Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Denial

A reader who was recently denied tenure at a major research university has some questions about how to deal with day-to-day life after the negative decision has been handed down; specifically, in the 'extra' year following the decision but before having to leave the university.

It is good that institutions provide this transition year, especially since some decisions are handed down at the end of the academic year, but the final year can be very difficult/awkward/stressful for the individual denied tenure.

There are of course resources available, online and in print, from the point of view of those who have experienced tenure denial. I am writing from the point of view of a tenured professor who has seen friends and colleagues experience tenure denial or termination during pre-tenure reviews, and who has worked with colleagues who were denied tenure (before I met them) at a previous institution.

The Questions

What does a person [the one denied tenure] say in these situations during their last two semesters?
.. when meeting another faculty member in the hall?
.. when meeting their graduate students?

My question back is: What do you want to say?

Do you want to mention your situation proactively or would you rather not talk about it? I think you should do whatever you want in this situation. If you want to talk about it, you could say something like "I suppose you heard.." or "Did you hear my bad news?" and then just say as much or as little as you want. Some people won't have any reply that will be of any comfort or use to you, but perhaps some will be kind and/or have insights. If you don't want to talk about it, either don't say anything or talk about something else unless asked, in which case you can say "I don't want to talk about it."

I know that some colleagues may be uncomfortable with you for a while (especially if they voted against you), won't look you in the eye, and may seem to avoid you. If you want to try to break the ice and gets things on a more normal footing, you can try to do that with casual conversation. However, it's not your responsibility to make us feel better (you're the one who has been hurt), so this is just a suggestion for getting past the initial awkwardness.

..when someone asks: Why didn't you get tenure?
(I don't actually know why, just some vague rumors, which seem to vary a lot depending on the source, because it's all confidential, right?)

The parenthetical statement surprised me a lot, although I will be the first to admit that I don't know how all universities work. Is it really confidential? Isn't there supposed to be a letter explaining something about the basis for the decision? What information did you get, and how did you get it? Just a "no"? In a letter or in person, with nothing else? This is worth looking into. What was your publication, grant, teaching/advising record compared to peers? Do you have a way to figure this out? Was there no information in pre-tenure reviews that there was a problem, or was the negative decision a complete surprise?

But back to the original question, if you don't know, I guess you just say "I don't know." You don't have to elaborate, even if you heard rumors. If you know, then it's up to you whether you explain what the official reason is, and what kind of editorial comments you add about the fairness/unfairness of the decision and evaluation process.

.. when a potential employer during an interview asks: Why didn't you get tenure?

Again, if you don't know, you can only say "I don't know" and explain that you were not told. If you know (or can guess), just be open about it, e.g., "I didn't publish enough" or "I didn't have as many grants as I should have" (mention expectations vs record).

Keep it factual in an interview, as much as possible, so your potential employers/colleagues can make their own decision. If your record would have been sufficient for tenure at the institution that is interviewing you, the tenure denial won't be held against you. Several of the most successful people in my field were denied tenure at an PrestigeU and went on to have outstanding careers as researchers and educators at AnotherU.

.. when meeting with a group of female faculty and graduate students in a Women in Science meeting when the topic is "What advice do you have for graduate students for achieving success?"

If you don't know the reason you were denied tenure, it's hard for you to give any perspective on your situation in terms of what you should have done that you didn't do. I suppose you could tell graduate students (female or male) about what you think the expectations for the job were and whether those were reasonable/fair, including whether you were fairly evaluated. If you had no feedback along the way, including now, perhaps that is something that can be discussed as a challenge and problem that should be addressed.

I think/hope it is unusual to have no information other than rumors -- both during the tenure-track years and following a negative decision -- so some advice could be about the importance of mentors, communication, knowing expectations/criteria. In some cases, having all that information doesn't help in the end anyway, but at least you would have more insight into the evaluation.

.. when at the faculty retreat.. We interrupt this question to answer it now: Don't go to the faculty retreat. Just don't go. You will only be miserable and it is not a good use of your time or emotional energy. Even if you are planning to stay as a 100% soft-money researcher or adjunct teaching faculty, you do not need to go to faculty meetings or retreats anymore unless there is some very specific and constructive reason to do so.

.. when your graduate student asks the department head about what their future is without asking the question directly to you first.

Well, I would try to be understanding that this is a stressful and anxious time for your grad student as well. I don't know what the timing was of the conversation with the department head, but if you had time to talk to your student and didn't (because you were too upset), then it makes sense that the student would try to get information that they need. If it's not too late, have a frank conversation with them now about their and your options.

