Do I Have to Get Tenure?

Now that I’ve stepped back a bit from full-time academia, I can’t help but notice a certain pattern in academic life. No matter where folks are in their careers, they seem to be depressed about the realities of that stage. I’m not blaming them—I know this scene well—but what gives, people?

Before your graduate exams, you’re depressed because your graduate committee is asking for at least two years’ more learning than was expected of them in graduate school. Ditto with the dissertation process.

Once you graduate, you’re depressed because of the job market. Big loans, few viable jobs. And, oh man, why did you have to fall in love with a fellow academic? You should have avoided anyone who wasn’t portable.

Once you finally land a tenure-track job, you’re depressed because the job is danged hard—and includes lots of work no one trained you to do, like teaching, and running committees. The demands for tenure are escalating at an ever-increasing pace, so that several of the folks judging your performance have significantly less impressive c.v.’s than yours, but they still think maybe you’re not good enough.

Once you get tenure, you’re depressed to learn the job doesn’t actually slow down, and you’re powerless to change the system. And now there’s lots more expectations for promotion to full, and no one thinks it is OK to just live with the associate position.

Once you’re at the full professor stage, you find out the administration and your colleagues don’t at all appreciate you and all you’ve done. You’re just an old fogie whenever you bring up what you know about the institutional history. At your retirement party, this lack of respect becomes crystal clear when they forget to mention 95% of what you did for the university.

Hmmmm. I don’t think we should turn to Eli Lilly for the solution to this, do you?

So what can you do?

    * Quit your job. Maybe academia is not all you thought it was cracked up to be. Maybe you will discover—as a friend of mine did recently—that you don’t want tenure, you want out. That’s OK. I swear. It is OK. Not to worry—the alumni association of the school where you got your Ph.D. will find you no matter where you go and will keep asking you for money. And there are plenty of people who think they would be happy to have your job, and that’s OK.

    * Create a better job for yourself elsewhere (I did this), or a better job for yourself within your own university (my mate did this).

    * REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN NEW PROGRAMS unless old ones are explicitly fazed out. No corporation would survive if it did what universities try to do — innovate without ever eliminating.

    * Use your work to do some social good. There is nothing like volunteer work—especially volunteer work that applies your research—to make you feel useful.

    * Enjoy the pleasures of academia more. When you go to conferences, skip a lot of sessions in favor of going out drinking and dancing with interesting people at the conference. Start a dinner/discussion group that rotates around to various faculty houses. (Start with a rule that no one is allowed to talk about what they’ve published, and politely make people with challenging food restrictions bring their own food.)

    * Revolt against your administration. You have no idea how invigorating this can be, especially if your administration is completely uninterested in faculty opinions, as was the case when I was at Michigan State University.

    * Hold a “Last Lecture Series.” I heard about this concept from a colleague a few years back. The idea is that ask a bunch of interesting colleagues to give the lecture they would give if it were their last lecture on earth. Tell them to say what they’ve really, really learned, what big questions they’ve come up with.

    * Say no. The more we do, the more we are all expected to do, the more out of control our lives become. Say “no, my plate is full, and it is important to me to do a good job, and I can’t do a good job if I take on more.”

Other ideas? Write to me.