Tips for new assistant professors

In the United States, as we enter the new academic year, many new assistant professors are beginning a new position. Congratulations to all those who are beginning in new positions in 2017! This is a wonderful accomplishment. The first semester in a new position is filled with new faculty orientations, preparation for teaching new courses, and thinking through ideas and plans for converting doctoral research into publications. With so many responsibilities, it is possible to overlook the larger picture in terms of planning a career. What are some strategies that might help?

1. Assess the situation. There is much variation in the ways institutions approach mentoring. For example, when I began my job as an assistant professor, there was no formalized mentoring process. Since that time, a formal mentoring process has been instituted in the college in which I work. I was fortunate to work with several mentors who have assisted me at various stages in my career in teaching, research and service. We have also become great friends. A first step is to locate information at your institution about whether or not there is a formal process for mentoring, and how other people who are further along in their career have located mentors. The department head is another person to ask.

2. Find a person who can serve as a mentor for you. You may even have several mentors. Mentors do make a great difference in your career. Think of mentorship as a two-way process in which mentors learn from mentees about new ways of doing things, and mentees can learn from those who have more experience. An article by Phyllis Korkki,  an assignment editor in her mid-50s at the New York Times, recounts how Korkki searched for a younger colleague to teach her how to use Snapchat to develop a story. Her mentor was in her 20s, and learning how to use this new tool was a challenge for Korkki. As an outcome of this mentorship, Korkki was stretched by learning how to use a new tool that she had initially wanted to dismiss. The only regret that she reports was that she had not used this opportunity for a “reverse mentorship” as a way to mentor her younger colleague at the same time. I found the idea of reverse mentorship very appealing. As an older faculty member, I think this is something to try. My point here is that the mentorship relationship can be an opportunity for both mentor and mentee – whatever their ages – to learn new things.

3. Continue to develop professionally. Completion of a doctoral degree can seem like the end of a long journey. However, graduation marks a new beginning, and one of the responsibilities of a new professor is to continue to learn about one’s areas of expertise and develop new knowledge. This entails getting connected to scholars in one’s field through attending and presenting at professional conferences, continuing to read new work in one’s area of interest, and developing publications from one’s research projects. For those people adapting to the role of being an assistant professor, remember that departments and universities have an investment in keeping new faculty. Much is invested in hiring new faculty, and sometimes faculty lines are not replaced when people leave or retire.  Therefore, the hiring department has a responsibility to assist new faculty members be successful and provide the professional support needed. Watch out for workshops and presentations at your institution that provide opportunities to learn about doing research and writing, teaching, and presenting one’s work.

4. Make writing routine. Research has found that people who write every day are more productive than those who set aside larger chunks of time to write. There are some things that you can do to make writing routine. These include:

  • Schedule a regular writing time.
  • Add writing as an appointment in your calendar.
  • Switch off email when writing.
  • Write!
  • Keep a writing inventory that tracks your progress.

There are many texts that provide helpful advice, including Goodson (2017) and Boice (1990). An increasing body of research discusses the development of writing groups and writing retreats as well as the outcomes (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014; Grant, 2006; MacLeod, Steckley, & Murray, 2012; Moore, 2003; Murray & Newton, 2009; Petrova & Coughlin, 2012).

5. Work on your teaching – but not too much. Robert Boice (2000)in his advice book for new faculty uses the principle of “Nihil Nimus” or “not too much” as a way to think about one’s professional responsibilities as a new faculty member. That is, although the work of an assistant professor involves research, teaching and service, it’s important to work on balancing the time one spends on each of these tasks.

6. Understand institutional expectations. It is helpful to review the criteria that the institution and department use to assess faculty members’ productivity. Questions to ask are:

  • How do annual assessments work?
  • By what criteria will I be assessed?
  • What materials are reviewed? By whom? When?
  • Is there a third-year review process?

For those assistant professors in tenure-track positions – how does the promotion and tenure process work? The answers to all these questions may not become clear in the first year of an academic position, as it will take time to understand and navigate the processes at a new institution. However, locating a mentor will help you navigate the processes used at your institution.

And best wishes to those of you starting out in a new  position this academic year.

Kathy Roulston 


Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2014). Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond. London & New York: Routledge.

Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Goodson, P. (2017). Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Grant, B. (2006). Writing in the company of other women: exceeding the boundaries. Studies in Higher Education, 31(4), 483.

MacLeod, I., Steckley, L., & Murray, R. (2012). Time is not enough: Promoting strategic engagement with writing for publication. Studies in Higher Education, 37(6), 641-654. doi:10.1080/03075079.2010.527934

Moore, S. (2003). Writers’ retreats for academics: exploring and increasing the motivation to write. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(3), 333-342. doi:10.1080/0309877032000098734

Murray, R., & Newton, M. (2009). Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), 541-553. doi:10.1080/07294360903154126

Petrova, P., & Coughlin, A. (2012). Using structured writing retreats to support novice researchers. International Journal for Researcher Development, 3(1), 79-88. doi:doi:10.1108/17597511211278661


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