Category Archives: Career

A reflection of my first three months as new teaching faculty

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Ask questions.

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?

  1. Stay organized.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

References:

  1. 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.
  2. Junco R, Cotten SR. Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education 56: 370–378, 2011.
  3. Junco R, Cotten SR. No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education 59: 505–514, 2012.
  4. 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.
Diary of an Adventure Junkie – Part Deux:  The Path Diverges

As many scientists within our group look back over their training paths, they see a straight, hard-packed trail, with a few stumbling rocks, that led from graduate school, to a postdoc, to a bench-based, classroom-based or combination faculty position.  This relatively scripted path is one which many have traveled before us and many more will traverse in the future.  Without this path, science as we know it would cease to exist.  We require scientists in the laboratory and in the classroom, educating, influencing, inspiring and guiding the next generation; but what happens when some of those newly-minted scientists want to educate and train and motivate others in new ways?  Meet the proverbial fork in the road…

Over the past year, my road forked and I took the other path…twice.  So, what happens to a bench-trained educator who leaves the classroom for life in the society lane? Semi-adventure takes over and they drive on the shoulder and decide to direct a medical society while staying in the same comfortable location.  Being an executive director for a small society forces you to see education from a whole new perspective.  Questions arise, what are the hot topics, what is interesting, what is required…and who will teach it?  In this paradigm, the teacher becomes the student again, but also shifts into a motivational role, instilling an enthusiasm for teaching, fulfilling that ever-present need to educate.

But then…

The phone rings and it’s my dream job calling.  This job is perfect and halfway across the country, where housing and new schools must be found, in space-limited high-priced high-rises.  Cue the Indiana Jones theme music.  Giddy with the prospect of yet another fork, I swerve back onto the road; ducks in a row I apply, interview, accept the offer and then panic!  The onslaught of changes has thrown me into the ditch, wheels spinning without gaining traction.  Late sleepless nights looking for apartments, reading about schools and worrying about downsizing by half.  This is feeling less like an adventure and more like a nightmare.  And then it happened, my junior adventure junkie said, “I’m ready for this adventure, it’s going to be fun.”  That’s when I re-committed to my belief that adventures are scary, but without them we don’t challenge ourselves, we don’t grow and we don’t change.  So, I said yes we will move and downsize and take on this adventure.  The adventure starts this summer, but the prelude has been fantastic. So, what is the lesson here?  Challenge yourself, jump out of the airplane, take the unpaved path or the unnumbered exit and be confident that you will land in the best possible place.

Jessica C. Taylor is a physiologist, medical educator and adventure seeker.  Previously, a classroom educator, she spent a brief stint as the executive director of the Mississippi Osteopathic Medical Association and is now the Sr. Manager of Higher Education Programs for APS.

 

 

 

The Emerging Role of Fixed-Term, Non-Tenure Teaching Faculty in Higher Education

The Back Story: I did not set out to become a college professor.  My “aha” moment came half-way through my Master’s program when I counted the number of course credits left to complete and realized that I had not yet learned all that I wanted to learn.  This led to a Ph.D., followed by a post-doc, followed eventually by a tenure-track faculty position.

lecturer_smallFlash Forward to Today:  I am now a Lecturer.  Leaving a tenure-track position at a small private college to be a Lecturer at a large, research-focused university was the right career choice for me; however, as with everything in life there have been trade-offs.

The primary difference between Lecturers and tenure-track faculty at our institution is the research component.  As a general rule, Lecturers are full-time faculty members specifically hired to teach numerous courses so that tenure-track faculty may focus upon their research areas.  This is a good plan in theory.  Tenure-track faculty benefit from a reduced teaching load.  Undergraduate students benefit from courses taught by faculty who have specialized in teaching.  For many Lecturers, it is a career “win” to teach in a college or university setting without the expectation to pursue external grant funding and simultaneously balance research against instructional requirements.

And yet . . . there is an element of sensitivity surrounding the “Lecturer” title.

Originally I wondered if perhaps it was my own sensitivity.  Interactions with other teaching faculty, from my institution and others, suggest this uneasiness is a more prevalent and widespread issue.  Perhaps it is fueled by the uncertainty of uncharted territory.

