or Robert’s Rules of Order. Each of these rules and regulations takes time to learn and understand, tasks that may be daunting for the new faculty member. Decisions that may be made in a top-down manner in an administrative setting are often made through group discussion, voting, and consensus in the faculty setting. This often results in longer and more drawn out decision-making processes. New faculty who are used to a faster-paced, more hierarchical decision making process may experience discord when first exposed to the faculty culture of decision making.

As a first-year faculty member, it is important to understand your role as an assistant professor and the expectations others have for those in that role. More often than not, first year assistant professors are expected to spend the year learning about the organizational culture; finding balance between their teaching, research, and service expectations; and laying the groundwork for their anticipated contribution to new knowledge and to the profession. This is the year to ask questions, find mentors, and read as many organizational documents (e.g., the promotion and tenure guidelines at the department, college, and university if you are on a tenure track; collective bargaining agreements) as you can in an effort to gain the most complete understanding of your organization’s culture.

Using Previous Administrative Experience to Enhance Faculty Work

Previous administrative experience can enhance faculty work in a variety of ways. First and foremost, student affairs administrators are educators. You have been educating students throughout your administrative career. You are well-versed in the merits of both the curricular and the co-curricular learning experiences. The understanding of the out-of-class experience and the myriad ways it can be used to enhance the in-class experience greatly benefits students and can assist you with the effective transfer of theory to practice. Faculty who have served as administrators also generally have a strong understanding of the need for establishing relationships and collaborating throughout campus, skills that are particularly important during a time of reduced resources and increased demands for accountability. As a professional versed in administration, you may have a better understanding of the need for, and benefits of, faculty-administrative partnerships and may work more quickly to build such relationships through service and teaching experiences, including developing internships, assistantships, and practica for students.

Faculty may also use the knowledge garnered from previous administrative experience when working with students. More aware of the practical challenges and expectations faced by today’s students, administrators-turned-faculty may have a more thorough grasp of the complex nature of today’s students and may be better able to create classroom experiences that engage the adult students with whom we work. Finally, student affairs educators are required, on a daily basis, to juggle the demands of various institutional stakeholders including students, faculty, and members of the community. The ability to balance a number of demands at once, coupled with the ability to discern which tasks are most important, are skills that are easily transferred and applied to the faculty requirement of balancing teaching, research, and service. Recognizing which tasks or demands are most important and prioritizing accordingly is a much needed task for both administrators and faculty.

Surviving the First Year

The following suggestions are designed to assist new faculty during the first year.

  1. Negotiate a reduced course load and graduate or research assistant during the first year. The additional time and support will enable you to learn the culture of your new organization, establish organizational tools that will assist you as you move forward, and will provide you with overall assistance as you delve into teaching, research, and service.
  2. Establish and protect at least one “research day” that is set aside each week. If you are expected to spend 40% of your time on research, time equal to two days during the Monday-Friday week should be allocated for research. On those days, commit yourself to focusing primarily on your research agenda. This is particularly difficult during the first year when you are asked to participate in service opportunities and you are seeking to build connections on campus. It is, however, a necessary and important facet of your professional life that will, in the end, pay off immensely.
  3. A key to surviving the first year is learning how to say “No” professionally and graciously. New faculty members mean new opinions, hands, and people who can serve on committees, collaborate on research, develop new courses, etc. Figuring out the aforementioned culture of the institution is cumbersome enough in the first year. Adding too much committee work, overloading research and becoming beleaguered by teaching responsibilities will only contribute to overwhelming and underproductive first year.
  4. Partner with others on research. Particularly in the first year, it can be difficult to get started with your research agenda. A great way to get your foot in the door is to partner with colleagues from your current institution and throughout your field. This will reduce your research work load at the beginning and will provide you with ample learning opportunities and collaborative experiences. But be savvy; if your reward system expects an independent (i.e., solo) research agenda in order to earn tenure, you will want to do this judiciously.
  5. Get to know your institution and your colleagues. Pay attention to department, college, and institutional cultures. Seek to understand institutional politics and how politics function within your own department, college, and institution. Understanding the processes and political culture of your institution will enable you to figure out how you fit into the institutional tapestry. It will also help you figure out those colleagues who may be a good fit for research partnerships, mentoring, and professional relationships.
  6. Ask questions when you are unsure of policies, situations, or requests. This will help you begin to unravel the sometimes complex and ambiguous nature of faculty work. It will also ensure that you are doing your work in accordance with faculty guidelines and expectations.
  7. Remember there is always next semester. You do not have to do everything during your first semester or even year. As previously mentioned, you are in a marathon, not a sprint. Many of the aforementioned tasks take time and providing yourself the flexibility and understanding to take that time is a key to your success both in the first year and beyond. In addition, those asking you to participate in projects or committees will continue to ask you if you do good work. So, refer back to #3.
  8. Do not forget the core reason for your work…students. It is very easy to get caught up in the politics of faculty life and forget that you are there to serve students. When you get frustrated or overwhelmed, remind yourself of the many ways in which your work enhances the academic and co-curricular lives of students.

Concluding Remarks

The first year of faculty work presents many new challenges and unique professional nuances. If managed effectively, however, your new role can be extremely rewarding. Becoming versed in both the benefits of faculty life as well as the potential pitfalls will enable you to achieve success and satisfaction with both your first year and your overall career in academia.

Please send inquiries and feedback to Megan Moore Gardner at [email protected].

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