Supporting Junior Faculty

Profdirector asked here:

What is the best advice for more senior folk to support the junior faculty as they start?

I am going to focus here on what one particular faculty member can do on their own, and not the systemic issues of department culture or tenure process that can indeed make or break a junior faculty member’s career, but over which any one senior academic  typically has little influence.

So, what can one senior professor do to help young professors?

Do not underestimate how overwhelming it is to be a new faculty member these days. The requirements for funding and publishing are quite steep, and the funding rates minuscule. From a junior faculty member’s standpoint, the colleagues are there to help, but also to evaluate, so it feels like a precarious situation, and it’s unclear who should be trusted. As a senior person, you should try to reach out to junior faculty and help make them comfortable — in the department and in your presence. Take them to lunch or coffee. Ask if they have questions. Offer to help. (Everything in moderation, though. Don’t waste their time, but do offer a respite. Pay attention to body language. If they keep looking tense and uncomfortable around you even after several outings to coffee and/or lunch, perhaps it’s best to leave them be.)

If you have wisdom to share, especially if it’s something that you think a junior faculty member should hear (like something you noticed they might need help with), it is easiest to convey it obliquely, through a story centered on some unspecified third party or, better yet, through a self-deprecating anecdote. Alas, many of my senior male colleagues wouldn’t be caught dead sharing a truly embarrassing story (within the confines of the professional, of course) or a story otherwise showing vulnerability or weakness. They share humblebrag stories, where it seems like there’s chaos or confusion, but ultimately they come through as superheroes who did superbly while somehow bumbling along . I think on some level the assistant professors expect it, this impenetrable shield of invincibility, and don’t feel comfortable sharing doubts or asking questions. It ends up being an unhealthy game where both sides pretend they are far more awesome than they really are. If you can suspend your ego a little and try to connect with your junior colleagues as real people, it will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Remember yourself as an assistant professor and how clueless you were. Remember all the new and disorienting details pertinent to starting a faculty job. Assistant professors, out of a completely justified fear of being negatively evaluated, tend to hide the fear and the cluelessness. Try to be that safe (but really safe) person whom they can ask questions that reveal cluelessness. For example, maybe the course management system is complicated, so they can’t figure out how to use it at a level above the very basic; this is important to address as it affects student perception of the assistant professor’s organization in a negative way. Point them to the right resources for creating a compelling lab website; this is important for student recruitment. The junior professor probably doesn’t know all the things that go into a new grant, or who can help with this or that, or what the hell data management plan is. I know most of this stuff doesn’t require a PhD to master or teach, but there’s no one else. It’s not like you can assign staff or students to help assistant professors with all these issues (maybe some, but not all). It’s us more senior folks who have all the  bits and pieces of knowledge about the crazy tapestry that is our job, so we are the ones to teach.

Seriously, assume that your junior colleagues might be (at the outset, at least) too self-conscious to ask you “trivial” questions or don’t want to waste your time. Ask them if they know how to do this or that, tell them you will be happy to show them and that they should feel free to ask you things anytime.

People align based on interpersonal chemistry. I had faculty mentors assigned to me when I was an assistant professor. I was afraid of one of them and never asked them anything, and the other one was nominally helpful but in practice took three weeks to answer my emails, so I took the hint and stopped asking them for help. How did I get help? I asked a senior collaborator from another department with whom I had good rapport. I asked another grouchy and hilarious faculty member from my own department, who did eventually replace one of my mentors on record.

If you do have good chemistry with an assistant professor, use it to help them. They are more likely to become relaxed with you, and you can really do a lot of good if they trust you (or, sadly, you can do a lot of damage, so tread lightly). Be accessible. If they have to wait three weeks for you to answer a question about some student-related drama, you are useless. We all make time for what we find important. Show them they are important by being there for them when they need you. Yes, that means you will be inconvenienced sometimes. That is the price of really helping someone.

Send good students their way. I get more interest from good students than I can reliably accommodate in my group. I forward those, with introductions, to junior faculty.

Share best hiring strategies. How do you vet students? This is a very nontrivial process with a lot of room for error, and striking out with recruitment carries a steep penalty for junior faculty. Help them bring on good people.

Share your teaching materials. Share everything generously. They may or may not use what you share (I always make everything on my own, but even glimpses of how someone else organizes a course are very helpful). You can save someone a huge amount of work.

Elucidate what their priorities for tenure are. Be honest about the real relative importance of research, teaching, and service at your school. I know at my place we wring our hands about teaching and service, but a person who brings in money and publishes papers will be tenured with middling teaching and service. It’s simply true. My particular department cares about teaching more than most, but I know other departments really don’t. If this is true, make sure that your junior colleague knows how to apportion their limited time.

Help them choose (and fight for them, if necessary) courses that are well aligned with their strengths and interests, service roles that they might be passionate about. Encourage them to seek balance in their lives, to take care of health and their families. Go to bat for them when it comes to lab space or teaching assignments or crappy teaching schedules that conflict with family rearing.

What say you, blogosphere? How can Bluehairs and Graybeards be most helpful to junior faculty? 

One comment

  1. Junior faculty here. This seems spot on to me, and reinforces that I’ve been well supported. People handed me grant examples, people gave their teaching materials, etc. People tried to tell me to say no to certain things (and I should have listened). A couple of times I picked up great students because senior people tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I consider being more aggressive in recruiting someone than I would have planned. Another thing that I think was REALLY incredible because it could have gone very badly was that I had a sort-of collaboration with a mentor, who encouraged me to publish my results separately, because they realized their end was going to take some extra time. My paper came out a few years back and the other half of it still is being polished.

    The one thing I might add is to try be aware of your own biases / limited information on some topics. Here, senior faculty are very aware of a few grant routes (NSF CAREER, some fancy fellowships, etc.) and tend to focus their mentoring on that. There was a lot more push to submit these grants than to submit other (significantly more lucrative) grants that they weren’t (as) aware of. Maybe this reflects what’s valued in the tenure process… but it created a bit of confusion.

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