Stop Trying To Get Tenure and Start Trying To Enjoy Yourself

Stop Trying To Get Tenure and Start Trying To Enjoy Yourself
September 22, 2008

Congratulations! You have a tenure-track position. Now what? Seriously, how are you going to make the transition from tenure-track to tenured? What is the best way to spend your time? How much emphasis should you put on teaching? What are the scholarship expectations? Where should you publish? Do you need to be first author? Should you continue working with your graduate advisor? Should you stick to safe avenues of inquiry or take chances with new ideas? How many committees should you sit on? How many campus initiatives should you join? What, if anything, can you turn down? What is the relative value of teaching, scholarship, and service?

When I started my own tenure-track position I had the same questions. I perused published sources and quizzed colleagues to gain insight. I believed that by identifying the right steps to take, people to meet, ways to teach, scholarship to pursue, committees to seek out, and committees to avoid, I would bring clarity to the ambiguity of the tenure process. Unfortunately, my desire to cobble together a magical checklist was still plagued by a fundamental problem. My approach made getting tenure the primary goal.

On the surface, this is perfectly reasonable. Tenure provides job and financial security, as well as the ability to take risks in one’s scholarship and the opportunity to help shape the future of one’s institution. Yet, I believe a superior approach is to get a tenure-track position and then immediately remove the idea of “getting tenure” from your daily (or perhaps even moment by moment) thought process. That’s right. Getting tenure should not be your primary goal (though admittedly this is secretly a “how-to get tenure” article). Instead, your goal should be to follow your interests, your passion, your curiosity, and your creativity. In other words, you should follow all of the things that got you into this field in the first place.

In my first year, I experienced anxiety because the guidelines for getting tenure were somewhat vague. As I progressed in my second year I decided to be proactive and ask the then-chair of my department, David Strohmetz, about my status and trajectory. My anxiety laden query was met with a straightforward suggestion: “You can only do so much. If it doesn’t happen to be enough, you learn from the experience and move on.” I wanted to hear that I was meeting expectations and would assuredly do so in the future. Yet, his advice was the catalyst I needed.

His advice tacitly suggested that adopting a new perspective on the tenure process was more appropriate than constant progress reports. With this foundation, I decided to develop a personal philosophy based on my own priorities. As Morrie Schwartz said in Tuesdays With Morrie “…the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves….And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.” I suspect he wasn’t talking about the culture of academe, but the words are no less poignant. I did not feel good about the ambiguous tenure expectations. Rather than buying a five to six year quest through the labyrinthine tenure process, I’d forge my own path.

Admittedly, I had doubts. The social psychologist part of my brain had a strong suspicion that this “new philosophy” might merely be an attempt at dissonance reduction that was masquerading as a more noble effort. Luckily, in a stroke of serendipity, I was in the midst of preparing a Introduction to Psychology class on motivation. It was abundantly clear that I should start practicing a bit of what I was preaching.

To determine the genesis of my own motivation to pursue a tenure track position, I went back and re-read my research and teaching statements from my initial foray into the job market. At the top of my teaching statement was the quote that got me into academia in the first place.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius

Clearly, as I explained in Intro Psych, this was a case of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. If I relied on extrinsic motivation, the goal of tenure was achieved by meeting the requirements generated by the university. If I relied on intrinsic motivation, the goal was to focus on my own desire to pursue projects, my own love of teaching, and my own sense of social responsibility to the students, department, and university.

As Robert Bellah and colleagues point out in Habits of the Heart, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation influence whether you see your position as a job (i.e., those who seek extrinsic rewards such as salary, and view the position as a nuisance or obligation), a career (i.e., those who seek extrinsic rewards such as power, enhanced prestige, and advancement), or a calling (i.e., those who seek intrinsic rewards such as self-fulfillment, and view the position as indistinguishable from one’s own goals). I quickly realized that I did not want a job, should not view this as a career, and instead should simply pursue my calling.

During yearly informational meetings with the provost, tenure-track professors asked questions focused on the relative value of teaching, scholarship, and service, and what materials were worthy of one’s tenure dossier. This line of questioning attempts to derive a clear formula of “if I do X, Y, and Z, tenure will be a sure thing for me.” The solution was not provided. Ultimately, the tenure decision is much too complex for such a formulaic approach. If the primary goal is not to simply get tenure, a formula is of little interest. Instead, from my perspective, if I spent time on the things I was passionate about, I would enjoy myself, be productive, and tenure would hopefully follow.

As the oracle at Delphi suggests, this approach requires one to “Know thyself.” That is, you need to clearly know what energizes your teaching, what topics you enjoy, what your academic goals are, what areas of scholarship interest you, and what service efforts you value. I asked myself “in an ideal world at an ideal college, what would the tenure requirements be?”, “If you could research anything, what topics would you study?”, “What is the best way to dedicate your time to service?”, and “Ideally, what would your scholarship expectations be?” The answers were the foundation for my own tenure plan. But alas, one should not go blindly into the fray. It is helpful to have colleagues review your plan.

Creating your own standards helps avoid the trap of striving for the minimum standards. Setting your own standards also allows you to avoid seeing the tenure process as a series of arbitrary hoops to jump through, and instead allows you to enjoy the steps along the way. By focusing on your interests, your plan may be more ambitious than necessary, and may include activities that do not count toward tenure. Although this may be “invisible work”, filling your vita is a secondary concern. I found that many activities that were not worth their weight in “tenure-track value” relative to the time I devoted to them were valuable to me, and valuable to the students.

Ultimately, by doing what you love, you are doing “enough” for your academic career. Granted, there is a possibility that it might not be enough for your current position. Once again, “You can only do so much. If it doesn’t happen to be enough, you learn from the experience and move on.” If you find yourself moving on, by following your passion you’ll have built a record that highlights your strengths and true interests. This way, you can more easily find a college that values the qualities and activities that you value. The alternative is trying to get tenure by doing things to fit in that may compromise your true interests. If you are truly a bad match for your institution, can you tolerate that for your entire career? Tenure doesn’t need to come at the expense of happiness, professional fulfillment, or your sanity.

Focusing on the intrinsic joy of your calling, rather than the extrinsic process of tenure, should also promote post-tenure productivity. If you simply work to get tenure, you engage in goal-directed behavior that provides motivation only when the goal exists. If you get tenure, where will the motivation come from? Doing what you enjoy has the benefit of increased efficiency, and ultimately productivity. Rather than seeing students as potential obstacles to the positive teaching evaluations I needed, or writing a manuscript to meet a scholarship requirement, you can teach and engage in scholarship to share knowledge. By following your true interests during the pre-tenure years you establish a pattern of behavior that becomes routine. If these are activities you enjoy, why would you stop? You won’t “be done” or think “now I can coast.” Instead you will have a sense of fulfillment and anticipation of future opportunities.

In the end, a tenure candidate can spend energy on trying to do all the “right” things. I suspect this energy leads to greater anxiety and stress. This type of energy comes at the expense of creative energy that could invigorate one’s teaching, scholarship, and service. When you get tenure, you want to have the satisfaction of knowing it was truly earned on your own terms and not something you lucked into because you took the “right” steps, knew the “right” people, or played the politics “properly.” So was I happy to get tenure? Absolutely. Was I relieved that the arduous, stressful, and ambiguous process of trying to get tenure was finally over? Not at all. I stopped trying years ago.


Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University.



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