reflections on the first semester of assistant professor-ing

I’ve been thinking for a while about what I’d like to say regarding my first semester as an assistant professor. I want to start with gratitude. Unlike many of my peers, I “survived” the academic job market in the way that I wanted, insofar as I got a permanent academic job in one cycle. There is no judgment, or shame, in getting spit out by a market that is at once oversaturated and underpopulated, the product of an educational system that continually devalues education and those who provide it yet needs to meet the demands of a capitalist economy increasingly hungry for young labor. There is no shame in choosing a second, third, or sixth cycle.

I am still in academia because I was lucky. I committed myself to one market year and only one, because I needed to move on. Incredible friends and mentors could not undo a toxic department, one where the shiny veneer of “collegiality” served as apology for a professor in a position of power who emotionally damaged nearly a decade’s worth of graduate students (possibly more) and another who refused to name white supremacy after a white supremacist insurrection because to do so would be “political,” where putting up a poster voicing support for marginalized students took a 90–minute meeting and “evidence” from other departments around campus who had had the audacity to already do so.

But I digress.

There is power and privilege that comes with having survived in this way—power and privilege that lets me make bold statements, even as I insert omissions. And there is power and privilege in writing of toxicity as though it were confined to a single time and place. The longer I spend in academia, the more convinced I am that it is unfixable. The longer I spend in academia, the more determined I am to fix it. (Supposedly, Einstein said there was a word for this. I think, in spite of everything, that it’s “faith.”)

The biggest lesson from my first semester as an assistant professor is that very little in grad school taught me how to be an assistant professor, despite ostensibly preparing me for such a position. In grad school, I learned how to read large amounts of text rapidly, to synthesize across writers, to approach work critically and cruelly. Some of these skills are useful—nothing like pulling out the ol’ seminar skills when you have a bucket of readings to prep for your own seminar, the one you are now entrusted to teach. (What?!?) The critical sensibility I gained in grad school is central both to my work and worldview, and for that I am grateful. The cruelty I could have done without, but it is useful to know that it is there and that students have been taught to expect it, such that we can work on unlearning it together.

Grad school also taught me how to work the system—or rather, grad school forced me to teach that to myself. It probably did not intend for me to do so. Part of me is uncomfortable about having done so: working the system is an individual solution to, you guessed it, systemic problems, and it can enable change but only in spurts and always with behind-the-scenes backlash because ad-hoc solutions must be clandestine to work. Part of me is nevertheless proud, because it makes me feel clever and grad school seemed very determined to make me feel the opposite most of the time. More importantly, grad school taught me the system is an adversary. Institutions do not love you; your boss is not your friend; professionalism is whiteness; kindness and compassion are not incompatible with fire and change. For this lesson I am also grateful.

Here is what I mean: much of my day-to-day is helping students. Grad school wanted to teach me how to compete, not to help, but it forced me to learn the latter in order to survive. I don’t mean helping in terms of research collaboration (though this is also important) or passing down knowledge to less senior grads (because often grads are tacitly expected to do this, often with no support or compensation, in place of formal institutions). Two weeks ago I came from a therapy session of my own to a meeting with a sobbing student. Where was holding space for sorrow in my IR field seminar? Where was managing emotional capacity in the comparative politics colloquium?

We tell grad students to build hobbies and practices outside of grad school so that they have work-life balance, or perhaps a sense of worth beyond their work. These things are important, and also, these hobbies and practices can teach the skills that grad school doesn’t. Work in activist spaces taught me mediation and de-escalation skills. Being in the community taught me experiences, vocabularies, pronouns, stories different from my own. I have talked about this before, but bless my undergraduate training as a journalist, which taught me to interview, listen between the lines, and pursue stories—in other words, the ins and outs of my actual research, which I think I was supposed to learn in grad school? I don’t know.  

I don’t know how to supervise dissertations. I know the advice I would give my younger self, and I know how to supervise interns because I did that at my job prior to grad school, so I draw on these skills as much as I can. I know how to teach, but only kind of, because I have only ever learned through trial and error and that is a horrible pedagogical method when you are trying and erring with other people’s lives and futures. I don’t know how much power I have to help students, and I don’t know how much I can push on boundaries without being knocked down. I definitely don’t know how to use OneDrive or why some of the files on my work computer magically go there and others end up in the abyss. (Help!)

There are deeper questions here of what grad school is for, if it does not teach us much of what we need to know. I also want to acknowledge that I am bone tired, the kind of tired that requires not sleep but settling, the kind of tired that needs to be considered and held before rest can even begin. And I am learning a new academic system on top of a new job (hello, England!), and it is impossible to disentangle the difficulties that come with each of those things. But I am struck that I have spent six years ostensibly learning how to do, and being intentionally given the space to practice, just one-third of my job. The rest is “soft skills,” emotional labor, women’s work, pieces gendered and raced and classed as lesser (even though, I will perpetually argue, those pieces are far more important than our research in most cases—again, we are trying and erring with young people’s lives).

If I have practical recommendations—which I too would take with a grain of salt, given how green I am, but this is my website so here we are—they are more scaffolding for later-stage graduate students. Such students sometimes fall off the map, especially if there are few departmental spaces geared either toward the whole department or toward them specifically. Mandatory workshops and seminar series on how to mentor would be a start and also useful for those seeking non-academic jobs, because any job beyond the entry level (and sometimes even then!) requires supervision and teamwork. And, of course, instruction on how to teach, which seems so woefully basic but also seems to be beyond most graduate programs. One thing I like about the UK system is that all teaching staff are required to obtain a teaching qualification—in my case, it’s a 40–credit master’s-level qualification called the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education—but it does seem to come a bit late, don’t you think? UK PhD programs are shorter, and I know very little about them so I’ll refrain from commenting too much, but US academic tracks often don’t mandate anything, at any stage.

All of which is to say: there is not much stability post-PhD, even in a permanent position. I am just now starting to touch financial stability, having finally paid off my debts from moving and starting this job. I am starting to answer questions from my advisees with some confidence, as I finally have some sense of how extension requests work and what our quantitative methods track looks like. I am finding sources of help from, as always, new but already incredible mentors and friends, and I am finding solace in working in a union-friendly department (though striking three months into a new job was nevertheless surreal). I am lecturing my own course for the first time this upcoming semester, and I have zero idea how to do anything for that, not because my department didn’t teach me how to use the lecture capture system or access rosters, but because I banished that info from my mind during the first few weeks in an attempt to make room for everything else. Which is to say that there is still so much, and I expect there will always be so much, and it’s time to adapt my grad school adage: I will always be behind (overwhelmed), so might as well take that in stride and not try to catch up constantly. Better to be behind (overwhelmed) and happy than behind (overwhelmed) and miserable, and those are really the only two options.

And better to be behind (overwhelmed) with friends. Institutions do not love us, but people sometimes might. The last thing I am grateful for is starting in a cohort of six other newbies who can gut-check and validate my feelings of confusion. To have such a large cohort is highly unusual, and for those for whom that is not the case, I would encourage looking for campus-wide networks and spaces in professional associations that might replicate some of that community. Academia wants so badly to silo us, to have co-authorships be the only place where we can forge ties and build meaningful human connections. Building them elsewhere is thus both a tiny act of rebellion and a necessity for our survival.

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