My Breakup with the Tenure Track Dream (Part 4)
This is a retelling of my journey, which was not something that happened in a step-by-step fashion. Nor is it a roadmap or checklist. Instead, I am sharing my experience because it might be helpful to those who find themselves in a similar position. Anyway, parts one, two, and three of my journey are linked here for you. There is overlap in all of the parts that I talk about.
I had spent four years immersed in my career, applying for tenure-track jobs, publishing, presenting at conferences, and teaching. I had spent all of my time working or parenting and living in a new city. I focused on the relationships that I already had, which were distant geographically speaking. No seeking out new relationships – if one happened, fine. I was preparing for a possible move to a new place that I didn’t want to start something that would make me take my eye off the prize so to speak. That never happened. I realized that the tenure track was not for me. About five months into my post-tenure-track journey, I rejoined the non-academic world.
A couple of things happened to spark this for me. I like to make videos. I always have. During the academic job-hunt process, I had been using video as a tool to get a better sense of how I come across to people during the interview. I would talk about random things, and sometimes, I would discuss my worries. I would try to come up with a plan. What would I do if nothing came through? What applications did I send out? What were the responses? I saw myself from a different perspective. It made me nauseous. It was as if I had spent a decade eating something that had been rotting (the tenure track path) and chased it with a cup of delusion. The world that I was trying to join did not exist anymore, at least not in the form it was when I started out. The scales were tipping with universities relying more on hiring contingent faculty and less on hiring tenure-track faculty.
So, as I mentioned in (Part 2) of this series, I was about to be homeless. I had employment at my old institution, teaching two classes, but it wasn’t enough to cover my living expenses where I currently was. Because of the timing of my lease renewal, I had to make some quick judgment calls that did not work out the best for me. I eventually picked up more teaching that would cover my expenses for the year, but I found out two days before my move out date. Someone else had leased my apartment, and I had to take a different unit. There was a two-week wait until that unit would be ready. So, I put everything in storage and took a vacation to visit my friend.
Because my son was young at the time, I had easily made acquaintances with a few of the other parents in my building. They had children my son’s age, and they formed a little playgroup that would ride bikes, climb trees, and explore while we parents stood and talked. We ate s’mores. I was part of a little community.
Here is some of what I learned (or was reminded of) through these friendships. Some are direct quotes:
- Being a professor is really just another job – a way to earn a living. I knew this before; it isn’t earth shattering, clearly. But talking to people from a variety of professions reminded me that there is a world outside of the university that I need to be a part of. All of the grind from the tenure-track job hunt isolated me from others. I was so focused on one small part of my life, that I wasn’t seeing everything and everyone else around me. Other people were designing and engineering cars, healing people, helping them with their finances – all just jobs. None of them were married to their jobs like those in academe are. Employers and even career tracks changed. Although, to be fair, these changes happen within academe, as well.
- “When things change, adjust your plans.” One of the people I got to know worked for a brokerage firm. I was telling him about my situation and frustrations with higher ed. He said this sentence in response. Nothing more, nothing less. Not a big deal. Duh. I guess he saw my life as a series of investments and payoffs within a specific market.
- “How much do you make when you publish an article?” Multiple people asked me this. It is a familiar question to academics. I would explain the importance of sharing research and how we don’t make money per se, but it helps us advance through the tenure process. In some cases, researchers have to pay to have their work published. In fact, if they don’t get funding to do their research, many often foot the bill themselves to pay for their work. At some point, after thinking about what these for-profit companies make https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science, I had to admit that I sounded like a sucker.
- “Maybe, you just need more experience. Write an article.” In my last year on the market, I was getting at least an initial interview on 1 out of every 5 applications. The problem wasn’t my experience or achievements. They matched or exceeded those getting jobs. I could only pinpoint a few areas where I could possibly have differed: pedigree (average state school), age (mid-forties – can’t hide that), single parent (word gets around), and general social interaction (things that I can only improve so much in a given period of time). This is somewhat abbreviated and worthy of its own post.
- I started to see the flaws with the tenure system, as they applied to me. In my mid-forties, I would be up for tenure in my early fifties. My age was a challenge in and of itself. But even if I did get a tenure-track position, what if I failed to get tenure? I had seen that happen to people I knew. I would be in my fifties and have to start over.
- I tried things that I never did before. My friends introduced me to new activities and places. Climb a mountain for fun? I’ve done that. Run a 5k? Yep. Look at the Milky Way under a remote desert sky? Check. Challenge my worldview in new ways? All of the time.
Neither one nor the other, the contingent university employee is operating in a state of liminality – not exactly part of the world from which they came and not part of the club to which they want to belong. Expectations and restrictions concerning behavior are intense. Poverty is expected. If you are to view each step of an academic career as a sort of series of rights of passages, failure is akin to being kicked out of an expensive, elite club that was courting you. Relationships that you formed with colleagues, especially in your own department, are forever changed and sometimes ruined. Instead, you are reintegrated into the “real world” where there are non-academics who can show you the flaws in the system and the beauty of life outside of the ivory tower.