Your First Real Taste of Academic Culture

July 14, 2008

You have just been assigned as a research assistant to the lab of Dr. Miles Gloriosus. He is a world-renowned scientist, reputedly on the shortlist for a Nobel Prize. You are very lucky — or so you are told — to be part of his "elite" team. Past assistants have gone on to prestigious postdocs and then to tenure-track jobs in the Ivy League.

Quite soon, however, you begin to doubt your fortune. The master is never around; the work is done by postdocs and assistants. But the boss puts his name at the top of all papers and takes credit for every idea generated by "his team." You wonder: When, if ever, will my time for shining alone arrive?

Or: You are working as a teaching assistant in a large lecture course in the social sciences. You try to keep up with the pace, meeting with students, helping grade papers and quizzes, preparing materials, maintaining the course Web site. But you are also taking four challenging courses of your own, and your mother has been ill, forcing you to make frequent trips home. You can't manage all of your commitments and sense growing irritation from your faculty supervisor.

Or: You are a research assistant for an assistant professor in the humanities. The assignment began promisingly: Your supervisor is a young star in a subfield that interested you as a dissertation topic, and you asked her to be your adviser. But now it's your fourth year and you are getting no guidance on your dissertation, and the professor does not seem to be reading the chapters you send her. Her work is foundering as well. She has not been able to finish her book and next year will go up for tenure.

Why are the adventures of graduate assistants relevant in a column about promotion and tenure?

Because in every discipline, while the period from initial hire to tenure review is technically six years, in reality, the journey is much longer, reaching back at least to your earliest days as a graduate student. Working as a teaching or research assistant is a "prep" phase before the official tenure track. It is a formative and defining interlude for many of us who go on to the professoriate, our first real taste of academic culture and politics from the inside.

For some, the experience can be inspiring. I was lucky enough as a master's student to become a TA for the great film scholar Amos Vogel. Within a year I was promoted to "graduate teaching associate," which meant I had three TA's helping me in his large lecture course. I even got to lecture for Vogel when he was away. It was a job that allowed me to see faculty work firsthand.

At the other end of the spectrum was an acquaintance who got her degree at another college in the same city as mine. She worked as a research assistant for a chemist. I heard about the progress of her assistantship, from one catastrophe to another, until she dropped out of her program in disgust.

So how do you use your assistantship to lay the groundwork for a successful run on the tenure track?

First, understand that any anxieties you may feel about being a research or teaching assistant are normal and not insurmountable. Most faculty supervisors genuinely hope to make the experience a mutually beneficial one. And you are protected by (and accountable to) the rules and laws of your institution and state.

Nevertheless, in a situation that foreshadows the uncertainty of the tenure-track years, you are pretty low on the academic food chain. A multitude of despairing posts from graduate students on The Chronicle's forums testify that assistantships, although often enriching, can be Dante-esque nightmares. There are constructive steps you can take, however, to ward off trouble even before your assistantship starts, to avoid problems during it, and to escape from truly hellish situations.

Start by adopting a simple precept that is ancient wisdom: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Or modernized: If you commit to doing something, do it as well as you are able.

Maybe you're a star doctoral student, sure of your bright future as a theorist. But to survive financially you take a teaching assistantship that consists primarily of grading undergraduate papers and handing out class materials. You are not intellectually challenged at all.

Well, that's too bad. In a perfect world you would be advancing theory for a huge stipend. In the real world, you have an ethical and practical choice before you. Do you (a) slough off the work, spending the least amount of time on it that you can get away with, or, (b) do the best job that you can?

The answer is obvious. Even later in your career, you will be obliged to devote time to "menial" duties. Better to find ways to complete them efficiently and comprehensively from the outset, keeping in mind that you are doing a job for which someone — the taxpayers, grant agencies, or the professors themselves — is paying.

At any rate, words like "conscientious" and "responsible" in your letters of recommendation are not going to work against you on the job market.

The next step is to meet with the faculty member you will be assisting and carefully review your expected duties. Now is the time to ask about deadlines and the scope and feasibility of the project. Be candid about your own skills and limitations.

In those early meetings you should also request, and perhaps even design, a system of reporting your progress toward the project goals. The records you keep should be in print and dated, something as simple as an e-mail message noting, "Dr. Jones: I'd like to list the work I have completed for the last week."

That way, both you and your supervisor are focused on what has been done, what could be improved, and what is coming next. Should your relationship sour, you will have a record you can cite showing what you achieved.

As you get started, make sure you have received all of the training you need, whether it is with SPSS, Microsoft Outlook, or the Human Subjects Committee certification. Try to front-load the training as early as possible because your time will only get more constricted as the semester flies by. Above all, read the campus policies governing assistantships.

Now is also the time to discuss the anticipated outcomes of the assistantship for you and your work. The goal for a teaching assistant might be to learn how to teach a large lecture course.

The goals are more complicated for research assistants. For example, if you see opportunities to generate data for your own studies, by all means, talk to your supervisor early on and agree on how both of you view those opportunities.

It's also prudent to agree on your publishing goals, and any authorship credit, that might result from the research. Again, get it in writing (even if it's just an e-mail message).

Any collaboration between people has the potential for personality conflicts. Over the years, I have witnessed various supervisor-assistant mismatches. Some are the stuff of stereotype, like the egomaniacal senior professor who exploits the naïve and nervous assistant. But I have also seen instances in which an uncertain, harried assistant professor is bullied by an overly confident assistant.

We are witnessing the collapse of deference in the college classroom. Teaching assistants are part of the problem when they interact inappropriately with a faculty member in front of undergraduates. Certainly, nobody wants to take a class from a dictator. But students look to professors for structure, order, and authority. Teaching assistants should contribute to that climate by being supportive of the senior instructor. Some day, with any luck, you will be in the same position and the last thing you will need is a smart-aleck teaching assistant.

Sometimes undergraduates will approach you with a classroom problem because you are younger, more accessible, or less intimidating than the professor. They may lament that the work is "too hard" or the grading is "unfair." You may be tempted to score popularity points and commiserate with them. Don't.

First, you may not be experienced enough to know whether a student complaint is warranted or not. Second, it does not help undergraduates to get mixed messages about grading criteria. Instead, try to constructively resolve the problem in conjunction with your supervisor and in accordance with campus rules and practices.

Over the course of your assistantship, no matter how prepared you are, unforeseen problems are always possible — a sick relative or the sudden onslaught of work in another course. Most faculty members would prefer candor and a timely heads-up about the problem. We are willing to change the schedule but want to know why the work will be done late, when it will be made up, and that the quality will not suffer.

Our patience may also dry up when, week after week, new troubles erupt. At some point even the kindest supervisor might be tempted to say: "Look, you have too many things going on in your life to do this job." A graduate assistantship is not an entitlement program.

Even if the assistantship road is rocky, it can be a learning experience that contributes in countless ways to your full-time academic career. When I was getting my doctorate, I was a TA in a survey course. Just before final exams I subbed for the professor in a review session. Unfortunately, I did not prepare for the meeting. Several times, the students stumped me with pretty basic (but consequential) questions about course ideas and issues. I felt humiliated and vowed thereafter never again to go into a classroom unprepared.

It was a bad experience but a good lesson because being a graduate assistant is one of the best primers you can have in the long education toward becoming a professor.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.