Settling Into An HE Career

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How to get off to the best start in your first year

There will days during your first few weeks when you feel completely overwhelmed, but take heart: not only will you make it through your first year as an academic, with a bit of planning and support, someday you’ll look back on this time with a smile. Here’s a few pointers on settling in.

Take advantage of orientation.

Worried about preparing teaching materials, some new hires skip scheduled orientation sessions. While you may be able to delay requirements like fire safety training until later in the term, don't make the mistake of missing out on a campus tour, information sessions about administrative processes and software, or any chances to meet with your admin or academic colleagues. Many of the time-consuming mistakes new academics make could have been avoided by attending these.

If your university does not offer a formal orientation, or if there are key areas where you feel unsure of how to start, ask your head of department or line manager for a bespoke session with a knowledgeable colleague.

Meet the neighbours.

Today’s academic workplace can leave you feeling disconnected and unsure of yourself. You may be hotdesking with no home base, or find yourself situated in an isolated office. Or everyone around you may seem very busy with their own start-of-term tasks.

It’s up to you to take a few minutes each day to get to know your colleagues. One of the easiest ways to do it, which will also solve other problems, is to keep a daily note of questions that come up. Need to know how to order business cards or stationery? Not sure where to get module guides printed? Want to know if there’s a coffeeshop with wifi nearby? Take just one question to one person each day, introduce yourself, and after they’ve answered, also ask them about their work at the university.

Also, instead of working at your desk through lunch, take your sandwiches (and your laptop if need be) to the staff room or another location where you’ve spotted staff eating. Use this chance for an informal chat.

Find out as quickly as possible about how to get involved in appropriate research groups and committees. However, watch out for meeting-creep: you’ll be “invited” to attend everything at first. If you’re not sure it’s relevant to your role, ask a senior colleague before committing your time.

Make friends with admin.

Usually the biggest problems you’ll face as a new academic are the ones your degree course never prepared you for: bureaucracy, administrative tasks, and reports. The smartest thing you’ll ever do is make friends with everyone who provides administrative support for your programme, whether they process admissions, answer student enquiries, or help students with financial or personal problems.

Admin staff often know more about how things really work than academics, and a clever secretary or administrative assistant is worth his or her weight in gold to a newbie. Make a short weekly appointment with yours for the first month, and have a regular monthly meeting thereafter. They can help you understand reporting requirements, sources of data on students and programmes, how to make sense of the spreadsheets that will come across your desk, and what admin tasks you must prioritise. Start your relationship off right, and you can have a very helpful long-term ally.

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