“That New Hire Needs Your Help” — A Response

(This blog post was written in response to Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, That New Hire Needs Your Help.)

I’d like to start off by thanking Professors Dunn and Halonen for their thoughtful and compassionate article, “That New Hire Needs Your Help.” I am a new hire in my department as of August and I’ll admit that when I saw this article pop up in my inbox, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that someone was concerned about my adjustment to my new job.

As they rightly point out, “sometimes the stakes are really low and the politics vicious.” In what follows, I would like to elaborate on this point and also contribute one or two points that I feel were missing from their list. I hope that my anecdotal evidence will prompt those of you who are concerned with the welfare of your new faculty to heed one or two of my requests.

Be aware that we are weighing whether or not to stay. If you’ve been at your institution long enough to get tenure there, you’ve been convinced of the merit of staying. That may not be the case for your new hire. Dramatic changes in the academic hiring process (fewer jobs and scattered search timelines) mean that many of us are arriving to our new positions because it was the only job offer we got or because we committed to a job before knowing whether or not we had other options.

An unfortunate side-effect is that we are not always likely to be convinced of the merits of staying at your institution until we get tenure. Some of us are actively weighing whether or not to cut and run. We’ve been told from day one in grad school that getting a tenure-track job was unlikely, which means we are more likely to feel we have options outside of the academy. (And we are more likely to be prepared to pursue those options.) Many of our questions about whether or not to stay could be remedied in a frank conversation about the pros and cons of the job we just arrived at. Work dynamics can be complex and it’s refreshing to have those complexities acknowledged.

Be transparent about the department climate and culture. My impression is that faculty members who have been at their current institutions for 5, 10, or 15+ years have internalized the politics of their institutions and departments and forgotten how strange they might be to a fresh pair of eyes. Give the new hire a sense of what happened before he or she got there. A few first-hand examples of things I wish I could have clarified:

  • If the consensus among faculty is that the department chair likes something done a certain way, notify the new hire of the etiquette the chair requires. You might feel uncomfortable doing so, but if you don’t, odds are the new hire will get it wrong and be embarrassed by the mistake.
  • If your new hire is replacing someone else’s line, going over the who, what, when, where, why with the new hire removes his or her speculation about what happened. If that individual failed to get tenure, an explanation of the reasons why will leave your new hire feeling prepared to avoid potential pitfalls.
  • If there is tension between department faculty and a staff person on campus, fill your new hire in. It may feel like gossip, but clarifying existing communication challenges will equip a new hire to handle awkward situations diplomatically and prevent him or her from taking tense interactions personally.

Give specific and tailored advice. It’s quite common to receive advice such as “know when to say no” or “don’t take too much on your first year.” What could be more beneficial is something akin to… “What committees are you considering being on to fulfill your service requirements? Would you like me to give you my perspective on the time commitment your prospective choices represent? I’m happy to weigh in on which committees would be a good fit for you as a new hire.” I feel tailored advice could be provided related to teaching and research as well. It requires a bit more thought, but has the potential to make a much larger impact.

Help the new hire come up with a plan to tenure. Determine the new hire’s goals, dreams and objectives and then offer institutional and departmental specific advice on how to put together 1, 2, and 5-year plans. Most mentors imagine each scholar’s career is entirely individual, which to a large extent is true. However, there is likely a preferred path among faculty in your department or at your institution.

Questions I have in this area that might help illuminate a new hire’s perspective include: 1. If I want to apply for external grants/fellowships to receive course releases, does the chair have a preferred timeline for those objectives? 2. Your institution/department claims there is no preference given to articles vs. book. Do the tenure numbers match that claim? It could be helpful to provide the new hire with anecdotal examples. “Associate Professor A received tenure after publishing 8 peer reviewed articles, whereas Associate Professor B received tenure after published a book and one additional article.” 3. If I want to teach an honors course, a first-year seminar, a community-based learning course, etc., what’s the best moment in my tenure pipeline to do so? Odds are, as a tenured faculty member you’ve seen different scenarios pan out and you have an idea of what flies and what doesn’t.

Assume we don’t have a dime to our names. The uncomfortable reality with higher education these days is that many of us are struggling to get by until we get a tenure track job. We may have taken out student loans or worked 3 jobs to get through our PhD programs.

If you are in a position of authority to make changes, take a look at the way in which new hire offers are made and ask yourself if there is anything about the offers that invites financial inequity. Efforts to diversify graduate programs and the faculty profiles in our learning institutions should receive nothing but applause. However, the assumption that educated individuals are not financially disenfranchised cannot be made. Starting a new job is expensive and anything that can be done by a new home institution to ease the burden of transition goes a long way.

Ask us what we need. If you feel comfortable, ask your new hire, “Do you have any uncomfortable questions? Things you don’t know who you should ask? I’m happy to help you find the right person.” We all have embarrassing questions. They run the gambit. Assume those questions exist and then be compassionate if/when the new hire opens up.

In sum, contribute where you can to help the new hire feel at ease. Clarification on the politics of a new department, being told about optional events that aren’t actually optional, and other best-kept-secret advice, that’s what we need. Otherwise, we may spend our first years feeling like outsiders looking in.

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