The Joyless Quest for Tenure

November 26, 2007

At a faculty reception, I found myself seated at a table of unhappy assistant professors, all of whom were either new to the tenure track or had been on it for just a few years. The encounter reminded me of a Far Side cartoon in which a group of circus clowns gathers at a therapy session and one asks, "Gee, am I the only one here who is laughing on the outside and the inside?"

My companions that evening, while certainly not clownish, were mutually morose. Male and female, from different fields and ethnic backgrounds, they shared a common culture of the joyless quest for promotion and tenure. Life as an assistant professor has its bleak moments; however, the downbeat cosmology is, in the end, dysfunctional and hurts more than it comforts.

First, an admission: I earned tenure in the best and most pleasant circumstances but without joy. I went up for tenure a year early, supported by practically every senior faculty member in my school. Thanks to the efforts of the office staff, my graduate assistant, and my wife, I had to do very little work in assembling my tenure file.

But when the appointment letter arrived, I felt no exhilaration. People congratulated me like I was a new father, but I was moody for weeks and, at the same time, felt guilty for that moodiness. Shouldn't I be happy? Earning tenure, becoming an "associate" rather than an "assistant," seemed anticlimactic.

I know I am not alone. A colleague in art history described getting tenure as "winning a race" but then said he did not actually feel victorious. I suggested that one problem may be that unlike real racers, he was denied a victory lap. The moment of achievement comes via a letter in campus mail. Maybe there are hearty congratulations at a faculty meeting or handshakes in the hallway, perhaps even a brief juice-and-cupcakes ceremony. Hardly the stuff of Super Bowl victory bashes.

Sometimes I wonder if we need to ramp up the awarding of tenure to a full-fledged party, or at least create some sort of campus ceremony during which friends and family can watch us get a plaque or a trophy. Undignified, maybe; morale boosting, absolutely.

Even more materially, the small raise that typically accompanies tenure on most campuses -- however reasonable, given the tightness of university budgets -- is a literal token of our success.

The tenure trek itself can be gloomy because of many painful stimuli that, because of our inexperience, seem overwhelming. A young friend of mine at another university, for example, last year got some terrible reviews for an article she had submitted for publication. There are a range of practical responses to such bad news (the subject of a future essay in this series), but no positive advice appealed to her, at least at first.

The negative, caustic reviews hurt her deeply and made her question not only her entire research agenda but also whether even to stick it out in academe. She lacked the perspective that comes after 20 years of hearing both good and bad critiques. While another journal has accepted one of her articles for publication, she hasn't recovered her confidence completely.

Even when a faculty member has met or exceeded the expectations for promotion, the process can be a source of unhappiness. An assistant professor in another discipline tells me that although his publications, teaching, and service are objectively far above the norm, his senior colleagues are still treating him like "I might just barely pass." He asks, "Is this a form of hazing?"

I suggested several possible explanations for his situation. First, the tenured faculty members may be thinking that their job is to be hard-nosed: vetting, testing, and probing his CV for problems or issues before his case leaves the department to go up the ranks for approval.

Second, some professors subscribe to the principle that there are no sure things in tenure and promotion, so no candidate should ever feel complacent.

Third, some senior professors do, in fact, think that the tenure process should have a hazing component. I disagree, but their justification is usually that such treatment will keep the assistant professor "real and grounded." Even worse, some professors simply enjoy putting a hotshot young scholar through the wringer.

What I advised my friend: You can't change your colleagues' minds about the process, at least at this point, so keep smiling and when you get to be a senior faculty member, treat the assistant ones with greater kindness. But this certified young star in his field is approaching tenure with no more enthusiasm than would a candidate headed for rejection.

Surely a central aspect of the tenure process that makes it fraught with tension is its all-or-nothing character. As an assistant professor, about to go up for tenure, pointed out to me: "It's not like in other jobs where you can quit or be fired and try to find another job around the corner."

The fact is, tenure denial can lead to complete displacement -- you might be forced not only to seek out new employment but to uproot your family, too. Although I have written in this series that tenure denial is not necessarily the end of an academic career, that is what it feels like to those who experience it. And even for the superlatively productive assistant professor, there is a little voice in the ear chanting, "Doom, doom."

So the tenure track is the professorial equivalent of the awkward, uncertain, teenage years. Here you are, an adult in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, liquor stores, and movie theaters, perhaps a parent and a homeowner, yet on the campus you are a "junior."

Even though you are a doctor of philosophy or science, you hold the job title "assistant." Neither of those classifications pleases the mind or the ear: In other employment sectors, "junior" and "assistant" are as prestigious as "candy striper" and "intern." And, of course, untenured status itself recalls the "temp" designation of private industry.

The list of tenure-track downers goes on and on. But they only affect the bottom line -- actually getting promotion and tenure -- if you let them.

Consider a relatively minor bump on the tenure path: the task of putting together your tenure application. Sure, that can be time-consuming. But an obvious solution is to assemble your materials each year. A little upfront work can spare you lots of last-minute paper shuffling as you try to track down six years' worth of teaching evaluations. Ask for secretarial help from your department.

Even more difficult problems on the tenure track have practical solutions. Say your department chair is a jerk. Nothing makes a job more miserable than having a bad boss. Whenever people tell me that their department head is cruel or capricious, I offer sympathy, but I also point out that even jerks have a price.

Try to negotiate a nonaggression pact with your troublesome boss. Ask him what his goals are for your assistant-professor years, then cite your own, and see if some sort of deal can be worked out. An assistant professor I know in the sciences calmly negotiated a pact with her Captain Bligh: She would take on a pet bureaucratic project of his, and he would then direct his flogging instincts toward others and leave her alone.

There is no guarantee that the bad behavior from atop won't continue. But if your boss repeatedly violates your nonaggression pact, you will have confirmed the situation is truly hopeless and you will know it's time to move on -- before you go up for tenure.

On a philosophical level, we are all aware of the rewards of being a professor, but the gloomy culture of the tenure track does not encourage us to dwell on them.

I was recently reminded of that fact, or rather chided about it. I had just finished my first year of being on an 11-month administrative calendar. As I was getting a haircut, my barber asked me whether I "enjoyed" my summer. I answered, with some grumpiness, "Well, I had to work." She replied, "So did I." Score one for town keeping gown grounded in reality.

Furthermore, beyond the obvious benefits, like autonomy and intellectual freedom, is one very important spirit-lifting attribute of our job: public respect. In my first days as an assistant professor, I recall being at a party at my apartment building. As I met my neighbors, I saw them react with visible nods of appreciation when I told them I was teaching at the local university. Many of them either were graduates or had relatives there. It did not matter to them that I was an "assistant."

Yes, I know many academics contend that students are more disrespectful today and that business and political leaders are more antagonistic to academe. But few starter jobs hold as much standing in a community as being a professor, assistant or otherwise.

Finally, it is important to be practical about the emotions stirred up by the tenure track: Being miserable does not help you get what you want. It doesn't make your analysis of data more accurate, your papers better written, or your teaching more engaging.

I am not advocating that you be excessively chirpy and ignore real dangers to your career. Just avoid being relentlessly negative.

The best revenge against the things, events, and people that distress us is to laugh at them -- generally in private. Quite a few of the most successful and happiest academics I know have healthy senses of humor and an appreciation of the absurd. There is also a careerist benefit, to wit: Making your colleagues laugh -- with you, not at you -- goes a long way toward their deeming you a good colleague to promote and tenure.

At the other extreme, realize that deep misery might originate from something much darker than the tenure track. If all else fails -- if what Winston Churchill called his "black dog" still haunts you -- a final option is open: Seek counseling for what may be actual clinical depression.

As academics, we need to think about ways we can make the tenure track, if not less rigorous, at least less downbeat, even (or especially) at the moment of triumph. But a fog of doom and gloom will not help you seize the prize, and might even blind you to the best ways to achieve it.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. To read his previous columns, click here.