.. when someone else's graduate student whose committee you are on asks you to approve their plan of study when you won't be available (or eligible?) to service on the committee by the time the student graduates?

If there are official actions (like signing a form) that you can do now to help a student, in the post-tenure decision year that you are still a faculty member, you should do them. The student and their advisor can decide whether to replace you or keep you on the committee in some capacity (and if the latter, how do to that administratively). Presumably the advisor knows that they need to deal with this, but if they are in another department or if you are in different units of a large department, just tell them.

My correspondent asked for suggestions on handling these situations "gracefully". I think it is good to remain professional, especially if you will be interviewing elsewhere and trying to remain in the field, but I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about whether you are making other people feel bad or uncomfortable. Perhaps some people are disappointed in you, but it's not as if you committed a crime against humanity. Fair or unfair, you have lost your job and so you need to take care of yourself (and your students), get as much information as you can, consider your options (including appealing the decision), and move on however you think best.


Anonymous said...

"Several of the most successful people in my field were denied tenure at an PrestigeU and went on to have outstanding careers as researchers and educators at AnotherU."

Really?? Is it really true that several of the MOST successful people in your field, had been denied tenure? It doesn't spell the end of a career or at least kick you down a notch in the competition level (to where you're by definition no longer at the top of the field)?

I'm sincerely curious about this. I'd always been told that if you're denied tenure, your academic career as an independent scientist is pretty much over. I mean even if you find employment and tenure at another - and lower level - institution, won't peers in your field know you were denied tenure originally and wouldn't this affect your standing in your field?

Anonymous said...

I've been in almost this situation—in my first tenure track job I was given the one-year-to-leave message at the end of my third year. I was not surprised by this, as I was in an essentially impossible position:
joint appoint between 2 departments that did not talk to each other
both departments had revolving doors for assistant professors
One department gave me huge teaching loads (grad classes of 60 students with no TA)
insufficient teaching resources (one computer shared among all the students, when what was needed was one computer of that power for every 3 students—one department had not upgraded any of their undergrad labs for 20 years, with some equipment and lab exercises 50 years old in a field where everything had changed in the preceding 20 years, and I was supposed to be teaching the new stuff)
age and style differences (one department had everyone within 3 years of retirement and they still wore ties to work every day)

I took the final year looking for a job that fit me better. I've now been 25 years at my second tenure-track job, and am a moderately successful full professor.

Adam said...

From a 1st year PhD student with an advisor who thankfully has a cushy professorship: what does typically happen to students whose advisors are denied tenure in the middle of the student's PhD?

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 12:41 -- I can think of 3, and yes, all 3 are among the most well-known and successful people in my field (I mean here my subfield). Consider someone who doesn't get tenure at an Ivy League school but gets hired by an excellent state university that may, in certain fields, be higher ranked (whatever that means) than the Ivy? Or let's say this person is hired by a lower ranked school but still gets grants, publishes, attracts excellent students (this happens). The concept of lower level/notches doesn't apply.

Alfred said...

I know one person denied tenure at a state school (fair and correct decision, according to him, he told me himself) who went elsewhere for a while and now is at a GreatU and considered one of the very top people in my subfield of physics. Heck of a nice person, too.

CSer said...

Is it really true that several of the MOST successful people in your field, had been denied tenure?

In my field (Computer Science), various ivy league universities are famous for having denied tenure to eventual superstars.

They are also known for making the life of tenure track candidates so miserable that it is not uncommon for the candidate to refuse the tenure offer once it's granted.

By then other more enlightened institutions have heard of their travails and made them generous offers, so the say forget-this and off they go to another institution.

Anonymous said...

I am a grad student at an Ivy league institution, and one of the most promising assistant professors in our department was denied tenure at a previous institution with a less prestigious program. In his case, I think that being denied tenure and then getting to look for a new position with a lot of great independent research and teaching experience now under his belt was the best thing that could have happened for his academic career.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, FSP.

I also know many several people who were denied at any ivy and went on to be among the most successful people in our field (which is most certainly different from yours). The ivies have such a reputation for not giving out tenure, that there is less of a stigma.

Anonymous said...

Anon @12:41 - it is well known in my field that several top universities almost never give tenure to their assistant faculty (I think of TT jobs there as 7-year postdocs). People who do well there are often snatched up by the other top universities, and their careers don't suffer.

