Tenure – I has it

Although I don’t really have many academic readers, I saw this nice post about post-tenure life by a blogger who could be nicknamed “alphabet soup”. Thus, I decided to break out a post that I put together quite some time ago when I first thought about maintaining an academic blog. I live on the wrong side of the street in academia as compared to that blogger. Very few people in their right mind “would kill for” my job and in particular I have very little control concerning what I want to do at my job. (Basically, I have 40+ hours per week of stuff that I have to do at a particular time or particular way or with a particular outcome, and I have very little choice in the matter.)  Nor do I live in a nice place, nor have much of a life.  But, the post didn’t leave me green with envy and I found it to be a thoughtful perspective. In contrast, my post might come off like a turd in a punchbowl, but it is not intended as some sort of rebuttal to that other post, just a different experience.  Fire up the way-back machine!

So, I’m writing this during the weekend after I received notification that I have been granted tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.  I really don’t know when I will post this to my putative future blog, so I’m not sure if it will fit in very well.  I also apologize because I suspect that this post will be less witty than usual (I hope).  Mainly, I’m trying my best to keep this blog anonymous.  [I have added current comments in brackets.]

The way it works here is that once the ink dries on the final signature from the President, an official e-mail comes out from his/her office to all faculty and staff congratulating all of the people who get tenure and/or a promotion  (Remember, we are a small school, so this can be a dozen people or less.)  This happens a few months after tenure and promotion packets are submitted, and about 1 week before official contracts are issued with one’s new status.  The packets go up through the ranks, but at my small school, there is no department committee, just an optional letter from the department chair.  Also, just one external letter, solicited by the chair at the recommendation of the candidate.

I guess this is supposed to be a big deal and I’m supposed to have it made now.  I did allow myself the luxury of being happy about the notification a few times that day and the next, particularly when by myself rocking out in the car between work and home.  (Singing in the car – I has that, too.)  And, yes, when getting the few acknowledgments from someone at my school.  At least that included a surprisingly heartfelt congratulations from someone very high up in administration in front of other people.  The quantity of response was a lot less underwhelming from my small multi-institution research group and my home department, who make up most of the people I know whose response mattered, so that was nice (but expected).  The only external friend I told is out of the country on a family vacation and obviously hasn’t been checking his email much.  I have no friends here outside of work.  I have one family member that I talk to, and told them.

Of course, that was fine because I had night work that could not be otherwise re-scheduled the next two days (I ended up working 11+ hours the day after the announcement, all but about 1.5 hours not by specific choice), so it’s not like I could have gone out celebrating.  As I told a student during the 11-hour day, “you just keep doing the work.”

The thing about tenure is that I’m not really sure that it means much.  Yes, I have short-term job security, but the degree programs in my department are not close to bullet-proof, and loss of a degree program would mean carnage.  Tenured faculty have indeed been fired before at my institution in that situation; I’m particularly vulnerable for reasons not under my control that I won’t describe here.  I may have less job security than pre-tenure.  Even though tenure currently seems to be respected at my institution, it sure-as-shit doesn’t mean a job for life!  [At this point, I indeed have less job security than pre-tenure because if administration decides to dump a particular degree program, I will probably lose my job.]

I’m not in a field where “academic freedom” means much.  I may have already written a post about this by now, but as a physical sciences professor I’m not in a position to be talking about controversial issues the way that other fields either have to or choose to.  It’s hard to ever imagine being in a position where my job would be in danger just because of something that I would/should be teaching.  But, it means that tenure doesn’t give me any additional classroom freedom; if I go into the classroom and start spouting opinions about – well, pretty much anything – there can still be consequences, up to and including termination.

Once one gets tenure, it is quite hard in my field to make even a lateral move, let alone an upward move.  Specifically, any upward move on my part would require a significant research agenda that I doubt I will ever have the time or resources for.  There are a few good things about my institution, but also a lot of bad ones, and I’m not comfortable with the idea that I will spend the next 20-25 years here.  To be more serious than usual, if I were to know for sure that I would be working here under similar circumstances 25 years from now, I would most likely commit suicide in the relatively near future; no joke.

