Being A New Professor Sucks (Sometimes)

I started my tenure-track faculty position at a small, liberal arts college in the South this academic year.  Midway through this first semester, I finally accepted that the primary challenge of one’s first year is simply to survive.  All at once, I am adjusting to a new job, in a new department, at a new university, at a new type of university (i.e., liberal arts), taking on a new status, and new classes with a new student body.  Well, damn.  That is a lot all at once.  Much of this adjustment is what anyone faces in moving and starting a new job; but, I also have the background concerns about tenure.

I am simultaneously grateful and resentful for some things that are in place for new professors, considering the aforementioned period of adjustment:

  • I teach a 3/2 course load, which has been made 2 your first semester and 3 your second.  I am certainly grateful to ease into two classes since I taught only one at a time as a graduate student.  But, now, I have an even busier and more demanding spring semester ahead of me.
  • First-year faculty are not given advising responsibilities until their second year.  They will also be slowly drawn into various forms of departmental and university service.  I really, really appreciate being protected from these very time-consuming, energy-draining, and sometimes political activities.  But, I sometimes feel like an afterthought, too fragile and overwhelmed to do anything beyond teaching and research.
  • Socially, other faculty tend to avoid me presumably to let me get settled without interference.  When I initiate interactions, particularly with colleagues I meet for the first time or do not know well, they tend to ask just about how well I am surviving.  I could be imagining it, but it seems like their voices go up a few octaves, as though they are speaking to a child.  “And, how’s your first semester, little guy?  A-goo-by-ga-ga look at the little professor growing up so fast!”  Talk to me about my research, my five-year plan toward tenure, my thoughts on improving higher education, or something of significance beyond my first year.  But, sadly, this limited conversation is appropriate because all I can think about is surviving this semester.  So, while I resent it, I appreciate not having more expected of me.
  • I prefer to don an air of experience, particularly with students.  A professor never tells his age in academic years.  That is, even when I was a third-year graduate student, teaching for the first time, I never told my students I was a novice instructor.  But, I could not maintain that illusion for long as a professor, having to ask my students where the nearest bathroom is.  They all know that I am new.  And, the joke is likely on me because there is no institutional record of me prior to this year, so they may have already known.  And, aside from a few skirmishes that I actually think reflect my young age more than how long I have been at this institution, the students do not seem to mind either way.
  • I love the praise I receive when I exceed others’ expectations.  “You did that in your first semester!?”  Call it overcompensation if you will, but it is a relief to hear.  But, I also realize that this reflects a rather low set of expectations.  Anything beyond survival is seen as a major feat for a new professor.  Survival?  That’s it?!  I have been surviving my whole life; the alternative is death.  I suppose I should cherish these expectations now with the almost explicit message that “your first year doesn’t count.”

I suppose at the root of this is my own impatience and self-doubt.  I do not like appearing new (read: inexperienced) because I am afraid of not being taken seriously, or being challenged, or being dismissed.  I do not like feeling new (read: inexperienced) because I face too many external challenges to my credibility and authority.  On my absolute worst days, I stopped seeing impostor syndrome and started feeling unqualified and incompetent in a real way.  So, it takes a lot more self-talk to remind myself that I am qualified, but of course have room to improve, become more experienced and wiser.

I know it will get easier over time.  And, eventually I will no longer be the new girl in town.

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