(Note: this post was actually written a couple of weeks ago, but I delayed posting it because I was still trying to decide if I would post anything at all.)
This week I have had the chance to really reflect on what it means to have given up on tenure. I started on the tenure track in August of 2012 along with one other colleague. This week he found out that he got tenure. I am over-the-moon happy for him and I know how hard he worked for it. But it is also bittersweet because this could have been me this week too. Don’t get me wrong…I do not regret it for one second. That being said, I still am a bundle of conflicting emotions on the subject.
I have been asked many times since my departure from academia why I chose to leave. I was a year away from getting tenure after all, and most people both in my department and elsewhere assured me I would have no problem in getting it. The job for life. The perfect job. Whatever you want to call it. So yes, I would have had a job for life, but one that I hated. I have said many times that I loved working with my students, both in my research group and in my lectures and labs. If 100% of my job was just working with them, I would be happy until the day I died! (And I really want my former students to know that…leaving them was the hardest thing about leaving academia.) But unfortunately the job of a tenure-track professor is much more than working with one’s students and those were the things that I grew to dislike so much. So I thought I should write a post about how one gets tenure. And at the end I will talk a bit (not much, but a bit more than I have) about why I left.
One sad thing about it is that when I was actually in the process of leaving, I told people that I received an offer that was just too good to pass up. While that was true, I mostly said it because I was trying to avoid conflict and get out as quickly and quietly as I could. But the reality is that there was a lot more to my leaving than that.
A (very) brief history of tenure and how it is obtained
To understand my departure from academia, you have to understand the tenure system a bit. Those academic readers, just bear with me for a second. Historically speaking, tenure is a reasonably new construct. Many people think that tenure, like the rest of what we view academia today to be, is a centuries-old concept but that, it turns out, is not true. The concept of tenure as “the job for life” that we have today was something that was created out of Rice University in the early 20th century as described by the AAUP here. TL;DR tenure was viewed as a job recruitment and retention strategy to hire and retain the best professors. Contrary to what I thought (until I did some research prior to writing this blog post), it did not have to do with any sort of tradition passed down from the prestigious old universities of Europe that were founded by monks and what not.
When a young PhD is hired onto the tenure track, they are typically given an appointment as an assistant professor that is 6 years in duration. During the first 5 years of that appointment, they have to “prove” themselves. At an R1 institution like my former employer, this is measured by a few key metrics:
How many papers have you published in peer-reviewed journals? How much research funding have you brought into your university? (Sorry…funding for teaching-related activities does not carry as much weight.) How many PhD’s have you graduated? (Sorry students…they really prioritize the PhDs on this one.) How good is your teaching? Are you giving back to the academic community in your discipline?
(You can argue about the ranking here, but I believe it is largely accurate at an R1. 1 and 2 might change positions but they will still be the top two things on the list.)
You might ask “how many papers do you need published?” or “how much is enough funding?” You will be hard-pressed to get anyone to answer that question for you because they don’t want to quantify it in hard numbers. So instead, those reviewing you for tenure will use nebulous statements like “you need to have enough research funding to support your group,” or “the number of papers is not so important as the impact of your publications on the discipline.” Because of the lack of specificity, it is easy to assume that you should publish absolutely as much as you can and bring in as many research dollars as possible.
The other items on the list are easier to quantify. They want you to have graduated at least 1 PhD before you go up for tenure (although they will generally make allowances for you if you have one that is nearly done). Your teaching doesn’t have to be stellar, but cannot be abysmal. And as for service … do some, prioritizing work that will benefit the larger research community (such as editorships on journals or conference committee work) to more local efforts (like supervising the student society of your field…sorry, students!).
So then what? Well, at the start of your sixth year (although typically midway through your 5th year at some point since this takes a while to execute), you will “go up for tenure.” Practically speaking, this means that a very lengthy dossier is assembled of your career to date. This dossier includes your curriculum vitae, teaching evaluations, and copies of some of your better papers. However, the most important part of the dossier is a series of letters that are written about you and the quality of your work. These letters must come from full professors in your field from other peer universities that you do not collaborate with. No, you cannot use letters from associate or assistant professors. No, people at national laboratories, the federal government, or industry will not suffice. Full professors from peer institutions (i.e. those viewed to be at least on par technically with your home institution). Period.
The importance of these letters cannot be overstated. I have known many people who have sat on tenure and promotion (T&P) committees and they have told me that they really don’t read anything else in the dossier other than the letters (these dossiers can be pushing 100 pages or more). Hence, it is very important to have very, very good letters from people very well known in the field. Usually, the assistant professor is given the opportunity to suggest some potential letter writers while the department head also has a list of letter writers. Some mix of candidate-suggested and department-suggested letter writers are usually chosen. The list of writers who are actually chosen is kept anonymous from the candidate and the goal is that the letters be written in an unbiased way.
And yet, none of them are. Sure, everyone will tell you that it is not allowed to bias the letter writers in any way. And yet, if you talk to letter writers (of which I have talked with several over the years), many will tell you that they almost always know whether the home institution of the candidate WANTS their candidate to get tenure or not and then they use that information in writing the letters. Yes, yes…they all say that it is not supposed to happen and then they tell you that this is actually how it does happen in the real world.
Once the letters are received, they are added to the dossier for the candidate. This dossier is typically reviewed then by the department T&P committee who makes a recommendation on whether or not the individual should be given tenure. This recommendation goes to the college T&P committee who then makes their own recommendation, which then goes to a final review with the university for a final recommendation. If that final recommendation is to grant tenure, the assistant professor is promoted to associate professor with tenure – a job for life. If the recommendation is otherwise, the assistant professor is usually given a year to find another job. But they are, in essence, fired.
Because of the amount of information assembled on the individual and the various stages and committees of this process, the dossier is usually put together toward the end of the 5th year or very early into the beginning of the 6th year and a decision is announced about a year later (the end of the 6th year). It is a lengthy and detailed process.
When I was leaving, it was important to me to find a way to quickly, quietly, and gracefully leave. I told people that I had an opportunity that “was just too good to pass up.” And that was true. But what really got me looking is the thing that I am not sure I will put into words, at least not right now. I am sure that there are plenty of people who would call my doing so “sour grapes,” inappropriate, or whatever else. Suffice it to say for the time being that sometimes people on the inside of the process DO talk to you about your case, even though the process is supposed to be completely anonymous and in confidence. And when those people talk and give you honest information about what is going on on the inside, the sausage making becomes clear. When I was told what happened I was left breathless by the lying and backstabbing that occurred through it. I had been promised one thing by those who were supposed to be guiding my (early) tenure dossier through the process. And I know that they sabotaged it.
Yes, I could have just left one university and sought tenure at another. However, the process that I outlined above is still the process at every university (at least for the R1’s). My decision to leave was a reflection of the fact that, when I saw the sausage making in action, my morality was at odds with my job. I simply do not believe that any human being should be treated this way and I decided to finally stand up for myself and my beliefs. Sure, there have been some painful parts of the process of leaving. But once the truth was presented to me, it was a very easy decision.