Sunday, January 3, 2016

What's Tenure Got to Do With It?

The fall is the season of travel for me, days spent whizzing through airports in smart blazers, conference sessions filled with prime science, and conversations with my long lost colleagues over beer. Three years into my position, the topic of tenure and promotion is nearly inevitable.

For those of you who aren't aware, most schools "do" tenure the same way: you put in your paperwork near the end of your fifth year. If things go well, a year later you will be a tenured Associate Professor, and the world will be your oyster.

Carnegie Mellon is different. Here, we put in paperwork for Associate Professor without tenure at the end of the fourth year, and paperwork for Full Professor with  tenure at the end of the eighth year. Letters are procured for both promotions. The first promotion is up or out. In the second promotion, tenure can be given without awarding Full Professor, but in most instances, both are given.

Because I started in the middle of the academic year, I had the option of pushing my clock forward or backwards. I decided to push it back, and wound up signing some ridiculous paperwork saying I'd have to leave the university if I didn't receive tenure by the year 2058. It was so far into the future, it was practically laughable.

Everyone talks about tenure, everyone wants tenure, everyone seems to feel sorry for me when I tell them about my tenure-getting situation. But why? Carnegie Mellon has it right with the tenure process.

The first five years on the job is a super short (and strange) period of time in the span of a career, and they're going to judge me up, down, and sideways solely based on that five year period? So many one-off things can happen in a five year period that can skew perception either in the faculty member's or in the university's favor. For example (and these are not necessarily things that have happened to me):
  • One of your first Ph.D. students fails, quits, or otherwise leaves without accomplishing anything. So you've sunk time and energy into project, and two years in, you're back at the drawing board. Are you cut out for your job?
  • You start two projects when you open your lab, and one of them fails after three years. You're left holding a paper bag filled with your own tears. Does one failed project mean that you suck?
  • You win a $1.5 million dollar grant in year three of your position, and are awarded tenure after year 5 without having secured any other funding. Are you actually a phenomenal grant writer who will be able to keep your lab afloat over the course of your career?
All three of these events could have serious implications on a 5-year tenure case. An 8-9 year tenure case? Not so much. The anxiety-prone part of me LOVES, LOVES, LOVES my tenure clock. All sorts of random crap can go wrong for me, but I strongly believe that it will all even out over an 8-9 year period. And if I can't be awesome over a span of eight years, then this job is not for me.

But here's the other thing: why do we all want tenure so much, anyway? 

Is it so I can blather on more freely at faculty meeting? Is it so I can put minimal effort into teaching and not worry about my teaching scores? Is it so I can feel secure in having a job for life?

For me, it's none of these things. There is nothing that I really want in this job that requires tenure. And there is nothing about not having tenure that is keeping me from what I want.

I want to do amazing science. But tenure won't make me a better scientist. I can be an amazing scientist today, right now. I want to bring in the funding I need to do my work. But there isn't some stamp that goes on my grant applications the moment I get tenure. Tenure isn't going to magically solve all of my problems.

But it can create new ones. Like, the heavens break open and start raining down extra service assignments. WHO ON EARTH walks around and is like, oh yes, please put me on extra committees, I would love to serve on the strategic planning committee and come up with phrases like "we will seek to excel in the expansion of the intellect and the propagation of knowledge for the legions of students with aptitude and wherewithal".

I don't know why you come to work, but I don't come because of any wherewithal. I come because I love the science. And a long tenure clock allows me to focus on exactly that. I know I'll get a fair shake.