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Beginning the academic career: How can it best be supported in the changing university climate?

Moya Adams
Centre for Professional Development, Macquarie University
Catherine Rytmeister
Department of Statistics, Macquarie University
Beginning the academic career has often been experienced as a rather rocky road, both in Australia and elsewhere. The academic role is complex, combining the functions of teaching, research and service and/or administration. While most staff appointed to academic positions have already completed a research degree, and thus have already received training and experience in the methodology of their research, there is no parallel provision for preparation for their teaching role. This is especially ironic when teaching occupies such a large part of a new academic's time and energy.

Studies in the 80s and 90s in the USA, UK and Australia have indicated that most new academics feel isolated with little support from their colleagues. It is little wonder then than many new academic staff find their first years stressful and the experience of teaching difficult.

A concern about these issues, and particularly the role of professional development in teaching led the authors to conduct a series of interviews with staff in their first three years of appointment. The objectives were to document the experience of new academics, to find out how they perceived their teaching and research roles, and to particularly focus on what kind of support they received for teaching. It was part of an ongoing plan, to examine staff needs and experiences of professional development of teaching at each career stage, and to improve the teaching development programs and approaches which are currently offered in the light of this knowledge.

The authors conducted nine interviews with a random sample of academic staff who were in their first three years of appointment. Their appointments were as Associate Lecturers and Lecturers, and came from five different disciplines. The interviews focused on how they spent their time for teaching, research and service, what aspects of their work they found most rewarding; the kind of support they were receiving for their teaching from their department, the university and elsewhere; and the kind of support they believed they needed.

Teaching was clearly the task that absorbed most of new academics' time, from 60-90 per cent. Half the people interviewed volunteered that they worked long hours, well beyond a 40 hour working week. The range of their teaching included giving lectures, tutorials and postgraduate seminars. A third of them, including one part time person, had to revise and develop new units in their first year of appointment too. All but one felt that they did not have enough time to engage in research. Nevertheless, all of the interviewees suggested that teaching was the most rewarding aspect of their work although three found research equally rewarding or more so. Their main complaints were about the lack of collegiality in their department and the time they spent on administration. The first complaint about negative attitudes of staff came from four different departments, and only three people believed their departments provided an atmosphere in which senior staff would be approachable discuss their teaching as part of the normal course of events.

The interviews indicated that few staff had support or guidance in their teaching within their own departments, and some even experienced hostility when they attempted to set up some kind of peer support or collegiality. While a few accessed professional development opportunities offered by the university's professional development centre, it was clear that most departments were taking no responsibility to support these staff.

The implications for professional development were that much needs to be done within departments to ensure that sufficient support is offered to new staff. A small proportion access university wide programs, and these do not offer the kind of mentoring and peer support necessary to enable staff to fully develop their teaching especially.


Beginning the academic career has often been experienced as a rocky road, both in Australia and elsewhere. The academic role is complex, combining the functions of teaching, research and service and/or administration. While most staff appointed to academic positions have already completed a research degree, and thus received training and experience in the methodology of their research, there is no parallel provision for preparation for their teaching role. This is especially ironic when teaching occupies such a large part of a new academic's time and energy.

The assumption in the past has appeared to be that if one is qualified in the discipline area, the natural outcome is that one can also teach. This assumption has been questioned widely over the past twenty years in research on the experience of new academics in the United States, Britain and Australia. In the US studies have found that a high proportion of staff in their first year of appointment feel isolated, having little or no intellectual exchange with colleagues (Fink, 1984, surveying 97 new staff), and little help from senior staff, for whom they sometimes develop negative attitudes as a result (Boice, 1992). Similarly, in the UK, (Rust, 1991) a study of twelve higher education institutions, found that most new staff said they were left to their own devices, to sink or swim. Those who had positive experiences were in a minority, and any assistance received was ad hoc and unstructured. Findings in an Australian study in a large research university (de Rome and Boud, 1984) were similar: new staff felt under considerable pressure, had large teaching loads with inadequate assistance, and experienced a conflict between teaching and research responsibilities. A more recent Australian study indicated that only just over a quarter of a sample of 94 new academics experienced any kind of mentoring with regard to their teaching (Marshall et al, 1999).

