First semester on the tenure track: Of research, teaching, and service

As many of you know, my partner and I moved to Lubbock, Texas this fall (July 2019) to start my first full-time faculty position at Texas Tech University (TTU). This week last year, I was just on my third campus visit and was worried sick if a delayed flight would have jeopardized my interview. To my relief, I was granted a job talk and 2-day interaction nonetheless, and I received an offer a bit less than two weeks later. This offer was from TTU.

Transitioning into this new role at a recently classified R1 institution (research focused per Carnegie standard), I was very anxious about the expectations for tenure and promotion. With new courses under my assignment, I was also nervous about teaching undergrads at a different university and teaching graduate students as someone who has only finished grad school a few months ago. I shared my sentiment on Facebook during the first week of class in August.

Cliche as it may sound, I have experienced so much change and growth this semester. I’d like to document here a few things I learned as as a way to memorialize this new chapter in life, and hopefully to serve as advice to others.

If there’s only one thing I could emphasize, time is an asset. Being on the tenure track means I work within a given time frame to meet the institution’s expectations for tenure and promotion (T&P). At TTU, my clock is 6 years. I am supposed to use my time based on the workload distribution established in my hiring contract, which is 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Translating this into a 40-hour work week, I get 16 hours for research activities, 16 hours for teaching-related work, 8 hours for service each week in a regular semester.

Research includes funded and unfunded scholarly activities that contribute to the growth of one’s field. Traditionally, the output for research involves peer-reviewed publications (articles, book chapters, webtexts, etc.), grant activities, and other significant projects. Based on my departmental expectations for research productivity, I have learned to really maximize the 40% time I have in all research related activities. Most of it is spent on writing, really. Still, meetings with research collaborators, setting up IRB (institutional review board for projects) proposal, and searching/applying for grants do take up a significant amount of time as well. One thing that worked for me is multitasking. Whenever I hit any kind of writer’s block or boredom in one project, I jump straight into another project quickly instead of sitting on the current one. It keeps me motivated and also moving projects forward. I know this doesn’t work for everyone. For me, though, the downside of this is I tend to lose my train of thoughts because I am jumping hoops… but I can deal with that.

Teaching is valued as much as research at TTU. Quality of instruction is reflected in student evaluation, course design, student achievements, and mentorship. My contract lets me teach 2 courses every semester (minus summer sessions). Each course is equivalent to 3 hours per week (so 6 hours for two), that means I have 10 hours each week to do course prep, grade assignments, meet/communicate with students, etc. Additionally, being in a PhD-granting program means I am expected to serve on graduate student committees and direct dissertations. The TTU T&P requires faculty to chair and direct at least one student through their entire dissertation project during the tenure-track period. For the sake of context, the technical communication & rhetoric PhD here is currently a 5-year program. Thus, some strategic planning is needed to meet this specific requirement. My current strategy is same as the one I used when completing my dissertation while teaching, that is front-loading all important lessons and assignment requirements at the beginning of each course. This helps me to focus on providing 1-on-1 feedback and less time on preparing lectures later in the semester. This also allows me to move some in-person class meetings online when I need to attend conferences elsewhere.

Service, while deemed least important for T&P purpose, is required of every faculty to show collegiality and support the function of the department/university. Associate and full professors (tenured) usually assume more responsibilities with the intention to free assistant professors like myself from time-consuming tasks that don’t weigh as much as research and teaching in my own tenure case. Although I was promised protected time early on, committee and many one-off service work still found their way into my calendar slots. I am now managing the social media pages for my program, serving on the graduate admission committee, and co-directing the UX Lab. I have created recruitment materials, represented the program at college major fairs, and volunteered to appear as guest presenter at various student development sessions and classes. I was told to say “no” to things that don’t benefit my T&P progress, but that’s really hard to do. One thing I have learned is to align my service to research and teaching interests. A wise person once said, don’t do anything you can’t write (and I add: teach) about. I take that advice to heart and strive to generate scholarship out of the service I perform. Well, for instance, I am asked to design a new program advert for our program; I am now writing a research article on programmatic strategies in advertising to graduate students. And since I am teaching UX and design courses, I also work to create synergy between my classes and the UX Lab I now oversee.

All that said, every institutional context is different and each position requires different time and energy investment. What I’ve shared here are merely my own experience. My hope is to demystify the faculty role and provide some clarity to what may be expected of a new faculty. I still don’t have the answers to many things but I am learning along the way. Thank you for indulging with me on this journey.

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