The First Year

 Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.