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Jenny Baker
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The Academics’ Forum: How to “Assistant Professor” During a Pandemic

Cindy Maupin, Binghamton University, SUNY

I have been an avid reader of “The Academics’ Forum,” both as a doctoral student and now as an assistant professor on the tenure track, so writing to you all today is an honor and a privilege. I’ve learned so much from the insights and advice given by past rockstar columnists, Allison Gabriel and Dorothy Carter, and I am beyond excited to continue their legacy while giving back to others who share my passion for I-O psychology in general, and academia in particular!

To get things started, I want to tell you a bit about myself: My insights and advice come from the perspective of a recently graduated I-O psychologist from the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) who has the immense privilege of being a new assistant professor for the School of Management at Binghamton University. I’m very thankful for the mentors that I had along the way who helped me achieve this milestone (especially my fabulous advisor, Dorothy Carter), and I’m honored to work and learn side-by-side with my incredible Binghamton colleagues. My experience as a new assistant professor has been a unique one, so today I’d like to share collective wisdom from myself and others about “How to ‘Assistant Professor’ During a Pandemic,” with the hope that this will make entering academia during the pandemic a bit easier for the next round of new faculty members.

I like to say that I entered academia at the most perfect, unperfect time: After surviving my first-ever semester as a faculty member and feeling like I was finally settling into my new role, a worldwide pandemic hit! (What are the odds?!) In some ways, having to adapt to a crisis of such enormity during my first year on the tenure clock seemed like a challenge I could handle. After all, as graduate students, we learn to be amazingly adaptable with whatever challenges life throws at us, so what was one more? In other ways, I felt even more overwhelmed than I ever expected (Whatever happened to “getting tenure” being an assistant professor’s biggest stressor?!), so my next several months became all about trying to balance these dual reactions.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone trying to figure this out! I’ve been fortunate to have amazing fellow assistant professor colleagues, both at Binghamton and across the country, who have continually acted as my sounding board to help me survive and thrive during this “challenging time.” (Won’t we all be excited when we stop hearing that phrase?) For today’s column, I interviewed some phenomenal assistant professors, including Rachel Smith from Louisiana State University, Kelsey Merlo from the University of South Florida, Rachel Saef from Northern Illinois University, and my Binghamton colleagues Joey Tsai and Scott Bentley. Although I received a treasure trove of advice from each of them, I’ve tried to pare everything down to a list of our five key takeaways that have helped us to succeed as new faculty members in today’s pandemic-disrupted world. (But if you want additional tips beyond these, I’m sure each interviewee would be happy to share more!)

1. Your norms will change, so figure out what works best for you.

This was a common theme across all of the conversations I’ve had with other assistant professors over the past year. Trying to uphold prepandemic ways of researching, teaching, and socializing is just not possible, so we’ve all come up with alternative ways to keep up our productivity (and our sanity!). For instance, Scott Bentley, Rachel Saef, and Joey Tsai all talked about the importance of having a dedicated workspace so you can separate your home and work responsibilities more easily. In particular, they mentioned that having strict “work” versus “home” structures helps you to actually disconnect from work during your leisure time. On the productivity side, Rachel Smith mentioned a new Zoom-based writing-accountability group she joined (Shout out to Alice Brawley Newlin for organizing!) that helps her stay focused and feel connected to other members of the SIOP community. Finally, Kelsey Merlo shared great ideas about establishing norms for whom you can randomly call during the day to discuss new ideas and have informal conversations to mimic the “down-the-hall” socializing so many of us miss these days. However, it’s important to remember that each of us has different needs for healthy professional and personal norms, so trying new things and figuring out for yourself what helps you the most is a worthwhile effort.

2. Plan ahead and build in flexibility.

Some of the greatest advice my interviewees shared (that I will definitely be implementing myself!) were ideas about time management and planning ahead. Rachel Saef shared some awesome advice in this area: First, she noted that everything during our current pandemic environment seems to take about 1.5 times longer than you would normally expect during non-pandemic times, so she plans out extra time during every stage of her projects to maintain her productivity and give collaborators realistic expectations about her workflow. Additionally, she has been mindful of the increased stress her students are feeling, so she created contingencies on her course syllabi that allow students to ask for a 24-hour deadline extension once per semester, as long as they request the extension before the deadline occurs. Similarly, Rachel Smith changed her to-do lists from containing weekly tasks to daily tasks to better predict what she can reasonably accomplish in a day without overextending herself. Scott Bentley also focused on being flexible with his collaborators and states that trying to understand what each person is going through personally leads ultimately to even stronger professional relationships. For all of us, this means we need to think ahead and give ourselves and others grace and patience as we figure out new ways of researching, teaching, and socializing.

3. Don’t overwork yourself.

Several of my interviewees mentioned that the blending of work and home spaces can create pressure to “always be working” during the pandemic. This temptation can be especially strong while on the tenure clock; however, overworking yourself is the quickest path to burnout, which we know has a host of negative consequences (Shout out to awesome work by Jennifer Nahrgang and colleagues, 2011!). Joey Tsai made the observation that when he overworked himself one day, it became even more difficult to be productive the next day, resulting in a nonproductive cycle. Rachel Smith echoed this sentiment and emphasized the importance of taking the weekend off or ending your work day a few hours early when you’re starting to feel overworked. Ultimately, the consensus from our group has been that not working all the time helps you to work smarter and be more productive in the long run! Which leads me to our next big takeaway.

4. Actually have a personal life.

This one may sound strange coming from a group of people who are known for their long hours and intense focus on reaching that tenure milestone, but it is one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve received over the past year and half: Your personal, home, and family lives matter, and you won’t remain productive if you don’t take some time for yourself. Of course, this advice plays out differently for each of us too. For example, Kelsey Merlo talked about the benefits she’s experienced through spending time with dogs and catching up virtually with family. Similarly, Scott Bentley makes it a priority to focus on his physical and mental health through consistent exercise and tracking his sleep habits. Joey Tsai mentioned actively staying connected to family and friends and the benefits that creates for maintaining a healthy life. Finally, both Rachel Smith and Rachel Saef shared how they make time to catch up with other early career colleagues (myself included!) to get advice and build even stronger friendships in the process. Although we may all be separated physically, there has never been a better time to connect with people virtually now that we have a host of video-call platforms and collaboration tools at our disposal. I know for myself that being able to connect with others on Zoom, whether they live 5 minutes away or 5 states away, has made the world seem a bit smaller in a great way.

5. Form a network of colleagues who can both challenge and support you while you adapt.

As a networks scholar, no one will be surprised to hear me emphasize the importance of your personal and professional networks during a crisis such as this one. However, this pandemic has especially highlighted that the network of people you surround yourself with early in your career will have a huge impact on your experiences. I am extremely fortunate to have such great friendships with Rachel, Kelsey, Rachel, Joey, and Scott, and each of them at various times has helped me through challenges that seemed overwhelming at first. For instance, when I’m feeling nervous about teaching with new technology, I can call on any of them for advice and best practices from their own classrooms. When I’m feeling excited about my latest R&R, I can have a celebration with any of them over a Zoom happy hour. Make it a priority to develop strong professional and personal relationships with others, which is great advice always but especially during the “challenging times” we all find ourselves navigating.

In sum, being a new professor during a pandemic can be challenging, but by creating new norms, planning ahead, maintaining healthy work and life balance, and developing a strong support network, we’ve been able to make it through so far, and we know you will too! 

Reference

Nahrgang, J. D., Morgeson, F. P., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Safety at work: A meta-analytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology96(1), 71–94.

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