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4 lessons for the early years of being a college professor

3 MINUTE READ

The first couple years of a professorship can be very demanding. Luckily, you can learn from those who have gone before you. Consider the following some essential lessons learned from those professors who have successfully navigated the early years of academia.

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No one said being a professor is easy. Between teaching, advising, conducting research, and serving on committees, it can sometimes feel like trying to drink from a firehose.

1 Those lectures don’t create themselves

Those seamless, insightful lectures that professors deliver to classes? They aren’t available for bulk purchase on Amazon.com. Each and every one of them is the result of a professor taking the time to carefully prepare a lesson plan and the associated lectures.

“Even though you’re teaching a course that maybe you’ve taken before, no one really tells you how much time it takes to write a single one-hour lecture,” says Laura Buchanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University. “It seems really simple, like, ’Oh, I can write a few weeks’ worth of lectures in an afternoon!’ ”1 The lesson here is to make sure to budget plenty of time for developing those first lectures—more time than you might initially think

2 A mentor can mean the world

No one said being a professor is easy. Between teaching, advising, conducting research, and serving on committees, it can sometimes feel like trying to drink from a firehose. The good news is that you don’t have to figure out how to juggle those responsibilities and navigate this new world all on your own. Having a mentor within the institution can be invaluable in this regard.

Sauvik Das, an assistant professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, recently completed his first year as a faculty member and remarks on the value of both formal mentors who were assigned by the university and informal mentors who he personally sought out. More than just providing valuable advice, they were able to foster valuable networking connections with people inside the university, resulting in exciting collaboration opportunities.2

3 Even the teacher can do with some teaching

There’s a reason you’re a professor: It’s because you’ve been immersed in your field for years, from your undergraduate days through your post-doc activities and beyond. You’re a veritable expert. But that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into effective teaching.

After being a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, for two years, Hosea Nelson notes that “people who get this job are pretty well-spoken in front of a crowd,” but “being charismatic and smart is not enough.”3

Put another way? Imparting knowledge to others is a different skillset than cultivating knowledge for yourself—so don’t be afraid to give your teaching skills a tune-up. Many schools will offer an optional teacher training program to first-year professors or will provide experts from the learning center to observe a class and provide feedback.4 Don’t be shy about availing yourself of these resources.

4 Know when to say no

Everyone has their limits—even the enthusiastic professor who’s just entered academia and is ready to take it by storm. While the temptation may be to make yourself available to every student at any hour, oversee several research projects at once, and serve on every committee, there are only so many hours in the day—and you face the very real risk of burning out if you take on too much.

Grand Valley State University mathematics professor Robert Talbert, reflecting on his first-year experience at a different college, gives this advice: “As a new faculty member, you’ll get a lot of requests from all over to get involved with campus or departmental initiatives. Say ‘yes’ to a small number of these that you feel strongly about, and which could help you advance in your position; say ‘no’ to the rest.”5

Later on, many professors come across knowledge that they wish they had when they were teaching a college course for the first time, sparking an “If only I knew then what I know now” moment. With the lessons above, you’ll already have this wisdom at hand, giving you a leg up on any challenges you might face as you navigate those demanding—but exhilarating—early years of being a professor.

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1. Jarvis, Lisa M. (2017). A Year in the Life of a New Professor. Chemical and Engineering News. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/sections/year-in-the-life-of-a-new-professor.html
2. Das, Sauvik. (2019, July 28). Am I Prepared Yet? Reflections on My First Year as Faculty. Medium.com. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@scyrus89/am-i-prepared-yet-reflections-on-my-first-year-as-faculty-6aa0ea915803
3. Jarvis, Lisa M. (2017). A Year in the Life of a New Professor. Chemical and Engineering News. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/sections/year-in-the-life-of-a-new-professor.html
4. Jarvis, Lisa M. (2017). A Year in the Life of a New Professor. Chemical and Engineering News. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/sections/year-in-the-life-of-a-new-professor.html
5. Talbert, Robert. (2017, May 2). Five Things I Wish I’d Known in My First Semester as Professor. Retrieved from http://rtalbert.org/five-things-i-wish-id-known/#fn1
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