tenure

The Life and Times of TT Academics: A Stream-of-Consciousness Post

Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.

A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.

There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)

I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.

I work with a young  male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.

I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)

I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.

I am now at a  position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field.  I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.

According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work.  For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do.  (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )

Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence.  When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.

Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.

Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.

I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.

I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.

(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)

So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:

Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT,  people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that  you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice  from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.

Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’  Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned  after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.

What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)

As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support  — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is  someone out there who looks out for their careers.

 

Disenfranchised

Over the decade that I have spent in my home department, I have witnessed several faculty colleagues retire. A number retired in their 60’s or 70’s; they had been active in research and faculty governance till the very last day, but were forgotten soon thereafter and are hardly ever mentioned today. Their labs were given to others and the department life went on. Each such retirement reminds me that, no matter how much you give to your work, your work will take it all, scoff at you for not giving more, then turn on its heal and walk away without so much as a thank you.

Then there were a few who retired much younger, with 10 or more good professorial years remaining. Their academic stories are not happy.

There are people in the department for whom no one among the colleagues seems to care. Everyone considers them deadwood, inactive researchers, generally someone most wish they could get rid of. These people wield no power in the department political arena. In whispers, they are described to junior faculty as irrelevant, so the younglings would learn not  to mind them either.

Among these tenured-but-disenfranchised academics, some are a real net drain on the department as they don’t do research, teaching, or service well at all, so it’s really hard to find any redeeming qualities. These extremes are very, very, VERY rare, and ironically show no interest in early retirement.

But most simply run low on external funds, while remaining good and engaged teachers. They often take on a heavy service load, doing laborious tasks that benefit the whole department. These people deserve more gratitude and respect than they are given.

One such colleague recently retired. My guess is that he’s no more than 55 years old. I never got to know him well, but he must have been a quality researcher once upon a time at least, or else he would not have gotten tenure. In recent years, I watched him try — and fail — to get some more meaty service and administrative roles; the writings on the wall was that the department had given up on him. At that point, his main flaw was that he did theoretical work for which there had never been a huge amount of funding available, the well had since run dry, and he hadn’t been able (or willing) to successfully switch fields to a more lucrative one. A few other “shinier” faculty were brought in from the outside into his area, so he slowly became wholly marginalized. Over the past couple of years I can’t say I ever saw him in faculty meetings. The department gave up on him, communicated it loudly and clearly, until he gave up on the department, too, and left.

I wish him well in whatever he does next.

It’s sobering to see what can happen in nominally harmonious departments. Sure, nobody quarrels, everything is very civilized and outwardly friendly. We just shut people out of the decision-making process, and take away their abilities to contribute or advance in ways that don’t involve external cash precisely because they don’t bring in enough external cash. No need to abolish tenure; we can’t formally fire them, but we are apparently very good at making them want to leave.

Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.

————-

Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?

————-

Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.

Tenure Denial

Have you ever noticed how certain words or certain phenomena seem never to be on your radar, you may even be completely oblivious to them, only to show up repeatedly over a very short time span?

I remember a few years back coming across the word sinister, not exactly a word frequently used in daily communication, probably five or six times in a single day from as many different and unrelated sources, only one of which was a Disney cartoon where the adjective qualified a villain. Another example, at a much more serious end of the spectrum, is a particular fetal malformation of which I had previously never heard, only to find out that two women whom I knew ended up losing their babies because of it within a few weeks from one another.

For some reason, I have heard of three cases of tenure denial over the past couple of weeks. My department is low-drama in that regard, people get plenty of feedback and generally know if they are doing well or not, so surprises are rare. My own tenure case, while anxiety-inducing, was objectively a slam-dunk and was approved unanimously at every level. There were no issues with tenure of the several colleagues who are junior to me, so I sometimes forget that getting denied is a very real possibility.

