Assistant Professors: How to Survive

Scholastic obligations, opportunities and pitfalls: Dos and don'ts for the tenure-aspiring academician.

December 9, 2002, 12:00 AM PST

By Martin Krieger

Martin KriegerYou have 5-6 years to show that you are a reasonably good teacher, can pursue an independent and well regarded research program, and you will be a good colleague. You may also have community service obligations, and that depends on the kind of appointment you have.

Presumably, you have done a doctoral dissertation. Publishing that piece of work should be your first priority, something you address in the first two years of your appointment. If you decide that it should be a book, can you get a contract now? If not, how long before you get the work in order. (Ten years? Then you won't be able to pursue that now.)

The major problem is a delay in publishing your dissertation research, so delaying your starting another project.

If you start another project in year three, then you have about two years to come to the point where you can write up articles about it. It will take another year or two for them to appear.

The sign of trouble is when most of the articles appear in the year before you come up for tenure. There will usually be a bump in your articles or the appearance of your first book about this time. The question people naturally ask is whether you will stop publishing the day after you receive tenure. If it is a book, people want to see evidence that you are now pursuing another book and have made some progress. (In some places, tenure is granted well into the associate professorship, when two books are out (or one is out, and the other is finished but not published), and then the timetable is different.)

If your department asks to to take on a significant administrative load (chair one of the degree committees), you have to wonder whether they are setting you up for failure at the tenure stage. Most university tenure committees do not find the administrative obligation convincing, even if the department does.

What is most discouraging is to discover at the end of the third probationary year that the assistant professor has not made much progress, and often seems to think they are in good shape since so many of their seniors don't publish much either. A recipe for disaster.

If you expect that teaching will help get your tenure, make sure your teaching methods and quality is nationally recognized (not just teaching awards at your home institution), that you have written about it and published about it, and that you have a nest egg put aside for the good chance you will not be tenured. This does not apply at universities and colleges where teaching is the major activity, research being secondary or tertiary.

Stay out of departmental politics. This is best seen as a spectator sport at this stage of your life. When people try to recruit you to their side, say that you have to prepare an article for a meeting in two days, prepare that article, and go to a meeting.

Make sure people outside your university recognize your work. Make a list of likely referees, and make sure they receive reprints or preprints. Talk to them at meetings.

And, focus on what you are doing, so that your tenure case makes sense. The work should add up to a contribution or two that is well defined and significant.

I believe that almost anyone who is hired at a university could readily obtain tenure. Sometimes there is politics and evil (which is best dealt with by getting another job, living well, and leaving the idiots to their own devices), sometimes you really are not up to snuff, but most often the candidate has left gaping holes in their vita, all of which could have been readily filled by careful focus and planning.

I have nothing useful to say about teaching except that one ought to do a responsible job, listen to feedback from students, and invite colleagues to your class to help you do a better job. About service, again, that should be limited at this stage in your career. If they insist on putting you on the University Diversity Committee since you are an underrepresented minority, tell them you want a buyout from teaching, so you will still have time for your research. If they cannot provide that, respectfully decline saying you have to focus on your research. They will get you later.

Martin Krieger is a professor at the School of Policy, Planning & Development at the University of Southern California. He was trained as an experimental particle physicist and has taught in social-science oriented professional schools of planning, architecture, public policy, business, education, and engineering for the last thirty years, at Berkeley, Minnesota, MIT, USC, and Michigan. He has held a variety national research fellowships, and his work has been substantially supported by a range of major foundations. Currently, he is working on photographic documentation of urban phenomena in Los Angeles, including a book manuscript on storefront houses of worship in Los Angeles. Professor Krieger is a Research Fellow with USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. He regularly writes the This Week's Finds in Planning column.


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