I got my first lecturing job at the age of 28. I’d come from a research assistant position, but I knew very little of the reality of a lecturing job. A passion for my subject and liking for the small bit of teaching I had done had got me this far, I thought: why would a lectureship be any different?
Looking back, I can see that there are a few things that might have helped me. I’ll blog about some of these in more detail soon, but for now, here is a quick overview:
1. Understand the bigger picture
Yes, I know you’ve been picturing yourself as an academic for ever. But do you really understand what a university is? Do you know what its management structures are? Its finances? Its admissions policies? Broaden your horizons: you will understand your job better, and make yourself invaluable to your senior colleagues.
2. Congratulations: You are now an administrator
It might be easy to dismiss administration as a tedious chore, but it is as much a part of your job as teaching and research, and is an essential part of university life. At some point you will be required to take on a major administrative responsibility. You may be given time to acclimatise and observe before this happens: if so, use this time to inform yourself beforehand, and always ask for help when you take on your first administrative role.
Prioritise, ruthlessly. Otherwise you will find that your day will be spent dealing with emails, and colleagues dropping in to your office for a quick chat. Keep track of your time – restrict your email use to once or twice a day, and close your office door to deter casual visitors when you are busy.
4. Don’t overrun your lectures
Good time management also applies to teaching. Not everyone will be as keen as you to hear you discuss your subject area for longer than the standard 50 minutes of lecture time. A university is a vast and complex organisation in which large groups of people change rooms every hour, so your decision to spend an extra few minutes winding up may have knock-on effects for many others.
5. Balance is everything
The academic environment can be very demanding. But remember, if all goes well you will have many years ahead to achieve your goals. Too many people damage their health through neglect of their physical and emotional wellbeing. It is just as important for you and your career that you take some time off during the week, and at weekends, to pursue your social life, to exercise well, and to nurture your outside interests. Anything else just isn’t sustainable.
6. Be a team player...
Good will and teamwork are an essential part of how a university runs. Increasingly, teamwork is required when it comes to teaching, research, and of course, administration. Be reliable and professional in your dealings with your colleagues: it will repay you over the years.
7. ... but tread carefully in university politics
Universities also run on politics, large and small. Take time, when first starting, to make your own judgements about situations and individuals. Don’t get drawn into allegiances if you are not certain you understand the issues concerned.
8. Ask for support
Too many new lecturers think that they should be able to meet the responsibilities of their role - without having done the job before. Being an academic in HE is challenging in many ways, but HE is also full of very experienced people who can help. Many universities now have a mentoring system in place for new staff: use it, and don’t be afraid to ask from help from others as well, whether academic or administrative colleagues.
9. Your last exam is far from over
You may think that you are beyond the world of tests and exams now, but the world of the university is one of ongoing annual assessment – of your work. You may face teaching inspections, annual performance reviews, and, of course, assessment of your research (for those in UK HE, the REF). Bear in mind that most, if not all, of these procedures are peer reviews, designed to allow you to consider your professional development over the short to mid-term. Keep some perspective, and ask for support if you need it.
10. You are not a student
That’s right. You are no longer a student. Not even a postgraduate student. The line has been firmly drawn. Remember, the university has invested its authority in you, and while you may have strong fellow feeling for those not much younger than you, your position makes a material difference. Be a compassionate, concerned teacher, by all means, but remember, the boundaries between you and your students have been firmly drawn.