What’s Next – and Some Rapid-Fire Q&A

Hidden Curriculum LogoThanks to everyone for the recent surge of excellent questions! We are doing our best to get answers from knowledgeable, experienced academics who deserve our undying gratitude for their willingness to help make this blog a success. We have some big plans for the future.  Here is a preview of what we have planned for the next few months:


  • How to prepare for and be successful on the non-academic job market.
  • A series on how to maintain “work/life” balance in academic life. (We take the position that, yes, it IS possible!)
  • Advice on how to publish “non-U.S.” research in American sociology journals.
  • Tips on being a good discussant for a paper session (as a grad student) (who is asked to comment on a senior scholar’s work).
  • How to find a good dissertation topic.
  • Also — crowd-sourcing questions we have no good answers to!

For this week, we thought we would provide some quick answers to some recent queries posed by readers:

Q: I’ll be teaching my first class next semester and I can’t stop worrying about what my students should call me. I’m not technically a professor yet, but I’m also concerned that letting them call me by my first name will result in a less respect, which I’m already worried about as a young female grad student. And having them call me “Ms. (Last Name)” sounds strange as well. What is a reasonable way for undergraduate students to refer to graduate student professors?

The Hidden Curriculum agrees that it’s risky for grad students to allow undergraduates to be on a first name basis with you. If your students go around calling their other instructors “Professor Jones,” and they call you “Katie,” it seems likely your authority in the classroom will be undermined. We agree that “Ms. Smith” makes you sound like a substitute teacher. Or, maybe your mom. Might we suggest that you simply go with “Professor Smith?” It’s true – you aren’t really an “official” Professor but we suspect that if you quiz your students about the distinctions between adjunct, visiting, assistant, associate, and full professors, they will have NO idea what such distinctions mean. They mostly think that “Professors” are people who teach college classes. That’s you! So, Professor Smith – get to work on that syllabus!

Q: Why do almost all hiring committees keep candidates in the dark month after month after month? Haven’t we all been through the torture of not knowing what happened to our job application? Surely it can’t be that difficult to send quick updates to candidates to fill them in on when the committee is meeting and when various decisions have been/will be made.

Q: When is it appropriate for a job candidate to contact the search chair for an update on his/her application and/or the status of the search?

The Hidden Curriculum agrees that this lack of transparency is annoying, and even dispiriting. Some departments are much better at communicating with job applicants than others. As best we can tell, it doesn’t have much to do with the size, prestige, or institutional profile (R-1, R-2, T-1, etc.) of the department. Having said that, it is not uncommon for top departments to receive hundreds of applications for one position. Given that, it’s not surprising that many departments take a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” orientation. However – it is unconscionable for departments to fail to maintain regular contact with applicants who have interviewed for a given position. When that happens, people have very good reason to be irate and feel mistreated.

Regarding when it is appropriate to contact a search chair, the best time is (of course) after you have some interviews lined up. “Just checking in to let you know that my interview schedule is filling up, and I want to know if your department might be in the mix.”  Obviously, there is an ulterior motive here, and that’s perfectly fine. If you are not in such a fortunate position, and you want to “check in,” it is important to recognize that the pace of hiring in most departments is glacial. So, wait at least six weeks after submitting your materials.  However – be forewarned: there is an informal norm against “checking in” unless you have some news to report. Departments may perceive such inquires negatively.

Q: Rory McVeigh recently wrote on this blog that “hiring committees are looking for signs that the candidate will be actively involved in the intellectual life of the department,” but at a recent junior faculty mentoring session senior faculty told us “don’t volunteer all the time” and “find committees that require less work” (both of which I’d previously heard in various forms). Besides worrying about the troubling implications for the University if faculty actively avoid service, I’m confused about what junior faculty should actually do in this area. Are these statements actually conflicting? Does it only matter what one does to help his/her department and not the University? Or are there differing opinions?

Rory follows the above quote with:  “I am not talking here about getting bogged down in departmental service (we try to protect assistant professors from that).  Instead, I am thinking in terms of someone whose presence is felt in the department from day 1—rather than someone who hides in her/his office or works from home and only shows up on campus when teaching a class.”  We agree! Departments want to hire real live people, not name-plates on a door, or pictures on a web page.

Regarding the larger issue of service commitments, the advice about “not volunteering”  and finding “light” committee assignments is eminently sound. Good departments should protect their junior faculty from service obligations that prevent them from building a strong research and teaching record as they work towards tenure.  Typically, there is a post-tenure expectation that one’s service load will increase. Of course, it is important to be realistic: if you are joining a department with only three other faculty members, or one with almost no senior faculty, it will be hard to avoid significant service duties as a junior person. We strongly recommend job candidates ask about “service load” expectations in their conversations with junior and senior faculty when interviewing. Eyes wide open!



  1. I disagree that being on a first-name basis with undergrads is risky for graduate students who are teaching; anecdotal information tells me that this is not a vice, but also, I note that many graduate students refer to faculty members by first name, and there is no ambiguity about authority in those cases. More than anything else, students feed off of a sense that their instructors are authentic, knowledgeable, capable, and concerned about them — cover these bases, and there is nothing to fear from being on a first-name basis with undergraduates, as they’d much rather impress such an instructor than disappoint him or her. I don’t think we give our students enough credit for being the adults-in-progress that they are, which results in, perhaps, too much reliance on rational-legal authority; however, this reliance can actually be more problematic for grad students, since they don’t have the standing that faculty members do and can be perceived as pretentious if they aim to come off as more “official” than they are (for example, by insisting on being called “Mr. Matthew).

    My thought is that address should be what the instructor is comfortable with as long as department policy allows this. Other factors play a much larger role in establishing or undermining authority in the classroom, and one bit of social psychological information that my brother (a cognitive psychology PhD) posits might make the choice to be on first-name basis a bit more comfortable: in cases in which people are initially perceived as status-atypical, demonstration of competence actually leads to these individuals eventually being perceived as MORE competent and authentic than others. While I am not on a first-name basis with my undergraduate students now that I am a faculty member (my personal comfort level extends to those who are immediately below me in academic rank, so only grad students get this freedom now), I note how students reported on my grad school evaluations that they enjoyed being seen as “real people” and being taught by one. This doesn’t mean that going with a first-name policy is the way to go for everyone, but it does mean that doing so isn’t the threat to one’s classroom authority that some believe it to be.

  2. I think the concerns that young (especially female) instructors have about being treated differently by their students are important and they are unfortunately grounded in reality. I began teaching as a graduate student. As a male who was already kind of old (in my 30s) I think most students just assumed I was a professor and treated me as such. Gender bias clearly contributed to a situation where I did not have to work as hard to make students think that I belonged in front of the classroom.

    Based on my many years of experience as a mentor of young faculty members and graduate students, though, I caution against overcompensating for these circumstances or trying to address the situation in ways that exacerbate your disadvantages.

    Today’s undergraduates tend to expect their instructors to be friendly and approachable, and worrying too much about establishing your authority in the classroom can turn students against you (which is detrimental to the learning process and also results in bad student course evaluation numbers). The best way to establish a positive kind of authority in the classroom is to teach well and demonstrate your competence (but also being comfortable with the idea that there are things that you can learn from your students and you need not be perfect). If establishing your authority in the classroom involves being more formal and distant than senior (male) colleagues, than your colleagues are enjoying a significant advantage. That doesn’t mean that you become your students’ best buddy and hang out with them socially. It also does not mean falling into a stereotyped mothering role that some students will try to place you into. But it does mean that you need not hide your true self because students respond positively to authenticity.

    It will help to be aware of the gender (and age) bias that you will likely face in the classroom and you will need to find ways to overcome it. But doing it in a way that makes students feel distant can be counterproductive. Keep in mind that they will be comparing you to old guys like me who show up to class in jeans and a t-shirt and don’t care about what students call them (On the first day, I tell them they can call me whatever they want and give them some possible options–including the first name. Most undergrads still call me “professor”). So by being more formal in an effort to establish your authority in the classroom, you may actually be (in the students’ eyes) moving farther away from their preconceived ideas about what a professor looks like).

    I think it is actually best to be up front with students about your status as a graduate student instructor on the first day. Then it is behind you and you move on (and students tend to forget about it). That strikes me as being better than students finding out on their own that you are a graduate student claiming to be a professor. In the schools where I have taught, graduate students have consistently outperformed the regular faculty on course evaluations. Part of that, I think, has to do with an advantage of youth (undergraduate students can relate to you in a way they can’t related to old guys).

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