Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wherein Dr. Amelia sees the future, and maybe it's not as happy and shiny as she was promised.

Dr. Amelia, she of the overwhelming lack of tenure, had coffee with a colleague. This colleague caught the brass ring. Won the lottery. Had everything come up roses. Was tenured and promoted last year.

And yet, rather than the ebullient expressions of accomplishment and satisfaction, said colleague was a little bummed out. "Is this all there is?" she wondered. And Dr. Amelia didn't have a great answer, both because it is something that Dr. Amelia lacks and because Dr. Amelia has seen a similar effect on other proffies who cross the line.

It is as if achieving tenure makes the student pleading and the reviewer fussing more intense and irritating somehow.

She realizes that for those of you who labor in adjunctive purgatory (for whom she has great sympathy and respect!), this is a meaningless and perhaps somewhat off-putting question.

Q: But for those of you who have hit pay dirt, as it were, is this, in fact all there is? And if so, how do you counter the post-tenure blues?


  1. I have never said this out loud to any academic, but getting tenure was the most underwhelming day of my career. I never had it as a goal. But everyone I ever taught with thought it was about the only reason to do the job at all. It suffocated me, and I gave it up and moved to another job after 2 years against every kind of warning.

    And the warnings were real, and I may have heeded them had I known. All any hiring committee wants to know is, "Why would you give up tenure." Friends even say, "Did something happen there? Is there something you're not telling me?"

    No, I just wanted to have the freedom to go when I wanted, to a new job, a new city. My family is more important to me. My friends are more important to me. So, I follow my heart and perhaps it's cost me job security.

    But tenure just felt like a noose to me. It's not for everyone, I know. And my experience is just mine.

    1. I don't have any sympathy for this point of view. When so many people want tenure, deserve tenure, you simply threw it away. That's inconceivable. Count me among the doubters who will wonder why you couldn't keep the job in the first place.

    2. There's a reason for seeking tenure or some other form of permanent status. Having to constantly worry about whether one is going to have a paycheque coming in is quite a burden.

      However, it can be confining and reduce one's mobility, particularly when things turn lousy. When alternate employment is hard to come by, remaining in such as situation takes its toll.

      While I was teaching, certain people took an intense disliking to me, which became worse after I was made permanent. Eventually, I saw the writing on the wall, and I quit, choosing when and how I would leave.

      That was to my benefit as I didn't have to answer embarrassing questions as to whether I'd been fired from that job. If I was asked about that, I simply stated a fact: I resigned and did so for my own reasons. More than that was nobody's business.

  2. After I got tenure, I wandered around shell-shocked. Suddenly, 14 years of chronic anxiety was over, and it took a while for it to sink in. Then I got a twinge of survivor's guilt, much like I got when I first got my tenure-track job.

    Both quickly dissipated, since academia didn't stop springing fresh abominations on me. I was still in a badly run department full of incompetent faculty and entitled, illiterate, dangerously innumerate students. Whenever I face a particularly egregious case, I still sometimes wonder whether getting tenure was winning the booby prize.

    (OK, we now have good examples of both faculty and students, but the signal-to-noise ratio stank during my early years here. Although the budget has sucked since 2008, otherwise things aren’t as bad they used to be, partly because of some merciful retirements, partly because we've been able to attract more and better students, and partly because I was able to do some excellent shit-disturbing when I served as department Chair. )

    I don’t think I’ve still fully recovered from the idiotic mentoring and conditioning I got as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor and a tenure-track Assistant Professor. For example, I still take anonymous student evaluations much more seriously than I should, even though I no longer have to at all.

    One thing that keeps me going is that my undergraduate education was marred by old proffies who were abusing their tenure, coasting to retirement. Their teaching was often unprepared and always lazy, and they hadn’t done any research in decades. Wouldn’t you know, what little they did have to teach us was 20 years out of date. I swore I’d never stoop to that, and I think I’ve so far largely succeeded. Life loves its ironies, of course: now I get no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them.

    Another thing that keeps me interested, productive, and not counting the days until retirement (I’d better not since have well over 4000, anyway), is that I have racked up some successes. I've published some good research, and have had some good students, and have helped placed some in good jobs.

    A major reason, though, is that I get to make a living being an astronomer. As no less than Edwin Hubble observed after he gave up a law career, "I chucked the law for astronomy and I knew that, even if I were second rate or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered." Being an astronomer is even better than being a cowboy!

    Even if you’re in a good situation, though, at the top of your field, some time ago RYS was given some sage advice by a retired scholar nicknamed Rutabaga Ralph, here:


    His wife also had a touching post, here:


    1. P.S. "Being an astronomer is even better than being a cowboy!"

      Sorry, Bubba. If it's any consolation, I'll concede that the women do like the horse.

  3. If your friend has the “is this all there is?” feeling, she may be lucky.
    I got tenure 8 years ago, and I can say that the admin people get worse every year.
    I use my tenure to the max, but it still takes time and energy to deal with stuff that should never be proposed in the first place. Financially, tenure has been great for me, and I wouldn’t go back by choice, but I know what your friend means.

    Countering the blues? Do the research you really want to do; work with administrative staff to develop relations that benefit the uni wherever possible; and treat students and adjuncts how you’d like to be treated were you in their position.

  4. Is that all there is? There's always more: more committee work, more mentoring, more guilt about being behind in your research.