When things look really bad, you can usually see the signs well before tenure and ideally the precarious situation is communicated to the junior faculty member early enough that they can decide whether to do something about their performance or choose a different career path. We have had a few people who left after their 3rd year review because it was clear that there was little that could be done to change the unfavorable disposition of the department. In two of those cases, the candidates were not listening to advice as to what they should do and decided they knew better. When during your 3rd year review it becomes clear that not only have you received no grants (that can happen, everyone is aware of the funds getting scarce), but the reason is that you were in fact not applying at all because you decided it was not important and you were to focus on research as that’s what you wanted to do (I am not making this up) or because you waited for the world’s largest amount of ironclad preliminary data to even begin writing, that’s a really really big problem. That’s how you don’t get your contract renewal after the 3rd-year  review.

All three cases of tenure denial that I came across recently (R1 schools, different physical science fields) were borderline. In each case the decision could have justifiably gone the other way, but it is not clear that the departments had made a mistake, I can see why they wanted to deny tenure. All three candidates had independent funding and published, but less than optimally; one had issues with equipment, which is very unfortunate, and a corresponding publication gap late on the tenure track. Another had basically very, very few publications, and while the field is such that the publication rate is not high and the candidate ultimately published some very high-impact work, it was simply too little and too late for when the tenure dossier was submitted and I presume that, as far as the tenure-case letter writers were concerned, the record was really weak.

Tenure track is short. You cannot embark on a single lofty goal during this period. If you really want to do this far-reaching, high-risk work, you absolutely have to balance it out with shorter-term, sure-payoff projects. The papers that will count have to be published by the end of year 5 on the tenure track, and ideally earlier, so that there’s enough time for people to come across your work. I have seen more than one case where the all-eggs-in-one-basket ended up royally backfiring, even though the seminal finding was eventually published somewhere prestigious — it was just too late.

In this sense, tenure track is about strategizing, career engineering if you will, as much as it is about ideas and technical execution. You have to learn the job fast enough and show others that you know how to do it, that you can raise money, teach, advise students, publish papers and give talks, and make a name for yourself — on time. Tenure track is usually not the time to devote all your energy to a project you have always wanted to do; sure, you can do it, but you also have to do something else, otherwise leave it for after tenure. Many people do their best work post-tenure anyway; the key is to do what you need to do to actually get tenure first.

You Got Tenure… Now What?

Tenure is a major landmark in the life of an academic scientist. While its original purpose was to protect academic freedom and enable professors to teach what they felt appropriate, without  fear of retribution, this is not a major concern for most academic scientists and engineers. For STEM folks, tenure means job security and is really a perk that compensates for the comparatively lower salaries than in industry. It also enables us to plan longer-term projects, have flexibility in terms of how we allocate our time and resources, and pursue riskier directions of research. In case it’s not clear, I am a big fan of the concept of tenure. I also believe that the people you really want to tenure are those with a real fire in the belly, those who will keep going even after tenure and for whom the tenure requirement was never a particularly high, unattainable bar to begin with. But it’s easy to be all blasé about tenure from the comfortable position of having it.

In hindsight, I was a total mess the year before tenure. At the time I didn’t realize how unpleasant I had been to my colleagues. I don’t know why I was so nervous really, there were never really any hints from anyone that I might not get it: I had papers, two young investigator awards and other grants, had graduated a PhD student, given talks, had great teaching evaluations. Nobody ever said anything even remotely doubtful about my case and I really had smooth sailing throughout, yet that year was extremely stressful for me. I have no idea how I would have felt if I had had something really problematic on my record or if I had faced evaluation by capricious administrators, as some people do.  

Getting tenure is not really a single event in time, it’s a protracted process and perhaps that’s why the whole ordeal seems entirely underwhelming. At some point, a dossier gets assembled by you or someone in your department and someone sends out requests for external letters of evaluation. The letters take a couple of months to come back and then the department votes for your promotion. For me, this step was easy  as the department was unanimous in their support. The next step is the critical one, at the university committee. There are a few rubber stamps thereafter, but the university-level committee is the one that makes or breaks your case. It turned out that step went smoothly, as well.

