Feature

For Nancy Dess, moving from her postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, to become a faculty member at Occidental College, a traditional liberal arts school, was pure culture shock.

"I had fully expected that I would go to a research university because that was the trajectory, that was what one does," says Dess. Taking the job meant "a real shift in my thinking" to a primary focus on students rather than research.

Her five colleagues in the Occidental psychology department understood that and helped her make the transition. Having invested considerable time and money in attracting her to their department, they wanted to see her succeed. A dozen years later, Dess, now on a two-year leave of absence as APA's senior scientist, says their advice to her was heavy on "the nuts and bolts of teaching, so it wasn't this trial-and-error process for me."

Sample syllabi were available as guidance rather than mandates, conversations were frequent and collegial in the small department and first-year faculty did not have student advising or committee responsibilities. That left her time to settle in, master teaching, set up a lab and get it running properly.

Dess's need for advice wasn't unusual. Arriving faculty, whether postdocs or fresh out of a graduate program, often need help growing accustomed to their new roles and responsibilities, and fitting into a new department, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education.

Departments can help incoming faculty adjust to their new environment by meeting three kinds of needs they typically have, says Belar:

  • Surmounting "boundary issues" that come with changing one's role from graduate student to faculty member.

  • Understanding and negotiating the institution's administrative system.

  • Advancing in the department and seeking tenure.

Psychological reinforcement, mentoring and university-wide services are key tools in supporting new faculty members in such quests. And Belar says that newcomers need the help of chairs and senior faculty to get the most out of those tools.

Establishing a new identity

A major concern for many new faculty is making the transition from student to teacher.

"Most new junior faculty are closer in age to the students than they are to a majority of the faculty in a department," points out Deborah Best, PhD, psychology department chair at Wake Forest University. "They are in an awkward situation, leaving behind the student role, trying to figure out what it means to be a faculty person."

"Often there is some insecurity in the classroom, simply because they haven't done it a lot," Best says. "When students start challenging them, sometimes new faculty get kind of weak-kneed. As chair, I'm constantly saying, 'You're doing fine,' and 'Yes, you can do that.' 'No, you don't have to be their friend.'"

Problems are compounded for the "all-but-dissertation" (ABD) newcomer who must shift precious time and effort away from creating a new identity as a professor to completing the obligations of a student. For that reason, many institutions increasingly shy away from hiring ABDs, while others will hire them only as instructors, not for tenure-track positions.

By comparison, new faculty who come with postdoctoral experience fare better. Most chairs feel that postdocs clearly have an advantage when it comes to publications, teaching and psychologically distancing themselves from identifying as a student. As a result of their experience "their thoughts are more clearly formulated," and they are more self-assured both in the classroom and out, says Thomas Dilorenzo, PhD, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Delaware.

Learning the system

New faculty will also fit in better if they understand departmental rules and procedures.

Arthur Woodward, PhD, who recently stepped down after more than a decade as chair of UCLA's psychology department, sought to promote that understanding by assembling into a 10-page document "all of the nit-picky little" details of administrative policies--from the amount of postage and long-distance telephoning supported by the department, to procedures for ordering equipment, to who will set it up and burn it in. The document took him more than a year to create and has become the arbiter of all faculty and staff questions.

Another increasingly popular way to familiarize new faculty with university and departmental functioning is mentoring.

Assigning mentors to new faculty sends the message that questions are encouraged. Dilorenzo reinforces mentoring by making sure professors get credit for mentoring as part of their service load. Many chairs urge mentors to be proactive and drop by others' offices to ask how things are going.

Building a career

Mentoring also helps with another critical aspect of faring well in a new department--moving forward on the path to tenure.

"All junior faculty are worried about tenure, and they need to be," says UCLA's Woodward. His department has a highly respected senior professor in the department--a member of the National Academy of Sciences--who meets with junior faculty at least once a quarter to discuss career issues. The program also brings in university speakers to explain the personnel process.

Woodward calls it a "buffered system" of mentoring that insulates the chair from potential conflicts of interest concerning tenure, while leaving junior faculty with a sense "that they are very well cared for."

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is also using mentoring to help new faculty advance. About 15 years ago, administrators there noticed that women assistant professors were staying and gaining tenure at much lower rates than men.

"One of the things that women who were exiting said was that theyfelt isolated and unsupported in their departments," explains Janet Hyde, PhD, chair of the department of psychology.

The campus created a program that matched each female assistant professor with a senior female mentor outside her department. There is "a huge advantage to having a mentor who will never vote on your tenure," says Hyde. "You can tell them the dumb thing you did and hopefully learn from it."

The program has been so successful, virtually eliminating gender disparity in achieving tenure, that the campus has established a parallel program for all assistant professors.

Spending good quality time with new faculty the first year "might be incredibly time consuming," says Best, "but it staves off a lot of problems and hassles in the years to come."

Bob Roehr is a writer in Washington, D.C.