When I read Gary Burge’s book, Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life, I kept thinking, “This person understands.” He understands why a new professor’s self-confidence can bounce like a slinky with a single word of affirmation or criticism from a colleague or teaching evaluation. He understands why no matter how much I prepare, there’s always a part of me wondering if it’s enough. And he understands why a mentoring colleague can make a big difference even with a gesture as small as an invitation to walk together across campus.
Most of these why questions can be answered in one word: security. Burge’s book maps out three phases in academic careers, and for each one he names a goal that professors in that phase seek. New professors like me, he says, seek security.
Before I share what he has to say about how to find that security, it’s worth noting that he also offers the very good news that security will not always be a professor’s most pressing need. For phase two professors — in the years roughly between tenure and a decade before retirement — seek success. And in the third phase — the latter decade or two of a career — the goal shifts again, this time to legacy.
What I needed to hear about security
As I push through my first year as full-time faculty, making my share of mistakes, I found a lot of helpful advice in Gary Burge’s book. So much, in fact, that I decided to take him out to lunch. We teach at the same institution, so lunch was easy to coordinate, but taking a more seasoned professor out to lunch wherever you are is exactly what Burge recommends.
The main developmental task of a new professor, Burge says, is to “learn the trade.” You have to learn to teach, to embrace the culture of your institution, and fit into a community. The problem is, you don’t learn those skills in a PhD program. That means the first years in a job probably include some growing pains.
Building confidence as a new professor — or a new anything — requires forming a core identity. To make it through phase one, you need to know down deep that you matter, that you are good enough, you are not an impostor.
You may be fortunate enough to have formed that identity already through grad school and messages from other people in your life, but it’s likely you’ll also need some reassuring in those first years of a career. Burge points to ways to develop that core identity — find a mentor and a community, aim for quality not popularity as a teacher, and allow yourself the time and grace to learn necessary skills like teaching and scholarship.
Caring for others across the map
One of the best parts of reading the book is that you peek into other people’s phases. Reading about phases 2 and 3 reminded me that I will not (and should not) stop growing after tenure. I don’t have to be everything at once. Now is not the time to make radical impacts in my discipline or institution, or to take on that crazy new research topic unlike anything I’ve ever studied. I’ve got a whole career ahead of me.
Understanding the three cohorts also leads to appreciating other people. I can look with admiration instead of jealousy at the colleagues in phase 2 who are becoming genuine heroes to their students. I can appreciate colleagues in phase 3 who are tired of serving on committees because their focus is on a more lasting legacy.
The book includes a wealth of practical advice, like how to build a savings plan, mentor others (or tell a mentor what you need), plan a sabbatical, and plan for retirement. Burge offers thoughtful insights on how women’s experiences as faculty may differ from men’s, drawing on conversations with several female colleagues who gave feedback on drafts of the book.
This book is small — just 130 pages to zip through — but it’s packed with insights. Burge offers a precious gift: a solid pathway and hope to leave a legacy through your lifelong career.