Help Your New Hires

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

Dear department chairs and college deans,

Will new faculty members join your institution this fall? If so, you can do a handful of things that will help them transition. Much of the burden of figuring it out will fall squarely on them, but an accommodating and hospitable environment will not only help new faculty slide into their jobs effectively but will also ultimately better serve everyone. This is especially true if those individuals are first-time faculty members.

I was a first-time faculty member in a new institution, new institution type and new state a year ago. Much of what I draw on in this essay comes from my personal experiences or those of new faculty around me. I also recently hosted a Twitter forum on @AcademicChatter about the topic and found that this year’s batch of new hires echoes many of the concerns I outline here.

Be aware that we are weighing whether or not to stay. If you’ve been at your institution long enough to get tenure, you’ve been convinced of the merit of staying. That may not be the case for your new hire. Significant 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.

Personal factors can also lead people to start new jobs with trepidation. Your new hire may be from an urban setting and unconvinced of the merits of their new rural environment, or they have taken a job far away from their partner or family and are unsure how this new arrangement will work.

How does all this impact new faculty members at your institution? We are not necessarily convinced of the merits of staying 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 the academy. And we are more likely to be prepared to pursue those options than previous generations of academics. 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 five, 10 or 15-plus years have internalized the politics of their institutions and departments and forgotten how strange those politics might seem to a fresh pair of eyes. But as Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn point out, “Sometimes the stakes are really low and the politics vicious.” Give the new hire a sense of what happened before they got there. A few firsthand examples of things I wish I could have had clarified:

  • If the consensus among the 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 feel they’ve made a professional misstep.
  • If your new hire is replacing someone else because they left or didn’t get tenure, going over the who, what, when, where and why with the new hire removes their speculation about what happened. (This information can be presented professionally as a set of facts; I’m not suggesting anyone engage in a workplace rumor mill.) If that individual failed to get tenure, a brief indication as to why will leave your new hire more prepared to avoid potential pitfalls. “So-and-so was denied tenure, probably due to a lackluster publication record” will suffice.
  • If there is tension between department faculty members and a staff person on the 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 them from taking tense interactions personally.

Give specific and tailored advice. It’s quite common to receive generic advice, such as “Know when to say no” or “Don’t take too much on your first year.” Such advice is often geared toward service expectations and is so common, it becomes cliché. More important, it isn’t very actionable. It prompts additional questions, like, “How will I know when to say no?” and “What does too much look like?”

A more beneficial approach would be: “What committees are you considering serving 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.”

Tailored advice should 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. For example, show the new hire your institution’s teaching evaluations at the beginning of the term. I switched from a completely open-ended evaluation system to a 20-point scale and didn’t realize it until the end of the term.

Go over the student expectations at your institution. If the students expect something especially rigorous in one course but another course generally receives a 95 percent pass rate, that’s useful information. Knowing what the norm is will prevent the new hire from unintentionally missing a mark they didn’t know about in their first term.

Help the new hire come up with a plan to tenure. I return to my point about tailored advice here. Determine the new hire’s goals, dreams and objectives and then offer institutional and departmental specific advice on how to put together one-, two- and five-year plans. Most mentors imagine each scholar’s career is entirely individual, which to a large extent is true, but most faculty members in your department or at your institution probably follow a preferred path.

Additionally, if you’re an associate professor who just got tenure, consider sharing your CV with the new hire. A generous faculty member in my department got tenure six months before my arrival and sent me her CV so I could get a sense of someone else’s path to success.

Questions I had in this area might help illuminate a new hire’s perspective. They included:

  • If I want to apply for external grants or fellowships to receive course releases, does the chair have a preferred timeline for those objectives?
  • Your institution or department claims it gives no preference to the publication of articles versus books. Do the tenure numbers match that claim? It could be helpful to provide the new hire with anecdotal examples, such as “Associate professor A received tenure after publishing eight peer-reviewed articles, whereas associate professor B received tenure after publishing a book and one additional article.”
  • If I want to teach an honors course, a first-year seminar, a community-based learning course or the like, 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 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 three jobs to get through our Ph.D. 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 anything about the offers invites financial inequity. Please don’t assume that educated individuals are not financially disenfranchised. Starting a new job is expensive, and whatever a new home institution can do to ease the burden of transition goes a long way.

One particular expense stands out because most (if not all) new hires I’ve talked with complained about it: moving. The cost of moving ranges, but it is usually in the thousands of dollars. If your institution can pay moving expenses directly or provide a stipend up front, it could save your new hire from taking out a loan until they are reimbursed. Additionally, reimbursements of moving expenses are now taxable income. Prepare your new hire for the taxation of reimbursement when discussing the job offer. Otherwise, it will come as a very unwelcome surprise later.

Ask us what we need. Ask your new hire, “Do you have any uncomfortable questions and don’t know whom you should ask about them? I’m happy to help you find the right person.” We all have embarrassing questions. They run the gamut. Assume those questions exist and be available if and when the new hire opens up.

In sum, contribute where you can to help the new hire succeed. Transparency, clarity, tailored advice and other best-kept secrets about our new institution — that’s what we need. Otherwise, we may spend our first years feeling like outsiders looking in.

Sincerely,

Junior Prof

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