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Collegiality: The Tenure Track's Pandora's Box

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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The rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating. A conversation has gone well when the other person has done most of the talking.


The posting below gives some great tips on developing collegial relationships with your colleages . It is by Mary McKinney, Ph.D. of Successful Academic Coaching and it appeared in the June 6 and June 13, 2005 issue of The Successful Academic News. Please visit Mary's web site at for additional tenure track tips and dissertation writing strategies. ? 2000-07 Mary McKinney, Ph.D. - All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Collegiality: The Tenure Track's Pandora's Box

If you are a junior faculty member, you have a good sense of how high the tenure bar is set. Publishing, teaching and service - you know where you stand in these areas. However, there is an elusive, unquantifiable fourth component in the promotion and tenure equation: collegiality. How are you doing in that arena? Are you respected? Seen as a "team player?" Generally well-liked?

Bottom line: do your colleagues want you around for the foreseeable future?

If you are a graduate student or post-doc, it is never too early to begin learning the rules of collegiality and paying attention to the culture and politics of your department.

You know (or have heard about) people whose tenure battles have been won or lost on the basis of popularity.

Collegiality is the Pandora's box in the room at the tenure vote.

A few weeks ago, an assistant professor called me for a coaching consultation after his third-year annual review. During the review process he'd expected to talk about his teaching and publication record; his Chair's main criticisms caught him completely off guard.

"People don't feel like they know you," she said. "You're seen as being rather un-engaged and peripheral to the department."

The gist of her advice was that he needed to become better known and liked by his colleagues, because he wasn't viewed as a member of the team. He was completely taken aback: he'd never expected he'd be told to schmooze.

"What should I do?" my new client asked me. "I never thought that tenure might depend on having lots of lunch dates."

Here's what I told him: Lunch dates are important. And succeeding politically is based on two factors: common sense and self-control. Exercise both.

Practicing common sense and self-control requires several tactics. When I started to list tips I came up with 16 - way too many for one newsletter. So here's the first installment of six tips.

1) Remember that whiners are boring.

You don't need to be falsely cheery, but keep your complaints to a minimum. Nod sympathetically when people complain to you, but don't play the "I've got it even harder than you" game. Everyone is busy, and most people are overwhelmed. Who needs to hear about it?

2) Walk the walk.

Pay conscious attention to the image you want to project: mature, eager, curious and calm are good traits to start with. If you cultivate your sense of humor you're more likely to be popular. Anxiety, anger, desperation and insecurity are unappealing traits.

3) Get to know your colleagues by asking for advice.

Most people love giving advice (take me, for example). You're not expected to know everything already. Ask your senior colleagues for suggestions about successfully navigating academia. What tips do they have for teaching, publishing, time management, negotiating departmental politics?

4) Get to know your colleagues by getting to know their work.

This is an important and under-utilized strategy. Getting good feedback in academia happens much less frequently than it should, and everyone craves credit for their efforts. Read your colleagues' work and let them know that you understand and appreciate their contributions. They will respond gratefully if you provide thoughtful responses and sincere praise. Be specific with your compliments. For example, say "I really liked your new article in Journal X. Your ideas about Y made me think about my own work on Z."

5) Do invite people out to lunch (unless you're just starting your first year - in which case wait a month or two and see who takes the initiative to invite you out on the 'first date').

Because you've read their work - you have read their work, haven't you? - you can ask them informed and interesting questions. Remember that lunch has gone well if your colleague has done the vast majority of the talking.

6) Don't make enemies with important people.

This is the most important rule and it can be very difficult to follow. In the mystery novel "The Titian Committee," author Iain Pears describes his character Professor Roberts in the following way: "He was a man who had learned early in life that you cannot arrange matters so that everybody loves you simultaneously. That being the case, the best you can do is to ensure that those who dislike you can do you no harm."

Relate well!

Likeability is important, of course, from your first day in graduate school until your promotion to full professor. Did professors want to chair your dissertation and serve on your committee? Did they write the glowingly inflated letters of recommendation that are de rigueur nowadays? Did they place that quick phone call to a friend on the hiring committee and sing your praises?

