Limbo

lyra211 asks:

OK, here’s the subject I’ve been googling obsessively and haven’t found much fodder about — would love to hear your thoughts: The year you are up for tenure. Awkwardness of interactions with colleagues, dealing with inappropriate communication from senior department members, the senior faculty perspective on what is happening behind the scenes, and in my case, going on parental leave while your tenure case is under consideration. Obviously I’ve got some angst about this right now, but since it seems that I have basically zero control over anything at this stage, I’m hoping I can just disappear on leave and let the process move forward without me and try not to dwell on it too much.

My former postdoc is in this pre-tenure limbo right now, and I really feel for him! I dispense periodic texts of encouragement and support, because he’s done great work and his institution would be crazy not to tenure him, but I understand it ain’t over till it’s over and no one can actually guarantee that it will all go smoothly.

In fact, if I had to pick the most anticlimactic event of my life, it would definitely be receiving that official letter that I was granted tenure. It was preceded by nearly a year of (in hindsight completely misplaced) anxiety; the news was overwhelmingly positive along the way, but none of it was 100% conclusive because it couldn’t be. In hindsight, the case was a slam dunk and went without a hitch, but it was nerve-wrecking anyway.

The pre-tenure year is a tough year. People will tell you not to worry, which is useless advice. I’d say try (but you’ll likely fail) not to worry too much, because a) you likely have no reason to, or if you had a serious reason to worry, it would have come up already or the department wouldn’t have put you up for tenure and b) once you’ve done your job on the package (how much varies greatly among departments, schools, disciplines) there’s really nothing you can do.

Now to the real question: how to interact with colleagues. Presumably the department voted in favor of promotion, so they are probably all or nearly all your supporters. At this point they are as helpless as you are. If they try to cheer you up, accept the act of good will. If they try to share what happens behind the scenes, listen, they might not be that far off, especially if they’ve been involved in the later steps of the tenure process at your institution or elsewhere. It’s info, it’s anecdata, and if it temporarily quells your anxiety, good. But if it only adds to your anxiety, avoid it.

It’s limbo and limbo is always difficult. I was really short with some of my colleagues in that period, more than ever before or since. I didn’t realized at the time how the pre-tenure anxiety affected me, but it did.

If you can disengage and focus on something else (like a new baby! :-), just let the process unfold, that would be ideal. I can never fully get out of my head, so this wouldn’t have been an option for me, at least not in full, but consciously pushing for disengagement when feasible is definitely what I would recommend. I generally don’t lose sleep over things I cannot influence, and the tenure decision is one such thing, even though it feels like it’s not. Remind yourself that, once the packet is out, your job is done. I mean, don’t run off with the Dean’s spouse or kill the Provost’s dog, but aside from that, there’s very little you can do to your institutional image one way or another once the case has been turned in.

Good luck to lyra211 and to everyone else who’s in pre-tenure limbo!

5 comments

  1. Good luck lyra211!!! I am up for tenure this year. I was stressed out of my mind before I submitted my tenure package. But I was so relieved when it was out of my hands! Couldn’t put up with another revision. I have since totally erased the tenure process from my mind. Seriously!! I think this has been possible because I’ve had other family medical issues this semester that has made me focus on that rather than on tenure. And then I cannot be more stressed than a couple of years ago, when I thought I would be untenurable. But the funding wind came my way, so things changed.

  2. Sending you lots of luck Lyra211! I’m in the process of leaving academia (after PhD, before TT job) so I can’t really comment on the tenure process, but I really hope it goes smoothly for you!

  3. I also timed a baby with tenure (tbh, we were successful with DC2 well before I thought we would be considering all the infertility treatments involved with DC1)… honestly, I just assumed I would get tenure and if I didn’t I’d go on the market the next year and go someplace else (maybe move to Paradise with DH being the main earner). I dunno. I like my department and my job, but not the town so much, and if I got denied tenure then I’d have liked the department a lot less. A nice thing about babies is that they take up a lot of mental cycles, particularly the ones devoted to worrying, so I’d just be like, I will make time to worry about the tenure process later.

    https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/sunk-costs-and-moderating-emotional-upsets/

    Other advice: Focus on your next projects, your next grant proposals, etc. Now is also a good time to go on the market if you can handle travel. Or you can go next year if you aren’t granted tenure.

  4. Thanks, xyk! A month or so on from writing that comment, I’m now out on parental leave with my 3-week-old as my department oh-so-slowly moves through its process. At the moment the big wait is for the external letters to come in — I know that they have a list of writers, and that everyone on the list has officially agreed to write letters, and that the letters are due by January 15, and then the department’s decision is due by February 15. So there’s really no news at this point, and won’t be for another couple of months, most likely.

    At least so far, I do recommend parental leave as a way to escape the awkwardness and anxiety of the tenure decision year. My newborn is much more all-consuming than my tenure case, and provides a big, healthy dose of perspective — tenure is just not as important as the health and well-being of my little family, and as long as they’re fine, I’ll be fine, whatever happens with the machinations of my department/university this year.

    I think that I will relax a lot when/if my department’s positive decision comes back. That’s the one I care most about, because it’s the one with the people who understand my work the best — and also the first opportunity for the process to reflect the opinions of the external letter-writers, which is the unknown that freaks me out most at this point. Objectively, I shouldn’t be worried. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from my department during my three pre-tenure reviews, all of my materials meet and typically exceed the written tenure standards for my department/university, and I’ve had enough success with external reviews for grants and time on research facilities that I can be pretty sure that my larger research community doesn’t regard me as a crackpot or a pariah. Still, as you say, weird things happen during the tenure process and nobody can promise me that it’ll all turn out OK.

    I appreciate the perspective on sunk costs — that is indeed a good way to frame the tenure decision year. And thanks for the other good wishes from Callie and Lucy! I agree with Callie that after submitting my materials, I’ve mostly been able to put it out of my mind since it’s out of my control… but not entirely, obviously. 🙂 And thanks to xyk for acquiescing to the request to mull on this subject for a while!

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