Last week’s Guardian Livechat was on advice for new academics on how they might survive their new roles. (I’m afraid that there seems to be some overall issue with the WordPress code at the moment that won’t let me insert links, so the shortened link for the chat is http://bit.ly/q0bBA9.) As a new academic of sorts, I was taking pretty frantic notes. While I’ve had teaching experience in the States, including a full year’s worth in a faculty-level position, I’ve never had to deal with anything beyond the teaching side of things. Administrative meetings remain a closed book to me (until later this month, when their mysteries will be revealed), as do many of the other practicalities that being a grad student sheltered me from. I thought I’d put together my Top Tips from the livechat – do tell me if you disagree or think I’ve left out something important.
Get to know people. Surprisingly basic, but at the same time there’s a wide range of people to get to know – the subject-area librarian, other library staff, the support staff for your department, colleagues inside and outside the department, senior administrators and deans, research administrators, security guards, catering staff… anyone you see, really.
Use your resources. This includes making sure you’re getting most from your university’s benefits for employees; talking to the library to make sure you know all they can do for you and your students; asking colleagues if you can watch them lecture to get ideas and a sense of the “house style”; reading any minutes of meetings that come your way to get a sense of how things work without actually being involved; going to staff development workshops or training events for new tech;
Get a mentor. Whether official or unofficial, having someone to talk stuff over with and ask for advice is going to be vital.
Be keen. You’d think this would be a no-brainer. After all, you’ve spent mumble years finishing the PhD, you clearly want an academic career, and you’ve made it to the first step on the ladder – you’ll be overflowing with joy and bonhomie, right? Well, I’m doing my best, but I’m also moving my life from one city to another and not getting enough sleep, so I’m going to have to put a bit of effort into sounding as enthusiastic as I actually am about starting a new job, and this new job in particular. Not because the enthusiasm isn’t there, but because the energy to express it is hiding under the sofa.
Learn to say no. Ah, the eternal truth of the time eater. I personally believe this is a small anteater type creature that sits under my desk and snuffles up time when I’m not looking. Learning to politely say ‘no’ to things that I don’t have time to do on top of my teaching and research load is going to be one of my biggest challenges, because I’m an obliging sort of soul who likes taking advantage of opportunities. However, that’s got to be balanced with a firm dose of reality. All the opportunities in the world aren’t going to be any good if you’re too overloaded to take advantage of any of them properly.
…but know when to say yes. Some opportunities will be golden. Learning how to discern which ones I should pick up and which ones I can safely say no to is going to be another key skill to develop. (While I’m at it, I might try to sharpen my mindreading and fortune telling skills as well…)
Think about assessment. The Livechat had a particularly productive thread on how to approach assessment and feedback, which always seems to score low on the National Student Survey. I’ve picked up a number of helpful ideas, and am just going to have to make sure that I follow through with them!
Remember why you’re doing it. You need to build time in for doing the things that made you happy to be an academic in the first place. This means being strict about not letting teaching or admin expand to fill the time available, and leaving space to get on with research (or vice versa). There’s no point in having the job you love if you don’t actually love doing it. That balancing act is going to be tricky – but it’s all part of the learning curve.
If anyone’s got any more Top Tips for surviving the first year of being a full-time academic, please share them in the comments!