Mapping Your Academic Career: A must-read for new (and seasoned) professors

Christine Jeske

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. 

Christine Jeske has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches anthropology at Wheaton College. She has lived in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa and authored two books, Into the Mud: True Stories from Africa and This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. She now lives in an old farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, three pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.  


Thanks for this great review! I read Gary's book over Christmas break and found it very helpful as well. He demystifies the academic journey, making it much easier to make the most of the stage ("cohort") we are in at any given time. I'm delighted to have read it at the beginning of my career, so that I have a lifetime to benefit from his insights!

Feb 20, 2016 11:33PM by Carmen Imes

Sounds like a great book! I am mid career myself and can see how these stages are a good description of careers. I wish i had had a book like this at the start of my own career, so thank you for writing it.

Feb 18, 2016 5:52PM by Dorothy Boorse

Dorothy: I'm not sure where you are exactly in your career but here was my surprise as I worked on this project. It dawned on me that I had colleagues who were successful at the start of their careers and then they were failing at later stages. That was a new thought. I thought that if you launched well and you were doing well at, say, 35 or 40, all was fine. Then I noticed (and it was confirmed in the literature) that when we are mid-career or late-career, there are new hurdles. For me: I wanted to end well eventually and I'm so glad I discovered that there was a lot of work still to do. Which is what I'm doing now. Maybe that book was a part of the self-exploration. My wife (a therapist) says it is. But what do therapists know ... (!)

Feb 21, 2016 5:56PM by Gary Burge

This sounds like a great book...I've put it on my Amazon wish list. :) The comments about the need for security feel especially true in my current situation: female faculty member halfway through the tenure process at an R1 university, in a male-dominated department. I think it's helpful to actually identify and articulate needs (such as security and affirmation of my abilities and work) as normal and valid. Accepting the need (and taking deliberate positive actions to fill it, such as scheduling a lunch with a mentor or colleague) definitely lessens the self-criticism for having them.

For me it's been important to realize that no one person will be the right mentor for all types of situations, and to instead cultivate a network of mentors for different types of input (teaching, advising, managing research budgets, life, etc.). A faculty position can feel quite isolating at times. It has been difficult to feel like I have any type of real "community" because of such high demands on my (and everyone else's) time, so deliberately seeking out positive colleagues to meet with has been especially important for creating opportunity for constructive interaction. Or for human interaction in general. :)

Other ways of reaching out ("secrets" per Gary's comment above): invite one or a few faculty from another department or university for a brown-bag lunch discussion of a paper (interdisicplinary or in a shared discipline), or for a roundtable 3-min intro/summary of each person's research followed by informal discussion...especially if it is a new faculty member also seeking on-campus connections; send personal emails inviting colleagues to a seminar you're giving (shameless self-promotion = invitation for feedback and possibility for new collaborations); invite another full research group (faculty and their grad students) on campus to your lab group meeting to discuss a paper or someone's research, etc. These approaches might be more relevant for science disciplines than other fields that don't have research labs or groups, so I'm interested in see what other secrets other faculty have. :) Thanks Gary, for starting a conversation via your book!

Feb 18, 2016 5:12PM by Jessica

Hi Jessica: I learned that when I shared this ms with other colleagues in different disciplines, there were completely different variables at work as they progressed in their careers. The fine arts and the physical sciences are a case in point. How does one measure scholarship in those arenas? The multi-authored paper and the performance are so incredibly different. In my own world, we published single-author books and papers.

It would be great to hear some scientists weigh in on how this curricular area poses different challenges. Your ideas are really fantastic and they wouldn't have occurred to me. Thanks for posting them.


Feb 21, 2016 6:00PM by Gary Burge

I have a joint appointment that blends teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities, which is not the norm at my traditional university. Any advice for flourishing in the less traditional academic path? How do you find advisors and mentors when no one quite aligns with what you do?

Feb 18, 2016 4:00PM by Sharon

Hi Sharon. Thanks for writing. I think that with so many of these questions it comes down to relationships, no matter what we are doing. So it strikes me that what each of us needs is mentors or friends who are working and living within "the academy" broadly understood. They understand the pressures and the assessments. And frankly in one sense, it is easier to have a mentor/friend who is a bit removed from our immediate department. There is less risk of spillage into how your immediate colleagues view you. When I first came to Wheaton, my mentor was the head of the athletic department! And he was the administrative director. No matter. He was wise, he knew the culture of the college, and he was safe. Those things were golden at that time in my life.


Feb 21, 2016 5:52PM by Gary Burge

Christine: Thank you for writing such a generous review. If this little project encourages and helps new faculty just a little bit, I'll be happy. What we are doing as professors is extremely important. But like any career, there are secrets to be had. Hopefully many will collect a few of those secrets here. I'm happy to respond to comments/queries in this comments section.

Gary Burge

Feb 16, 2016 9:01AM by Gary Burge

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