It is little wonder then that many new academic staff find their first years stressful, and the experience of teaching difficult, or that students rate them as less skilled teachers than their more experienced colleagues (Neumann, Adams & Rytmeister, 1994).

Universities have sought to address this dilemma at an institutional level by offering induction programs focusing on teaching and learning for new staff. A comprehensive study of Australian teaching induction programs by Martin and Ramsden (1994) recommended that university-wide structured programs should be backed up by systems of departmental support, including properly effective mentoring procedures; that professional development of early career academics be seen as a departmental as well as a central responsibility. They also recommended that teaching and administrative loads be reduced for less experienced staff in their first year of teaching to enable them to undertake appropriate professional development.

A concern about these issues, and particularly the role of professional development in teaching, led the authors to conduct a series of interviews with staff in their first three years of appointment at Macquarie University. The objectives were to find out how new academics perceived their teaching and research roles, and to particularly focus on their experience of support for teaching. The study was part of an ongoing plan to examine staff needs and experiences of professional development for teaching at each career stage, and to improve the teaching development programs and approaches which were offered. The interviews were conducted in 1995, prior to the major restructuring that has taken place over the last two years.

The study

From personnel records of newly appointed staff, the authors wrote to 21 people who had taken up their first academic (teaching) appointment during the previous three years, inviting them to participate in interviews. New staff who had had previous appointments were not included. From this group it was possible to organise nine interviews.

The interviews were semi-structured and focused on:

The interviews were conducted during August, September and October which meant that those in their first year of appointment had completed one semester and were well into the second. Of the nine interviews, four were conducted by both authors, with one talking while the other made a written record; and five by the second author, recording the interview as it happened. Each interview lasted for approximately one hour.

The sample

The nine interviewees came from the disciplines of the sciences (3), education (2), economics and business (2), history (1) and modern languages (1). Six had appointments as Associate Lecturers and three as Lecturers. They were almost evenly balanced by gender (four females and five males). In terms of experience, six were in their first year of teaching, two were in their second year, and one was in the third year. Although this was the first academic appointment for each of them, five had casual teaching experience before they gained their current position. Three of the sample had only half time appointments, and were appointed to basically teaching positions. Of these, one was employed half time while studying for a PhD, a condition of the appointment.

Two of the full time staff were also studying for higher degrees: one for a PhD and the other for an MSc (research). Three of the remaining full time staff had a PhD, and one had an Honours Bachelor degree.

The interviews

The first part of the interview focused on the nature of their work as academics, and the second on their concepts of teaching and its development.

1. Describing academic work

How time was spent

Half the people interviewed volunteered that they worked long hours, well beyond a 40 hour working week. The range of their teaching included giving lectures, tutorials and postgraduate seminars. Three of them, including one part time person, had to revise and develop new course units in their first year of appointment.

Teaching was clearly the task that absorbed most of the new academics' time, from 60 - 80 per cent (and 90 per cent for the part time staff). There were two exceptions among the full time staff: one had a heavy administrative load, as coordinator of a large first year course (in her third year of teaching), and estimated that her teaching occupied 40 per cent of her time; the other had managed to organise her time to extend the work she had done for her PhD, estimating her teaching was equal to research, taking 45 per cent of her time each week (this included working most weekends). The part time staff basically spent the remaining 10 per cent of their time on the administration needed to support the courses they teach.

Research. All of those interviewed would like to have been able to spend more time on research. Some anticipated that as time went on, they might be able to do so when they were more on top of teaching. Of the six full time staff, three were able to spend only up to 10 per cent of their time on research, and a fourth 20 per cent. Beyond this, one person found about 30 per cent of his time for research on his PhD, and the last spent over 40 per cent of the time on research, though this was possible only by working at least a six day week.

Administration. Administration did not occupy a large part of most new academics' time: most estimated about 10 per cent. Among the full time staff, the lecturer who coordinated the first year course spent half the time on administration, but she was exceptional. An Associate Lecturer spent 30-40 per cent of time on administration, however, not just for his own courses, but for the whole centre in which he was teaching, and for its postgraduate program. He was rather bitter about this experience, having virtually no time whatever for research.

Most rewarding aspects of academic work

All of the interviewees nominated teaching as the most rewarding aspect of their work, although three found research equally rewarding. Two people found the flexibility of being able to organise their own time a rewarding aspect of academic work.

Teaching. Comments about teaching included:

The interaction, involvement and contact with students was most frequently mentioned as a rewarding aspect of teaching (6 people). One preferred taking tutorials to lectures, because of the opportunity for interaction that they afforded. Two people found marking rewarding as a means of finding out how well students had grasped concepts, and another two suggested preparing and presenting lectures. One person found the integrated relationship of her research and teaching enriching and rewarding.

Research. The three people nominated research as rewarding, talking about it with enthusiasm. For example:

One who had succeeded in gaining research grants, lacked enough time to do much (10 per cent of her time).

Least rewarding aspects of academic work

Aspects of academic work found least rewarding (mentioned by four) were the lack of collegiality within their departments and the time spent on administration.

Lack of collegiality was not isolated to one part of the university, but was instanced in four different departments. These people experienced a lack of collaboration among staff in the department, and a sense of isolation from colleagues who tended to be shut away in offices behind closed doors ("I can go a whole day without interacting with anyone"). For some it went beyond isolation to actual hostility from colleagues. When one new staff member tried to set up regular meetings for people teaching a large first year class to work collaboratively, some older members of staff were uncooperative and opposed the idea. One lecturer believed that the aging staff population in her department actually resented the enthusiasm of a new younger academic, seeming threatened by her research output. In fact she described the atmosphere in the top-heavy department as "an anti research culture". Yet another person commented on the lack of unity and professionalism among staff in the department, even "bitchiness", compared with previous experience in secondary education.

Complaints about doing administration were limited to full time staff, and referred to organisation, trivial things like filing, photocopying and mail-outs. The only person who resented administration, however, was the one who had been given an especially heavy load of administration not related to his own teaching. He felt that he was being exploited by the "greying" staff in his department.

The connection between research and teaching roles

Given the complex nature of the academic role, and the difficulty often found in balancing teaching and research, we asked the interviewees whether there was any relationship between their teaching and research roles.

Of the six full time staff, five experienced a two-way interaction between their teaching and research which benefited both. The one exception was teaching in unfamiliar areas unrelated to his research. He was, however, looking forward to the opportunity the following year to teach in his research area.

Research fed into teaching most often in the way it kept the new academics up to date in their field, where there was a direct connection between the content of their research and teaching. One said that this was the strength of his teaching, and that "there is no distinction between teaching and research for me". Another said his research into Government policies in his subject area transferred directly into his teaching. Two people believed that their best teaching came out of their research.

Other ways in which research fed into teaching were as a means of providing examples for assignment questions or for clarifying concepts. It could also be seen as a way of encouraging students "by seeing my own research application of what I am teaching". Finally, an interesting connection was that the methodology of research and teaching goes hand in hand: "I try to get across in teaching the problem solving approach of research - it is ridiculous to be a university teacher who doesn't research".

Some found that preparation for teaching stimulated research. This was evidenced in the way teaching involved "pulling things together, extracting information and making sense of it", and the skills required for writing and presenting materials for lectures, and developing better ways of expressing ideas. Again, the methodology of teaching and research were seen as related, and requiring related skills. Another comment was that teaching had made a new staff member realise that "I don't have the depth of knowledge I thought I had on some issues. It often gives me a better idea of where to pitch research questions, and helps modify the directions of my research".

2. University teaching

The good teacher

The new academics were asked to describe the characteristics of a good teacher as a means of tapping into what they were aiming to achieve in their teaching. All those interviewed believed that having a good relationship with the students was important: being able to understand where the students are at and where they are coming from, listening to students and taking their learning needs into account. This concept of teaching parallels the fact that they found the interaction with students the most rewarding aspect of teaching.

The other important quality, suggested by all but one, was that good teachers should know the subject well and feel confident with the material. This was the basic essential foundation needed before one could teach well. Five people also believed that a good teacher must be able to communicate well, make the material live for the students and be able to help them understand concepts. Finally, three people suggested that a good teacher must be well organised, and present well structured lectures.

Getting feedback on teaching

Almost all the interviewees said that they had sought and gained informal feedback from students face-to-face during and after tutorials. Six of them had also made use of the formal student feedback questionnaires available from the Centre for Professional Development. Only three had received any peer feedback from colleagues: two from colleagues when they had sought it and one actually within the structure of her team teaching.

