What Should Going Up for Tenure Feel Like?

by | Mar 14, 2019 | mindset

Going up for tenure brings up all the feelings.

Maybe the most salient one is fear.

Fear that you won’t get tenured, which would mean going on the (also scary) market, moving to another town, uprooting your family. Fear that your sneaky suspicion that your colleagues have no idea (or don’t value) what you do was right all along. Fear of rejection. Fear of failure.

There’s another side of fear around tenure that those who get closer and closer to it start to articulate as well: fear of getting it. When your whole career has been defined by going after one thing (tenure), what does your career look like after you actually have that thing? How will you structure your time? How will you say “no”? What direction will your research take?

So much fear.

This fear of going up for tenure is baked in to the culture of academia. If you’re not freaking out, the culture tells us, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not overworking, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not constantly worried that you should be writing, you’re doing it wrong.

The fear around the tenure process is structured into our institutions as well. No one can tell you the exact number of pubs and presentations that will ensure you tenure. Looking at those who have gone before you doesn’t help, because standards keep going up and up, so you can’t compare those who got tenure three years ago to those who will get tenure now. In fact, once you do get tenure you might be in a department where you’ve out-published people who have been there for 10 years. It’s a sliding scale.

These unknowns are real. And they’re really scary.

How do you craft your pre-tenure experience so that it is not rooted in fear? Because that’s what I want for you, and academics everywhere. A pre-tenure run-up that is about career-building, about becoming who you are, about making your mark in the world through the important work that you do.

I want tenure prep to feel more ease-full. It won’t be easy–the first years on the tenure track are never easy. But could they be more filled with ease? Could they feel less freaky and more “I got this”?

I think tenure prep can feel that way, and it should. Do we really want our generation’s greatest minds, the problem-solvers, the cultural movers and shakers, to run themselves into the ground to get tenure, just to burn out?

I don’t want that.

Here’s what I want tenure prep to feel like instead:

  • I’m designing where I want my career to go, and I like where it’s headed.
  • I’m mastering the everyday practices needed to write more so that my best work gets out into the world through publications.
  • I’m learning how to control my day-to-day activities to make room for deep work and to prevent burn out.
  • My job might not be perfect now, but I am on track to shaping it so that it is exactly what I want it to be, including the number of hours I put in per week.
  • I know how to manage my institution’s expectations with my own expectations for myself, and I’m not getting side-tracked by guessing what they want. I’m shaping my career and my work the way I want it to be.

What about you? How do you want tenure prep to feel? What are the skills that you need to learn to get there?

I believe that the only way that we are going to make academia better (more humane, less soul-sucking), is to do it better. We owe it to ourselves and all the women and people of color to change the culture of academia. How can you make change today?


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