I got the job offer over a phone call at 9 pm on a Tuesday evening at the end of May. I wasn’t really expecting it and I sent the call to my voicemail because I didn’t recognize the number. It took a total of about 10 seconds before I fully processed that the area code was from the D.C. area and that I probably should have answered it. By that point the voicemail had already buzzed in and after listening to a vague message, I called back and got the news that they wanted me to become a professor. After I hung up I stood there in my living room (I had been pacing while on the call) for about 5 minutes before the reality started to sink in.
In all honesty, I shouldn’t have felt scared because, over the three months that I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to know my fellow faculty and started to really find a groove in the work. There is definitely a learning curve. You do your best as a postdoc to prepare for moving up to a professorship, but there comes the moment when you’re the one left holding the ball for some of these things… problems with exam questions, creating course syllabi, student questions about lectures, and all other manner of things that go with the territory.
There are moments that have left me feeling overwhelmed (my first student with a serious mental health issue), more than a few moments where I felt a little exasperated (how did you miss that question on the test???), the occasional bits of confusion (where is that building on campus…), but overall, it has been a lot of fun and one of the best learning experiences I’ve had up to this point in my academic career.
As I reflect back on the past few months, these are the things that have really made a difference in making sure that my transition has gone more-or-less smoothly. And really, I think these are tips that would work well for any transition.
Identify your mentor(s).
I think I’m lucky that I’ve never felt alone during this period of transition to being new teaching faculty. The other members of my department have been supportive and welcoming. What has truly made a difference, though, is when I really started developing a closer working relationship with one of the senior faculty. Learning can take place one of two ways. You can bang your head against the wall and figure it out for yourself, or you can learn from someone else and figure out how to improve on what they’ve already done the hard work on. Having a mentor gives you place to go when things get tough, when things are just a little bit too overwhelming, and when you really have no idea w
hat is going on. More importantly, that mentor is a great source of backup when the really tricky situations come up.
There’s no way that anyone could have expected me to know everything the day I walked in. After a rigorous process of doing a Google search, checking the department and program websites, reading the faculty handbook, and tossing the Magic 8-Ball around (Reply hazy try again), sometimes I just had to find someone that already knew the answer to some of my questions. I would say the most important part of the process is attempting to find the answer on your own first. It may be cliché to say this now that I’m faculty, but did you read the course syllabus before coming to ask me a question?
The start of any sort of transition like this is going to get busy and a little bit crazy. New employee orientation, setting up benefits with your HR representative, creating slides for your first lectures, remembering to eat dinner… it all adds up. This is the time to be meticulous with your schedule keeping and time management. You also want to stay on top of all the paperwork that is coming and going right now as you don’t want to miss out on having one of your benefits because a box didn’t get checked or a detail that you had discussed verbally with your department chair didn’t get added to the final version of your offer letter and contract. Details matter all the time, but especially right now.
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.
As a grad student and postdoc, I’ve joked around that the best way to make sure I wasn’t bored was to go talk with my PI because my to-do list was guaranteed to get longer. At this point, my to-do list seems to be mostly self-driven, but there are at least a dozen things that need my attention at any moment. From answering emails to completing that online training module that HR forg
ot to add to my new employee checklist, to the student at my door right now to ask a question about this morning’s lecture — hold on a minute, I’ll be right back — there are always tasks competing for your attention. I’m constantly finding myself looking at my list of things to do and asking, what is the next thing that has the highest priority for being completed. It definitely plays back into the previous point of staying organized.
Say no (when you can).
Part of the prioritizing above comes with the responsibility of saying no. Time has long been my most precious commodity, but it feels like it has gotten more valuable lately. Of course I can review something when the associate editor of the journal emails me specifically about an article sitting in their queue. And when my department chair needs a thing done, absolutely. But there are things that I just have to say no to. Sometimes it is work related things like the 3 other journal article reviews that showed up in my inbox today that I had to decline, sometimes it is personal things like the dinner last night with some other new faculty because I still had work to do on my lectures for today.
Focus on one thing at a time.
Humans are really bad at multitasking. No matter how hard we try, there is a bottleneck in our brain processing capabilities(1) that keeps us from effectively multitasking. There are limits to the cognitive load that we can handle (4) and studies have shown that learning and performance decrease with increased load handling (2, 3). So what can we take away from the science? Put away the phones and close the web browser window with your insta-snappy-chat social media account on it and focus on the highest priority item on your to-do list. You’ll finish you better and faster than if you let yourself be distracted.
Remember that there is life outside the office.
At the end of the day, it’s time to shut down your computer and go home. Read a book for fun, get some exercise (at least a minimum of 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes per bout of exercise). Go have dinner with friends. The work will be there tomorrow.
On that note…
Seven tips feels like a good number. It’s a nice odd number. No matter if you’re a brand-new grad student in your first semester or a new faculty, I hope these tips will serve you well. And is there something that I missed? Comment below and let us know what you recommend for making sure that your transition to a new position easier.
- Gladstones WH, Regan MA, Lee RB. Division of attention: The single-channel hypothesis revisited. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A 41: 1–17, 1989.
- Junco R, Cotten SR. Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education 56: 370–378, 2011.
- Junco R, Cotten SR. No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education 59: 505–514, 2012.
- Mayer RE, Moreno R. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38: 43–52, 2010.
|Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Associate Program Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches the cardiovascular and neuroscience blocks in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons.|