    When I made associate, I'm not sure I could fully appreciate the tenure it implied; perhaps that was because a fellow associate had been walked from the building by two security guards. Mostly I felt relief over my application not being rejected. And I felt a bit more financially secure, there was that.

    When I made full, again the relief, but moreso: now I allowed myself the conceit that I could be a bit daring in word and deed. I promised myself and some colleagues I'd use my powers only for good... But the day after I got my promotion letter, I was still on the same committees, my office was still too close to the only bathroom in that wing, and my colleagues were still complaining about the same old shit.

    Now I have become the one to whom others go to get things done, champion of the greater good. This is possible only because for some reason, senior colleagues now seem willing to concede that I might just know what I'm talking about, and the higher-ups in the brick building now understand that of the several who tug at their shirttails for attention, I'm one who has at least thought the matter through. It took several months for these shifts to become noticeable, and I can't say for sure how much is due to simply my own perceptions changing, or others perceiving me differently because of the change in title, or my putative new demeanor somehow changing theirs. Maybe I give off different pheromones now.

    1. I can't conceive of an office being "too close to the only bathroom in that wing..." I guess it "Depends" on the health of one's bladder.

    2. On a typical workday, my bladder might go eight hours between emptyings. As for myself, as much as I use that room, I'd be quite fine with nailing it shut and walking to another building once or twice a day. But alas, "my" bathroom just across the hall is shared by two dozen others. My door shut, I hear them purposfully striding towards it; door open, I also see them, often more than once daily. I just don't need to know that much about them.

  5. The main thing I noticed about having tenure was that it removed a huge anxiety. Whatever else, I'm financially stable. Not that I don't put a little away for a rainy day, but even being able to do that is something of a luxury, both in academia and in the wider world. So if that's all there is, that's a lot.

    The other thing about tenure though, is that I can do the research I want to do and run my 'career' the way I want to run it (mostly by trying not to have a career in the first place but instead be a scientist and a teacher). So when the Canuckistani Institute Science for Make Benefit Corporate Overlords comes up with some new Metric of Existence Justification for Scientific Personnel, I can more or less ignore it, and keep doing the work that has scientific value in and of itself. Losing my grant would mean more teaching, but not the unemployment line. That's quite liberating (of course come back and talk to me after I lose my grant!).

    1. Yes to the financial stability. Yes to the huge reduction in competitiveness I have to pretend to. Most of all, yes to the liberty to be challenging and strict without worrying about getting less student demand for my classes than Professor Daily Movie 'N' Donuts down the hall.

      I earned tenure twice, at different JuCos. The first time, the date came and went with no recognition from HR or colleagues due to various issues such as firmly requesting the hours in my contract, and the fact that they'd tried to fire me after I got pregnant, and that the college lawyer supported my case. Within two months after my contract changed to "tenured", I resigned because I wanted Out. Of. There. I'd been waiting three years to do it, but knew that if I left before getting tenure, I'd probably never get another full-time position teaching.

      The day I moved out of my office, the elevator was broken again. I hauled boxes of books three flights down to my car, just like on the day I arrived and saw colleagues glancing my way and ducking into their offices to avoid helping me.

      One month after resigning from Hellhole CC, I was INVITED to interview at Bucolic CC and hired in a temporary, one-year full-time position. A couple of colleagues saw my son and me struggling with a bookcase and jumped right in to help us. After what was essentially a year-long interview, the college put me on the tenure track. Boy, did I relax. I even started to trust some of my colleagues.

      The second time around, my tenure was announced by the dean and assistant dean entering my classroom and presenting me with a rose and a plate of fresh, home-made cookies. The students applauded. I love this place.

      It's not perfect. We have plenty of clueless students and a few bitter Greybeard colleagues, and there are meetings about meetings. I use my job security to push for improvements for vets and disabled students and to blow off quasi-mandatory social events in favor of more time with my family.

  6. Oh, tenure has its merits but other nonsense takes the place of pre-tenure anxiety.
    Example: right now we are undergoing a lengthy "general education guidelines review" process (read: accreditation agencies are pressuring business and engineering to force students to take more "in college hours", so they want their courses to count toward gen. ed. credit) and, because we had a somewhat smaller freshman class in 2014, they are trying to force faculty to take "training" to meet with parents of visit days.

    The BS is non-stop but is of a different variety when one is more senior.

  7. If your goal is to get tenure then you'll be wondering what's next after you get it. If you want to pursue your research without interference, teach the way to think is best, and fight with the administration, all without fear of losing your job, then you will have plenty to keep yourself occupied after getting tenure.

  8. Whenever I get the post-tenure blues, I just go out and set fire to a few students. Always cheers me up.

    1. Yeah, and if you staple their dicks to the floor, they won't run away so you can roast marshmallows. STAPLES!!! (Twitch! Twitch!)

    2. 1. You were supposed to inflame their passion for learning. That's what the motivational speaker meant at the in-service where they talked about "setting your students on fire."

      2. Build a student a fire, they're warm for a day. Set a student on fire, they're warm for life.

  9. social psychologists call this "affective forecasting" and we usually over-estimate the intensity and duration of our feeling. So we spend years building up to tenure, only to go to work the next day and realize, no a whole lot has changed. Tenure was more of a relief. There are a number of things I don't fret about anymore. Those have been replaced by more serious issues that having tenure may help me fight.