An interesting recent thread in The Chronicle‘s Forums raises, once again, the issue of the influence your first academic job will have on the rest of your career. The array of responses shows just how complicated a potential new faculty member’s choices can be in the face of a very difficult market, the pressures of relocation, family considerations, and professional aspirations.
So, how true is it that “your first job will set the tone for your entire career”? That depends on what you mean by “set the tone,” I suppose, because on some level it’s inevitable that you will be affected significantly not only by your first job, but by every one you hold. If “setting the tone” is narrowed a little to “setting the course” for a career, the answer is more difficult.
There are many stories in the Forum thread about how people have published themselves out of a first job. That process is easier in some disciplines than in others, of course, and is also highly dependent upon the exact nature of that first job. In the sciences, for example, some (rich, prestigious) small liberal-arts colleges have outstanding facilities, low teaching loads, and undergraduates talented and prepared enough to help a faculty member there publish out into a more research-oriented job. However, many other liberal-arts colleges have none of those resources (or at least not in tremendous amounts), and accepting a position at such a place will make it nearly impossible to move to a research university later.
The situation is not quite the same in the humanities. Books are books, and if you can publish one somehow, it can help you move up, whether you wrote it at Harvard University or at some campus in rural Iowa. You ability to publish will depend on the time and energy you expend in teaching, and how focused you are in getting your research done and placing an overriding priority on publication. Some people can do that and, indeed, do move from teaching-oriented colleges to institutions with more intensive research expectations. However, many more scholars — even wonderfully talented ones — do not manage to make that leap.
Another issue raised in the Forum thread is the implicit notion that anything less than a tenure-track position at a strong research institution makes you something of a professional failure. I’ve touched on that idea many times before, but I believe that as a profession we absolutely must define success more broadly than we do. There is a tremendous amount of heartbreak in academe that is only partly caused by harsh market conditions. Smart, talented, and hardworking graduate students in strong programs are often intensively socialized to believe that the only acceptable job for them is one at a place like their graduate institution. There are, unfortunately, far fewer such positions than there are well-qualified people to fill them.
Some of those well-qualified people will wait and wait for such a job that will never appear and they will end up leaving the profession. Others will take an ostensibly “lesser” position and feel miserable about it, and make their new colleagues miserable as well. Sometimes people in that second category will redefine themselves professionally and end up having a terrific career that looks not at all like the one they imagined they would have in graduate school. Such people are very fortunate, and I think we need to find ways to increase their numbers.