Project Notes: Struggles of Early-Career Faculty

One of my projects here at UW-Madison involves assessing the developmental needs of the faculty on campus, especially those early in their careers. As someone who will hopefully soon be an early-career faculty member himself, this project has been a great opportunity for me to “pre-reflect” on the process I will soon embark on.

This week, I have been reading literature on the affective needs of early-career faculty for a survey I need to design. Papers I have found particularly enjoyable and informative on the subject have been Sutherland 2017, Acker & Webber 2017, O’Meara et al. 2016, and Pifer & Baker 2013, and this post reflects mostly what I have digested from these articles even though there are other good ones out there beyond these.

Everyone seems to know and agree that life as a faculty member is stressful, and this is especially true for pre-tenure faculty. What these papers offer us that is new is in-depth coverage of exactly how and why faculty life for early-career faculty (ECFs) is so hard, in their minds. In brief, here seem to be the highlights (Note: These are perceptions ECFs have; they are not necessarily objective):

  • ECFs are unsure if anything in particular that they do will “count.”
  • ECFs receive conflicting advice on how they should spend their time.
  • Priority is placed on “measurables,” like good course evaluations, rather than on “immeasurables,” like achieving learning outcomes.
  • Salary increases are too infrequent and not tied to performance outcomes.
  • Only research and grant outputs seem to really factor into tenure decisions, even at liberal arts colleges.
  • For research, number of publications and quality of journal seem to matter much more than quality or impact of the research.
  • Balance is difficult to achieve, whether it be between work and life, teaching and research, students and colleagues, institution and discipline, etc.
  • Positive feedback and confidence-building is too uncommon.
  • Lack of autonomy in the courses taught or the research conducted is prevalent.
  • Having a positive impact on students is undervalued.
  • Procedures and standards seem antiquated and often unspoken.
  • Expectations, especially those regarding tenure, tend to shift and become more burdensome over time.
  • ECFs feel they often lack a voice in intra-Departmental affairs.
  • ECFs struggle to find senior mentors or collaborators to assist with their teaching or research.
  • The work environment is too anti-social/isolating.
  • ECFs feel students act too entitled to a good grade in their courses.
  • ECFs feel their Universities do not always respect their approaches to research or teaching, even though these were known when they were hired.
  • ECFs expect resources to be available to help them perform their job that may not materialize.
  • The tenure process is protracted and labor-intensive, occupying more than an appropriate share of one’s time.
  • Lack of time and high stress takes physical and mental tolls on health, and peers and superiors don’t seem concerned about this.
  • ECFs feel they cannot speak about their shortcomings or those of their Department for fear of reprisal.
  • Emphasis is placed too squarely on simply being “value-adding” for the University rather than on less tangible contributions.

This is just a cursory summary of some of the key findings of the papers cited above. Now, it should be mentioned—and the articles themselves emphasize—that faculty recognize that their jobs are (and maybe should be) hard, recognize that their initial expectations are sometimes naive, and recognize that they are fortunate to have the jobs they have. The articles also address the fact that negatives often come to mind much more readily than positives when questions of satisfaction are posed. Still, it seems to me, at least, like faculty life is perhaps harder than it could be. Is this fair and appropriate, given the potentially far-reaching impact of the job? How could we improve academic life for the better, or at least improve the perception of it from those on the inside? Hopefully, our project will give us some insights into these questions—stay tuned!