Episode #97

What Got You Tenure Won’t Get You to Full

What will get you from the start of the tenure process all the way to full professor? What worries do you have and what should you focus on instead to achieve your career goals?


I’m often inspired by concepts from the entrepreneurial space. I see a lot of parallels between entrepreneurship and academia. A recent inspiration came from a business coach of mine, Rachel Rodgers. Her entrepreneurial growth scale shows the steps for business growth, what entrepreneurs are worried about at each step and what they should be worried about to achieve the growth they”re looking for. I love this model, and am working on adapting it to the process of growth during an academic career. 

In this podcast episode, I’m using this model to break down the tenure (permanence) process into career stages. In each stage I look at what might be happening for you in terms of research, teaching and service, what some common worries are, and what you should be focusing on instead. What you’ll gain is a better understanding of what it takes to make it to full professor, and what you might need to change to get there. 

Stage 1: Tenure/Permanence Track Years 1-3

Research: You’re trying to make your own path, distinguish yourself from previous advisors and cast out on your own. You’re figuring out what that looks like and how to do it.

Teaching: You’re navigating new preps, new systems, and trying to figure out how to handle all of your students. You might be building new syllabi from scratch, or completely revising them. You might not feel very confident yet, and might compensate by overpreparing. You might be attracting a lot of students who want advising from someone with fresh perspective. 

Service: You are vulnerable to a heavy load of service because you are afraid to say no, and your institution is asking a lot of you. 

What you’re worried about: 

  • Fitting in and feeling like you belong in your department. Getting approval from other faculty members.
  • Managing the everyday stressors of many balls in the air and many new and different demands on your time.

What you should be focusing on:

  • How to focus your new career around an academic mission.

“The faster you can get to focus in your career, the easier going up for tenure is going to be.” -Cathy Mazak

  • How to fund that mission; looking at long term budget strategy and funding possibilities.
  • How to tell the cohesive story of your career. This will support your dossier and is made much easier when you are focused on your career mission.
  • How to align disparate obligations in service of your mission.

“Your time at the university needs to…tell a story about who you are and where you’re going.” -Cathy Mazak

Stage 2: Tenure/Permanence Track Years 3-6

Research: Tenure feels much closer and now you are trying to make sure you publish ‘enough’ in time to submit your tenure dossier. 

Teaching: You feel more confident in your teaching, but it might start to feel more and more like one more obligation pulling at you. You might consider trying to alleviate a heavy teaching load by taking on a new project (use caution!). 

Service: You have begun to distinguish yourself as a leader, and might find people want more from you in response.

What you’re worried about: 

  • Tenure! Time to work on your tenure package is becoming shorter and shorter. You might be coping by working extended hours, engaging in a binge-crash work cycle, or some other form of overwork.

What you should be focusing on:

  • Keeping your focus on the line of work you are creating in support of your mission rather than the specific point of promotion. Honing the chain of research that will get your field-altering work into the world. 
  • Creating time to rest and to think. As our careers progress, they pick things up like a snowball rolling downhill. Focus on culling accumulated items that no longer serve your mission in favor of space to rest and to think. 

“How are you going to build space into your schedule so that you can think and have the ideas that are going to propel your career?” -Cathy Mazak

  • Clearly communicating your value to your department. 

Stage 3: Post Tenure Years 1-3

Research: What now? If you were pushing hard to get tenure without a long term career arc in mind, you might feel unsure about where to focus next. 

Teaching: Exhaustion. You might be sick of teaching. Your teaching focus may have drifted away from your core mission. You might feel like graduate students and advisees are a drag on your time rather than a boon. 

Service: You might want to give junior faculty the protection from service overload that you didn’t have. The line between service and admin might begin to blur. (Remember, the clear difference should be that admin gets paid!)

What you’re worried about: 

  • Burnout, exhaustion, and the daunting feeling that maybe this whole thing isn’t for you. After all the work you’ve put in to get here, you might not even want to think about what it could require to get all the way to full professor.

What you should be focusing on:

  • Building a team of support around you to help you achieve your mission goals. 
  • What you want your legacy to look like.
  • Stepping into your role as an expert and a leader.
  • Creating an easier path to full by having a clear view of the big picture.

“Lift your eyes from the weeds to the horizon. Because that’s the kind of action that is going to help you achieve your goals and help you to create the career that you really want.” -Cathy Mazak

The Takeaway

You can get to tenure through sheer white-knuckled determination, overwork, and pushing yourself to the brink. I don’t want you to get there that way, but it is possible! But friend, let me assure you: you will not get to full professor that way. 

Getting to full requires a broad view of the big picture, a strategic vision of the endgame and the legacy you want to create. I encourage you to create the space you need to be able to lift your gaze to the horizon, and focus on the big picture. 

If you think you might want help and support figuring out your big picture and how to move toward it, be sure to listen to our Elevate info session recording to see if you are a good fit for the program. Our next 24 person cohort starts in February, but we’re enrolling now. Check out the info session for all the details: https://scholarsvoice.org/elevate.

Is your writing project languishing, mired in the messy middle, or stuck on revise and resubmit? Grab my Writing Sprint Blueprint, a powerful productivity tool to help stalled out publications get out of your pipeline and into the world. As a bonus, you’ll also gain access to my private podcast feed “Stick to the Plan”, a 10 episode series of short, inspirational messages to keep you going. Click here to get the Writing Sprint Blueprint and “Stick to the Plan” podcast series for just $27!

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