Tenure and the Arrival Fallacy
Wasn’t tenure the Holy Grail of academe? I had made it. Why wasn’t I overjoyed?
After six years, including three pandemic semesters, I thought that finally earning tenure in the spring of 2021 would make me very, very happy. I would be borne forward inexorably on a wave of bliss that would carry me through the rest of my career, leaving behind my pre-tenure stressors and insecurities.
Boy was I wrong.
Let me be clear: Receiving my tenure letter was a huge relief. That relief felt good. It was comforting to no longer have to worry about whether I would have a job (or health insurance) next year. But the tsunami of post-tenure happiness that I had anticipated never came, and what happiness I felt was fleeting. In fact, within a few weeks of being promoted to associate professor, I found myself thinking seriously about changing careers.
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After six years, including three pandemic semesters, I thought that finally earning tenure, in the spring of 2021, would make me very, very happy. I would be borne forward inexorably on a wave of bliss that would carry me through the rest of my career, leaving behind my pre-tenure stressors and insecurities.
Boy, was I wrong.
Let me be clear: Receiving my tenure letter was a huge relief. That relief felt good. It was comforting to no longer have to worry about whether I would have a job (or health insurance) next year. But the tsunami of post-tenure happiness that I had anticipated never arrived, and what happiness I felt was fleeting. In fact, within a few weeks of being promoted to associate professor, I found myself thinking seriously about changing careers.
My expectations dashed, I felt confused. Wasn’t tenure the Holy Grail of academe? Most faculty members never obtain tenure-track jobs, let alone tenure. I had made it! Why wasn’t I overjoyed?
It turns out I had succumbed to what the writer and lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar calls “the arrival fallacy” — the mistaken belief that by achieving some big goal, we will attain lasting happiness. As if happiness is the emotional VIP section, and our accomplishments get us on the list.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Research shows that human reasoning is subject to all kinds of biases, some of which impair our ability to reason about our future emotions. In other words, our predictions about how we will feel about something — what psychologists call affective forecasting — are prone to inaccuracies. We can accurately predict how we will feel about a future event — say, happiness at getting tenure — but we mistakenly assume that this emotion will be greater and last longer than it actually does.
Over the years, The Chronicle has published plenty of essays about “midcareer malaise,” which one writer even labeled “PTDS” for “post-tenure depression syndrome.” Back in 1998 (well before I ever dreamed of getting my Ph.D.), researchers found that professors were not as happy as they thought they would be after being awarded tenure, and that their feelings of happiness about being tenured faded faster than they had predicted. Likewise, faculty members who had been denied tenure were not as unhappy (or for as long) as they thought they would be.
Why do so many of us inaccurately predict our emotions about tenure and other professional accomplishments?
One reason is what psychologists call focalism — that is, when people focus on how an event will make them feel and ignore everything else. For example, we might focus on getting tenure and neglect how, say, a global pandemic will influence our subjective well-being when the focal event happens.
We’re also not so great at accurately picturing what a future event will actually be like. It is easy to imagine the wrong event. Most assistant professors have never been tenured before, and so may think that the experience will occur in one way when, in fact, it unfolds in another. This is called the misconstrual problem.
For example, I imagined a post-tenure celebratory gathering with friends and colleagues, and a special dinner with my husband. But when I received my tenure decision, we still weren’t fully vaccinated. We weren’t ready to socialize in large groups and were reluctant to spend several hours dining indoors at a fancy restaurant. Instead, my husband and I had just moved to a new apartment (to escape some noisy upstairs neighbors), so we ate cake surrounded by boxes and disassembled furniture.
All of which is simply to say: If you think that earning tenure will catapult you to the pinnacle of happiness mountain, think again. You’re probably wrong about the degree of happiness you will feel and its duration. That’s why it’s risky to endure unhappiness or suffering now (stress, sleep deprivation, health problems, neglected or strained relationships) in pursuit of something that will happen later.
I’m not saying that it’s a mistake to swap current pain for future gain. Achieving big, hard goals — including getting tenure — requires making trade-offs, and some of them are worth it. I certainly don’t regret making sacrifices for the life I have as a securely employed associate professor. But if I had more accurately predicted what my post-tenure future would feel like, I would have made fewer of those trade-offs as an untenured assistant professor. I also would have focused more on doing the things that would actually make me happy — then and now.
Here, then, are my three tips for early-career academics as you plow ahead toward tenure:
Do research that you care about now. The road to tenure doesn’t need to be a miserable grind. Being happy now and in the future means deriving happiness from the pursuit of self-concordant goals — that is, goals you deem meaningful and worthwhile. Having goals is crucial to long-term happiness, but it is not their achievement that makes us happy; it is our pursuit of them.
