Thursday, February 16, 2012

These Happy After-Tenure Years

Some of my friends got -- or seem to be getting -- tenure this year. Yay for all of them! They are thrilled and I am thrilled for them.

This is a happy occasion for most, and the only reason I add "for most" is because I have read essays (including a recent one in The Chronicle of Higher Education) by or about people who feel depressed and/or "trapped" by tenure. Unlike some who left critical comments on the CHE essay, I do not subscribe to the "You should be happy because there are even unhappier people in the world" philosophy. If you don't like many things about your job, you aren't going to like them once your employment position becomes (essentially) permanent, even if others in academia have less job security than you do. I feel sympathy for these depressed-by-tenure people, even if I don't really understand the phenomenon. I hope those depressed by tenure find a way to recover, perhaps by changing something about their career paths or goals (but not necessarily by becoming a depressed administrator).

I am fortunate that getting tenure was a happy, empowering thing for me. Although tenure was of course a necessary goal in my academic career path, my primary job satisfaction has involved the doing of research, teaching, and other professional activities -- developing new research projects, working with students, teaching new courses or improving old ones, and so on. Tenure gave me the chance to keep doing what I loved and also provided new opportunities, so I have never felt "trapped" by tenure.

Also, I have done my best work after getting tenure. I am not one of those genius-people who did her best work by age 30 (or 35). Some of us get tenure based in part on our accomplishments, such as they are at the time of the tenure evaluation, but also largely on a gamble about our potential. (I am going to explore an aspect of this more in a near-future post.) In letters supporting tenure cases, it is common to see phrases like "rising star" or "steep upward trajectory" to describe the tenure candidate, in recognition of the fact that there is only so much that can be done in the tenure-track years, even by those who work 24/7.

Perhaps this mostly applies to fields in which the tenure-track years involve building labs and research groups and other time-intensive activities that are necessary for new and exciting research projects to be launched and for at least some research goals achieved. I bet, however, that it also applies to any field in which more ambitious research can only be undertaken once you have developed a certain network of colleagues and contacts and attained the awesome knowledge that only comes with experience (says middle-aged me).

People who feel trapped by tenure probably dislike quite a few things about their job (colleagues, students, location etc.) and are likely a bit burned out by exhaustion and stress. For most of us, though, I hope that it is not the case that the best, most productive years are over once tenure is secured. Tenure gives us the security to pursue more risky research ideas, lets us build a larger research group (if that is desirable), and gives us the chance to serve on even more committees (<-- sarcasm).

Tenured readers: Do you feel "trapped" by tenure? Or empowered? Both? Neither? Something else?


GMP said...

I never felt trapped by tenure, but I did feel quite burnt-out. I am getting out of the slump, though (sabbatical helps! :-)

The feeling of getting tenure was more of a relief than joy, quite anticlimactic; sort of like defending your PhD, only even more 'meh'.

But I am now happy that I am tenured, I love my job, and I actually feel like a grown-up prof (as opposed to a baby-prof, which is how I felt and was perhaps treated by others as an assistant prof).

There's a lot more service, though, after tenure. But you should feel more free to say no.

One downside of getting tenure -- no more eligibility for the nice, longer than usual young investigator grants!

Anyway, I am rambling here... But overall I am happy I have tenure, I am well liked and well respected in my department (which I fully realize now that I am no longer frazzled by the terror of being untenured), I am very happy with the composition of my research group (finally figured out how to recruit good students and minimize poor fits), and have matured on the fronts of writing grants and papers.

Getting tenured is the academic equivalent of turning 30 -- you are no longer a kid, yet you have many great years (your best years!) ahead of you.

Anonymous said...

The feeling that something isn't right and you want to do something different - yet are too scared to leave the "safe" path - is nothing specific to academia.

Academia or not, tenure or something else, I think the solution is the same: Take a risk, make a change. Not the easiest thing to do always, but MUCH better than being unhappy long-term.

mOOm said...

I felt depressed/trapped by tenure. Mainly because I was in a location I didn't want to be in and also because I was getting less interested in academic research. Two years later, I quit and moved to the other side of the world (where I had lived before and my wife got a job). After a year I decided I wanted to re-enter academia. Now 3 years after that I am a full prof at a better university. We don't formally have tenure here, though it is pretty secure. I think it is still too early to say whether my work post tenure is better. Certainly not immediately post-tenure. Post-"rebirth" it's a bit too early to say.

Anonymous said...

I was quite depressed post-tenure, and still am I suppose, because I dislike my job in many ways. And I don't think any of those things are going to improve any time soon, if at all, so it's lifetime job security in a job I hate. And no matter how depressing tenure was, being denied tenure would be far far far faaaaaaaaaaar worse.

And who's trapped? I can always leave (and be unemployed).

mathgirl said...

Thanks for posting about this. The news of tenure are too recent to have any feeling other than happyhappyhappy. I love the place where I work, so I don't anticipate feeling trapped.

In a way, I feel like the time when you've just accepted a tenure-track position but you haven't started it yet. You're more or less a professor but you still have the postdoc responsibilities.

I am afraid of the responsibilities to come. I'm also afraid of not being able to keep up with research, which I love.

I've done my best research so far as a postdoc, which makes me nervous.

Anonymous said...