[Recent experiences have verified the first sentence in the previous paragraph; it's almost impossible to improve your career by doing right by undergraduate students, and screwing them over would be the only possible way I could elevate my research productivity to the point where I might get some interviews.  Research mentoring of twice the percentage of female/minority students as the rest of the department doesn't seem to count for much other than personal satisfaction.  Securing scholarship grants for said students doesn't seem to matter much either, except for the students, of course.  Public outreach in a small rural community with very few opportunities to "see" science isn't considered as impressive as a post-doc doing something similar in a major, highly educated city with the infrastructure and reputation of a major university behind her or him.  Or maybe I'm whining too much.]

It’s worth noting that I’m also not in a field where you can kick over a table in Starbucks and find a couple of PhDs who would be more than happy (and qualified) to get a tenure-track position at even a 3rd-rate school like mine.  Based on the range of places where I’ve worked and especially sitting on both sides of tenure-track job searches, pretty much anybody who is competent at teaching in my field can land a tenure-track position at a mediocre place like mine.  I’m not sure if that’s 100% true after the Great Recession.  However, in my field you basically don’t get into grad school unless you are funded and there was a brief crash in graduate admissions (that hurt several of my students) in the first two years of the bad economy.  In any case, there are still people who do not include institutions like mine in their job searches, so it’s always hard to tell if the most qualified people are having trouble getting jobs from just the economy or whether they are choosing to avoid lesser institutions like mine.  It is possible to have an entire career in my field without ever teaching a class, although funding is more challenging then ever for these.

The point being that objectively my job really isn’t that great relative to my field; people do not clamor for positions like mine.  We know that because we have made several tenure-track hires since I came here and the candidate fields were barely strong enough to have successful searches.

I try not to be too personal here, not just for anonymity, but to keep this blog more interesting than quips about my amazing (-ly crappy) life.  But, I have to say that the fact that I’m in my 40s and have had to pretty much ignore the possibility of family life is wearing on me.  I’m never planning on being one of those creepy guys who is breeding into his 50s or 60s, so I don’t see myself ever having children.  (The bloodline on my mother’s side of the family dies with me, while the crappy side of the family has splooged their devil seed hither and yon.) There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s where if I had found a partner, children might have been in the picture.  Still, idea of a lifetime of companionship and even marriage is attractive.  Yet, I feel like my career path has come to a point where even that will be difficult, even with my work-worsened mental health issues a little more under control.  This is definitely one of those “bring your own date” types of places, especially if you are man looking for an intelligent woman who has achieved some success in life; not something that happens too much in these parts.

[My school is almost completely divorced from the economy of the area, except as one of the major employers.  Only a tiny fraction of our students come from the local high schools.  With the exception of medical fields that support our large elderly population, people who grow up here and want to succeed, generally high-tail it out of here after high school and never come back.]

So, while one can never win the game, I have passed Go and will be collecting my $200 per month raise (yes, it really works out that way, and it was supposed to be more but my Dean can’t count).  I feel like I’ve done a lot of things, but for me pride comes from doing something well (or at least being particularly clever doing something), and that’s a little harder to justify.  Historically, this isn’t a place for doing things well or being clever, although the culture keeps threatening to change.  I’m a serious pessimist, and that has been amply “rewarded” here.  But, I’m trying to see the positive, and can only hope that Howard Jones was right, “things can only get better.”  (Nice 80s reference, huh?)  It remains to be seen if tenure gives me the power to help that along.

[Not really; the good news is that my school is - at least at the moment - in excellent financial condition.  Although I'm putting together a white paper on a project that will require donor-type of money that would really help our students, and also really help me want to stay here, it's a very low odds kind of thing.  I'm doing more committee work than right after getting tenure, but if a faculty committee accomplishes something here, it was probably an accident.  I'm also doing some light admin work, which is about as useless as one would imagine.  I'm not sure if it is possible to get a research program going again; I have ideas, but need access to equipment.  Same ol', same ol'.]

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