Whenever I need to do some serious clothes shopping, I do not scour malls for hours trying my luck in finding something that will look good on me at a reasonable price. Instead, I visit a small, privately owned clothing store in Brooklyn, not too far away from where my family lives. When I come in, the salesman invariably asks me what I am shopping for, what I do for a living, and where I live. Then he immediately proceeds to give me clothing samples to try on. The owner hand-selects all these samples by visiting the suppliers, with whom he’s been doing business for year. Usually, our conversation proceeds as follows: “Try this one. … No. Now try this one. Let me give you a larger size… No. Try this one. And this one you will buy! But in a different color. This color does not work for you… Yes, now you look great in it! … You must also get this new shirt we have just received–it’ll work wonderfully with this setup.” I know that I can trust the salesman’s taste, and I have never been disappointed. If you need to buy clothes and happen to be in Brooklyn, I highly recommend giving this store a try.
Then we bargain for a price, which is an experience in and of itself. We go back and forth, and oftentimes I surprise myself when I end up buying additional items to get a better average price. During a recent visit, the salesman shared a piece of wisdom with me that got me thinking. He told me: “Now you are happy because you got these new clothes that look great on you. However, what is important for me is that you are still happy when you get home. Then, you’ll see how you look in the new clothes, and you will also look at your receipt. If you are still happy after that, we both won. You will do business with me again and will recommend me to your friends.”
I immediately thought about our alums. Recently I was fortunate to talk to several alums of our program, who all were pursuing highly rewarding IT careers. What surprised me is that all of them felt very happy about the quality of education they received at Virginia Tech. They thought that what they have learned was valuable and pragmatic. They felt that their education left them well-prepared for the challenges of the workplace. Almost all of them thanked me for the positive influence my teaching and mentoring has had on their professional careers. Their experiences in the real world and the time passed have allowed them to reflect on their educational experiences and left them happy with the results. In other words, they were still happy when they got home.
I think this kind of feedback from alums is much more informative than the end-of-semester teaching evaluations. I find these evaluations almost useless, as they tend to reflect the outliers in student opinions, particularly in introductory courses, in which many students are still transitioning from high school to college. An opinion without the benefit of reflection cannot be very informative. At the same time, in teaching evaluation, we focus exclusively on these “on the spot” student evaluations, and never take into serious consideration the input from our alumni. I wonder if there is a way to diversify the teaching evaluation process to give our alums an avenue to express their opinions, informed by at least a couple of years of professional experience and reflection.
I was recently tenured. Let me use this opportunity to thank all of my friends who congratulated me on this occasion. I have also received quite a few questions about how I feel about getting tenure. Because some of these questions came from graduate students and junior colleagues, it would be valuable to try to answer these questions. In his fascinating book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert points out that the best way to predict how you are likely to feel about some future event is to ask others how they felt when they experienced the same event in the past. Gilbert’s main point is that we are not unique snowflakes, and our reaction to major events in our lives are remarkably similar. In other words, the way I feel about getting tenure is likely to be similar to how others will feel when they get tenure in the future.
It feels good, doesn’t it? Well, I feel very relieved that the tenure review process is over. I work for a large state university, and our tenure review process takes more than a year. The process goes through several committees (i.e., department, college, university, and the Board of Visitors). Because of so many intermediate steps, the tenure review process is incredibly grueling and anti-climactic. After your case successfully passes each committee, you are given the favorable results with the instructions: “Congratulations, but do not celebrate yet; the next committee will review your case next.” So you get an inkling that things are going well, but you do not have certainly until the very end. You get paranoid, because in the past there were tenure cases that were turned down by each of the committees. You try to convince yourself that your tenure case has nothing in common with these unsuccessful cases, but the nagging doubts never quite go away.
Do you feel vindicated about the choices you made in life? Not really, we always keep asking ourselves what your lives could have been if you took different paths in life. But I feel accomplished; it feels very reassuring to know that even if life takes me away from academia in the future, I’d always be able to write in my bio “Before he did X, he was a tenured Associate Professor at Virginia Tech.” Somehow, even the society at large recognizes how hard it is to earn tenure at a major research university.
