I saw this tweet on my way into work and it gave me all the sorts of feels.
This time of year always makes me think about what it was like to show up on my first day to work at my current university. I was what the kids these days call a “hot ass mess.” I didn’t realize a university email account had been set up for me and all of the information about orientation and benefits had been sent there. I waltzed into my new department on Day One and the other junior professor who had been hired with me stopped me. I was walking into the building and she was walking out. She grabbed me and said, “Where are you going?!!?!?! Don’t you know we have to be at the dean’s orientation in 10 minutes?” I said, “nope” and walked with her “across the river.” That day I learned that everything on campus is referenced to the river. In the last five years, I have accumulated an abundance of Instagram river pictures.
I remember the dean’s orientation being helpful and I learned a lot about my new university, but it is not my most vivid memory of the day. I had worn a knee-length black skirt to work that had a pair of mesh compression shorts underneath. I’m not afraid to tell you, I don’t like when my thighs rub together and shorts are a necessity under skirts. The room where the orientation was held had these plastic desk chairs with a slightly rough coating. We entered the room and sat down, and an administrator passed out the agenda. She made it very clear that if we did not stay for the entire orientation, we would not receive credit for attendance and the result would be very bad. I sat up straight and then realized that every micro movement was causing my mesh shorts to rub the rough plastic chair…
…resulting in the most terrible ass itching I have ever felt in my life.
I felt like a tribe of ants was crawling and biting all over my derriere. I tried to discreetly scratch my rear end. I tried to stretch. I tried to hold absolutely still. I drug my butt around the chair like a dog on the carpet. I tried to stand. Absolutely nothing helped. I tried so hard to tough it out because I didn’t want to find out what “very bad” meant. Six hours into the orientation, I absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned to my new colleague and whispered in her ear, “If I don’t get these shorts off right now, I am going to die. This might be my last day as a professor here” and I ran out of the room. It still makes me laugh that this is her first memory of me – whipsering into her ear that if I didn’t get out of my shorts my life would end. We’ve developed a really wonderful friendship and she intermittently reminds me of this event. And sends me memes about itchy butts and rubbing thighs.
I assessed the damage in the ladies’ room and my ass looked like hamburger. The chair had caused the shorts to abrade the skin off of my butt and upper thighs. Because the shorts were attached to the skirt, I needed to go home to change. Thankfully, the orientation ended 20 minutes later and no one noticed my absence. I did not have to explain to my new employers why I had left so abruptly. How do you tell your new employers their meeting led to you needing to slather your ass in Desitin?
But, my awkward first day didn’t end there.
After the orientation, there was a reception scheduled. The deans, university president, other such bigwigs, were all there to welcome the new faculty hires. I returned and found my department mate. It was a tough decision whether to meet back up with her. On one hand, she was the only one I knew and is a pretty cool lady. On the other hand, I had just run out of a room to get out of my itchy shorts. I’m a little awkward and a bit of an introvert in public, so I chose to stick close to my new colleague.
She did most of the talking and, when people would then ask me who I was, I answered, “We’re together.” In my mind, I was effectively conveying the back story. We were colleagues, hired at the same time, inhabiting the same department. After a few rounds of this, she leaned over and whispered, “Do you realize that people now think you’re my wife?” I did not change how I answered.
So, thinking about my advice to a new prof on Day One, the lesson is that you can survive just about anything on Day One with a little Desitin and perseverance. But then you have to get through Day Two, and Year One, and Year Two, etc. There is no good way to convey what it’s like to move to a brand new place, with no connections, and start a new job with a ticking clock. Since I’m only about to go up for tenure, I don’t know that I’m in a place to talk about how to be successful, but I can talk about a couple of the things I learned.
- You can’t really be prepared for how lonely it can be to start as faculty in a new place, but you can be aware that it happens. Your potential friendship circle is so much smaller. So, be open to finding friendships outside of work and nurture them. Build your professional networks outside of your university too.
- You may establish connections with students, but you can’t be friends as long as you have a hand in their future. Create good boundaries. You’ll serve them better.
- Be prepared that everything takes five times as long as you think it should. Keep short term and long term project irons in the fire so that you always have something to go toward your productivity. This includes grants. My pre-doctoral and post-doctoral grants were funded on the first round. That is not the norm at the faculty level.
- Keep an eye on your money. People make honest mistakes. You’re the only one who really cares.
- Be ready for your new prof smell to wear off. Your novelty will wear off over time and then you need to actually do some damned work. When the rewards and congratulations become less frequent, it can feel like a slog. Your students will start to generate wins that will be really rewarding. Be patient in that intermediate period.
And here are my two most important “words of wisdom”:
- Find your advocates. These are the people that will nominate you for awards and give your resources because your success as a junior prof is a feather in their cap and indicates their success as a leader. They write letters of support for your grants and help you find new collaborators. These are not necessarily the people you think they are when you start. Show them gratitude.
- Work with people you like. These are not necessarily the people you think you should be working with. Reliable, helpful, friendly, collaborators are worth their weight in gold and are far more valuable than cats with big names that you have to herd together. These collaborations are the most intellectually and emotionally rewarding.
Leave any other tips for our new prof colleague in the comments below!