You Got Tenure… Now What?

Tenure is a major landmark in the life of an academic scientist. While its original purpose was to protect academic freedom and enable professors to teach what they felt appropriate, without  fear of retribution, this is not a major concern for most academic scientists and engineers. For STEM folks, tenure means job security and is really a perk that compensates for the comparatively lower salaries than in industry. It also enables us to plan longer-term projects, have flexibility in terms of how we allocate our time and resources, and pursue riskier directions of research. In case it’s not clear, I am a big fan of the concept of tenure. I also believe that the people you really want to tenure are those with a real fire in the belly, those who will keep going even after tenure and for whom the tenure requirement was never a particularly high, unattainable bar to begin with. But it’s easy to be all blasé about tenure from the comfortable position of having it.

In hindsight, I was a total mess the year before tenure. At the time I didn’t realize how unpleasant I had been to my colleagues. I don’t know why I was so nervous really, there were never really any hints from anyone that I might not get it: I had papers, two young investigator awards and other grants, had graduated a PhD student, given talks, had great teaching evaluations. Nobody ever said anything even remotely doubtful about my case and I really had smooth sailing throughout, yet that year was extremely stressful for me. I have no idea how I would have felt if I had had something really problematic on my record or if I had faced evaluation by capricious administrators, as some people do.  

Getting tenure is not really a single event in time, it’s a protracted process and perhaps that’s why the whole ordeal seems entirely underwhelming. At some point, a dossier gets assembled by you or someone in your department and someone sends out requests for external letters of evaluation. The letters take a couple of months to come back and then the department votes for your promotion. For me, this step was easy  as the department was unanimous in their support. The next step is the critical one, at the university committee. There are a few rubber stamps thereafter, but the university-level committee is the one that makes or breaks your case. It turned out that step went smoothly, as well.

We started my tenure process in May of my 5th academic year (note that you really only have the papers written up and submitted in the first 4-4.5 years on the TT count towards tenure; several people did get into moderately-to-really-deep doodoo for waiting way too long to get papers out). External letters were collected over the summer, department voted in September or early October, and I had the positive university-level decision in early December of my 6th academic year. However, I didn’t  get tenure for real until the Regents met sometime in the following summer, and then I didn’t get a raise or the new title until the new academic year. So it was about 9 months between clearing the hoop and actually becoming an associate professor. During that time people would congratulate me at random times or ask about my case  and I’d have to explain that it’s all good, but technically I am not tenured yet, so congrats are in order but maybe only unofficially because who knows. The protracted lame duck assistant professordom certainly didn’t fuel the festive mood. At some point in the middle of the summer I did get the official tenure and promotion paperwork, and that’s when I guess we were supposed to break out the champagne but it felt silly by then. We sort of but not really celebrated, maybe even a couple of times. I am pretty sure I bought lunch or dinner for my students at some point. By the time the title and the raise came, there were no festivities left in me.

Tenure is supposed to be a turning point, where you stop and ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your scientific life. To me, it took several years after tenure to relax; actually, I am going to say that I only relaxed once I got promoted to full prof. By relaxing I mean I finally realized that there were things that were making me unhappy about my job, I admitted to myself that being unhappy about them is spoiling multiple aspects of my life, and that I needed to do something because what’s the point of having a secure job people would kill for if you don’t enjoy it. Some of the decluttering involved wrapping up several collaborations — they were not bad, just not worth quite as much time and energy. I finally said goodbye to a large center with which I had been affiliated for a long time; this center was a great “safety net,” a sure funding for one student if all else went to hell, but it really was very little money and the time and paperwork commitment were just staggering. So I decided it was time to cut the cord and it was one of the best, most liberating things I have ever done. I also realized that I was good at writing proposals on my own and that I greatly enjoyed those projects that were mine, all mine. And that I don’t actually have to collaborate just to collaborate, that we had plenty of expertise in the group to do a whole bunch of things, and that I was producing better and more enjoyable-to-write papers when it was just my students and me. So to me tenure meant, eventually, getting rid of the shackles of unsatisfying collaborations, rediscovering the joy of being the boss of me, and focusing squarely on the projects I found challenging and on building up the expertise and publication record of my own students, as opposed to playing second or third fiddle to someone else. Tenure meant really putting on my big-scientist pants and boldly going where no one has gone before  (except for 78.3%  of everyone who has ever gotten tenure) — into the rest of my career, with the renewed zeal of a horny rabbit on his 4th espresso.

Another important aspect of post-tenure life has been becoming aware of how great this city and this university really are. I spent much of my time on the tenure track lamenting over not being at a better place, whereas my university is objectively excellent, but I was for some reason unable to internalize it until recently. Even superstar scientists get up in the morning and go to work and sit in their offices, drinking coffee/tea/eggnog, and then they read emails, read/write papers, talk to students, teach… It’s all the same, no matter where you are. And I started thinking about all the things that I do have — great colleagues, a great city for my family where the kids are happy and healthy and safe and getting a good education, all those aspects could be much worse and I should appreciate what I do have. I realized that I had all that I needed right here, that this university was perfectly fine for what I wanted to do, that it was certainly good enough to support the vision that I had, and that if anything was limiting me it was myself.  So I decided to fully commit to this place and make the absolute best of all that it had to offer to both my ambition and all other aspects of my life. You might say that I have finally given my university and my city two fully tenured positions in my heart. (Gaah…That was just way too sappy, even for a gooey Valentine’s day week. ) 

How about this instead… Tenure is like an awesome superpower — it takes a while to learn how to wield it, but it can overall bring a lot of good. Use it responsibly!

What has receiving tenure been like for you? If  currently untenured, what aspects of tenure are you looking forward to (or perhaps dreading)?

7 comments

  1. I was too busy with *EVERYTHING* to pay much attention. For some reason I can’t do anything by halves and always seem to need to change my personal life at the same time I’m changing my professional life. (Starting grad school? Get married! New job? Have a baby! Tenure packet in? Have another baby! Also grants and papers and deadlines… I suspect if I’d read Hope Jahren’s article that you link to at that point I would have said something seriously nasty in response.)

  2. Tenure was an easy process for me as I had done quite well both academically and funding-wise compared with the norm in our R2 university. I have also been considered an excellent department citizen, which I consider a source of pride, with very good teaching evaluations. Overall, my experience resembled that of xykademiqz. I am known in my STEM subfield, but since my tenure, I have tried to concentrate on very high-risk high-reward projects. It is not easy because I am moving away from my comfort zone and I am sure the yearly publication count may suffer for a few years. However, I am enjoying it and I am willing to risk it. I am a bit worried about the number of years it might take for me to establish myself in the new high-risk/high-reward field. It has very few players but most are seriously high caliber scientists. Also, I am planning to move, if I can find a better place that can fit me with tenure.

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