Janis McKay
Jun 26, 2018 · 5 min read

Professionalism 101: How Not to be Fired Part Two, for University Music Professors
November 10, 2016
The following material is the second part of a presentation that I developed and delivered over the years, first for my own students and later for the International Double Reed Society and Bocal Majority. I have gotten a lot of requests to share this information publicly, so I thought I would put it here on my webpage. This second post focuses on professional behavior for those teaching college music.

New graduates are often confronted with situations for which they have no training, problems that have nothing to do with music. What most professionals know, from hard experience, is that it is the “unwritten rules” that can determine whether a new hire will retain the job they worked so hard to win. Professionalism is arguably equal in importance to teaching ability when it comes to career success. Here are some guidelines that I use:

Committees and Faculty Meetings

As a university professor, you will be expected to provide service to the institution by serving on committees and attending regular faculty meetings. Do not ignore these extra duties because you are “an artiste” and feel you should not have to waste your time. Remember that all your colleagues are artists and value their own time just as much as you value yours. Do not miss meetings if it can be avoided and arrive on time. Chronic tardiness is noticed by your colleagues and not appreciated. Do not waste time in meetings by asking questions that can be answered later. Do not go off on tangents or pursue unrelated issues; keep your statements brief and to the point. No one wants to spend any more time in meetings than they have to.

Listen much more than you talk, especially during the first year or so of a job. Do any work you are asked to do in a timely way. Come to meetings prepared for the discussion that will take place. Your colleagues will determine whether you obtain tenure, and they will resent someone who doe not do their fair share. And get you fired.


Conduct all business in writing (e-mail or otherwise) and keep organized records that are easily accessible. If it did not happen in writing, it did not happen. Follow up meetings with a summary e-mail if needed or keep written records on file. Avoid excessive emotion in any professional communication; keep all communication strictly professional. Use correct grammar and punctuation. Remember that e-mail statements are easily misinterpreted and emoticons are probably not a good idea. Check and double-check any e-mail before you press send, especially those of a sensitive nature. (For reference, consider reading Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe.)

Respond to e-mails and phone calls as promptly as possible. It is a good idea to set specific times during the day in which you will attend to these matters. Pay close attention to deadlines and do not miss them.

You will need to consider how you choose to share information on social networking sites. Students will ask to friend you on Facebook and other sites; you should decide ahead of time how you intend to handle these types of requests. Until you have tenure, I believe it is a good idea to make most social networking private.

In conversation, make straight requests and be direct. Give your true opinion if asked and be prepared to back it up with facts, not feelings. Be truthful, but tactful, when you need to address a problem with a colleague. Serious concerns are almost always better addressed first in person, with a follow up e-mail that summarizes the conversation. Sometimes very sensitive meetings may need an impartial observer or a supervisor present.

General Collegiality

Try to avoid gossip or making negative comments about others behind their backs. Collegiality is many times the most important factor in the tenure process. It can take years for a thoughtless remark to be forgotten.

Do not bring your personal problems to work. Save these discussions for happy hour with your close friends. Even if your close friends are also faculty members, do not take up their time while at work. Most college professors are overwhelmed and need every minute of their workday for professional matters.

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, a colleague may not like you. Do your best to take the high road and continue to treat them respectfully. If you have a faculty mentor, make them aware of the conflict but try to avoid involving others.


Your supervisors will evaluate you periodically in writing and the results of these evaluations will play a major role in the tenure process. Accept criticism and do not take it personally. Do your best not to become visibly angry or emotional. If you are given specific suggestions for improvement, making these improvements should be your top priority. Take advice from more experienced faculty members and mentors. You may also wish to consult outside mentors, such as your former teachers. Keep good written records of how you address any problems. Failing to act on the suggestions of your supervisors will definitely get you fired.

Professional Dress

While dress codes and standards vary from institution to institution, it is a good idea to look professional. If you are a young professor, this is particularly important in order to separate yourself from the students. A good rule of thumb is to observe the dress of your mentor, other faculty members in your area, or your supervisors, and then imitate them. I am aware that standards in this area are changing. I would still argue that it is best to err on the side of caution. Why make it an issue?

Student Problems

Musical education does not prepare you for handling serious student issues, especially psychological or behavioral problems. Major problems are best handled by trained professionals. You are most likely not a trained professional. Refer all serious problems either to your supervisor or directly to student psychological services. Get help from others if you need it. Medical emergencies should be handled by calling 911; this also applies to drug overdoses, violent students, and the like.

Familiarize yourself with the Student Code of Conduct so that you know how to deal with any problem students. Write very specific syllabi with clear instructions concerning attendance, tardiness, grades, and be sure to list unacceptable behaviors (such as texting or talking). Be prepared to keep very careful records. You will have students challenge you frequently. If you have a problem with a student who is not in your studio, you may need to approach their teacher first. Consider this carefully before taking action.


One very serious issue for college teachers is burnout. Be careful with your time and be sure to prioritize your research and your health (mental and physical). I highly recommend the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown: http://gregmckeown.com/product/essentialism-the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less/

No doubt, this list of guidelines will continue to expand. We all make mistakes in professional behavior and can only hope to learn from these and share what we know with others. Good luck!

JUNE 26, 2018
OCTOBER 24, 2016

Dr. Janis McKay • www.Janis-McKay.com

Janis McKay

Written by

Professor of Music, Bassoonist, Academic Leader, and Author. More information at www.janis-mckay.com.

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