Journal Of Veterinary Medical Education

Volume 21, Number 2
Fall, 1994

John R. August, Chair


John R. August, DVM, PhD

The recruitment, development, and retention of outstanding faculty members are among the most important responsibilities of today's department head. In times of escalating academic expectations and financial retrenchment, it is essential that each faculty member live up to his/her full intellectual potential so that the department can reach its goals of academic excellence. Early career guidance is especially important, so that the young faculty member develops the attitudes and attributes necessary to become a productive scholar/educator.

Most new faculty members leave graduate school ill-prepared to assume immediate responsibilities in instruction, scholarship, and service. Arriving on a new campus, the young faculty member must adjust to an academic environment with different cultures, traditions, and expectations from the one that he/she left. This period of readjustment is known as the entry period, once thought to last no more than 1 year. Recent research suggests that the entry period for many new faculty members may be up to 3 years, an observation supported by this presenter's experience. Good mentoring is essential during the early phase of a first academic appointment, so that the young faculty member quickly integrates into the academic community and becomes productive.

During their entry period, many young faculty members complain about feeling intellectually isolated in their new appointments. After the positive experience of their job interview, at which time they were the center of attention, they may find themselves neglected by their new colleagues. The fervent hallway discussions about teaching and scholarship that they had eagerly anticipated often do not occur, and the lack of willing assistance from senior colleagues adds to the sense of insecurity.

The new faculty member is particularly susceptible to the negative effects of stress. The pressures of new academic assignments, lack of a social support network, and exposure to departmental conflicts and weaknesses not apparent during the interview may have a very negative effect on job enthusiasm soon after arrival. Academic inexperience may result in an inability to properly interpret outside events. For example, negative student classroom teaching evaluations in the first year may cause the new instructor to teach defensively, rather than to remain committed to a program of creative teaching. Active mentorship is especially important in these circumstances, because new faculty members traditionally are passive in seeking help, an action which they believe may be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness.

To address the special needs of the new faculty member, the Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M University uses a combination of pretenure-track appointments and mentor committees. The programs interact synergistically to enhance the early career development of young faculty members, maximize their chances of successful tenure and promotion, and facilitate the development of a creative life-long work ethic. The 2-year pretenure-track appointment provides a protected entry period before the tenure clock starts, so that new faculty members can develop the basic skills for academic success in their probationary periods.

Although the presenter's department prefers a committee approach to the mentoring process, individual mentoring may be equally effective. Whatever the format, successful programs are composed of senior faculty members with productive academic programs who give their time willingly to foster the professional development of their junior colleagues. Mentors must have strong communication skills, excellent listening skills, a positive attitude toward their colleagues, and a sensitivity to human feelings. When a committee approach is taken, more opportunities arise to meet colleagues from other departments and to build collaborative ties with other units. Research has shown that new faculty members who develop professional and social networks early in their careers are more likely to succeed in their academic appointments. Most importantly, the departmental administration and senior faculty members share the responsibility for the academic advancement and well-being of their junior peers.

Successful mentoring relationships depend on a spirit of openness, understanding, and trust that overcomes the barriers of discipline and age. Administrative commitment, manifested by the provision of release time for mentoring activities and reward for outstanding mentoring, is essential for faculty acceptance of the program. Structured mentoring programs offer benefits to all of the participants. For the entry-level faculty member, the program provides a well-defined opportunity to make the difficult transition into an academic appointment more smoothly. Long-term career planning is facilitated, stress levels are reduced, and there is an improved camaraderie between senior and junior faculty members.

In the presenter's experience, an active mentoring program has improved early faculty development in his department. The initial implementation of the program met, quite naturally, with faculty skepticism. Now 3 years old, the program has matured into an essential ingredient of the department's daily activities, and is a vital part of the professional development process.