Are you a woman who is starting her academic career? Do you know a woman who is starting her academic career? Even if you aren’t sure, read this and pass it along. Jezebel recently invited its readers to submit questions to the brilliant Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry and this particular question and its answer really stood out.
What advice do you have for women starting their academic career? Looking back, is there anything you wish you had known when starting as an assistant professor?
MHP: Whoa, I could spend days responding to this question. Here are just a few pieces of advice:
1. Ask for resources. If they say no, ask again.
Broadly speaking, as a junior faculty member, universities can offer you three kinds of resources: salary, time, and research assistance (money or student labor). It is rare to be in a position to receive plenty of all three. But it’s also ridiculous for a university to claim it can offer you only a pittance of each of these. Before you accept the first job, ask for all three: a fair starting salary, clear and confirmed leave time, and robust research assistance. They won’t say yes to all three, but keep pushing until you get at least one. If the college has a right budget, it can still offer you a semester of leave before tenure review. If it needs you teaching every semester, it can offer a student assistant to help collect research for your book. If it has no grad students and needs your teaching, it can offer you a decent salary. Ask. Ask. Ask. Ask.
And if you are contingent faculty who are paid a pittance and have no security, it’s time to join the movement to unionize adjuncts. Actually, if you are tenure track you should also join the movement to support contingent faculty members in their efforts to secure fair labor practices. Organize, organize, organize.
2. Find one student in every class that makes teaching worth it, and teach that student.
All of us have had the experience of working ourselves into the ground to prepare lectures, innovate new classroom experiences, grade papers swiftly, and to be available for meetings and mentoring only to be met with yawn, disinterest, and sometimes open contempt by some of our students. This seems to be especially true of young women faculty members and it can be painful. My strategy is to find the one student in class who is engaged, completing the assignments, and fully committed to the class. This is not always the best performing student. This is not even always the student who agrees with you as a professor. Some of my most engaged students are those who come ready to do battle with my claims each week. But I find that student and think about him or her as I lecture, lead class discussion, grade and prep. Sometimes my sense of responsibility to that one student can create truly fulfilling teaching in a semester that starts out rough.
3. Get to know your chair, your Dean, and all the people whose research has nothing to do with yours.
This is going to sound like dating advice, and it kind of is … ask your departmental chair for a standing monthly lunch meeting. Tell her about what you are working on but more importantly, ask her about her research. Administrators rarely get to talk about their research because they are always managing administrative tasks. It is a sure way to build a relationship. Similarly, have coffee with your Dean once a month. Share your accomplishments and find out what major university projects the Dean is leading. Finally, make time to meet all the colleagues whose work is vastly different from your own. As a junior American politics prof, I got to know the political theorists in my department quite well. It dramatically changed the kinds of books I read, the questions I ask, and how I approach my research. Getting to know the administration and your colleagues is good strategy, but more importantly, it is good intellectual practice.
4. Ignore the advice to avoid committee work.
I hate this advice. Senior people give it to junior people all the time, but it is bad advice. Serve on committees, learn how the university works, and build relationships in your field beyond your university and in your university beyond your department. The advice to keep your head down and focus exclusively on publication presumes the academy is mostly about merit. It is only partly about merit. It is also about reputation and relationships. Don’t be afraid to invest in building those relationships just because they don’t “count” and can’t be listed on your CV. But only do the committee work you find valuable and meaningful. Don’t say yes to everything; say yes to what matters to you.
5. You are their colleagues, not their daughter or their date. Be smart, not nice.
I am not very nice. I think if you talked to any of my colleagues or coworkers they would tell you the same thing. In fact, I’m a pretty hard person to have on your faculty, because I am a bit of a rule breaker. But I think it is very important for junior women to be comfortable with not having to be nice. It is far more important to be smart. I am not suggesting you be mean or awful, but nice is overrated.
Be an extremely hard worker. Be honest. Be fiercely loyal. Be willing to admit mistakes and learn. Be open to other people’s ideas and perspectives. But forget being nice. Speak up in meetings. Disagree openly and respectfully. Have the best prepared argument in the room. You want your senior colleagues to perceive you as formidable, not comfortable.
6. Keep friends, real friends.
Call them and complain every day.
7. Care for yourself.
Our job is so sedentary. Walk every day. Drink a ridiculous amount of water and just a little less coffee. Cancel class if you are sick.
8. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Aim for tenure, but know that being denied tenure is not an accurate assessment of your human value. Submit to the best journals, but if you never land a piece, don’t take it as an assessment of your inherent worthiness. The academy is a lifetime of rejection and criticism. You will always write work that some people hate, teach classes that some students despise, and serve on some committees that accomplish nothing. But then you will touch other students and change their lives, you’ll start or save an institution or program that persists long after you’re gone, and you eventually write the book or article or research finding that makes a meaningful contribution. I promise. Don’t be afraid of the hard parts and failures.
Hope this helps.