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+ By Margaret Loftus


A survival guide for new faculty members

Starting your first university teaching job can feel a lot like groping in the dark. Just ask Stephan Durham and Wes Marshall, who had little to go on as newly minted assistant professors of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Denver and looked to each other for advice. Both had only limited teaching experience as graduate students. Marshall’s wife studied pedagogy for years to become an elementary school teacher, but as for him, “I happen to be a good transportation researcher, which apparently means I’m also qualified to teach” at the college level.

Their predicament was hardly unique. “Being a college professor is probably the only profession in existence where no training is routinely given before or after you’ve started,” says Richard Felder, an emeritus professor of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University and codirector of the National Effective Teaching Institute. “You’re expected to learn on your own.” Lucky ones are assigned a mentor, but oftentimes new faculty are left to fend for themselves even as pressures on them are increasing. “Now new faculty are expected to come in and immediately start generating huge grants and churning out papers in their first two years rather than taking some time to learn their craft,” says Felder. Adds Donna Llewellyn, director of the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology: “Of all new faculty, the ones who have the least experience teaching are in engineering. . . . You’ll never meet someone who has their Ph.D. in English who hasn’t taught because that’s the way universities teach English comp. Sometimes engineering Ph.D.’s have experience as teaching assistants, but a lot of times that just means grading.”

Durham and Marshall survived the experience – Durham has tenure; Marshall is on a tenure track – and teamed up to write a joint paper, “Tips for Succeeding as a New Engineering Assistant Professor,” delivered at ASEE’s 2011 annual conference. Here are some pointers offered by them, Felder, Llewellyn, and other experts.

Find on-campus resources:

Many schools have teaching centers – some, like the University of Michigan, have centers geared specifically for engineering educators – that offer workshops on everything from time management to active learning, as well as observation and feedback in the classroom. Universities also typically offer guidance for grant-writing through departments or an office of sponsored programs.

Don’t be shy about seeking help:

Llewellyn suggests, “Find out who taught the course last and say, ‘Can I borrow your syllabus?’ People are usually willing to help. It’s much easier to edit a course than to write a new one.” Felder notes, “Your colleagues really want you to succeed, but they’re as busy as you are so they’re not going to knock on your door asking how they can help you today.” He suggests dropping in to their offices, asking advice, and going to lunch with them to build collaborative relationships and learn the culture. After all, these are the people who will be voting on your tenure. If you haven’t been assigned a mentor, Durham and Marshall urge, seek one out.

Avoid over-preparing for class:

Most new faculty spend nine to 10 hours preparing for each hour of lecture, according to Robert Boice, author of the 1992 book Advice For New Faculty Members. That’s 27 to 30 hours a week for one three-hour course. “They get the idea that every bit of human knowledge needs to be in their lecture notes and that it’s their responsibility to be prepared to answer every question, so they’re killing themselves,” says Felder, who thinks three to four hours of preparation per course hour is sufficient in the first year.

Streamline your lectures:

Packing too much into a lecture can backfire. “It won’t be effective. People learn by doing, not listening,” Felder argues. In fact, students begin to lose focus after about 10 minutes. To make the most of those precious moments, Marshall cut his lectures in half, picking up the pace and integrating media, like Internet videos. He also engaged his students with more in-class questions and problems based on real world-type situations.

Carefully time exams:

In their paper, Marshall and Durham reiterate Boice’s advice that instructors should time themselves taking their own exams and allow students three times longer. Another pointer offered by Boice and Felder: Grade tough on homework and easier on timed exams.

Join in ongoing research at first:

“You eventually have to fly on your own, but you can learn more in a year working alongside an expert researcher than in five years on your own,” says Felder. Durham tapped local industry contacts outside of the university as potential collaborators and sponsors. “I emailed a bunch of them and took them to lunch.” The networking paid off when the Colorado Department of Transportation ended up funding his research. He notes the importance of staying in touch with potential sponsors. “It’s all about being visible.” When picking a research topic, likelihood of funding is an important consideration, experts say, but chances of success are greater if the subject excites you.

Pitch your projects to grad students:

Being proactive is essential to attracting the best and brightest. “It’s an intensively competitive arena; you’ve got to treat it like a public relations exercise. Sell yourself and your research. Present yourself as a mentor,” advises Felder. “If you don’t, all of the good grad students will be taken and you’ll be left with the ones no one wants to work with.”

Delegate tasks to assistants:

“Handing responsibilities to research students is not only a management strategy; it is also an opportunity for them to develop credentials,” says Adrienne Minerick, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University. “When they are productive and earn accolades, so do I.”

Balance teaching and scholarship:

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all of your time teaching,” warns Llewellyn. “If you don’t spend time worrying about research, you won’t be around to worry about teaching for very long.” Felder advises reserving a half-hour of productive time per day to work on a proposal. Saving scholarly writing for the next weekend or school break is a recipe for never getting to it, he cautions.

Be choosy about service obligations:

Avoid sitting on nonessential committees that will be of little help when it comes to promotions or tenure. Durham’s mentor urged him to readjust priorities. “He told me I was doing too much service. You want to do a little bit, but too much of it can be detrimental.”

Don’t neglect personal relationships:

“When you get immersed in all of the demands on your time, it’s easy to keep shoving those on the back burner,” Felder says. “Unless you make them top priorities, things may start to go wrong, and that’s where all your time will go.”


Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Boston.




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