What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School Part IV

By David E. Drew and Paul Gray
Inside Higher Ed
January 13, 2006

In our first three lists of tips for an academic career, we covered finishing the dissertation and finding the first job, offered an overview of various academic responsibilities, and described career paths. In our final installment, we turn to life an academic.

Life as an Academic

1. Bad Deans can make your life miserable. Don't assume that because the half-life of a dean is five years, you can outlast them. Get out your resume.

2. Never, ever choose sides in department politics. The side you are on expects your support because they know they are right. They will give you no reward for it. The side(s) you are not on remembers forever.

3. Never take a joint appointment, particularly as your initial appointment. The chair of each department will assume that the other chair will take care of you. Furthermore, at raise, promotion, and tenure times, each department will judge you only on the papers or books in its own discipline.

4. Secretaries are a scarce resource. Treat them as such. Most universities pay secretaries below market wages and expect them to gain psychic income from the academic environment. They often work in physical space you would not accept even as a graduate student. (We estimate the chance that a secretary works in an office with a window is approximately one in three.) By any standard, they are an exploited class. If you develop a good relationship with them, they will work miracles for you. They know every arcane administrative procedure needed to get things done. They can say nice things about you to people who matter in the department. If they don't like you, they can kill your reputation.

5. After years of being one, you know that research assistants and graders are perceived as the sherpas of academe. Their role is to be as inconspicuous as possible and carry the burdens as their professors climb the mountain of knowledge. It is unfortunately true that many young professors rapidly adopt the same attitude. Doing so is actually a mistake. Your students learn from the feedback they receive, and graded papers are an important feedback tool. Thus, you need to pay attention to which answers are considered correct and what criteria are used for grading. In the case of examinations, you should grade papers personally rather than delegating the job. The examination is a form of communication, of feedback, between the student and you. You find out what the students really know and what principles and concepts did not get through to them. Similarly, your research assistants require supervision. Having them take data for your key experiment or survey instrument is appropriate but the final responsibility for their output is yours. You have to know what they are doing and how well they are doing it. Treat them with respect and show them that they are valued. One way to do this is to be generous in sharing authorship with them when they make contributions to your research. In short, you have to teach them the research art. Remember that a disgruntled grader or research assistant need not get mad at you; they can easily get even.

6. Learn the idiosyncrasies of your institutions computer center. You have a high probability of having to deal with the computer center, even if you are in the humanities. Although a computer center is a service organization, it is usually staffed by people who are not service oriented. This attitude is particularly true of computer center directors. Treasure the director who is service oriented. If not, your frustration level will be high every time you approach the center. Some directors are super security conscious. Like the librarian who believes that the best place for a book is on the shelf, such a director wants to keep you from actually using the center because you might not follow their arbitrary rules.

7. Like the computer center, you have to deal with physical plant. They are the people who create the services that you take for granted, be they moving furniture or heating or changing light bulbs. Your first contact will typically come when you move into your office. In our experience in a number of universities, we have found three typical characteristics:

Many people in physical plant are highly skilled craftspeople who can do wondrous mechanical and electrical things. They know about things you never learned.

Physical plant is working on many jobs simultaneously. Although your job is the one that you think is most important, it is only one of many, some of which are emergencies.

Physical plant charges departments for their services. Often they need to charge quite a lot because the job is much more complex than you realize. Be sure you have a big departmental budget available before you call them in.

8. Join the faculty club, if you have one. You will usually be taken there at some time during the interview process. If it is at all typical, it will seem like a cross between your undergraduate dining hall and the stuffy clubs you see on BBC mysteries. If you look around, it may seem that it is the haven for the superannuated. Don't be deceived. The faculty club can be one of your most important assets. It is a place where you can meet with colleagues without interruptions of telephone or students. People always feel better when they eat and will often tell you things they would not otherwise reveal. In other words, it is a good place to keep up with what is going on. Being seen there by the older faculty in your department can be a plus since it shows you want to fit in. You will be surprised to find that you can actually have occasional intellectual discussions with people from other disciplines. It is also a good place to impress visitors and students. The food, of course, will rapidly become tedious.

9. At some institutions, office hours are sacred. You MUST be there at the times you promise. At others, they are merely advisory. Know what the situation is at your institution and follow local custom. In general, you have to provide times certain for students when they can contact you. Making appointments is one way. If you do make an appointment, be sure to keep it. A reputation of not keeping appointments is as bad as one of not returning e-mails.

10. The best fringe benefit that a professor receives is the sabbatical. It is not, repeat not, a vacation. Here are some hints on what you should do on your sabbatical:

Do productive work.

Use the time for reflection and for getting into new things.

If at all feasible, leave town and never show your face at the institution during the sabbatical. If you appear, you will be put to work.

Stay in touch with your dissertation students (you can do this by e-mail or by meeting the students off campus).

When your sabbatical is over, write a good report on what you did so the administration will give you another one the next time you are eligible.

And, of course, always apply for a sabbatical as soon as you are eligible. Most institutions do not allow you to accumulate the time for future use. If you wait an extra semester or two, you will never get the accumulated time back.

