Year One: How Do You Survive the First Year on the Tenure Track?

Tags: Faculty, Tenure, Academia, First Year

The first year of anything: graduate school, a new job, a relationship or any other life-changing event can be difficult. The same can be said for becoming a tenure track professor. The accomplishment of entering the tenure track and becoming a part of the academy can be rewarding. However, every transition has its challenges. Navigating work-life balance, handling unexpected teaching or research duties, becoming accustomed to a new city, and many other concerns are all valid and felt by many people beginning life on the tenure track. 

For those who are entering this journey, below are tips and advice from first-year (and former first-year) tenure faculty from Chronicle Vitae, Inside Higher Ed, "The Professor Is In" and "Tenure She Wrote." We have included excerpts for each article, visit the links to be taken to the full-version. 

In I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too! a tenure-track assistant professor provides essential best practices for first-year professors. 


You won’t get anything done in Year 1. This is actually not really true, but it feels like it. Everything takes much longer than you’ll predict — getting your office set up, getting phones turned on, figuring out the email client and Payroll and the archaic student course software (or softwares!), ordering equipment. There are meetings and orientations and everyone wants to invite you for coffee and to talk about collaborations and to invite you on committees. You’ll basically find that you get to the summer break and all of your ambitious plans to publish (even if you have a teaching release!) and write grants and collect amazing data all went out the window, and you will very likely feel like a failure. Even if you were crazy productive just before you defended, you’ll find that you’re paying the price now, and finding it harder to focus with so many new demands to your attention. But here’s the thing: everything you’ve been doing, from the thinking to the planning to the figuring out what your space situation is, has value. It’s part of the process. When you hit Year 2, it should all be settled.

What you can do about it: Be strategic about your time, and block off a day (or a half a day) that is sacrosanct. Put it on your calendar. Do not treat it as time for scheduling meetings– treat it as a meeting between you and your computer. Invest in some time management software like RescueTime. Get those last PhD and postdoc papers in the pipeline. Make it a goal to apply for a grant or two, even if you have startup funds. Don’t stay at work too long. I didn’t figure any of this out until recently, and I’m trying it out for Year 2.

Dr. Karen Kelsky highlights some survival tactics for the first year in Advice for Your First Year on the Tenure Track.

 Your job is to make friends with other junior faculty in your department and in other departments, and go out to coffee or lunch with them on a regular basis. Your job is to serve on only one major committee. The speakers committee or a search committee are the best committees for you. The speakers committee allows you to reach out to and host senior scholars in your field. The search committee allows you to shape the future of your department and have social capital to spend at your national meetings.

Your job is to learn where the money is on campus. You may construe your job as including organizing a symposium or workshop or conference on campus, for which you contact departments and centers around campus to collect financial support. You may feel confident about your use of time in this way because through this you learn how to get money to accomplish your goals, increase your campus-wide visibility, and get the chance to invite “big names” to campus for your event, big names who may someday be your tenure letter writers. 

 In Should I Stay or Should I Go?, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, director of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, advises a reader who is debating whether to abandon the tenure track after a stressful first year. 

Do You Have a Life?

Often the most important thing to ask yourself is: What’s missing? For many first-year faculty members, work can take up so many hours per week that there’s no time or space for anything or anyone else. So why not take stock of how you are spending your time: How many hours per week are you working on average? Do you take days off? Do you sleep eight hours per night? Do you exercise? Are you able to be fully present with people you love? Do you have friends outside of work? Are you able to have fun without feeling guilty?

If the answer to the majority of these questions is no and work is your whole existence, then it may be time to start shifting your energy. We were not designed to work all the time, and working excessive hours often has a negative impact on productivity. Even more important, when people work all the time they start to develop a grossly exaggerated perspective about departmental politics. A decision in a faculty meeting feels life altering (as opposed to a shift in policy or operations). Conflicts become declarations of war (instead of interpersonal disagreements). And you replay awkward conversations over and over in your mind instead of just letting them go and moving on with your life.

Allison Lange, assistant professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology, shares lessons learned from her first year. 

Dan: What have you learned about teaching and scholarship in your first year on the tenure track?

Allison: I learned just how tough it is to acclimate to a new place and balance teaching and research. I also learned how important it is to be responsive to your students’ interests. I made small tweaks to my courses that significantly improved both our discussions and individual student performances.

For example, students really liked talking about current events. So during my second semester at Wentworth, I added an assignment that involved each student leading a discussion about a current news article and connecting the issue in the article to historical themes. That exercise helped students understand how the topics we study in class are still relevant. Many students reported in course evaluations that this was their favorite assignment from the class. I also really enjoyed learning about what they were interested in and what their opinions were. 

We hope these resources are helpful to your transition into academia. ->See how DSP scholars have adapted to life on the tenure track. 

Written by Chanell Turner, Publications and Programming Assistant of the Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholars Program.