Adam - That happened to me at the end of my 3rd year. Based on my experiences and what I've seen elsewhere, the result is highly dependent on your field and on the level of oversight the department has on their students (e.g. existence of a thesis committee beyond the advisor). In my case, since I had 2 years left and was well into my thesis research, I just continued with my advisor while he was on another continent... because he was given that 1 year to leave, but he opted to stay away. He was hard to reach, and it kind of sucked for me. If you are earlier in your graduate career, you might have to simply find another advisor.

John Vidale said...

On the prospects of being denied tenure: At less than a handful of schools, this still permits landing a decent tenure-track job. But at most schools, the combination of losing the tenure battle and being older than other candidates for asst prof positions limits options.

People in close touch with a perilous tenure decision often move rather than follow through to see the outcome, so the effect of a tough tenure process can be difficult to see from a distance.

A quick review of my field brings up only one person who rebounded to the top, but he returned to the crimson university that had denied him tenure just a few years later due to great community outrage and enthusiasm, and so hardly is a representative case.

HFM said...

@Anon #1:

In my field at least, several of the PrestigeU departments are known for giving tenure to only a small fraction of assistant profs - they don't need to, they have the money/name to recruit full profs from elsewhere. There are a fair number of "name" profs who did the seven-year post-postdoc at PrestigeU back in the day, and there's no particular shame in that.

Not everyone gets another R1 job after tenure denial - some don't get one, some don't want one - but those who do seem to be judged on "what have you done for me lately".

Anonymous said...

I agree with FSP that it is not your job to make the person you are talking to feel comfortable about your being denied tenure. This is especially so if you are talking to someone who had a vote on you. They are responsible for their vote, not you.

Though yes, it is your record they are voting on, sometimes the decision is not objective, about your record. And sometimes the reason given, if one is given, is a "cover" reason, not the real reason. So, it might be healthy for you to keep that in mind when evaluating your self and your record in light of the reason given for tenure denial.

FSP also raises the interesting question of whether the denial was anticipated or a surprise. It seems that the honorable thing to do on the part of the department is to signal the correct outcome, especially if it's going to be denial. If they signal tenure, then deny it, that suggests, to me at least, that the denial had more to do with politics than your record.

I wish the world did not warrant this kind of... suspicion, but it's just reality. Decisions about you don't always accurately reflect on you. So, don't let a negative decision rock your world more than is warranted.

GMP said...

Regarding Anon 12:41's question: We all know of a few PrestigeU's (Ivies or other private unis) that hire multiple assistant profs to kill each other in the race for one tenured position. It's no wonder and no shame not to get tenure in this scenario, and I can imagine that these people will get picked up by good state R1's and go on to have successful careers.

However, getting denied tenure at most schools, where one is hired with the intent to tenure (i.e. there are tenure slots available for each successful assistant prof hire) would, I believe, be a significant black mark on one's resume. At least in my (physical science) field.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the first comment, I was a graduate student at Harvard in two Departments where most folks did not get tenure. I can name at least two members of the National Academy who were either denied tenure or left before the decision (at the med school it could be 12+ years) because they felt their chances were nil. Many other folks went on to tenure track and tenured positions at other top notch places and were subsequently quite successful.

Over at the DARK BLUE institution across town from my current home, I also know a number of folks denied tenure who are successful scientists at top notch places.

At my own top 25 R1 University, which has much more reasonable guidelines, several of the folks who we have denied tenure have gone on to successful scientific careers at other institutions.

So it is possible!

Mark P

Aceon said...

Agreed - I know of several people who were denied tenure at one school and went on to great success somewhere else. It really was not a case of poor performance, but poor fit and everyone who knows the story gets that.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I think your advice is spot on, as someone who has been there. (I landed a job that was roughly lateral, but for many reasons has turned out to be a much better position than where I was denied).

First and foremost, the person denied tenure needs to look out for their own interests, and use this terminal year to do what they can to land on their feet the next year.

This doesn't mean necessarily ignoring people on campus, but at the same time, life on that campus is over and time should be focused on moving on. If people who were good colleagues or friends want to discuss the matter, then you should have a frank conversation with them and savor the companionship.

When it comes to routine matters on campus, such as meetings and advisees and things like that, you might as well as do as little of this as possible (which most people would be fine with none, I would think), as long as the people who matter to you know you're being a good citizen. Use that time to write grants and publications, and apply for jobs.

wandering scientist said...

anon at 12:41. I also know someone who was denied tenured at an ivy league school, but has done very well at his new tt job at a state school. He told me that getting denied and having to move was the best thing that ever happened to him.

