Why the tenure-track is not right for me (and why it might not be for you either).
After holding a full-time, contingent position at a university for four years (read about my leaving here) and applying to about 100 tenure-track and postdoctoral jobs, I finally concluded that the tenure-track (TT) path was not for me. Although I was getting interviews and campus visits, I stopped applying. I took a real look at the market and myself. I ignored the platitudes of my mentors and helpful colleagues. I took a critical look at higher education, what people do rather than what they say, and bowed out. Here’s why:
- I lacked a competitive pedigree. – I graduated from State U, not the State U in my state, but rather the third or fourth most popular State U. While my institution did have a doctoral program, it focused more on doing research for organizations and industry, rather than creating academics. Sure some of my friends from grad school are tenure-track profs, but they are very few. Truth is as good as you are teaching, mentoring, publishing, and researching, pedigree also comes into play (http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400005 and synopsis: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2015/02/university_hiring_if_you_didn_t_get_your_ph_d_at_an_elite_university_good.html).
- Politics and systemic biases – This follows the first point. Who you know, who your advisor is, who they know, etc. all of this comes into play. Since most of the positions are filled by people from about a quarter of the institutions out there, and when you account to the similar-to-me effect, there is a good chance that this will be working against you in one form or another. It will probably look like this: a search starts, the chair and search committee send out emails announcing the search to their friends and mentors, their beloved old advisor forwards it to their students, and so on. You see where I am going with this? I’ve watched search committees work. I’ve received these emails.
- Age – Life events went out of order for me. I ended up with 10+ years of work in an industry and then decided to get a graduate degree. So, I was also competing for these tenure-track positions with people a decade or so younger than I was. With just the end date of my degree listed on my application materials, my wrinkles were probably a surprise to my interviewers when they met me in person. Also, what if I had a tt position and then failed to get tenure for some reason? I would be back on the job market and that much older. (Check out this for more thoughts on the complexities facing non-traditional Ph.D. students: https://theprofessorisin.com/2012/04/24/ageism-and-the-academy-my-thoughts-and-a-request-for-yours/ )
- Parental status – I was a single mom of an elementary-aged child. How were these years of job uncertainty and multiple moves affecting him? Beyond that, word gets out. Would academics interviewing me see this as working against my tenure goals? I know several women in academia who told me that they made a choice not to have kids because they wanted tenure more. Patriarchy = 1, Artful Adjunct = 0.
- Moving fatigue – Speaking of multiple moves, I had moved a lot for various reasons. I joked with my friends that I had moved more than Osama Bin Laden did when he was being hunted down by the United States. It was funny because it was true. It was funny because it was sad. In a ten year period, I had moved seven times in ten years. Four states were involved.
- I ran out of money and credit – I couldn’t move to a new state even if they paid (which usually means reimbursement months later) for relocation expenses. I could no longer afford to go to conferences. Funding an academic job hunt for several years is expensive. Grad school was expensive; moving for better opportunities seven times was expensive; raising a child is expensive.
- I became jaded – The more I learned about the state of higher ed and tenure, which has been unfolding since I started this journey, I became a bit bitter. When I had my contingent position, I wasn’t even aware that there were adjuncts in the department teaching classes. I honestly thought it was just us and TAs. It wasn’t. The adjuncts were more or less ghosts. While tenure professors in many departments argue for social justice, some of them miss it (ignore it?) when it is in their department. Also, they participate in maintaining these very hiring practices. What. The. Literal. Hell?
- Imposing on my letter writers – I became tired of asking my letter writers to spend their time crafting dozens upon dozens of letters year after year. I sincerely appreciate their time and efforts, but I felt guilty for taking even more of their time each time I didn’t get a position and each time I had to ask for yet another letter. To all of those writing letters out there: thank you. To all of those departments/universities asking for recommendation letters to be submitted with the initial application: really?
- Life/work balance – Had I been hired into a TT position, I don’t know if this would be such a big issue for me. I would have gladly thrown my all into it. But as time went on, and I focused on creating a life OUTSIDE of the university, I realized that this life outside of my university was essential to me. I enjoyed reading for fun again. I could spend an afternoon playing basketball with my son without that nagging feeling that I should be doing something else to ensure my tenure and job security. I took vacations that did not involve work of some sort. My health improved.
- Limited income – If I had a TT position, I would have more significant limits placed upon my overall earning potential than I do now. I would be locked into having a single employer. I have been averaging about the same amount of pay adjuncting as I did as a full-time employee. I am lucky to have landed in an area that pays higher-than-average wages to adjuncts. My employers also offer some benefits. I have seen job listings for TT and research positions that start out at less than what I make now. I do not work anywhere near the number of hours that someone on the TT would. I can explore other lines of work and income while adjuncting. Of course, there are trade-offs, but I am not someone who is too risk averse – which is ironic because that is how I ended up in this position.
- Impact. – By and large, only a handful of people are genuinely interested in my work. This is true for most work produced. Don’t get me wrong; my h-index is on par with some tenured professors out there. But the truth is, sometimes you can make a more significant impact outside of a university than within it. More people have read my month-old blog than some of my academic articles. Maybe I can have a stronger voice outside of academe than within it. Letting go of my research is not easy, but if I consider that it is possible for me to contribute more broadly to more people by taking a different path, it makes it a heck of a lot easier.
I share these points with you in hopes that you will pass them along to someone who is considering (or in the process of) searching for a TT gig. The fact is, while there is a cultural ideal of what the academic job hunt should be, the reality of the process is different. I hear that the same can be true once you’re hired.
Is the TT job not right for you? Why? Share your thoughts below.