When the Honeymoon Is Over

July 06, 2004

To: Alice Youngstar, Ph.D., assistant professor, Flagship State University.

Dear Alice: I'm responding to you at length because your recent e-mail raises an issue that all of us face in our academic careers, often more than once. Your case and your plight -- believe it or not -- are typical.

The past, of course, is prologue to the situation in which you find yourself. You were a "hot" Ph.D. student. You got your first tenure-track position at a top research university. The department wooed you for months. The dean made you feel like you were going to be the favored daughter of the program. She checked on you constantly. "Anything we can do to help in any way?" seemed to be her signature refrain.

Indeed, from the time the hiring committee first interviewed you until the day you moved into your office, you felt every bit like this was a match made in ivory-towered heaven. Now, nearing the end of your first year on the faculty, you write to me in bewilderment and frustration.

Your dean is, by the standards of the hiring honeymoon, inattentive. The e-mail you send to her gets a reply -- but not immediately like it did before. During the honeymoon, the answer to your every request was, "I'm sure we can work that out." Now it's, "The budget is tight; we'll have to see." Before, when you called on the phone, her assistant put you right through. Now you are told, "She can squeeze you in the second Thursday of next month."

When you meet the dean in the hallway, she seems guarded. You just received your first-year evaluation, and it is full of nitpicks. Where once your CV seemed gilded, now there are question marks.

What's wrong? you ask me. Why am I being treated so badly?

Well, I know you and I know your dean, and I think it's all going to turn out just fine. What's happened to you is natural and normal -- and there's no reason to be despondent or to panic. In fact, as you move past this time of unease you'll grow stronger and be a better teacher, scholar, and colleague for it.

First, understand that judging daily faculty life by the standards of the hiring honeymoon is bound to result in melancholy. All analogies fail if stretched too far, but consider, in parallel, the high failure rate of new marriages. Surely a major problem is that our culture sets up an ideal model in which newlyweds feel that unless they are giddy with affection 24 hours a day, somehow "the love is gone."

Of course you need love -- but you also need horse sense, humor, and patience once kids and car payments start crowding out barefoot walks on moonlit beaches. The "high" of the honeymoon was great -- for a few months. Now, in academe, as in married life, mastering the workaday routine is the key to long term success.

For that reason, your dean would fail you if she remained your indulgent aunt for the post-hiring era. This is a tough vocation; you will face many challenges. The longer someone holds your hand, the longer it will take you to develop the survival skills for independent creativity and production.

The dean can't teach your classes for you, write your research papers, or design your grant proposals. She's not going to coddle you; that's not her job, and you would suffer if she did.

Next, stop a moment and think about your dean's position. She is responsible for 31 full- and part-time faculty members, 10 staff members, and about 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students. She must answer to several ranks of university and system administrators, and innumerable parents, alumni, and donors. Every one of those people feels his or her needs deserve special attention.

I wager she gets about 50 e-mails a day demanding or whining about something. Some are serious: Professor X is making advances on me. Some are trivial: Shall we order orange or yellow Post-its?

When she sees your name on an e-mail, do you want her neurons to snap, "Oh, no, not Dr. Crybaby again!"? Maybe she's withdrawn in the hallway because she's anticipating your latest list of complaints. The perpetually squeaky wheel eventually gets ignored or replaced.

Or maybe she just had a long, bad day -- administrators have them, too, you know.

Try this instead -- it worked for me: Don't bother your dean with any problem that you can solve for yourself. Don't "vent" to her: She's not the therapist-in-chief. Save direct appeals for the tough issues. And then walk in with a realistic plan for a solution. Let your name on an e-mail announce something important and proactive. Be a solver, not a sobber.

Mad at me, yet? OK, take a breath. I agree with your boss's tepid evaluation of your first year. Let's look at the details.

The research agenda that you filed at the start of the year was too ambitious; the results were comparatively thin. Ah, you respond, I'm a research professor. Shouldn't I reach for the stars? Yes, but studying is not research. It's studying, which is but the necessary prelude to the publication of research.

Another analogy here may be useful. Who were the first people to climb Mount Everest? It may not have been whom you think. Two British climbers disappeared while making a final ascent on the summit in 1924. No one knows whether they died trying to climb to the top or on the way down afterwards. Sir Edmund Hillary, credited officially as one of the first two men to conquer Everest (in 1953), responded to the mystery by noting, "Climbing a mountain means getting to the top and then getting down again."

That's true of research as well. Too many junior faculty members talk about "research" as if the slog (or even the buying of equipment) is the end-all. It is only part of the whole; publication is what counts, and if you just climb up without coming down, you have failed.

I'm not being careerist and anti-intellectual; research is something that can be evaluated by your peers -- by the world. Better to promise less and complete what you promise. Get a reputation as a doer, not a dreamer.

And let's look at some of the other nits your dean picked. You tell me, "They hired me for my research potential, but they have me doing service work." How much service work? Trust me -- not that much. You are pretty sheltered, compared to the service load that tenured professors carry.

And did your "I'm a young star so why am I doing this boring stuff?" mood slow the pace and lessen the quality of your bureaucratic duties? I suspect that's what irritated your dean. Writing a report on "Improving Peer Student Mentoring in Second-Session Lab Courses" may seem dull to you, but it should be done with the same level of excellence you would employ to write a research paper. Your dean needs such reports, and she wants them to come from faculty members she trusts.

Yes, I think you will be a star, but you will also have to peel potatoes like the rest of us, and the more you whine about it, the less people will esteem you as a mature colleague. I'm sorry if this comes off as insensitive and condescending. I write with certainty and candor because I've been there myself.

My hiring honeymoon died fast, thank goodness. I found out that just because I was the center of attention for a few months did not mean that the program or the university would perpetually revolve around me. I found that when I bellyached less, and instead offered practical and measured solutions for real problems, administrators looked more favorably on the requests I did make. And I found that respect came to me from doing my best at everything I could do and admitting what I couldn't do.

If you adopt some of these tactics and outlooks, I guarantee you'll be less frustrated. The end of the hiring honeymoon is the necessary and unlamented step toward your productive career. Get on with it.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs and an associate professor of mass communication.