Two people mentioned that they had used other means of gaining feedback: by using exams and essays as a way of determining how students have understood; and using numbers of students attending tutorials as a useful indicator of student appreciation of their teaching.

Support for teaching experienced

Support for staff regarding their teaching at an early career stage was sadly little in evidence, from within or outside their departments. Only three people perceived that it was part of normal discourse in their departments for staff to discuss their teaching and to be approachable for such discussion. Another three had consulted someone about their teaching in a crisis, although they had approached someone other than their supervisor as the person most likely to help. One described her supervisor's contribution to support as asking in passing "how are things going?"

Only one tutor had meetings before tutorials to discuss what would be dealt with for a course in which he taught. Another received the texts, course outlines and tutorial exercises for the course on which he was tutoring without any discussion, and sometimes only received the materials a day before the next tutorial, leaving little time for preparation.

None of the interviewees had experienced an induction program within their department when they joined the staff. Most thought that they had been "thrown in at the deep end", with no guidance given to them and no interest shown by senior staff. For some, when they tutored on a course, the course coordinator failed to supply any program or study guide or materials. One commented that when she prepared lectures "from scratch", no one "looked over the courses I prepared". None experienced any formal mentoring program either.

While three departments appeared to have a supportive atmosphere where colleagues were approachable to discuss teaching matters, four departments were viewed as having a negative atmosphere in relation to the needs of new staff. New staff in these departments saw senior staff as uncollaborative and unapproachable, and had no idea who to go to for help.

The kinds of support experienced outside the departments or schools consisted of the Centre for Professional Development workshops, and the library training courses. One person consulted with colleagues from her former university where she had completed her PhD.

Support they would like

Most of the interviewees would have liked to have some guidance for and interest in their teaching from senior academics, and a more collegial atmosphere that would support discussion of teaching issues. Some would have liked an induction into how their department works and the relationship between its course units. They would also value having peer feedback on their teaching and a collaborative atmosphere, with regular teaching related-discussions among teams working on courses together, or more general teaching discussions within the department.

Some wished that they had some training in how to teach and training for specific skills such as using IT in teaching and teaching external courses. Two part-time staff also would have liked to have some input into the courses they tutored, and more control over the quality of these courses.

Conclusions and Discussion

What did we find?

The interviews indicated that the new academics had heavy workloads, and that teaching accounted for most of the load. They found the academic career rewarding, however, particularly teaching and the interaction with students involved. Research enjoyment was tempered by the frustration of lack of time to indulge in it.

The most distressing aspect of new staff experience was their sense of isolation, the lack of collegiality and mentoring from senior academics in their department. They were especially disappointed in the lack of feedback on and guidance for their teaching activities.

What have we done in response to these findings?

The Centre for Professional Development has responded to these needs in the following ways. It offers:

What more should we do?

The real gap in the experience of new academics that still has not been filled is the need highlighted by Martin and Ramsden, for greater support at the departmental level. The challenge for professional development is to concentrate our efforts more consistently at this level, since this is the context of the day-to-day work experience of new academics. It requires a cultural shift in the thinking of many experienced academics, to foster a community where there is an atmosphere of mutual support and caring to replace the culture of individuality.

Trowler and Knight (1999, 2000) suggest that in addition to formal induction programs, new staff need to acquire "embedded and encultured knowledge" by means of mentoring arrangements, both formal and informal, and regular departmental discussions about professional practice. These could revolve around the discourse of the discipline, as well as practical issues about assessment, teaching and research paradigms and organisational matters within the department. They believe such discussions could be mutually beneficial: enculturating and supporting new staff, as well as sensitising experienced staff to the needs and aspirations of new staff.

Similarly, Bazeley et al, (1996) suggest that 'early career' be designated a priority area for the Australian Research Council (ARC) large grants scheme. In support of research, Macquarie has instituted targeted research grants for staff in the first two years of their appointment, to assist them in starting up their research. Universities also need to ensure that new staff are not overloaded with teaching as well, to enable them to develop their research programs.