That said, I had to leave my own tt position because my dept ran out of money. I could not get funded (within ~3 1/2 years). My contract was not renewed, and I was given 6 months to leave. This was not a tenure decision. I took care of my students. It was difficult, but I was straightforward with them and let them know as soon as I could. They really appreciated that. It's too long a story for here, but one of my pending grants was later funded. This facilitated my getting a non-tt position at a MORE prestigious institution. My former student, who witnessed the mess, joined me there as a post-doc after she graduated and we are now both doing kick-ass science.

In this climate, you have to roll with the punches and be creative about where to go next. Call former mentors, colleagues, etc, who might be able to help you or at least point you in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

"Really?? Is it really true that several of the MOST successful people in your field, had been denied tenure? It doesn't spell the end of a career or at least kick you down a notch in the competition level (to where you're by definition no longer at the top of the field)?"

In my subfield, there is something known as "The Harvard Post-Doc" which is actually when you get offered an Assistant Professor Job at Harvard, and then are denied Tenure. It is very, very rare that Harvard actually grants tenure to Asst profs in the department I am referring to, no matter how productive they are. Instead, they drive the asst profs to the ground during their productive yaers and only actually hire at the full prof level.

Still, practically everyone who does "The Harvard Postdoc" becomes a superstar in the process.

Anonymous said...

"From a 1st year PhD student with an advisor who thankfully has a cushy professorship: what does typically happen to students whose advisors are denied tenure in the middle of the student's PhD?"

It's pretty much the same as if the Prof decides to move for any other reason.

1. The student hurries up and finishes early (I know one person who graduated a year early of tenure denial).
2. They find someone willing to advise them/host them in their lab on the rest of their project.
3. They follow their adviser to wherever they goes next.

John Vidale said...

I'm reading numerous commentators say that they knew someone who was denied tenure and then became a superstar at another institution.

However, as scientists, we know the question is really what fraction of people denied tenure thrive compared to the fraction that thrive having gotten tenure.

In my subfield, of the nine that come to mind as denied tenure at Caltech, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, most are doing ok, but only the one mentioned in my previous post made the institution (temporarily) regret its decision, and four left the country for their next job, and one went to the USGS.

Generally, being denied tenure hurts a career.

Joseph said...

The more I learned about academia, the less appealing it became. I'm very happy so far with the abrupt transition to industry. From what I understand, this is only going to get worse, both from an oversupply and from a tight budget standpoint.

Anonymous said...

How about suggestions for how to approach a colleagues who was recently denied tenure? These comments all seem to be of the flavor "Einstein didn't graduate from high school". What do I say "If you want to try to break the ice" .... given she is probably at a global minimum in self esteem?

Anonymous said...

John Vidale writes: However, as scientists, we know the question is really what fraction of people denied tenure thrive compared to the fraction that thrive having gotten tenure.

I don't think that is the question.

A non-negligible percentage of negative tenure decisions are justified, and as such many people who are denied tenure do have a valid mark on them saying "not good enough". I think that is a given.

What we are talking about is someone who was wronged by the system. Will they carry a not-tenured stigma and if so does this means they will never reach the top echelon of their profession regardless of accomplishments?

The answer is clearly no as our examples show.

Anonymous said...

hello I'm the Anon#1 @ 12:41

just to clarify (though I should have done that earlier) I'm not talking about the notorious Ivies/PresitigiousU's where everyone knows that they almost never give anyone tenure.

I'm talking about, if you're in a TT position at any school other than these notorious never-give-tenure schools. If you're at a school where it's not uncommon for the assistant profs hired to achieve tenure, and yet you don't. Isn't that pretty much a really really bad thing for your career and to then rebound to be the "top of your field" is unlikely?

Anonymous said...

If you're at a school where it's not uncommon for the assistant profs hired to achieve tenure, and yet you don't. Isn't that pretty much a really really bad thing for your career and to then rebound to be the "top of your field" is unlikely?

If you have the results and papers, people will soon forget that you got denied tenure, and when becoming ultimately famous people will laugh about the time you got denied tenure.

On the other hand, if you are a reasonable scientist and got denied tenure from a not-too-hard place then either the place you were at is really screwed up or you don't quite know how to play the game. In the latter case, the best you can do is use this as a learning experience, pick up the pieces and do better next time. In the former, people will be able to tell that you were hard done by and no permanent damage will ensue.