So instead of doing something you don’t enjoy just because you think it’ll look good on your tenure file, find things that you enjoy doing that will look good in your tenure file. Maybe that means seeking out research collaborators who are fun to work with (even if they aren’t well connected), or beginning a new research project on a topic that sparks your interest and curiosity (rather than following research trends that don’t matter to you). Don’t save research and writing projects that you find stimulating and meaningful for “after tenure,” as if the only way to become an associate professor is by doing research that bores you to tears.
Set and pursue “LOW goals.” Faculty members excel at work-related goals — e.g., be the first author on an article in a top journal, land a major grant, organize a workshop, write a book, win a teaching award. But it is important to have goals for your nonwork life, too. Having “LOW goals” — an acronym for life-outside-of-work goals — will not only increase your intrinsic well-being but also serve as a bulwark against the inevitable stressors and setbacks that come with life on the tenure track.
For my first several years as a new faculty member, all I did was work. Perhaps not surprisingly, this lifestyle led to burnout. My single-minded focus on work meant that I had little else from which to derive enjoyment when I encountered obstacles or failures in my work-life.
Moreover, in retrospect, I can see that many of my working hours as a pre-tenure faculty member were not wisely spent. I devoted too much of my days to teaching, vastly overcommitted to service, and exhausted myself by cramming research into evenings and weekends. My tenure dossier would have been just as strong, and I would have been much happier and healthier, had I worked less.
I realized too late that it was a mistake to devote all of my time and attention to professional achievement. To be happy, I needed to diversify my goals, and make time for nonwork activities. The year after I earned tenure, I decided to sign up for a trail marathon (that’s 26.2 miles on unpaved, natural trails rather than roads), and started making training a priority.
It is hard to overstate the impact this change had on my well-being. It wasn’t just that exercise and physical activity promote greater happiness. Having something to look forward to outside of work has made it easier to shake off journal rejections, bad teaching days, and the occasional toxic colleague.
Having a rich and fulfilling life outside of work is compatible with getting tenure. The key to work-life balance on the tenure track is to work smarter, not harder. For faculty members at institutions where research is a significant part of the tenure equation, that means not letting the time you spend on teaching and service dominate your days. It also means being strategic about research opportunities. For example, if your institution places little value on chapters in edited volumes, decline invitations to contribute to them. The time it would take you to write the chapter is probably better spent on publications that count toward tenure — or getting a solid eight hours of sleep at night.
Cultivate a mix of relationships. When I moved to the Bay Area, in 2015, as a newly minted Ph.D., I didn’t know anyone. I met some people at work, but I didn’t have the ready-made social community that graduate school provided. My colleagues live all over the Bay Area (because of the cost of living, the University of San Francisco is largely a commuter campus for faculty and staff members), and many of them are older than I am, have children who occupy most of their nonwork time, or both.
For my first year as a new faculty member, my husband (also an academic) had a residential fellowship on the other side of the country. I spent most of my time alone. As a result, I felt intensely isolated in my pretenure years. Loneliness isn’t just unpleasant — as two-time Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has noted, it is bad for our physical and mental health.
That experience was not unique in academe: Most new faculty members don’t get to choose where they live. Landing a faculty job often means moving to a new city, state, or even country, and leaving your friends and family behind. For those faculty members who started new jobs just before or during the pandemic, establishing social connections has been even more difficult. In addition, there are tremendous pressures on early-career academics to put work above their private life — to postpone family and socializing until after tenure.
But research shows that social connections make people happier. By “social connections,” I don’t just mean instrumental relationships with professors in your department, campus, or field. It took me too long to realize that if I wanted to be happy, I needed to seek out emotionally rich friendships — unrelated to work — in an intentional way.
The post-tenure disillusionment I experienced finally motivated me to act. I joined Trail Sisters, a national organization that aims to increase women’s participation in the sport of trail running. Every Saturday morning I get together with an amazing group of women to run in the beautiful Marin Headlands. After our run, we get coffee and something to eat. Through this group, I’ve met other women who like to do the same kinds of things that I do (running, hiking, camping), and I’ve built friendships that enrich my quality of life.
If trail running doesn’t sound appealing, find something that does. Don’t postpone social fulfillment until after tenure. Loneliness is not the price you need to pay for professional success. I wish I understood the importance of community sooner, instead of waiting until I had tenure to establish the kinds of social connections that I needed from Day 1.
Earning tenure is an important and hard-won accomplishment. But it’s not the key to lasting happiness. You are allowed to enjoy life en route.