Advice for the Tenure Track

Janet follows a post by ScienceWoman on prioritizing research time with a List of advice for tenure-track faculty. It’s excellent advice if you’re a junior academic seeking tenure.

I have only one suggestion to add:

Seek advice, but don’t take too much of it.

If you’re on the tenure track, you will have friends and colleagues at your institution who know more about the process than you do. You should absolutely seek them out, and ask them for advice– whether they’re formally in a mentoring role or not, they will have good suggestions to offer.

But in the end, the decisions about what you do are your decisions to make, and you should do the things that you want to do.

Don’t get me wrong– you need to play the game. No matter what sort of institution you’re at there will be things that you need to be doing in order to get tenure, and you need to be seen to be doing those things. Make sure that you are.

But while you have to play the game, you don’t have to be the game. No matter what people may tell you, if getting tenure where you are will require you to act in a manner that will make you miserable, don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

For one thing, you probably won’t be able to pull it off. You might be able to convince a few people that you’re somebody you’re not for a while, but it’ll wear thin over time. Odds are, you won’t be able to keep it up.

Even if you can suck it up and do things that go against your nature, it’s asking for trouble down the road. Either you’ll revert to your true self at the end of that time, to the dismay of colleagues who are now faced with thirty years of working with somebody who isn’t the person they thought they tenured, or you’ll find that after five or six years of putting on an act to get tenure, you’ve become the person you were pretending to be, and that’ll make you miserable.

By all means, get advice about the best way to proceed, but do it your own way. If you got into the business to work closely with students, but colleagues tell you that too much work with students will sink your tenure case, think carefully before you cut your students off. Does tenure really mean enough to you to sacrifice the reason you got onto the academic track in the first place?

Look, if you’re in a tenure-track job, you’ve already made a major life choice– you opted for grad school and an academic career rather than a more immediately lucrative post-college track. The only good reason for doing that is in order to make a career out of doing something you love.

Having made that choice, to sacrifice financial gain for doing what you love, does it really make sense to, ten years down the road, sacrifice doing what you love for job security? You’re in academia for a reason– stay true to what brought you there.

As a colleague in my tenure cohort put it, as much as the tenure process is a chance for the college to evaluate us, it’s also a chance for us to evaluate them. They’re asking “Do we really want to keep this person around for thirty years?” but at the same time, junior faculty should be asking themselves “Is this a place I want to stick around for thirty years?”

If getting tenure requires you to do something that makes you deeply unhappy– I’m not talking about grading papers, here, but serious dark-night-of-the-soul misery– then the answer is “No,” and you should find something else to do with your life. Yeah, the academic job market sucks, and you might not be able to get another tenure-track position, but look at it this way: if you have to sacrifice your principles for the sake of a lousy job, shouldn’t you at least be getting paid well?

So ask your colleagues and mentors what they think you should do. But if they come back with advice that you just can’t see yourself following, don’t follow it. It’s not worth the cost.

And bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be throwing your career away. If you love what you’re doing, and do it in the manner that you love, you’ll do a better job than if you’re trying to fit somebody else’s standards. You may very well stand a better chance of passing by being the best you can be in your own way than by being a mediocre version of somebody else’s image of a college professor.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Bacon
    April 20, 2008

    Amen.

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    April 20, 2008

    I have seen people conduct themselves in a way which made them valuable to the institution, but created little to sell to some other institution. So think about making yourself a widely desirable commodity rather than one which only has local value.

  3. #3 Shirakawasuna
    April 22, 2008

    This post was scary! Dark night of the soul misery? What kind of hoops must you jump through to get tenure? I’m just an undergrad, but my ideal job would be getting paid to do research I love/am very interested in, preferably with eventually some kind of control. I have no idea what the options are, but some type of professorship always seemed like the most direct academic route… I take it everything in the PHD comic is true? ;)