You have been denied tenure, and have sunk into the depression, lethargy, and self-blame that normally follow. It's hard to think about what to do, as you have spent the last 10, 15, maybe more, years of your life focused on this exclusive goal.
As I argued in a previous column, it is useful to get angry, to remind yourself of the arbitrary and structural factors that influenced the decision. Contesting it is one way to regain your sense of control, although the downside is that you have to think about the whole mess for a long time, and the odds are stacked against you. At some point, and perhaps the sooner the better, you have to figure out what to do next.
I was lucky, I guess. After I was denied tenure in sociology at New York University, instead of going through a long period of self-blame, I got mad right away -- as soon as I heard that my department vote was "mixed" ("only" 7 to 2 in my favor). Until that moment I hadn't really considered what I would do if I were turned down, so I had some catching up to do. Some considerations were practical. I thought about the house my wife and I had recently bought in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, and about her tenured position at nearby Rutgers University. We had both lived a lot of other places, and this is the one we liked best. (I was even writing a book, Restless Nation, complaining that Americans move too frequently.)
I asked myself what I really wanted to do with my life. I had been happy in grad school in sociology and then teaching at N.Y.U., so my senior year in college was the last time I had thought seriously about alternatives. Like many people I fell into graduate school somewhat by accident (I knew I didn't want to go to law school), but it was a good fit.
I now realized, after some reflection, that academia had seemed a fallback objective from my youthful dream of being a writer, maybe even a novelist. (I have since learned how many academics began with similar fantasies.) Of the many things one does as an academic, writing was the most satisfying to me, ahead of teaching, research -- even ahead of attending department meetings and reading undergrad exam books.
I don't think I was ready to be a writer at age 22, fresh out of college, knowing little about the world. But now I was. I decided, at age 35, to become a writer.
I launched into endless financial calculations to see if this was feasible. A key part of my reckoning was the rental apartment we had in the bottom of our townhouse, which New York's hot real-estate market had made unexpectedly lucrative for us. Without it, we would have searched for other ways to cut back our spending here and there while earning other bits of income (I have done some consulting, for instance).
At any rate, it seemed possible for me to write full-time without a drastic a change in our lifestyle. And even if such a change proved necessary, my wife and I were willing to try it. (I was painfully aware that throughout human history, husbands have asked their wives to suffer so that they could pursue their own dreams. So I was glad I didn't have to ask too much from her.)
Somewhat to my surprise, both my wife and my parents seemed pleased at the prospect of my leaving academe. My parents, neither of whom had ever been good at taking orders or working in large organizations, had the same, and quite immediate, attitude: "Screw them." This is exactly what one wants to hear after being turned down for tenure, for the blame doesn't land on you. Outrage is the healthy emotion. My wife believed in my gifts as a writer, and was generously eager to get me away from department meetings and exam books.
There are many moments as emotionally harrowing as tenure denial that encourage you to take stock of your life and career. It may be when you are unable to get a "proper" job after finishing your Ph.D. Or when your spouse is offered her ideal job, or is transferred by her employer, to a distant place with no academic position for you. Even tenured professors are occasionally terminated in budget crises -- the academic equivalent of corporate downsizing. (The term "downsizing" reminds us how much more common career shocks are in the corporate world.) Alternatively, you may be caught up in a nasty battle or scandal that sours you on academe, reminding you that your college or university is your employer, not your friend (the subject of my next column).
It is easier to realize that being a professor isn't all you had hoped than it is to concentrate on alternatives. It is hard to shake off the impassivity that usually follows tenure denial and other career crises. Just as you blame yourself for not getting tenure, you can't imagine what else to do. If you're not good enough for tenure, what are you qualified for? If a fresh Ph.D. cannot find a reasonable academic job, what else can she do? A lot, it turns out.
The main thing an academic career should have given you is research and writing skills, and there are plenty of jobs out there requiring these. Yes, your writing skills have probably been damaged by journal editors, but they can be repaired. And if you think journal articles are dense and filled with jargon, have you ever looked at an internal corporate memo? You may have missed your chance to join a hot Internet startup before the crash, but all corporations need people like you.
What's more, six years as an assistant professor gives you something fresh Ph.D.'s lack: experience teaching and directing others. You can aim for a job as a research director rather than simply a researcher. You have communication skills. You have also probably had more experience pursuing (and with luck, even getting) grants, which could make you valuable to those foundations that give the grants. They are filled with former academics. People who write about social movements, as I do, often take jobs in those same movements. You can also join the enemy: Some administrators come from the ranks of those denied tenure.
For most of those who have been denied tenure, this is their last chance to ask themselves if they want to spend the rest of their lives as professors. After years in graduate school and more as an assistant professor, the answer obviously seems yes. It takes come concentrated thinking to come up with alternatives. But who has the time to stop and think about it? In those anxious moments when you are trying to fall asleep each night in the months or even years before your tenure decision, you of course formulate "backup" plans you could pursue if you really had to. But how serious are they?
One sign that we do not seriously consider our options is that we don't investigate them. We don't talk to people in other fields, go on job interviews, do volunteer work, read about other careers. For good reason: Devoting all your time to research and publishing enhances your chances of getting tenure, so why take time away from that until you have to? But at some point, you may have to. (Perhaps grad school is the best period for taking a few months off here or there to explore other possibilities -- and if you find one you especially like you can jump ship at a younger age.)
When you were finishing your Ph.D., fantasies of alternative careers may have flashed before you, but then you got an academic job you liked and they vanished for a few years. But don't forget all those people who entered grad school with you but left after the first year, or after the M.A., or after getting to the A.B.D. level. Not to mention those who got their Ph.D.'s. By some estimates fewer than half of those who receive Ph.D.'s get traditional tenure-track jobs.
How do you search for alternative jobs? Use your networks: friends of friends, even friends of friends of friends. With so many Ph.D.'s in nonacademic careers, you and your friends will know plenty of people to talk to. And if you've been teaching at a Ph.D.-granting university yourself, you probably have former students out there. Think creatively -- if you can regain that skill after years in the academy.
Although it may not feel like it at first, it can be a gift to be forced to think about your life's trajectory and goals. Among highly educated men and women today, I detect a desire to find the right balance between career and life. Most professions, law and medicine as much as academia, require an imbalance for one to be successful. But 60- and 70-hour weeks are not healthy. If a career crisis can help you forge a better life, take advantage of it.
There are other good things that can come out of this kind of life crisis. In my case it was gratifying to see most of my colleagues rally behind me. Several worked extremely hard to make my case (one confided that she had written more pages about me in the last year than she had for her own book). I felt bad that I wasn't working as hard as they were on my behalf, but my mind was already thinking about moving. Setbacks may also humble the arrogant (of whom there are plenty in academia); they should give us a bit of irony, perhaps a sense of the limits and uncertainties of human life. These existential lessons always have value.
Full-time writing is not for everyone. It does not always allow you a good balance in your life. The 10-hour days most writers put in will be familiar to those who have been assistant professors. The pay will not be: it's even less than junior faculty members make. Most writers work on technical reports, corporate statements, medical Web sites, and other things that are less than thrilling. There is a lot of grunt work. You have to enjoy the craft, and have time left over for the kind of creative writing that appealed to you in the first place. But if you can live frugally or have a little supplemental income, you can find a pleasing balance between work and life.
If nothing else, you can write a book about leaving academia. Or columns for The Chronicle.