Dear Kerry Ann: Combating Isolation
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
Dear Kerry Ann,
I’m in my first year on the tenure track and while I have a great position, I’m just… miserable. The thing is, I love teaching, I have supportive colleagues and daily writing has kept me productive in my research. Honestly, it’s a great position so I hate to complain, but I feel so isolated. I go to work, everyone’s polite, I work hard and then I go home. I have no meaningful social contacts, no friends here and I’m in a suboptimal geographic location.
The other faculty members who started at the same time seem to be happily settling in, but when I ask where they are meeting people, they say things like: at church, at their kid’s school or at the dog park. I’m not religious, I don’t have kids and I don’t like dogs. I feel so guilty for complaining, but I don’t know how I’m going to be able to make a life here. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.
Feeling alone during your first year on the tenure track is painful, but not unusual. New faculty often feel so thankful to have landed a tenure-track job that it’s hard to also talk honestly about the fact that there are real challenges to settling into a new location. It’s hard enough when you are transitioning from a location where you had deep social and emotional ties to a place where you know no one. And this transition can be exponentially more difficult when you are the only ________ in a largely homogenous campus and/or community.
To state the obvious, cultivating a supportive community is the antidote to isolation. It’s not only incredibly important for your professional success, but also has tremendous benefits for your health and well-being. If I could create an ideal community support network for you (and all tenure-track faculty) it would include: 1) on- and off-campus mentors, 2) both a local and extended network of friends, 3) a vibrant intellectual community, 4) a writing group that meets your accountability needs and celebrates your success, 5) physical activity that allows your negative emotions to get out of your body, 6) regular participation in professional development activities, and 7) an excellent therapist and/or new faculty coach during the initial transition. That may seem like a long list of support from where you’re currently standing, but it is possible to construct such a network. The trick is that it takes proactive energy to create the relationships that will end your feelings of isolation.
To create a supportive network that combats isolation, I encourage you to reflect on a few questions:
1. What Are Your Expectations?
I’ve observed that new faculty often are so happy to get their first tenure-track job that they start to create idealized expectations about the new chapter in their life. Your expectations may be based on a campus visit where everyone was on their best behavior and the tour you received was of the best parts of your new community. Once you arrived, the fuller reality was revealed, including the good, bad and ugly of your colleagues and new location. When this new reality is coupled with unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to acclimate to a new city, it’s perfectly normal to feel disillusionment, second-guess your decision and feel utterly and completely alone.
So let me ask directly: How long do you imagine it takes to feel at home in a new house, campus and city? I’ve moved many times and for me, it takes at least a year to make some new friends, settle into a new space and feel comfortable with my new colleagues. This may be more or less for you, but I encourage you to get explicit about the twin realities that: 1) there is no perfect job, campus or city and 2) settling in often takes longer than we expect.
2. Is Your Investment Aligned With Your Commitment?
I know some may disagree with this, but I think it’s worth asking yourself about your investment in your current job. By that I mean there’s a continuum of commitment that ranges from low (I know now this is never going to work) to high (I want to stay here for life). I simply want to suggest that you get honest about the answer to this question and calibrate the energy you spend building community with the level of your commitment. If your commitment is high, go all in on community building.
If your commitment is in the hazy middle, put in a moderate level of energy (this often strengthens your commitment over time). But if you’re in the rare circumstance where you know it’s a bad fit, you’re in a hopelessly toxic environment or the location will never work, then it is better to invest your energy in strengthening your external community and creating an exit strategy.
3. Are You Trying to Meet People?
I always have to ask this question directly because often new faculty tell me they feel isolated, but when I ask if they have been invited to social events their response is: “yes, but I declined.” And when I ask if they’ve invited anyone to coffee, lunch or dinner, they say no. If you are simultaneously declining invitations and not extending any of your own, you’re not really trying to meet people. That’s not a judgment, it’s just an observation.
Trying to meet people means saying yes when you are invited to social events. After all, you don’t know where you’re going to meet great people, so in your first year you want to graciously accept invitations. And invite colleagues and neighbors (even if you’re not sure how it will go) to coffee, lunch or dinner.
4. How Can You Maximize Your Existing Opportunities?
If you feel isolated, take a look at how you can maximize your existing opportunities to create a broad network of supportive community. By that I mean attend new-faculty events (to connect with your peers), sign up for any mentoring program offered (and ask your mentors to introduce you to people who may become friends, mentors or even sponsors), and try attending campus events (lectures, plays, concerts) and interacting with others while you’re there.
And I also mean cultivating your existing network connections. Consider scheduling calls with members of your grad school cohort, arranging to read each other’s work and/or proactively nourishing your existing mentor relationships. An intellectual community was built in to your graduate school experience, but when you’re a new faculty member, you have to work toward building it.
5. Are You Willing to Get Creative?
While you’ve already noticed that schools, churches and dog parks are providing social opportunities for your peers, they are not the only way to connect with others. In fact there are plenty of other ways to make connections and get the support you need, such as:
- Taking a class (yoga studios are everywhere).
- Exploring your new city by visiting something new on a regular basis.
- Attending (or starting) a Meetup event.
- Working in coffee shops.
- Starting a writing group on your campus.
- Joining a gym.
- Volunteering in your community.
- Seeking a therapist or coach to work with.
If you’re currently feeling isolated, the good news is that you can do something about it. Those feelings aren’t likely to change overnight, but taking steps forward every week to expand your support network will shift the momentum and chip away at the isolation you are currently experiencing. I’m sure there are lots more excellent ideas people can share about how they reduced isolation in a new location, so feel free to add them in the comment section below!
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
President and CEO
National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity