Tenured Twice

April 17, 2007

I received tenure. Twice.

Why would I subject myself to the scrutiny, anxiety, and pressures of the tenure process more than once? Simple. That is, it's simple given the clarity that comes with hindsight and, well, with tenure.

It took me getting tenure once to learn that I was a square peg and my department was a round hole. And a square peg doesn't fit in a round hole. Even with tenure. You would think that as a Ph.D. and a scientist I would be able to recognize that mismatch sooner. I mean, I do have some basic observation and analysis skills. But early on it was very difficult to apply those skills to myself and my career.

I believe that my situation is a common one in its fundamentals, although not in its details. While it's the details that make the story my own, it's the fundamentals that will resonate with tenured and tenure-track professors who read this.

Here's how I know: I recently participated as a "leader" (aka advice giver) in a faculty-development program for newcomers to the tenure track in my discipline. The program featured all sorts of formal advice sessions on the big three -- teaching, research, and service. And then there was time for the new faculty members to have one-on-one discussions with individual leaders.

We leaders introduced ourselves by describing what we each felt comfortable talking about in the one-on-one sessions. My spiel was that if you wanted to talk about having kids pretenure, about seeking balance between work and life, or about feeling like you didn't quite fit in your department, then I was your woman.

People at the meeting flocked to me. What the participants wanted to talk about, more than anything else, was the notion of fitting in, or rather, feeling like they were not fitting in. One after the other the questions came: How do I know if I am in the right place? And if I feel out of place, what should I change?

Change comes down to two options, really. Stay where you are and make changes within your control to enable a better fit. Or leave and find a department that's a better match. Trying to fit in where you are by shaving off the rough edges means changing who you are in small or large ways. It means adapting to your environment. It is survival of the fittest, and it's a fine approach so long as it doesn't happen at the cost of your quality of life.

Leaving your department, on the other hand, means taking the risk of trying on a new environment and seeing how it fits.

So what was my first department like?

With hindsight, I can see that it was unquestionably an academically strong undergraduate science department populated by several excellent teachers and researchers.

But the department also had some characteristics that would have made good material for an academically themed television sitcom: We had a senior professor with a well-developed Queen Bee Syndrome and a former department chairman who refused to accept that his reign was over. We had a general atmosphere of sink-or-swim that extended from the faculty to the students. Most faculty members took the view that we had two tiers of undergraduate majors -- those who were important (i.e., the ones seeking "real" science careers) and those who were not (i.e., the ones oriented toward science teaching). Those characteristics alone made for some interesting, albeit dysfunctional, group dynamics.

Looking back, I see that in trying to prove myself worthy of tenure in that department I naïvely and inadvertently isolated myself. I was so busy working hard at being innovative in my teaching, conducting research, and accomplishing things that were on the tenure checklist, that I rarely allotted time for building collegiality with my colleagues.

Chit-chatting over an overpriced latte about topics in which I had no interest (the right wine for a certain cheese, the best Italian vista) seemed like a waste of my time. After all, the tenure clock was ticking. So, more often than not, I turned down invitations for coffee breaks and had efficient working lunches at my desk.

My lack of social interaction with my colleagues is something I could, and should, have changed because it worked against my desire to fit in. However, there were other situations in my department that I couldn't change (the Queen Bee) or wouldn't change (my interest in teacher education). Both of those made it unlikely that I would ever truly feel comfortable in my department.

I recognized the mismatch between my values and my department's most clearly when I was forced to look inward while preparing my tenure package. I wrote my tenure narrative with the goal of proving to the department that I was an excellent teacher, scientist, and contributor to the university. But the process of thinking about and writing that narrative proved to me that I did not want to be a faculty member there, tenured or not.

Tenure would not change my personal and professional values. It would not resolve the particular departmental dynamics that frustrated me. I should have recognized my dilemma sooner, but I had my eye on the tenure gold metal. And the fear that I would be a failure if I didn't stick it out blinded me to the reality that this was not the department for me.

So even though I won tenure, I realized that it wasn't much of a prize. It was more like a sentence, since all I had really won was the security of working in a department where I wouldn't be happy.

I began to look for a better match, and I found it because I knew myself better.

In my new position, I have shaved at least one corner off my old persona. I now rarely eat lunch alone at my desk. I take the time to chat with colleagues, and I enjoy it. I no longer see those moments as a waste of time, but a means of connecting. Whether we are talking about my kids, about someone's recent trip to the shooting range, or about something funny that happened in class, those conversations build bonds and release stress.

Sure, I had to prepare my tenure package all over again. But the process couldn't have been more in contrast to the first time; it was almost anticlimactic because I already knew I was in the right place. Writing the second time was an affirmation of what I already knew to be true -- I am an integral part of a larger whole. I belong here, and a synergy exists that permeates who I am and where I am. It's a good match.

Amy Jones is the pseudonym of a tenured associate professor in the sciences at a Southern university.