Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: My New Colleagues Are Inundating Me With Advice

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Question: I have accepted a new job and signed the contract to teach at a small-town college. In advance of my move, in August, some future colleagues have reached out and emailed me, being very friendly. I really appreciate that, but as a brand new Ph.D., I am feeling a little overwhelmed by all of their suggestions — both for work projects we could collaborate on and for personal things like offering me advice on schools for my kids or putting me in touch with their relative who is a real-estate agent in town.

The thing is: I actually plan on living in a big city an hour away from the campus, and commuting. And while I am certain I can meet my obligations with regard to how much time I need to be physically on campus, I get the sense that commuting would be frowned upon. How should I respond to these future colleagues, who seem well-intentioned but are flooding me with advice I’m not sure I can use?

There are multiple things going on for you here, and they’re best dealt with separately. The main separation should be between the prospect of future collaborations with your colleagues and the "lifestyle" decisions you are facing, so let’s look at those two areas one at a time.

In most cases, it is a good thing when future colleagues feel an immediate intellectual connection with you and are eager to welcome you as a colleague in the full sense of the word — not just as a member of their department, but also as a peer and collaborator. But people can get a bit overenthusiastic about such things.

You want to be responsive yet carefully cultivate your options. Don’t overcommit or overpromise anything. Especially if you are a new Ph.D., you probably have your scholarship agenda cut out for you. Are you in a book field? Then you need to finish your first book (and most likely you’ve barely even begun the multiyear process of turning your dissertation into a book).

Don’t get distracted by offers to collaborate unless they explicitly advance your research agenda. If they benefit someone else more than you, steer clear. For example, co-editing a volume with an associate professor in your new department won’t help during your third-year review if you are at an institution that values research highly. Even if you are at a teaching-centered college where something like a co-edited volume would count as appropriate scholarship, it won’t help you land a new job, should you decide you want one.

In most cases, the best course is to wait until you have arrived in your new department and can get a full sense of its scholarship expectations before you commit to things. So defer, for now, with a vague but enthused plan to get coffee and talk about it at the beginning of the new academic year.

But it depends on the details of the proposal, of course. It would make sense to accept if one of your new colleagues — thinking ahead to a panel he or she is organizing for the Big Conference in your field — asks you to be one of the panelists. If you don’t have previous commitments for that conference and the panel makes sense for you in terms of theme, scope, and stature, then go for it. There’s no real downside, and it works out for you in terms of both organizing your own conference plans and being an enthusiastic new colleague.

The lifestyle issues are trickier. They would be tricky even if you were planning to move near the campus, because you don’t necessarily want to be socially obligated in your house-hunting search to a real-estate agent who is the relative of a colleague. These issues are even more tricky, since you don’t plan on living in town (and, reading between the lines, I am guessing you did not mention that to anyone during your campus visit).

Word of warning: Faculty members in small towns often have a chip on their shoulders about new hires who choose to live outside the community, especially if it’s not a commuter campus. The campus culture may involve strong expectations of faculty presence on campus, above and beyond required office hours.

I would advise treading diplomatically:

  • Thank your future colleagues for their advice.
  • Take whatever information they are offering — the link to local school reviews, the phone number of a real-estate agent, the suggestion of the best car dealership in town — and say that you are figuring out the logistics of your move and housing, and that you’d really appreciate the opportunity to reach out if you end up having specific questions.
  • Conclude by saying you hope to be able to have coffee or lunch with them before the semester starts and everyone’s schedule fills up.

If at all possible, wait to disclose where you will be living until it’s a done deal. Once you’re on the campus, you can mention casually that you are living in the city. That way you will be enthusiastically present, which will go a long way toward mitigating any anxieties your colleagues might have about your living too far away to pull your weight.

One final note: Don’t make up reasons for why you want to live in the big city an hour away. If you have legitimate reasons, share them. Make it clear that your decision is not because you think you are too good for the boonies (or whatever uncharitable explanation your colleagues might be tempted to project onto you). Maybe the city has medical care that you need. Maybe you have a two-body problem, and it’s easier to visit your partner when you are close to the airport. Maybe a family member who can help with your child care lives in the city, or it has a particular school that is uniquely suitable for your child/ren.

Don’t feel obligated to share all the details, but you can and should mention logistical reasons that might have swayed your decision to commute.

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