11. Maintain collegiality. Collegiality is a difficult term to define. It involves maintaining good social relations with the people in your department and in related departments. If everyone in your department has coffee in the lounge at 10 each morning, be there even if you only drink mineral water. If someone asks you to cover a class for them or review a draft of their latest paper or serve on a doctoral committee they chair, do it. The web of obligations is two-sided and you will receive reciprocal favors over time. Collegiality is one case where the commitments, even though they take away from your research time, have positive results. Don't be perceived as a loner or a misanthrope, particularly by the senior faculty.

12. Be aware that as an academic you are a public person. Your students spend 40 hours or more a semester doing nothing but looking at you while you talk. This makes an indelible impression on them. You will find that several years later when they approach you by name at a gathering or in a public place they will expect you to remember them. You, of course, usually will not. They will have changed in appearance and dress. Some of them were lost in the crowd while in your classroom. The important point is that your behavior is noticed when you least expect it.

13. We firmly believe that people should be free to express their views on public issues, whether the views are mainstream or not. But, understand that there are associated career risks. The conventional wisdom that academics are free to say what they please may well have been a reason why you chose your career. However, our observations of what really goes on leads to a different take for untenured faculty. No matter what your position on an issue, be it popular or unpopular, for or against the environment, for or against gun control, once it becomes known there are inevitably people who are on the other side of that issue. They will consider your position a form of bad judgment and they will hold it against you. Remember that people in academia have long memories. Even if everyone in the department publicly espouses the same cause you cannot be certain what position they take privately. Consider something as seemingly safe as excoriating the oil company whose tanker caused the latest oil spill. There will be people who consult with the company or who are writing a corporate history or whose nephew works for the company or who own 3000 shares of the companys stock. Of course, once you achieve tenured full professor, the situation changes.

14. Get to know the people in development and support them. Most institutions have one or more people on their staff whose job it is to obtain endowments and other gifts, maintain relations with alumni, etc. Skilled, interactive development offices can help in obtaining outside funding for you, for your department, and for students, all of which improves your quality of life. Be careful, however: Many development offices are horribly inept. Their people are usually underpaid and in this world you get what you pay for. They are fund raisers who know nothing about the academic enterprise or what you do. You will have to educate them over and over. You may have to work with colleagues to get them replaced if they are extremely bad.

15. A corollary to working with development is to be responsive to your alumni office. For most alumni, their college experience is the highlight of their life and the old school tie is one of the few things they can flaunt. They like to hear good things about their college because it makes their degree more valuable. So, if you are asked to write something for the alumni bulletin or give a speech, do it. Alumni can support their old department in a variety of ways. If they know you, they can support you from the outside at moments of crunch.

16. When you do something noteworthy let your colleges public relations department know and have them publicize it. When you publish a book, win a prize, get elected to a professional society office, or do something in the community, get them into the act. It has value to you because it is one way for a lot of your colleagues across campus to find out what a wonderful person you are. (They may even remember it at promotion time!). It lets you brag to your chair and to the people in your department without being obnoxious about it.

17. You may, at some point in your academic career become involved in a student grievance. We are a litigious society, fueled in part by a supply of lawyers and in part by demand for equal treatment under the law. Fortunately, most universities and colleges set up grievance procedures to handle disputes. We estimate that there is a 50 percent chance of your being involved in a student grievance sometime during your academic career. Typically these disputes are over grades, results of examinations, acts of cheating, and the like. Sometimes they are the results of behavior on your part that a student perceives as insulting or demeaning.

18. The last several years have seen the growth of sexual harassment as a basis for complaint. You may wind up as the originator or the recipient of such a complaint. The source may be a student, a staff member, or another faculty member. Remember that harassment complaints can lead to litigation in court. Your institution may or may not be supportive. If it isn't, you can wind up spending large amounts on lawyers and court fees. The best strategy is preventive. Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

Know and obey your institutions rules on harassment.

Know what the procedures are for the offended party.

Never meet with a student or faculty member of the opposite gender behind a closed door.

Never use language or examples that are sexually offensive.

19. You may become the grievant against your institution. Disputes can arise over such issues as tenure, sabbatical entitlements, teaching loads, outrageous treatment by department chairs or deans, salaries, discrimination because of age, gender, or race, and more. The good news is that most institutions have a grievance procedure. The bad news is that people will remember the incident even when you are in the right

Some Final Thoughts

1. The rich get richer holds in academia as well as in society in general. Once you establish a reputation, people will pursue you to do things such as write papers, make presentations at prestigious places, consult, etc. To reach this position you have to earn your reputation. If you do reach it, remember that fame is transitory. You have to keep running, doing new things, to keep the demand going. Those who read these Hints will want your place!

2. A colleague of ours once told us: Treat students as though they are guests in your home. It is simple, sound advice. If you carry nothing else away from these hints, remember this one.

David Drew and Paul Gray are professors, respectively, of education and information science at Claremont Graduate University.