by David Wren, Assistant Teaching Professor & Director of the Chemistry Center at Wake Forest University, Department of Chemistry
Congratulations, you have a “real” job in academia. Prepare for the crushing weight of expectations, doubt that you really belong in front of the class, and unmatched excitement that you have finally “made it”. My first year teaching at Wake Forest University was the most difficult year of my life. It was also one of the most exciting. What I expected to be hard was much easier than what expected to be easy. Here is my autoethnographic study of my first year of as a new faculty member in a Chemistry department.
Before I continue, I should give you a little background on my experience and training upon arriving to my office first my first day as a professor. My teaching experience was extensive (TA of 30+ lab sections, 20+ guest lectures, and 1 co-taught course—thank you 8 years of graduate school!), so I was actually looking forward to preparing my curriculum. I was assigned 2 courses (general chemistry lecture and lab), along with getting a chemistry tutoring center up and running before the first day of class. Given that I was making revisions to my dissertation the night before I left my pregnant wife, 1.5 year old son and an unsold house in Colorado (they would stay for 10 more weeks before moving out to NC), I had no time to prepare for any of my courses before I arrived, two weeks before classes were to begin. The moment I realized things were different is when I suddenly went to “first-name status” with all the other faculty in the department. Given that three days prior I was addressing the all my graduate school faculty as “Dr.” it took a little time to adjust. If you are going from a post-doctoral fellowship this may be less disconcerting. Another thing that I quickly found annoying was that I need to dress up (e.g. wearing slacks and shirts) so not to be confused with incoming freshman (this happened several times). Given how hot and humid August can be in the South, it was not ideal. But, I will say that investing in some nice pants and shoes are worth the money, even if you didn’t realize pants could cost that much. Also, don’t be shy to procure a nice office chair, especially if you inherit an old stained swivel chair from your office’s previous occupant. I found that most universities have procurement departments with office surplus in which you can upgrade office furniture, if funds are not available to buy new. Ok, let’s get to some real advice.
Teaching responsibilities will vary widely depending on your institution, department, and specific appointment. However, there are 3 universal time-sponges the soak up much or your free time during your first year: (1) preparing lecture notes or slides, (2) face-to-face student interactions, and (3) digital course management (e.g., email, course website, online homework, etc.). I am a luddite and choose to use chalk and the blackboard, so I prepared my lecture notes by hand, on paper. I found using a large-format art sketch pad to get all the material down helped me organized each of my lectures. I quickly found out that three of my pages of lecture notes took one class period, so I could estimate a good stopping point for each lecture. Never end a lecture late and never end it early. I find that if students know you will not go over but will say something important up to the end of class, they do not annoyingly pack up their bags before the end of lecture. I really enjoy one-on-one student interaction and my door is always open. Teaching freshman, especially after the first exam can lead to many important, though not always easy, conversations. I value these interactions immensely, but they can steal hours of your day and lead your wife to question “what did you exactly do all day?” on days I do not teach and still have to prepare for the next day’s lecture that night. I find that getting to the office early and working on the most time-sensitive material first allowed me to be more present in these conversations. During my first year, I very rarely had more than one lecture written in advance, mostly because I spent much time on each lecture and because I am really good at procrastinating. This approach is not for everyone, but did allow me to adapt to issues that arose in lecture. I did have learning outcomes written and posted at the beginning of each chapter, so students knew where we were going next. I found learning four new digital platforms in one week (email, course website, textbook homework system, university intranet, appointment management system for tutoring center) to be overwhelming. These were a big part of the first-year learning curve. I would suggest not getting too fancy with how you utilize these digital tools during your first semester—keep it simple for you and your students. I also found that I could figure things out 3 times slower than just asking a colleague. There is a fine balance between being lazy and being resourceful, but don’t feel you need to reinvent the wheel every time you hit a digital hurdle.
I was not expecting service to be a large time commitment. I was wrong. Faculty meeting, committee meetings, or any time multiple faculty get into a room tend to take longer to accomplish less than planned. Years with faculty searches, program reviews or curriculum reform will double or triple your commitments to the department. Preparing before each meeting is essential to your ability to contribute something worth considering by other faculty members. An important lesson I learned is to not overcommit your time spent doing service. It is easy to be enthusiastic at the beginning of the year, and say yes to everything. Don’t. I have found that you gain more respect from colleagues if you say no and not overcommit than say yes and do a poor job. There may also be many professional service obligations, such as reviewing papers, joining ACS committees (#YCES), community outreach, etc. These are a great way to stay connected to the CER community and maintain a certain level of exposure in the field. However, remember that there is a law of diminishing returns for time spent on professional service.
My specific appointment does not include a research component (80% teaching, 20% service), but I still spend at least 10% of my first year working on publishing papers from my dissertation work, investigating and starting new collaborations, and staying up-to-date with the literature. Giving invited talks can take big chunks of time during the semester, so I would advise deferring until your second year before accepting speaking invitations. I did find giving talks at summer conferences to be a great way to have time to prepare a new talk and insert myself back in the CER community.
The Hardest Thing During my First Year as a Faculty Member was …
A good analogy for my first year would be juggling different sized balls, gaining more as the year progressed. These balls could be an email I needed to respond to, a worksheet I needed to create, a chemical I needed to order, a test key I needed to post, etc. My biggest fear was to simply drop a ball. Forget to do something I committed to doing, or was responsible to complete or felt I should do as part of my teaching obligations. In graduate school you become very good at focusing on one task (or browsing ESPN) and generally spend large blocks of time on specific tasks. As a faculty member you are constantly starting a new task, then start another task, going to a meeting and agreeing to do two more tasks. Students will walk in your office at random times and course preparation always takes priority, constantly putting less immediate tasks on the backburner. During my first year I felt like I spent all of my time doing little things, a proverbial death by 1000 tasks. Responding to emails drain so much of your time and kills your spirit. I found I had to label important but non-immediate emails with a “need to respond” label in my mail client so that I would not forget to respond after it disappears past the first page of my inbox. Some more disciplined new faculty members only respond to emails twice a day—this works great if you do not have a Pavlovian response to the sound of a new email. I found writing a To-Do lists each morning helped focus my efforts, with “Write a To-Do list” as the first entry. These lists were always overly optimistic, but served to remind me what I needed to do later in the week. I never left the office with that “well I got everything I wanted to get done today” feeling. That’s OK. I have improved my multitasking skills greatly since my first semester, and found a daily rhythm that allows me to maximize my efforts with my schedule. I give myself a specified amount of time to finish a task and I try not to be such a perfectionist about less-important tasks. I still work late some nights to keep all the balls in the air, but much fewer than in my first year.
So what is the take away message? Joining the ranks of a Chemistry department faculty is awesome. You toil through graduate school and post docs, feeling like you are under-appreciated and overworked. Getting a faculty position validates your hard work and sacrifices, and allows you to show your true potential. It is easy to get overwhelmed by your own expectations and can be challenging to get comfortable in your new role in a Chemistry department. It took me almost an entire year before I felt like I proved to myself that I belonged and I could cut it as a faculty member. Having doubts is normal. They are very good motivators. Don’t forget to maintain a work-life balance. I signed up for a bike race at the end of the Spring semester to force myself to continue exercising when I felt like I was always too busy. Get out of your building and enjoy some of the campus life every once and a while. Make some non-chemistry friends at your new faculty orientation. Go to happy hour if you are invited (or even if you are not). And lastly, give yourself some down time after the end of the school year to recharge. You will have earned it!
David Wren is an Assistant Teaching Professor & Director of the Chemistry Center at Wake Forest University, Department of Chemistry. Learn more about David Wren here.