No Warning Signs

October 18, 2006

Over the last several years, I have come to feel at home as an assistant professor in the sciences at a small college on the West Coast.

I was lucky to find a great job in my wife's hometown and within a few hours of my own family. We could pay our mortgage in a pricey housing market. I had good students, and with a reasonable course load, I could teach effectively and have time to work with them individually.

In my small laboratory, I was free to embark on challenging research directions without the anxieties that go along with running a large university laboratory. After years of fruitless proposal writing, I had landed two federal grants, and my research had finally taken off. Even my service commitments felt worthwhile.

I had every reason to be pleased with the trajectory of my career. But as I was preparing my tenure file last year, I started to feel a pinch of buyer's remorse.

Teaching the same courses year after year was getting old. And the standard interactions with students -- about missed exams, study strategies, and course advising -- were becoming a little tedious.

Then when I got a major grant, congratulations came only from outside my department. I was surprised to find that many of my colleagues were suspicious of my research agenda and viewed it as a distraction from teaching. I wanted a job where I could work with undergraduates as a productive scientist, where guiding student research was not just for pedagogical purposes but also for novel scientific discovery.

I knew that if I wanted to move on to a new job, it would be a lot easier to do so before I got tenure.

So I found myself browsing the job ads for openings at teaching-oriented colleges that value a certain amount of faculty scholarship. I applied for a tenure-track opening at a selective liberal-arts college across the country but didn't even make the shortlist. (Eventually that college hired someone with a newly minted Ph.D., whose CV looked just as mine had, eight years earlier.)

Then I was contacted about applying for an opening in my specialty at a state university in my city. The position fit my desire for an institution that would value research while providing opportunities to teach and mentor undergraduates.

After much soul-searching and many long discussions with my wife, I decided not to apply. The best prescription for my blues, we agreed, was a recommitment to my current job, where the problems seemed minor compared to issues I might face elsewhere.

After all, my department is uncommonly collegial and professional, talented and dedicated. I was heartened by the hiring of a new president and provost, who are ramping up expectations for faculty scholarship. With a slight shift in perspective, I was looking forward to a sabbatical to take care of a backlog of manuscript writing, before returning to campus to revise an introductory laboratory curriculum.

It came as a complete shock when I was denied tenure several months later.

Tenure denial is rare at my college. And while I never took a positive vote for granted, there were no real warning signs. I had a stellar fourth-year review; my teaching evaluations were consistently strong; I had far exceeded scholarship expectations; and the colleagues who sat in on my lectures had nothing but positive remarks.

So what happened? I was recommended for tenure by my department by a very strong but not unanimous vote. The dean -- who has since departed and has been replaced by one who, like our new president and provost, is more friendly to research -- recommended against tenure and the collegewide committee, overseen by that dean, ultimately voted against me. Unfortunately for me, I suspect the new dean prefers to avoid delving into the otherwise resolved political affairs of his predecessor.

Several months later, I still don't know why I was denied tenure. The departed dean has merely said that the letters from my department were not positive enough about my teaching. I will never have access to those letters, but my chairman, who has seen the letters, wholeheartedly disagrees with the dean's interpretation.

I have read enough in The Chronicle to know that the stated reasons for tenure denial rarely address the subtext. In my case, I think the subtext was simply that I didn't fit.

The college expects its faculty members to produce one journal article, and I had far more than that. I tried to downplay my research in my tenure file, but I probably stuck out like a tall poppy. I can only guess that the former dean was worried that an active research agenda would come at the cost of teaching. But he may have had other motivations of which I am unaware.

On the bright side, because my tenure review basically ignored all factual evidence relating to my teaching performance, my appeal is full of merit. Realistically, though, I know that appeals generally fail.

This year I will be telling the story of my quest to find a job after tenure denial. My colleagues, at least the ones who voted for me, are more optimistic about my prospects than I am.

My moderate research record falls way short of the expectations of a research institution but is out of place at a teaching-focused institution. Landing an interview after an adverse tenure decision will be difficult, even if my chairman does write me a sympathetic letter. In my lame-duck year, he has allowed me to adjust my teaching schedule to bulk up my CV and go on interviews, if I get any.

As the tenure crisis was unfolding last spring, I interviewed for three jobs, with no success. Two were at teaching colleges in the region, and I fit in even worse there than at my own institution. Each of them had great students but woefully low pay, and faculty scholarship was mainly for the purpose of providing research opportunities to students.

The third interview was at a nonprofit organization where I would conduct research and oversee an educational program. That would have been immensely fun and rewarding. I think I interviewed well, but I didn't get an offer.

What kind of job am I looking for?

First and foremost: a job. Any job.

My wife works for a nonprofit group and can't support both of us and our 3-year old. Ideally, I would like to have the job that I just lost. I'm allowing myself to fantasize that the new dean will allow my department to fill my old line with me.

Because I can't afford not to, I am applying to all of the academic jobs that I can realistically say I am qualified for. It's a small number. A mid-level state institution might find my well-balanced record of teaching and research to fit its needs. A teaching institution might accept my chairman's explanation that my tenure decision was a bizarre circumstance of college politics. A research institution seeking an experienced scientist who specializes in undergraduate education might see my current grants and understand that my research record is strong given my teaching load.

When I'm not busy analyzing data and working on manuscripts, I will be wringing my hands over little phrases I can use to customize each cover letter.

When I go home in the evening, after we put our son to bed, I will try to picture myself doing something completely different and just as fulfilling as the job I just lost. Should I go to graduate school in a different discipline? Join the foreign service? Acquire a new skill set to branch into a subdiscipline that has more job opportunities?

I'm still uncomfortable picturing myself outside my little piece of academe, so this mission is still a work in progress.

Peter Ellenbogen is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the sciences teaching his seventh and final year at a West Coast college. He will be chronicling his search for a new position in academe.