Reviving My Career

February 15, 2007

After being denied tenure, it seemed obvious that I was dead in the water in academe. To my surprise, I have had a bit of wind in my sails during this job season, though it's not necessarily carrying me to the destination I had planned.

When I began looking for a new job in the sciences last fall, I wondered how many institutions would reject me out of hand as damaged goods. Now I know that most institutions do not grant the benefit of the doubt to applicants who have been denied tenure.

For all of the job openings most up my alley -- positions at small undergraduate institutions seeking someone to teach in my subspecialty and guide undergraduate researchers -- I was promptly rejected. I think there are so many excellent candidates that search committees would prefer not to deal with a candidate with so much baggage.

I garnered some phone interviews, mostly with institutions that had not yet requested my letters of recommendation, in which my department head explains that I did not receive tenure. The members of one search committee even asked about my tenure status during the interview.

So far, all four phone interviews have failed to result in an on-campus interview. That didn't happen the last time I was on the market, when several phone interviews led up to my acceptance of a tenure-track position.

In my last column, I was about to depart for an interview at a nonprofit institute in the Midwest. I had a wonderful time. The people and the job were great. I was unfamiliar with the city, but it seemed like a good place to live with my small family. Despite a low salary, which my interviewers had warned me about before inviting me to visit, I found myself becoming more and more excited about the possibilities.

When I received a gracious e-mail message from the search committee telling me that someone else had been hired, I was crushed. It brought me to a delayed realization about how low I had sunk.

At first, after I was denied tenure, I had hoped to be able to stay put and find a good job near where we live. I have slowly reckoned with the reality that I will have to relocate in order to get an academic position in my field. Then, in November, came the realization that I might end up teaching at some fourth-rate institution with an oppressive teaching load and no research support. And, I thought, I would be lucky to get that.

I was despondent for days. I knew that many search committees were already contacting candidates on their shortlists, whereas I was receiving a string of rejection letters, representing only the fraction of search committees that bother with that courtesy.

Then, in the course of 24 hours, I learned that my letters of recommendation had been requested for three great jobs. I had applied for only a few nonfaculty openings, but all three of those new opportunities were at research or research/administration positions with nonprofit organizations, similar to the Midwest job that I had been mourning.

Even more encouraging, a few of my faculty-position applications began to attract some interest from doctoral and master's institutions. At the moment, my candidacy is in play in eight searches. Those jobs are sure to attract strong competition, so I remain far from confident that I will receive an offer.

I interviewed on the campus at Small Western University. I suspected there was a favored inside candidate, considering the brevity of my visit and the absence of an initial phone interview. But I actually enjoyed the university and could see myself working there. It truly was a good gig, as far as tenure-track positions at under-financed public institutions go.

At the start of my hourlong chat with the dean, he held up my CV and said, "This is the kind of person we want to hire. So, what happened? How can you get denied tenure with your record and the support of your department?" It was the kind of opportunity to explain myself that I could only hope for at other universities.

My reply was simple: "I really wish I could tell you what happened, but I don't understand it either."

I told a one-minute version of the story as I've told it here. I noted that it seemed clear to me that the dean who had denied my tenure bid had an unstated reason for reversing the department's recommendation. His stated reason, "uneven performance," was vague and contradicted my performance record.

The dean at Small Western U. told me he had been recruited to enhance the research profile of the institution, which has a sizable cohort of senior professors who do not do much research. He was sympathetic to my simplistic theory that the dean who had denied me tenure was antagonistic to faculty members with a consequential research agenda. The Small Western dean remarked that many of his faculty members felt that competitive research didn't belong in a teaching institution.

Fortunately, the remaining 55 minutes of our chat dealt with his vision for the school, new projects and fund-raising initiatives, and what I would need to be successful there. I liked what I heard.

My interview with the search committee at Small Western was also a great experience. At lunch, we lost track of time chatting about common interests and I was late for my own job talk. The chairman, who is working to build up departmental strength in our shared specialty, was pleased to spend time with "a kindred spirit."

I am still afraid of ending up unemployed. But the fear nodules in my brain are equally occupied with the prospect of getting an offer from Small Western. The other jobs for which I am shortlisted are now holding interviews. Those jobs have lower teaching loads, are more geographically favorable, and would facilitate research in a way that isn't possible at Small Western.

I suspect that, given a choice, I would choose most of those jobs over Small Western. Of course, I first need to get an offer. But the experience of having a solid interview, and being shortlisted for a number of exciting jobs, has transformed my outlook on the job market.

Just a couple months ago, I feared I would end up in a lousy position with an oppressive teaching load and weak academic support. Now it is glaringly obvious to me that that describes perfectly the job I have been holding for the past seven years. En route to my tenure review, I had been tempted to apply for other positions. But I didn't because I had excellent colleagues, was able to live in a nice community near family, and didn't want to uproot my wife's career from its positive trajectory.

Meanwhile, at my current institution -- as expected -- my tenure appeal was rejected in a 4-to-1 vote. One person on the appeals committee agreed with my department that the decision to deny me tenure did not follow from the evidence in my file, citing my teaching evaluations, performance in scholarship and service, and the departmental vote in my favor. I suspect the vote reflected the ratio of committee members who were willing to believe the dean willfully misled the rank-and-tenure committee.

In hindsight, the tenure review and appeals process was a farce from start to finish. My department members supported me with their votes and kind words, but most of them couldn't bother to take even half an hour to sit in on one of my lectures, as required in the initial review. I believe the dean invented improper information that he fed to the rank-and-tenure committee. He even arranged for to me to learn about my tenure denial from one of his administrative assistants via e-mail. In violation of procedure, the provost's office failed to provide me with documentation necessary to mount a complete appeal.

To top off the whole affair, the letter from the president upholding my tenure denial was addressed to me at the wrong department. I doubt he even personally looked at my file.

This job search feels like a novel that I only get to read a few pages of each day. It could fit into several genres: thriller ("Will the culprit who sabotaged the young professor's career evade justice?"); a magical realist novel (think Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Kurt Vonnegut), with a string of bizarre search committees bearing charming idiosyncrasies; or a Gilded Age tragedy (think Theodore Dreiser), wherein my ambitions are slowly eroded and I wind up working a series of unrewarding part-time jobs.

Those genres are not differentiated by story arcs, but by authorial perspective and tone. Now that I'm past the shock of tenure denial -- though I still don't understand how it happened -- I am becoming able to enjoy the story as a compelling narrative.

My ability to have that peace is only possible through the wisdom and unconditional love of my wife, and the charm of my fun-loving preschooler who is impervious to the roller coaster of my academic career. I am teaching my son how to string together letters to make words, whereas he is teaching me how I can use passion, honesty, and resilience to accomplish whatever I want.

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