May 27, 2010, 02:00 PM ET
Open Letter to 2010-11's Newly-Tenured Professors
Last week, Billie Hara kicked off a new series here at ProfHacker that will cover, as she so eloquently put it, "the transitions we experience and move through in higher education." Her entry covered incredibly important advice for those who are starting their first jobs on the tenure track. While Billie just completed her first year in such a position, I'd like to write a little about what I learned this past year, my first year after earning tenure. It's a touchy subject, I'll admit. For so many, tenure is the Holy Grail of academia. So few get the chance to pursue it let alone earn it. That's probably why there is so little discussion about what to expect after completing such a major goal. In seeking input for this post, though, I have found out that many experience a range of emotions and even a fair amount of confusion about what to do next. Hopefully, with this post (and your comments on it), we can start to address some of that.
Don't be surprised to experience survivor's guilt. When we receive the notice that we have officially earned tenure (mine is in the photo above), it's common to feel joy or relief most immediately. For many people, these positive feelings are sometimes followed with guilt, especially if others you know were denied tenure or if there are still people from your graduate program who have spent years on the job market looking for their first permanent position. If you feel such guilt, recognize it for what it is and work through it. It's a natural response to a problematic working environment.
Don't be surprised to feel like you're floundering. Many of us first set our sights on tenure during graduate school (if not before). It's been the major thing on our professional minds for years. When we earn it, we celebrate it. But many people responding to my call for advice told me in some form or another that, often during the summer after earning tenure, they felt quite a bit unsure about their professional footing. The tenure clock is a big motivation for many of us. After it rings, don't be surprised if you don't know what to do next. As one person put it, "You can have your five-year post-tenure plan and still feel at sea." Again, recognize such confusion as what it is and give yourself the time to work through it.
Do remember that you can still say no. After earning tenure, many faculty become eligible for even more committees and administrative positions. While we should contribute service to the institutions that have just offered us tenure, it does not mean that we have to do everything we're asked to do. One person offered me this provocative thought: "The university is built on the backs of adjuncts and associate professors. Be careful about accepting everything you're asked to do." It's no longer about padding a CV or making a tenure committee happy. It's about putting our skills to their best use and believing in an institution that believes in us.
Do accept the responsibilities that come with tenure. It wasn't long after earning tenure that I raised my hand at a college faculty meeting to state a point about adjunct labor at my institution that had been bothering me for years. It did raise a few eyebrows I later heard, but that's okay. Adjuncts often don't have a voice in such meetings, and junior faculty are often rightly or wrongly afraid to say some of these things themselves. If tenured faculty stay quiet, how will any positive changes get made, whether at local, state, or national levels? I believe it is the responsibility of the tenured to speak when needed.
Do determine if and when you want to go up for full professor. As one person wrote to me, "No one wakes up a decade after tenure and decides to go up for promotion the next year." In other words, you have to be just as methodical about how you will earn full professor as you were about seeking tenure. Oh, the stakes are certainly lower. In most cases, you don't lose your job if you are denied promotion, and most places allow you to go up again if you fail the first time. You can also decide whether you'll go up in eight, ten, or fifteen years. Still, you have to map out if and how you will earn that promotion. Perhaps you will decide that you will not pursue it, or you might put off making the choice for a few years. But it's much better in the long run for you to make that choice rather than wake up and realize you waited too long or have been pursing activities that won't help you reach that goal.
Do cut yourself some slack. The academic freedom that comes with tenure makes many of us want to do more. We can finally pursue that nebulous project that's been in our head for years since we no longer have to worry about what happens if it falls apart. We can take on that administrative role that's always appealed to us without worrying if it means less time for scholarship. However, tenure does not mean we can do it all. One person wrote to me to say, "You have to find a peaceful space to inhabit that you can justify as 'enough.'"
In a nutshell, I'd like to offer this final thought from a ProfHacker reader: "Remember how lucky we are, and be nice to the department's secretary." Good advice, indeed.
Many people helped me out with this post, including @janineutell, @baconred, @jmittell, and @dittman along with other anonymous contributors. If you have further thoughts to add, please comment.
[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user nhighberg]