Early Career Faculty Advice – Departmental Politics

Having served as Department Chair for four years and now wrapping up the third year of my Deanship at UAH, I often encounter many early career faculty (notice I did not say young faculty) who are trying to juggle their academic and personal lives on the holy grail of tenure. But this article is not about tenure but a tangential and mostly neglected topic of department politics. As an early career faculty member, if you have not encountered department politics, a cantankerous department chair, an ugly faculty meeting, an obnoxious faculty member or a jealous colleague, consider yourself as lucky. I have encountered a range of situations and I have learned how to navigate these thorny issues, often without help.

It is impossible for me to know what ‘politics’ you might go through but I hear from early career faculty often, when I travel, about these challenging issues. I still remember this like yesterday, when a senior faculty member walked into my office, started a conversation in a benign fashion and when I did not agree with him, he became rude, raised his voice, banged his fist on my table to make a point to intimidate me and then stormed out of my office. That was a long time ago when I was a junior faculty member but it is still etched in my memory.

With this preface, here are some guidelines:

  1. Remember that you are an early career faculty member and your number one priority is to focus on your teaching and research  with adequate levels of service commitments. It does not matter how great your department is, there are always some underlying tensions and issues. Do not get embroiled in any of them. You need to set your tone very early in your career. When you first walked in to the department as a new hire, everyone was eager to meet you, involve you in research activities, show you the place and even share some best practices in teaching. Then, when that wore off, some faculty members tried to involve you in department politics.  You need to politely but firmly indicate that while these issues are important, you are too new and would rather not engage in these conversations. You need to reserve the right to figure out each faculty member for yourself, not listen to faculty member A’s opinion of faculty member B. That’s politics. Do not get trapped in this web.
  2. Keep your distance. In your eagerness to fit in, do not try to socialize with your fellow faculty and staff members too quickly (and too much). Then it will be impossible to untangle yourself when the politics in your department hit hard.
  3. As an early career faculty member, make sure that you attend faculty meetings, take notes, and learn from the dynamics and interactions among faculty members. There are bound to be many matters that will be contentious. For example, how to spend the research budget may be hotly contested, better still in which thematic area should a new faculty member be hired could get even worse. In all of these cases, take notes, and only weigh in if you truly know what is going on. Never take sides just because someone cajoled or coerced you. If you do not know the entire picture you can simply abstain from voting. The worst thing you could do for your credibility is vote yes (or no) for a certain topic when everyone in the room knows that you have no idea about the complete situation. Never be coerced into casting a vote at a departmental meeting.
  4. Trust me when I say this, you will and I mean you WILL encounter this situation. In comes a senior faculty member who is frustrated about a certain departmental/University situation, shut the door and then proceed to rant and rave about the frustration. If you let it go on too long this session could go on for hours. In their frustration they could knowingly or unknowingly talk ill about other faculty member, staff or administrators. While an hour or two has gone without you saying a word, you realize that you are now trapped in your colleague’s web. You must be wise to these situations. Often times these are faculty members who have already earned tenure and who are set in their careers. They do not care about your aspirations or struggles. They have found someone to vent. If you have allowed this to happen, there is nothing you can do about it. But you can prevent this from happening again. When they walk in the next time and shut the door you need to politely but firmly draw some boundaries in this relationship. Tell them that you are not ready to assimilate all of these departmental politics and you are really busy and cannot afford the time. If they still persist, politely stand up, walk towards the door and encourage them to leave. Do this once or twice and they will get the message.
  5. The bottom line to all politics is this : Send the message very clearly and early in your entry point into the department that you will not engage in conversations that are unprofessional about other faculty members. It does not matter, who is correct or who is wrong, you reserve the right to figure out the department for yourself. Ignore the politics and then follow this up with solid research and impressive teaching portfolios. Write your papers, talk about your research and drown the negative voices with the upbeat nature of your career. Take charge. That is my ultimate message.

Here are some parting thoughts: Probably one of the best things that happened to me early in my career was that I was purposely in incognito mode. Other than my fellow faculty members in the department, very few knew in the University knew me. A few years later when I had built up my research and teaching portfolios and reasonably established myself I was able to venture into College and University Committees. I called it the phased approach. With time, I learned about the University culture and the ‘players’ and was able to engage much better as an informed faculty citizen.

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About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and was awarded tenure in 2002. He became a Full Professor in 2007. From August 2007-May 2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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