Lessons Learned During my First Year as an Assistant Professor

  • May 19, 2022
  • Noah Glaser
  • 8 min read

The grades are in! I submitted grades for my Spring 2022 classes, and with that checkpoint achieved my work for the academic year is officially done. It is always an exciting feeling to finish up an academic year, but this one feels even more special as it marks the conclusion of my first year as a tenure track assistant professor. The journey to become a faculty member in itself was a tedious one that at times left me exhausted, filled with self-doubt, and quite frankly feeling miserable – especially given the unpredictable and grueling nature of the academic job hunt. However, I preserved and am happy to celebrate and look back on my first year as a tenure track professor. With that said, I want to share some of the lessons that I learned during this year.

The Emails

There is a perfect way to describe my experience with emails this year. If you don’t like Smash Mouth (why would you like them) then this video may be one to skip. 

But the emails truly ‘don’t stop coming.’ This might not be all that surprising for anyone who has even been academic adjacent for half a day, but I was starting to get frustrated by the absolutely useless and non-stop emails. As a faculty member you will be added to a dozen different listservs – all of which send out the exact same information. I also found myself on a ‘University Daily Announcements’ listserv that came bright and early every day.  Not once was any of this information useful. Next there was the non-stop IT emails. HEY! DID YOU KNOW THAT THE UNIVERSITY IS SWITCHING TO CANVAS. HUH, DID YOU? DID YOU? In case I might have somehow missed the first 800 emails about it, I was certain to find another in my inbox on most days.

Related is that faculty (who I a told are some of the brightest and greatest minds in the world) cannot figure out how to appropriately use the ‘reply all’ function. I probably received a couple thousand emails from faculty replying-all to generic emails (including listservs to the entire faculty body). If a there is an email being sent out on a listserv celebrating a faculty member’s publication then it does not require a reply-all to 500 people to say congrats. Full stop. 

My lesson learned was to set up as many rules as possible to make this garbage more manageable. I have so many keywords, listservs (that won’t let you unsubscribe), and senders that are sent straight to the trash. This made my inbox actually tolerable and I managed to stay on top of my emails. 

Bureaucratic Red Tape

Wowsers….so much red tape. Universities have red tape around what kind of red tape they can use and then have to form a committee to confirm that the red tape is being used in a way that was approved by a bylaw back in 1945. But don’t you dare bring that up in a meeting without first making a motion and then getting that motion seconded in the most ridiculous process ever. 

I learned that every single micro-action has to be governed by the most ridiculous rules in creation. For instance I was awarded a grant to buy a subscription to a multimedia repository. It was awarded by an internal department grant. Then the same department fiscal tech said I could not buy it unless I filled out a massive document justifying why I was buying this specific subscription and not one of the many others out there. That form then had to be signed by half a dozen different people for no reason whatsoever. After doing this I had my purchase kicked back to me because IT wanted to do a security check on the software. It was not software. I explained how it is not software. There was no file. There was no installation. There was no executable. It was by no stretch of the imagination software. As you can imagine, explaining something like that to a bureaucrat in a fractal of bureaucrats did not go well. So then I had to fill out another massive document about why this ‘software’ was secure. But none of the questions were relevant as it was not software. After filling out this joke of a form it was sent to IT who conducted a 90 day security audit on this piece of non-software. They came back and confirmed that it was not software and was secure to use. So  I should be all set, right? Nope! Then compliance got involved and decided that they did not like the terms and conditions of this service being sold by a third party company. So they emailed the company and asked them to change their terms and conditions so we could buy a 90 dollar account. In a surprised Pikachu moment, they said no.

surprised pikachu

So there I was, almost 4 months later and the department was saying that I was not allowed to buy the thing that I was given money from that same department to buy.

Other examples include having my computer taken away and put into storage to never be used because the department approved and then disapproved the development PC I wanted because it did not have a logo on it from an ‘approved’ vendor who charges the university a 20% upcharge for being the sole provider. While also being constantly told that the department is broke…but they are able to throw away thousands for oopsie orders that sit in a box.  The kicker of all of this is that I was voluntold to serve on a committee to examine bottlenecks and challenges that faculty has with IT services and what could be done to improve things. That’s right. As a faculty member you will be forced to serve on committees to solve fake problems that were created by the people telling you to serve on said committee. The problems all have obvious solutions and 99/100 times there will be no meaningful change of policy or procedures. Oh, shoot. I forgot to begin this thought by making a motion to make this thought and none of my readers here seconded that motion so none of this information can go on the record now. Can you tell how irritating this entire process is? 

Left to Your Own Devices

It’s not all bad though. Something I learned is that as a faculty member I really had nobody that I ever had to check in with. It was very liberating and also unnerving. I come from industry where I would often have weekly check-in meetings and where I had to log my hours every day. As a faculty member I was largely left alone to do what I needed when I wanted to do those things. I had to submit a yearly portfolio that was evaluated to ensure I was meeting the tenure expectations, but otherwise nobody ever knew what I was doing. This vagueness in the job is one of the reasons that I hear when people say they are staying in academia despite many of its flaws. It is easy to get bogged down and burnt out and having the ability to take a day or two off in the middle of the week to recharge is nice. That flexibility is pretty great. 

It can also be harrowing as you are required to just figure things out. Nobody tells you anything. 

Want an answer to that question? Here is the 2019_revised_final_PhD_handbok.docx (typo included for authenticity) that is 500 pages long. The answer that you need is somewhere in there, but the department now uses a different term for that phrase so you cannot do a search and will have t just figure it out. Over the course of my first year: Nobody told me how to access my courses. Nobody told me the format of my courses (was literally 2 hours before my first course when I was told my course was only synchronous every other week). Nobody told me how to make travel requests and reimbursements. Nobody told me where to find the forms I needed. Nobody told me how to input grades. Nobody told me how to lift registration holds for advisees. And the list goes on and on.

Overall the general mindset of my first year as a professor was to make my own success. As an early career scholar you are given a whisper of what is needed to be successful. Most of the things you do as a professor are things that you are not taught as a doctorate student and it requires a new way of organizing and thinking about your role. But here I am…one year down. And, when can I retire again?