September 04, 2013

Most students remember the butterflies they felt when they first arrived on the WPI campus. Believe it or not, new faculty often feel the same way.

Not only do new faculty have to learn the ropes, teach classes, conduct high-quality research, get to know students, and balance all that with a personal life, but they are expected to do this quickly and often while adapting to WPI’s unique seven-week terms.

Fortunately, senior faculty members can help them out with the Mentoring Program for New Faculty, an effort in place since 1997.

“It can get pretty stressful,” says Chrys Demetry, director of the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center, which facilitates the program. The mentoring program also has a ripple effect throughout the campus. “Any program that helps faculty succeed ultimately benefits students,” she says.

Demetry recalls a time in academia when the prevailing attitude for professors was that if you were meant to be an academic, you wouldn’t need any support. “That kind of arrogant attitude could be especially discouraging for women and underrepresented minority among the faculty.”

Today, attitudes have changed. When the program started, 40 to 60 percent of new faculty participated in any given year. Now, she says, 70 to 100 percent do so, some even requesting two mentors – one within their department and one outside – and that is fine. The program is open to any first- and second year faculty members who want to participate.

Demetry is responsible for pairing up the right mentor and mentee. The typical senior/junior faculty pairs are a great option for new faculty looking to learn the ropes and learn about expectations, especially within a particular department. But there are also options for peer mentors, who can give another viewpoint on the struggles common to the new faculty experience.

“When I got to WPI seven years ago, I was the only female in my department, and I was young,” says Jeanine Skorinko, associate professor of psychology, recalling her decision to sign up for the mentor program. “I wanted to be able to ask someone whatever crazy questions I had.” Skorinko was matched with two mentors who gave her different perspectives on what she needed to know. They looked at her syllabi, gave her advice about what she needed to do to get tenure, and generally helped her plot her career path at WPI. And, she says, there was the universal problem everyone faces on a new campus. “I was new and I needed to find some friends,” she says.

Eleanor Loiacono, associate professor of IT in the School of Business, says even behaviors that might seem insignificant can have larger repercussions for new faculty. New faculty wonder about the culture of the university. Do you close your door? Do you leave it open? “Mentors help you understand what is going on across the campus and give you perspective on the university,” she says. “And you start to get to know people.”

Both Loiacono and Skorinko will act as senior mentors this year. “I benefited from having these mentors and getting a sense of community and of WPI,” says Skorinko, “and I want to be able to return that.”

WPI’s particular challenge for new faculty is the seven-week term, something that is hard to understand unless you attended WPI as a student. “It is intense, especially when you are teaching it for the first time,” says Demetry. Skorinko agrees. “It moves fast,” she says. “It’s not until you are in it and until you experience it that you understand.”

“It is not easy,” says Demetry of the first year at a university. “If anything, the expectations of new faculty members keep increasing every decade.”

But Loiacono says WPI is making the transition as easy as they can and the whole university benefits. “First and foremost, because we have an established mentor program, we are far ahead of other schools,” she says. “It means people get integrated more quickly. That makes people comfortable and makes them want to stay.”

—Julia Quinn-Szcesuil