The Centre for Professional Development is already focusing its energies on developing academic leadership with a view to supporting change at the departmental level. There also needs to be support for these activities at the at the institutional level for policies that adjust workloads of new staff so that they can focus in their early years on acquiring skills and understanding to become more confident and professional in their approaches to teaching.

Where to now? Supporting change: research directions in response to an evolving Higher Education environment

In the years since the interviews were conducted, change has been ongoing in the Higher Education sector. Several factors have affected the working life of academics.

External factors

The long-term impact of changes in Government Higher Education policy and funding are the subject of some controversy, beyond the scope of this paper. Several writers have begun to examine the changes critically (Lowe, 2000), although it appears that it may take some years for the full implications to emerge. Certainly there is increasing pressure to gain and maintain student numbers and corresponding pressure on academic staff in terms of higher teaching loads, "customer service" orientation and use of information technology.

University restructuring

At Macquarie University, the major internal change since the interviews were conducted is the restructuring of the University, from 14 Schools each comprising several Disciplines, to three Colleges, each comprising two or more Divisions, which in turn are composed of several Departments. Other Australian universities have either undergone, are undergoing, or are planning restructuring to some extent.

Voluntary early retirement and voluntary redundancy

Offers of Voluntary Early Retirement and Voluntary Redundancy in some Departments have lead to an outflow of senior staff and corresponding influx of younger or less experienced academics. This process has both positive and negative effects on early career academics. On the one hand, there are increased opportunities for them to obtain positions and gain the experience necessary for promotion. On the other hand, with the early retirement of senior staff, the loss of depth of expertise and knowledge and the lack of senior mentors and research leaders are potentially devastating for some Departments. There is also the problem of increased workloads for remaining staff. This is especially the case with teaching duties, which, as we have seen, tend to form a large proportion of the workload of early career academics.

The industrial context

In the face of the loss of traditional sources of industrial protection (centralised wage-fixing, arbitration and jurisdiction of the Australian Industrial Commission), Enterprise Agreements are of increasing importance in protecting the working conditions of all employees in Higher Education. In particular, certain rights and institutional obligations written into Enterprise Agreements may offer early-career academics protection, guidance and support in several aspects of academic life.

At Macquarie University, certain Clauses in the 1997 Enterprise Agreement and the Agreement being negotiated in 1999-2000 specifically address problems faced by academics at junior levels. The new Enterprise Agreement will provide for reduced teaching workloads for early-career academics, formal mentoring via a Performance Management Scheme, simplified probation requirements and entitlements to Professional Development in teaching, research and academic leadership.

Planned further studies

While external changes will affect academics regardless of their career stage, early career academics may be particularly vulnerable to the pressure to increase and maintain student numbers, given their often heavy teaching responsibilities. Similarly, recalling that several of the interviewees expressed concern about the "top-heavy" nature of their departments and the lack of support or even sabotage from some senior staff members, it is important to gauge the impact of the demographic changes brought about by University restructuring and early retirement/redundancy schemes. While the nature of restructuring at Macquarie University is specific to this University, potentially there are general observations to be made about the effects of this process on early career academics.

In order to continue support for early career academics in a changing Higher Education environment, the needs analysis for these staff members must be ongoing. To this end, further studies are planned. The authors propose to identify effects of the changes discussed above on early-career academics, firstly by following up the original interviewees (most of whom are still employed at Macquarie) and secondly by repeating the interview process with a new sample of academics in their first three years of employment. Also planned is a quantitative study into factors affecting staff turnover and career paths across Australia.


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Olsen, D. & Sorcinelli, M.D. (1992). The Pretenure Years: A Longitudinal Perspective. In Sorcinelli, M. D. & Austin, A.E., (Eds), Developing New and Junior Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Trowler, P. & Knight, P. (1999). Organisational socialization and induction in universities: Reconceptualizing theory and practice. Higher Education, 37, 177-195.

Trowler, P. & Knight, P. (2000). Coming to know in higher education: Theorising faculty entry to new work contexts. Higher Education Research and Development, 19, 1.

Contact details: Moya Adams
Centre for Professional Development, Macquarie University, Sydney NSW 2119
Phone (02) 9850 8446 Facsimile (02) 9850 9778 Email

Please cite as: Adams, M. and Rytmeister, C. (2001). Beginning the academic career: How can it best be supported in the changing university climate? In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 20-29. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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