I would have to say I feel 'both'. I still don't have the ability to say 'no' (somehow administrators always find a way to make you feel like the alternative to you not serving is worse), though that is tempered by the fact that I can speak up now. I will wholeheartedly agree with the fact that service commitments have increased almost exponentially (there aren't many women here - so I get to be the 'token'). And despite the fact that I don't have all the answers (I feel like my own life is spinning out of control), now folks are coming to me for advice/mentoring. At this point, I would give anything to go back to being an assistant prof actually. Speaking up is about the only benefit at this institution.
Looking back at this posting...perhaps I need to start looking for a new university.

Anonymous said...

Although my husband and I are both finally tenured, intend of feeling happy, we are trapped. The department politics get worse every year, the student quality is going down (due to politics), and other issues get worse. We both want to take a sabbatical but can't make it work (small child, how do you move and handle child care) and both us just feel utterly and completely burned out. So yeah, tenure is nice in that our job is permanent but neither of us wants to stay anywhere near our university right now. And yet the semester marches on.

Anonymous said...

I have also quit my tenured job in one part of the world to move to unsecured job in academia in another part of the world. I loved my first job in the beginning which was mostly teaching, but soon got completely saturated and couldn't stand the idea to do it for the rest of my life. I took me ten years and I am happy with my job now which involve research and teaching both and gives me time for my family as well. Though it is not permanent, but honestly idea of permanent job scares me that I will feel trapped again, so actually I am happy. If only the grant situation becomes better, I don't need tenure to do something I love.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to think of much early on whether or not I will be happy with tenure at a place. I recently accepted a tenure-track job at another state, and did not apply to my current institution where I am a postdoc in. The reason was, I got so sick of the local politics, which is more institutional, hence not going to go away as people retire, I simply did not see myself happy with tenure here. Of course, the new institution I am going to now looks rosy, as I have not been part of the system, but it seems to have the checks and balances I look for in an academic institution. I also talked to some young professors, who seem very happy. So, ask me in ten years again, I hope I will not be regretting my decision.

Anonymous said...

+5 for the post title.

Anonymous said...

Fellow anon who hates her institution, go ahead and take that sabbatical - kids make everything more difficult, for sure, but it is still worth it. I'm on sabbatical right now with mine, and the biggest problem is going to be dragging them back home when it is over. Do it. (And if it is still daunting, take a stay-cation sabbatical, and just wash your hands of service for a year. Seriously, do it).

Anonymous said...

Anon who says to do it: we are trying to figure out how. Thank you for the encouragement and we'll keep at it!

Anonymous said...

Here's an unsolicited comment, from someone who was denied tenure. I read the article you linked to in CHE and loved it. And I could honestly say "I'm DON'T wish I had your problems!" Not getting tenure sucked, and a few year later still hurts when I think about the deeply personal rebuke and rejection implied in the decision.

But, I have been able to move on and re-invent my career in ways that I don't think I could have, at least for a very long time. I have been able to develop some of my soft skills that I have always felt were underutilized and undervalued in science, and I have been able to transfer many of my "hard skills" (I've been called analytical, data-driven and process-oriented, all in good ways) to new problems. I think of the rest of my life in 5-year stints; what are my five year goals, and will I move up where I am or seek other opportunities when I reach them, etc. I was not envisioning my post-tenure life in these terms.

I think that whether or not one feels trapped depends on the character of the particular institution or department to which one belongs. I've since moved across the country from the place that denied me tenure, but I am in touch with a few former colleagues. They all see my tenure denial as a symptom of "what's wrong with this place", and I know that those things would have been wrong even if I had been awarded tenure. Anyone from my old department who has the national profile to look for other jobs is doing so, and those who don't feel stuck.

Stuck is something I do not feel, and have not felt since the day I walked out of my old office. Had I been awarded tenure, I might be saying something very different.

I think that whether one feels trapped or not after tenure depends a lot on the character of the institution/department one is at, and maybe to some extent on personal circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I feel trapped in a gilded cage. I am in a tiny field, and jobs are scarce. Now I am too senior to be recruited elsewhere. But my job is pretty good, in a place I don't want to live.

Anonymous said...

The trapped feeling can come from realizing that there are more job opportunities for untenured faculty (assistant professors) and that once you make the leap to Associate the number of places you could move decreases. Perhaps you are happy and don't really want to move, but still feel a bit depressed by the (perceived) loss of opportunity.

The grass is always greener?

Anonymous said...

I am 8 years post tenure and now a relatively young full professor (40) full of abundant energy and enthusiasm for continued esearch and teaching success. At first, I felt empowered after tenure - I loved my job and felt as if my hard work and value to my department was recognized. I also felt as if I had the license to take on bigger risks with my research. But then, in the past 4-5 years, my department and university have changed radically (in a bad way). I still love my job enough to know that academia is the right place for me. But I also am no longer a good fit for my university an department. As a full professor, I feel trapped. In my field, there were ~25-30 assistant-level faculty searches, this season, but only 2-3 that mentioned in the ad that a hiring of a higher rank candidate might be considered.

Anonymous said...

Tenure is a trap. I am a tenured professor at a top-tier research institution that only pays me $55,000 per year. I have not had a cost of living adjustment in eight years and recently had a 12% cut in take-home pay. Every time I try to get out, I am asked, "But why would you want to leave a tenured position at such a great university?" Abolish tenure.