The most interesting e-mail I received today said: “Dear Professor Zero, Thank you so much for sharing your manuscript. I have read exhaustively on this subject and yours is one of the very most useful pieces. It is so surprising you have not yet been able to place it.” On this issue see paragraph 2, point 3, below.
Now everyone is giving advice to new faculty. Didion‘s is the best, and mine is the worst. I could give an even worse set of instructions by parodying the actual assistant professor trajectory most familiar to me (although unavailable to me): “Advice for New Faculty – Protégé Edition.” Elements in it would be:
1. Carry a cell phone and receive important calls in foreign languages, obviously from faculty at fancy universities.
2. Give good classes. You do not have to tone down a thing. What in others would be “too hard” or “mean” will, in you, be seen as what it really is — well educated, interesting, challenging, intelligent.
3. Publish good research. You do not have to worry about placing your work, as that will be taken care of by your protectors. You are therefore free to write whatever you want, so long as it is in field and good.
4. Follow the same rules on service as everyone.
5. Be very flattering to everyone, and somewhat flirtatious with (much) older people. Then your foibles, even including mildly unprofessional behavior, if any, will be considered cute.
6. Rent a cheap apartment here (or ideally, find a nice local girl to live with), and buy a nice condominium near your research site, which is of course near your family, friends, and mentors. Spend all vacations there. This way you can keep moving around in terms of jobs, but always have a home.
7. During term time, rent this condominium to faculty on sabbatical who will pay you above market price and in Euros. That will cover both your mortgage and your rent.
8. On the question of outside letters for tenure, see point 3, above.
Actually, though, I do have a serious piece of advice for new faculty — the best advice: have a large project that seriously interests you. I mean which very seriously interests you. One so fascinating that its image pursues you everywhere and you miss it after a few hours away. This will keep everything else in perspective and it will keep generating writing. All of the writing will be increasingly well informed, and since it will build on itself, it will build momentum. Do not let anyone — anyone — tell you that your interest in the topic is obsessive. Good projects are like that, and that is what it is to be a specialist, anyway. “Usually the articles that are the most successful are pieces of larger projects.”
This is, of course, advice from my own experience. Deferring work you want to do because “it is a long project” may be appropriate in some circumstances, but in can also waste more time in the end. That is particularly true if you are not working at one of those lively places that make everything seem interesting. If you are conducting research in less than ideal circumstances, then it really does have to be on questions that haunt your leisure time — not just questions you recognize as interesting for “academic” reasons.
The other advantage of utter obsession with a project is that it will move you to turn down invitations to speak in panels on your sidelines. If you work in less than ideal circumstances you will have good reason to want to say yes to these invitations but beware — it is much more work to turn a set of discrete conference presentations is much harder to turn into a set of articles than it is to write a book that generates articles and conference presentations as residue. If you are utterly obsessed, you will soon receive invitations to speak in panels at the same conferences, but on your main project, not on your sidelines. This is particularly important if you are in a situation where you must also prepare a good number of out of field courses.