Home > academic enterprise, careers > Tenure Track Is Not (All) About Your Happiness

Tenure Track Is Not (All) About Your Happiness

As the new school year is starting up, fresh faculty members just embarking on their tenure track careers are being inundated with sagely advice from their senior colleagues. The reason I have decided to contribute to this already excessive body of recommendations, implorations, admonitions, etc. is the last month’s guest blog entry of Scientific American, whose core idea is to treat your tenure track appointment as a 7-year guaranteed job and not to worry about the future outcome of your tenure case. Since almost no real-world job provides comparable job security, tenure-track faculty have the unique opportunity to focus on achieving happiness, which for the author entails maintaining the right work-life balance. What I found surprising is that many of my tenured colleagues exasperatedly stated that they wished they had read this piece of advice before starting their tenure track appointment. Although I have enjoyed reading this blog entry, encountering it seven years ago, when I was just starting my journey toward tenure, would not have made any difference in my tenure-track experience, which was soul-crushingly hard and stressful, but ultimately successful.

First, let us have a look at why being on the tenure track is so stressful. It is definitely not because people are terrified of not getting tenure (i.e., getting fired) and not being able to find alternate respectable employment. Undoubtedly, in Computer Science, a 40-year old (give or take), Ph.D.-level, jaded ex-academic would have many fewer career options than a starry eyed, fresh holder of an undergraduate degree. As an area rife with age discrimination, we have a continuous shortage of 20-something IT professionals, ready to single-mindedly devote their lives to their jobs. Nevertheless, career options are plentiful even for middle-aged Ph.D.-level computer scientists, and these options are typically much more remunerative than even a typical tenured faculty position.

In my estimation, the causes of stress come from two main realities. First, graduate school is an amazingly poor preparation for a faculty job. Second, academic research is a highly communal enterprise, and the success or failure of a particular member of that community affects either directly or indirectly a number of other members.

Even though professors are routinely accused of creating their own clones when training graduate students, nothing can be further from the truth. Graduate students are trained to exclusively focus on their dissertation research with everything else treated as a distraction. A fresh out of grad school Assistant Professor may have never juggled more than one research project, presented a technical topic without the benefit of a thorough preparation, acted in a supervisory position, or contributed to a funding proposal. The structure of graduate training almost deliberately neglects the development of the ability to multitask and context switch effectively.

Here is an example of a conversation a faculty may have with a senior graduate student. “Would you have 30 minutes to meet with a distinguished researcher visiting the department next Friday?” “Oh, no, I wish I could discuss my research with her, but have a paper submission deadline on Friday.” Typically, the faculty replies as: “I see—good luck with the paper.” A more appropriate (and beneficial to the graduate student) reply would be: “So freaking what?! Taking 30 minutes away from working on the paper would make any difference?! I also have a paper deadline on that day, and a committee meeting, and a class to teach, and a Skype call with colleagues. That’s the nature of academic work! Learn to multi-task and context switch effectively now before you start your faculty appointment!”

Freshly minted Assistant Professors, trained to focus on a single research problem, are suddenly asked to supervise their students working on multiple, independent projects, teach courses, serve on committees, provide service to the department, etc. Having not been properly prepared for this modus operandi, almost anyone gets stressed out. Furthermore, the ability to multi-task and context switch effectively may take years to properly develop. Thus, this cause of stress is unavoidable.

The second serious cause of stress on the tenure track is that research is not an individualistic enterprise. Multiple individuals have invested their time, efforts, and professional reputation in the success of every single junior faculty member. Reputation is the most valuable academic currency. Academics rely on recommendation letters when making hiring decisions, as it is virtually impossible to ascertain a faculty candidate’s potential for success. Academics do trust each other’s recommendations. If someone enthusiastically recommends a person for a faculty position and the person fails to live up to the recommendation, the recommender’s reputation would suffer. The subsequent recommendation letters from that person would have less weight and would be taken less seriously. Also, junior faculty do supervise graduate students. The research career trajectory of a graduate student is, to a large degree, determined by how successful his or her advisor is. The desire not to let your professional colleagues down is what is keeping a junior faculty up at night.

In that light, I cannot imagine how I could have been able to treat my tenure-track appointment as a postdoc. For me to do so would be similar to saying “I have achieved everything I have on my own, and I do not owe anyone anything. If I fail, it is my own business, and if people who invested in me or entrusted their professional careers in me suffer as a result, I do not care.” That’s why being on the tenure track will always be stressful for anyone, and I have serious doubts that the original blog post’s author’s tenure track experience was as stress-free as claimed. I wish all the Assistant Professors embarking on their tenure-track careers best of luck!

  1. Anon I Am
    August 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I tend to disagree with you. Nobody remembers who wrote your recommendation letters, or who your advisor was. If you’re denied tenure, I doubt any reasonable school will hold that against the recommendation letters or the advisor. Ultimately, once you’re on the job, it’s your show to run. The folks who helped you get the job did just that – helped you get the job. How you take it from there is up to you.

    Folks who had scores of brilliant publications as grad students have gone on to fail to get tenure. And folks who only had a modest publication record as students, and started off at smaller schools, have done so extraordinarily well and gone on to change jobs to more competitive universities. Often this has nothing to do with research aptitude. Just the ability of one to “play the game”: get funding, be on committees, arrange conferences, etc., in addition to research. All these pressures exist in any tenure-track job. It just depends on how you take it and how your tenure case pans out (many factors of which are beyond your control).

    So the bottom-line is that the tenure track is yours to live, and it depends on how you take it. Nagpal’s article offers one (very wise) perspective on how to handle the pressures of the job.

    • August 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      You may be right that the schools won’t hold against your recommendation letter writers if you completely flunk your tenure track appointment, even though in my experience, your Ph.D. pedigree (your school and adviser) tends to be inseparable from your academic persona for years to come.

      Also just to be clear–it is not about being denied tenure. I have known people who were tremendously successful but failed to get tenure for political reasons. The research community was incensed by these unfair outcomes. Furthermore, these people ended up being much better off in other places.

      I am talking about not letting people who’ve invested in you (your adviser, committee, department) down. As far as how much stress this conjures up depends on your personality. I’ll be first to admit that this is the case where perception is reality. For me personally, this was a big source of stress. If you can completely put this source of stress out of your mind, good for your happiness.

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