Whereas there are a handful of Lecturers who have held the job title for 10-20 years, the substantial growth of fixed-term, non-tenure teaching opportunities is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A non-tenure teaching position is not the traditional career path, leading to questions such as:   What exactly is a “Lecturer”?  How stable are fixed-term appointments?  By accepting a Lecturer position now, does it limit future job prospects down the road?  From the other perspective, I sometimes wonder what tenured faculty think about teaching faculty.  Are we consulted as valued and knowledgeable peers within the department and/or college?  This matters.

Teaching faculty seem to be placed in an ambiguous category ranked somewhere between graduate students and tenured faculty.  Part of the unease comes from the lack of clarity of our roles and the paradox of having demanding departmental responsibilities while being denied full faculty status.  The students do not appreciate the difference.  In their minds, we are essentially all the same—the bodies up at the front of the room challenging them to learn about the amazing human body.

This is where you, the PECOP reader, come in.  Although I have only the lens of my own experiences, it would be interesting to hear the perspectives of other tenure- and non-tenure track faculty regarding the emerging role of teaching-specific faculty at other academic institutions across the country.  These are the questions that I will throw out to foster discussion; feel free to add your own!

Question 1:  What role do fixed-term, non-tenure track faculty play at your (or other) institutions?

This is a basic question.  I have been a Lecturer at one institution, admittedly not a big sample size.  Are courses at other colleges or universities primarily taught with the “old” model of tenured faculty, or are teaching faculty trickling in?  Does the size of the academic institution influence the use of non-tenure teaching faculty?  What is the general perception of teaching faculty and scope of their contributions to the department and college?

Question 2:  What should our job title be?  (… And remind me again why it is that we cannot receive tenure?)

“Lecturer” appropriately describes what I was hired to do, to teach four courses a semester, but it is a relatively small part of what I actually do on a daily basis.  The time outside of lecture is spent predominantly on trouble-shooting student issues to the effect of “I forgot my Clicker, can I still get the points?” and “Is this [insert your own small, random fact] going to be on the test?”, acting in a more administrative capacity to coordinate coursework across numerous sections and numerous instructors/TAs, participating in departmental matters and curriculum development, answering endless e-mails, and so on.

There are, however, other titles describing teaching faculty.  Listed below are a few that are relatively common:

  • Lecturer (as mentioned): with possible promotion to Senior Lecturer
  • Instructor, Teaching Instructor, or Teaching Professor: sometimes Associate, Professor status (still non-tenure, though)
  • Assistant, Associate, Professor of Practice

A confounding issue is the wide range of abilities across the fixed-term, teaching-focused, faculty spectrum.  Unlike the tenure structure, there is not a strong model in place to differentiate levels of ability and professional achievement.

Is one title more representative of the job at hand than others?  Should different titles be used at community colleges compared to 4-year colleges or universities?

Finally, with a significant amount of my time centered around communication and administrative-type tasks, a small part of me sometimes wonders where is the physiology?  Which brings me to my next question:

Question 3:  What are the opportunities for professional growth and development for non-tenure/teaching faculty?

(Hint: volunteer to write a blog or a blog post!)  The obvious answer is to engage in educational research and strategies to promote student learning, since this is precisely what the job description entails.  As scientists, we have a natural curiosity to explore the correlations between teaching practices and outcomes.  If we have data to support the anecdotal experiences—even better!  It is one way to utilize the skills developed over time in the research setting.  So, this is one very viable solution to promote professional growth and development.

What are other options for remaining engaged in the study of physiology if the basic science research component is minimized by the nature of a teaching faculty position?  I have come up with a handful of potential solutions, but it is my guess that many of you may have faced similar questions.  What do you do to stay professionally active and engaged once the research opportunities are minimized?

In summary, I predict that teaching faculty will become more common in upcoming years, paralleling the continued evolution of the undergraduate experience (fueled by educational research regarding effective teaching strategies, of course).  For now, though, there is no obvious roadmap for continued professional growth for fixed-term, non-tenure teaching faculty.  Just as we invest time and energy to provide our students with the tools for success, it is important to consider how to do this with our teaching faculty colleagues.

Jen Rogers Headshot

 

 

 

Jennifer Rogers received her Ph.D and post-doctoral training at The University of Iowa (Exercise Science).  She has taught at numerous institutions ranging across community college, 4-year college, and university settings.  These varied educational experiences set the foundation for her interest in student readiness for learning and incorporation of effective teaching strategies for academic success specific to different student populations.  Jennifer regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Physiology Lab, Applied Exercise Physiology, and other health science-focused courses.