A Fresh Start

May 24, 2007

Early in the spring, while half of the country was blanketed in snow, I was visiting its warmest corner. However, I spent the majority of my time in an over-air-conditioned room as one of a team of scientists who are collaborating on a long-term research project.

As the only team member whose job requires a significant amount of teaching, I am a bit of an outlier in this group, which includes well-known scientists, federal employees, international postdocs, and unsalaried researchers. I feel fortunate to be a part of it.

Last year an unplanned event caused me to miss our annual gathering. I was already packing my tropical attire when my dean called me into his office to tell me that he was seeking to overturn my departmental recommendation for tenure. I spent the next panicked week attempting to mitigate the crisis. In hindsight, I should have gone to the tropics anyway. Because a year later, at this year's meeting, I told my colleagues that I was starting a new and better job.

My job search this academic year has been an emotional roller coaster. I found myself pulled in different directions by my teaching goals and research agenda, as well as my desire to find a friendly work environment and a good community with career options for my wife. I can happily report that I am ahead of the game on all of those counts, or, at the very least, even.

In my previous column, I described my interview at Small Western University. I liked the job well enough, but I was also shortlisted for a number of other positions that held some appeal. The phone call from the dean at Small Western came within a week of my visit to the campus. The dean said he had a strong second candidate so he would give me only three days to make up my mind. That point was not up for negotiation.

I understood how the game was played. I knew that institutions rush to get job offers out quickly to grab candidates early in the job season. Nevertheless, I was frustrated by the university's gambit when I had yet to even interview for other positions.

I consulted with my family and mentors, and we universally agreed that I was not in a position to turn down this bird in the hand. So after a hasty negotiation, I told the dean I would be pleased to see the offer in writing.

It took only a few hours for the unofficial offer to show up via e-mail. However, it would take more than a month for the actual contract to materialize, after it had passed through several levels of bureaucracy up to the president. While the lag might seem like a formality to many candidates, it was a source of anxiety for me. Would some administrator above the dean object to hiring a faculty member who had been denied tenure at another institution?

But even without a contract in hand, the stars began to align over Small Western U. Specifically, my wife received a great job offer in the same city. The position, as the head of a department, is a lateral move for her, but it is a remarkable boon given that, even in a very large metropolitan area, such a position in her field opens up only once every few years. While I may have felt lukewarm about Small Western before, at that point I was starting to fully embrace the place.

I had entered that vast gray zone of the academic job search, a process without clear ethical or practical guidelines. I had given a tentative verbal agreement to Small Western accepting its offer, assuming the contract matched the e-mailed offer from the dean. However, without an actual contract in hand, it seemed foolhardy to withdraw from other searches.

In my experience, universities are rarely bound by ethics in their employment practices. I would be drawing the short straw if I followed more stringent ethical guidelines than my potential employers. In the terminology of game theory, the candidate bound by ethics is sure to receive the "sucker's payoff." So I stayed on the job market.

And I had a great interview experience at a rural liberal-arts college in the East. I had an extended phone conversation with the head of the search committee there. We discussed the curriculum, the charms of living in the area, and the courses I would teach.

Eventually the talk turned to the bizarre events leading to my tenure denial. The committee head was the friendliest guy I have encountered in my search, and he communicated that he was genuinely worried about my situation. When I mentioned to him that I was actually sitting on an offer, I heard him exhale before he said that he hoped that his college could still woo me. It was later that week that he invited me out for a rushed campus interview, and it was peculiar for me to hear myself turning down the offer. My main reason was that my wife could not successfully continue her career in the area.

Next I headed off to interview at a comprehensive university in the South. When my plane touched down, I found a message on my cellphone saying the official contract from Small Western had finally been put in the mail. During the interview, I tried to keep my mind as open as possible, even though my wife had already signed a contract for her new job.

Ultimately I did receive an offer from the Southern university, but by that point, we were in the process of moving to Small Western. I was already on sabbatical from my old university (it granted me the leave before I was denied tenure) so we were free to start fresh in our new community.

In the span of a month, we moved out of our house, rented it out, and bought a new home. The most challenging part of the move was finding a great preschool on short notice and trying to make the experience as pleasant as possible for our son, who is resilient but does miss our old home. However, he is thrilled about his big backyard, his new school, new hiking areas, and living near Nanny and Grandpa.

We have moved from my wife's hometown to my own. I am now within a half hour of my four siblings and their offspring. I grew up here, met my wife in college here, and hadn't seriously entertained the idea of returning until now.

My family is excited about our future, and comforted by living in an old house in a beautiful and quiet section of a bustling city. Within a few days, I bumped into an old friend from high school who now lives within walking distance of our house. My wife and I have resolved to put more time into cultivating new friendships, and old ones.

Now that my situation has been resolved, I'm trying to identify lessons I have learned.

Most immediately, I have learned that respected senior faculty members can have a poor understanding of university politics, resulting in poor counsel: "It's hard to even imagine a scenario where you would have any tenure issues." And, "Don't bother applying for jobs while you're up for tenure if you're planning to stay."

True friends identify themselves during a crisis, and I came to realize that they were right when they told me that I would land on my feet. I've been granted a shorter tenure clock at my new university and will come up for tenure review in four years.

I was so angry about my forced relocation that I was not open enough to consider that my old job was not the peach that I thought it was. In the interview process, it became clear that I was undervalued by my former colleagues, who did not bother to evaluate my teaching and did not care about my research.

I will let others decide whether I have experienced any personal growth. If anything, this episode has led me to become more skeptical of the human capacity for generosity and trust. It's disheartening when one of your good colleagues pushes to get you kicked out of your office prematurely, just so she can move in at a more convenient time. And it hurts when you ask for feedback on your tenure file from your mentor committee, only to get an e-mail message that reads: "Don't worry, be happy."

During my teenage angst years, I argued that friendships were more reliable than family because friendships are voluntary. At that time, my perspective was that of the runt of the litter, owing his existence purely to the Catholic Church's prohibition on birth control. As an adult, I am finding compassion and companionship in my siblings. While my parents will never understand the nature of my academic career, I am amazed by their support considering how absent I have been since I moved out almost 20 years ago.

Now I see that you choose your family, too. Every day I choose my wife and son above all else, and they choose to support me. You might think that a 3-year old has no choices in a family move, but our son has made many concessions and is an incredible optimist. He misses his old city in a number of ways but doesn't want to be sad about it with us.

One afternoon he started to complain about missing the band at our old farmer's market. He switched to a positive angle, though, and asked me to find a new farmers' market with musicians. Fortunately I have found one, and when we go to buy vegetables there, the slim chance that he will eat them will remain the same.

Peter Ellenbogen is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the sciences at a small university in the West. He has been chronicling his search for a new position in academe.