Wednesday, 15 February 2012

These Happy After-Tenure Years

Some of my friends got -- or seem to be getting -- tenure this year. Yay for all of them! They are thrilled and I am thrilled for them.

This is a happy occasion for most, and the only reason I add "for most" is because I have read essays (including a recent one in The Chronicle of Higher Education) by or about people who feel depressed and/or "trapped" by tenure. Unlike some who left critical comments on the CHE essay, I do not subscribe to the "You should be happy because there are even unhappier people in the world" philosophy. If you don't like many things about your job, you aren't going to like them once your employment position becomes (essentially) permanent, even if others in academia have less job security than you do. I feel sympathy for these depressed-by-tenure people, even if I don't really understand the phenomenon. I hope those depressed by tenure find a way to recover, perhaps by changing something about their career paths or goals (but not necessarily by becoming a depressed administrator).

I am fortunate that getting tenure was a happy, empowering thing for me. Although tenure was of course a necessary goal in my academic career path, my primary job satisfaction has involved the doing of research, teaching, and other professional activities -- developing new research projects, working with students, teaching new courses or improving old ones, and so on. Tenure gave me the chance to keep doing what I loved and also provided new opportunities, so I have never felt "trapped" by tenure.

Also, I have done my best work after getting tenure. I am not one of those genius-people who did her best work by age 30 (or 35). Some of us get tenure based in part on our accomplishments, such as they are at the time of the tenure evaluation, but also largely on a gamble about our potential. (I am going to explore an aspect of this more in a near-future post.) In letters supporting tenure cases, it is common to see phrases like "rising star" or "steep upward trajectory" to describe the tenure candidate, in recognition of the fact that there is only so much that can be done in the tenure-track years, even by those who work 24/7.

Perhaps this mostly applies to fields in which the tenure-track years involve building labs and research groups and other time-intensive activities that are necessary for new and exciting research projects to be launched and for at least some research goals achieved. I bet, however, that it also applies to any field in which more ambitious research can only be undertaken once you have developed a certain network of colleagues and contacts and attained the awesome knowledge that only comes with experience (says middle-aged me).

People who feel trapped by tenure probably dislike quite a few things about their job (colleagues, students, location etc.) and are likely a bit burned out by exhaustion and stress. For most of us, though, I hope that it is not the case that the best, most productive years are over once tenure is secured. Tenure gives us the security to pursue more risky research ideas, lets us build a larger research group (if that is desirable), and gives us the chance to serve on even more committees (<-- sarcasm).

Tenured readers: Do you feel "trapped" by tenure? Or empowered? Both? Neither? Something else?

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