We started my tenure process in May of my 5th academic year (note that you really only have the papers written up and submitted in the first 4-4.5 years on the TT count towards tenure; several people did get into moderately-to-really-deep doodoo for waiting way too long to get papers out). External letters were collected over the summer, department voted in September or early October, and I had the positive university-level decision in early December of my 6th academic year. However, I didn’t  get tenure for real until the Regents met sometime in the following summer, and then I didn’t get a raise or the new title until the new academic year. So it was about 9 months between clearing the hoop and actually becoming an associate professor. During that time people would congratulate me at random times or ask about my case  and I’d have to explain that it’s all good, but technically I am not tenured yet, so congrats are in order but maybe only unofficially because who knows. The protracted lame duck assistant professordom certainly didn’t fuel the festive mood. At some point in the middle of the summer I did get the official tenure and promotion paperwork, and that’s when I guess we were supposed to break out the champagne but it felt silly by then. We sort of but not really celebrated, maybe even a couple of times. I am pretty sure I bought lunch or dinner for my students at some point. By the time the title and the raise came, there were no festivities left in me.

Tenure is supposed to be a turning point, where you stop and ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your scientific life. To me, it took several years after tenure to relax; actually, I am going to say that I only relaxed once I got promoted to full prof. By relaxing I mean I finally realized that there were things that were making me unhappy about my job, I admitted to myself that being unhappy about them is spoiling multiple aspects of my life, and that I needed to do something because what’s the point of having a secure job people would kill for if you don’t enjoy it. Some of the decluttering involved wrapping up several collaborations — they were not bad, just not worth quite as much time and energy. I finally said goodbye to a large center with which I had been affiliated for a long time; this center was a great “safety net,” a sure funding for one student if all else went to hell, but it really was very little money and the time and paperwork commitment were just staggering. So I decided it was time to cut the cord and it was one of the best, most liberating things I have ever done. I also realized that I was good at writing proposals on my own and that I greatly enjoyed those projects that were mine, all mine. And that I don’t actually have to collaborate just to collaborate, that we had plenty of expertise in the group to do a whole bunch of things, and that I was producing better and more enjoyable-to-write papers when it was just my students and me. So to me tenure meant, eventually, getting rid of the shackles of unsatisfying collaborations, rediscovering the joy of being the boss of me, and focusing squarely on the projects I found challenging and on building up the expertise and publication record of my own students, as opposed to playing second or third fiddle to someone else. Tenure meant really putting on my big-scientist pants and boldly going where no one has gone before  (except for 78.3%  of everyone who has ever gotten tenure) — into the rest of my career, with the renewed zeal of a horny rabbit on his 4th espresso.

Another important aspect of post-tenure life has been becoming aware of how great this city and this university really are. I spent much of my time on the tenure track lamenting over not being at a better place, whereas my university is objectively excellent, but I was for some reason unable to internalize it until recently. Even superstar scientists get up in the morning and go to work and sit in their offices, drinking coffee/tea/eggnog, and then they read emails, read/write papers, talk to students, teach… It’s all the same, no matter where you are. And I started thinking about all the things that I do have — great colleagues, a great city for my family where the kids are happy and healthy and safe and getting a good education, all those aspects could be much worse and I should appreciate what I do have. I realized that I had all that I needed right here, that this university was perfectly fine for what I wanted to do, that it was certainly good enough to support the vision that I had, and that if anything was limiting me it was myself.  So I decided to fully commit to this place and make the absolute best of all that it had to offer to both my ambition and all other aspects of my life. You might say that I have finally given my university and my city two fully tenured positions in my heart. (Gaah…That was just way too sappy, even for a gooey Valentine’s day week. ) 

How about this instead… Tenure is like an awesome superpower — it takes a while to learn how to wield it, but it can overall bring a lot of good. Use it responsibly!

What has receiving tenure been like for you? If  currently untenured, what aspects of tenure are you looking forward to (or perhaps dreading)?