If you got the job, you probably had your doctoral program faculty rooting for you to succeed. The attitude of an eager, appreciative and promising acolyte probably comes naturally to you. However, now that you're a faculty member, your stance needs to change. Your role is no longer that of a promising student but of a talented junior colleague.

* * *

Here are ten more tips to add to last week's first six pointers:

7) Mom was right: if you can't say something nice don't say it at all.

Gossip may get you in trouble. Listen, but don't contribute, to colleague-bashing. Take mom's advice and keep mum.

8) Be a good listener.

The rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating. A conversation has gone well when the other person has done most of the talking. Don't confide secrets and antipathies until you know which colleagues are completely trustworthy and discrete (and this can take years). A good rule of thumb is to reveal no more than is revealed to you. Don't spill your guts too early. Take this advice one step further, and strive to be your colleagues' confidant (without getting caught in the middle of turf wars and popularity struggles.) Over time, people will share sensitive information with you when you listen empathetically and keep secrets confidential. It's good to know sensitive information.

9) Give positive feedback publicly.

Sometimes, make your concrete, focused compliments in front of a third party (such as right before a faculty meeting begins). Remember tip number four about reading your colleagues' work? After reading their latest articles, you're planning to share specific, appreciative comments. Make them public when appropriate. There's no need to fawn - you're letting your colleagues know the ways in which their work has an impact on your thinking. People will sniff out an apple-polishing fake, so make sure that any praise is genuine. Congratulate peers for winning awards, getting grants, and other successes. Gracious self-confidence is appealing.

10) Seek out mentors.

Everyone longs for expert guidance and it is clear that the careers of academics with devoted mentors proceed more smoothly. Finding a mentor is more likely to happen if you're reaching out via your practice of collegiality. Don't expect an uber-mentor: it is more likely that guidance will come from many sources in a variety of forms. One member of your department will explain the history of the political divisions within the department (the theorists vs. the methodologists; the empirical vs. the qualitative researchers, etc.). Another may be willing to read your manuscripts (and you should jump at this opportunity).

11) Find a likeable side of everyone.

Look for things you like and respect about your colleagues - even if you have to dig deep to find something appealing. People like people who like them. Even the strident curmudgeon with detestable politics may be a dog-lover or know a great lasagna recipe.

12) Leave your door open.

Friendly availability is highly valued in most departments. Avoid campus when you need to write, and reserve tasks that require less focus for your office. Check your email in the department, then escape with your laptop for an hour of rough drafting. It's a good sign when people stick their heads in to chat, so stop looking at your watch.

13) Don't talk too much at meetings.

Everyone respects those wise souls whose group comments are thoughtful, occasional and succinct. If there are 10 people at the meeting, make sure that you speak less than one tenth of the time. Ask good questions. Don't pontificate. Most rational humans hate meetings; so don't make them longer than necessary.

14) Make friends.

If you're lucky, you'll develop one or two true friends in the department, folks with whom you can share your frustrations and anxieties. However, it is important to seek out friends who are outside the 'family' - especially if it is dysfunctional. It takes time and effort to make friends outside the University, but it is essential to your mental health. Make it a priority to join a yoga class, running group, pottery course or another activity you feel like you don't have time to pursue.

15) Don't get angry: get tenure.

If your department is a deep and venom-filled snake pit, suck it up or get out. One of my clients with a prestigious position is coping with a batch of particularly arrogant and narcissistic colleagues. She uses me as her outlet for complaints and co-strategist for political battles. Having a ventilation system helps her stay focused on her work. We spend some of our time fantasizing about the stinging retorts she'll give once she has tenure. We spend time planning her fifth year job hunt. She's started a diary to collect her most outrageous stories of these professors' perfidy. A truly horrid department is a good reason to look for another job sooner rather than later, no matter how prestigious your program or the university.

16) Finally, realize that no one can follow all these rules!

We all show bad judgment, make social gaffes and occasionally lose our self-control. Moving on after mistakes, rather than obsessing endlessly, is one of the hallmarks of a successful academic.

You can do it!