So you feel no difference at all? The same old? Not quite. The protection of tenure makes it much easier to deal with rejection. Academia is rooted in rejection. We routinely get our funding proposals, research manuscripts, and admission offers rejected. Before tenure, I felt like each rejection could upset that tipping point between getting tenure and being denied one. Just recently, I had four major funding proposals declined in row, and I was able to take the news philosophically. We do need the life jacket of tenure so as not to drown in the sea of rejection.
Do you feel tired and jaded? Somewhat. My tenure track was a difficult run. If I were denied tenure now, I would not have had enough left to try it all over again in another university. I realize that I need to find a way to work smarter. I am also very much looking toward a sabbatical to recharge my research batteries.
Do you feel differently about your university now? I certainly feel a greater sense of ownership in the academic enterprise taking place in my university. The stress of the tenure track is still not completely out of my mind, but I am starting to see things in a new light. Moving up the university hierarchy makes you feel better about the hierarchy itself.
Do you feel more freedom now? I am more willing to explore opportunities for collaboration. Before tenure, I deliberately limited outside research collaborations. I researched and published almost exclusively with my graduate students. I had one serious outside collaboration that led to several important publications. I also had a couple of collaborations with faculty in my department and their students. Now, I have already started talking about potential collaborative opportunities with several researchers outside of my university. In fact, now I can once again pursue projects with my ex-advisor.
Do you feel like now you can really do what you want to do? I have always done what I wanted. That’s my primary motivation to work in academia. However, I may be more open now to stepping outside of my comfort zone, particularly if collaborators feel strongly about pursuing some directions.
If you had to do it all over again, would you do it? Yes. Looking back, it was a unique experience that taught me valuable knowledge and skills. I doubt that compared to the tenure track, many other experiences have such a transformative effect on the partaker. Even though working toward partnership in a law firm and going through medical residency may have similarities.
So what is next? I am still trying to figure it out.
I was recently promoted to the rank of Associate Professor with tenure. At this point, I have been a faculty exactly as long as I had been a graduate student. Therefore, I am in a good position to compare these two phases of my research career.
Both graduate school and tenure track have profoundly transformed me as a researcher and a person. Jokingly, I used to call being on the tenure track as “Grad School 2.0,” but as I explain below, these two experiences are drastically different. Specifically, I next compare several aspects of being a graduate student vs. a tenure-track Assistant Professor.
|Aspect||Graduate School||Assistant Professorship|
|Time||Take as much time as you need as long as your advisor is on board.||You are given exactly five years to make your tenure case (a tenure clock can be stopped in some rare cases).|
|Focus||Focus only on your dissertation research.||Spread your focus on multiple research directions, grant writing, teaching, service, etc.|
|Work Volume||Keep producing research results until your advisor and committee agree that you have earned your degree.||You never know if you have done enough to earn tenure.|
|Research Productivity||Your personal research output defines your research productivity.||Your graduate students’ talents and work ethics determine your research productivity.|
|You are responsible only for yourself.||You are responsible for yourself, your graduate students, your undergraduate students, your committees, etc.|
|Your Role||You are an active researcher with improving technical skills.||You are a manager with deteriorating technical skills.|
|Support||You have an advisor to guide and support you.||You are pretty much on your own.|
|Aspirations||If you produce great results, you can write your own ticket.||You are working toward getting tenure in your institution.|
Overall, I have found the experiences of being a tenure track Assistant Professor much more stressful than being a graduate student. In terms of sheer effort, it was probably an order of magnitude harder to earn tenure than to obtain a Ph.D. At the same time, my tenure track was probably a more intensive learning and growing experience than grad school.
A grad school colleague used to say that “an Assistant Professor is a graduate student with a diploma.” Later, I extended this witticisms into “an Associate Professor is an Assistant Professor with tenure; a Full Professor is an Associate Professor with broad external recognition; so by induction a Full Professor is a graduate student, with a diploma, with tenure, with broad external recognition.”
Now I am convinced that although cute, this definition is patently false. An Assistant Professor is certainly not a graduate student with a diploma, and as I am starting the next phase of my academic career, I certainly hope that an Associate Professor is not just an Assistant Professor with tenure.