How does it feel to get tenure?
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.