Reflections on my first year on the tenure track

Everything I read in The Chronicle is about how people are struggling in the academic job market right now. Nonetheless, I managed to hit the jackpot: a tenure-track position, right out of grad school, in a top-ten department in my field, at a flagship public R1, in a great city. I was lucky to the point of embarrassment, and it was not at all fair.

Despite all this privilege, my first semester as a new assistant professor was… I wouldn’t just say it was “challenging,” I’d say it mostly sucked, full stop. There I was, in this awesome, coveted new position I’d worked hard to achieve, but I was unhappy and nearly convinced I couldn’t hack it at all. Absolutely nothing seemed to be working well in those first months: not teaching my first course; not getting my lab set up; not navigating how the department worked; and certainly not making progress on my research and writing. Everything from R coding to choosing the right paint colors for the walls in my lab was a source of doubt and anxiety. I didn’t get a lot done.

What surprised me more than the fact that things were initially very hard (which I had anticipated, though not to such an extreme degree), though, was how quickly and drastically they turned around. My first Spring semester was nothing like my first Fall. I taught a different, more “experiential” course on Cognitive Development, which I’ve genuinely looked forward to each day. Austin Thought Lab has gradually come together into a fun and productive place to work. I can write and code again without distress. Some papers are getting submitted. I enjoy and am extremely grateful for my job.

There are two lessons from this first-year experience I’d like to share with other brand-new faculty.

First, if your first semester is anything like mine was, you’re not alone. But know this: not only can this get better, it might even get better a lot sooner than you think.

The second lesson comes from the most useful piece of advice I was given during my first semester, when things were so rough. When my former PhD advisor asked how things were going in my new job, I told the truth: the teaching and administrative stuff were harder than I thought they’d be, and they were taking all my time, and I didn’t even feel like they were going well at all. (And I wasn’t getting my writing done! And I couldn’t even think straight! And I just couldn’t do this!)

Somewhat counterintuitively, what he advised was to just stop trying to write, and accept the fact that those papers weren’t going to get finished any time soon. He didn’t say to take a break for a few days. He said, take a break for a month, maybe two months, maybe the whole rest of the semester!

When academics struggle, our academic friends like to argue with us about how well we’re really doing. We say, “Oh, it’s imposter syndrome, everyone feels that way, but just look at your CV! Look at this award you won! This grant you got! These papers you published! You might not feel it, but all these accomplishments are hard evidence that of course you can do it. And you will!”

I’ve said all this many times to colleagues who’ve confided their anxieties to me.

But as a new assistant professor, that approach wasn’t helpful at all. Presenting me with a list of all the things I had somehow managed to do before just reinforced the idea that now I was failing and falling behind. What did help was to have a senior colleague — someone I trusted, who knew very well what deep scientific work actually entails — listen to me and believe me when I said I couldn’t do it. By telling me to stop trying, he gave me permission to relax, at least a little. I’m sure that was part of what helped my productivity and enjoyment to return, a couple months later.