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Dear Kerry Ann,
Thanks for your advice on surviving your tenure decision year. I’m under review this year, and over all, I feel pretty confident. My research, teaching evaluations and service are all strong, and I have positive relationships with the majority of my colleagues. My anxiety isn’t about the strength of my case. It’s about all the awkward interpersonal interactions I imagine will happen this year: the hallway encounters with tenure committee members, my colleagues giving me too much information during the process, and the dreaded conversations with friends and family who know I’m up for tenure but have no idea how long the process takes. I hope to win tenure this year, but I’m dreading all of these awkward interactions.
Dear Almost Tenured,
I understand exactly what you mean about the potential for awkward interactions during your tenure review year. Let’s be honest -- your colleagues are making a life-altering decision, but because it’s taking place over an excruciatingly long period of time, you will have to interact with them (and others) throughout the nine months you’re in limbo. While there’s plenty of potential for awkwardness, you can do several things immediately to alleviate your anxiety and lower the dread. I encourage you to consider having several honest and direct conversations that set clear boundaries up front and will serve you well throughout your tenure review year.
Conversation #1: Have a Talk With Yourself
You must decide what you need to feel supported this year in terms of the full spectrum of your relationships: your colleagues, your family and your friends. Do you want them to ask regularly for updates and celebrate every step of the process with you? Do you want them to leave you alone and say nothing until you tell them the outcome next spring? Or maybe you want different things from different people. Whatever you want is fine, but it’s worth spending a little time getting crystal clear about what you need, because that will shape all the rest of your conversations.
Conversation #2: Have a Talk With Your Family and Friends
I recommend letting your friends and family know exactly what you need. Typically, faculty members under review want a small number of people to walk with them through the ups and downs of the process. Pick your inner circle and set the ground rules by acknowledging that no matter how confident you are in your case, you’re probably going to have bouts of uncertainty. If you normalize that there may be some intense emotional moments during the year, you’ll be able to strategize up front about how they can best support you. For example,
“There are some times I’m just going to need to vent/cry/scream, and I don’t want you to fix anything in those moments. I’ll let you know that by saying, ‘Right now, I just need to be heard.’ When I say that, listening is the greatest gift you can give me. When I need advice, I’ll ask for it directly. And please help me to celebrate each positive step in the process!”
For those outside of your inner circle of support and who you don’t want to ask you about it every time they see you, take the time now to have a short boundary-setting conversation. It can be as simple as this:
“This is the year I’m up for tenure, and that means my work will be voted on by a series of committees over the course of this year and I won’t know the outcome until next May. I feel extraordinarily stressed out by this and I hope I can count on your support.”
[Typical response: “Yes, of course!”]
“Honestly, the best way to support me is by sending positive energy/praying for me/baking me something occasionally/etc. … but whatever you do, please don’t ask me about it until next May. I won’t know until then and every time people ask me it heightens my stress level. I promise I’ll let you know as soon as I hear the outcome. Can I count on your support?”
[Typical response: “Of course!”]
The less familiar with academe and the tenure process your family and friends are, the more important it is to have this preliminary conversation. By initiating it, you create an opening for explaining exactly what you’re going through and an opportunity for everyone to channel their supportive energy in a way that’s helpful to you.
Conversation #3: Talk With Your Trusted Colleagues
There may be a well-intentioned desire on the part of your colleagues to pass gossip and back channel information to you because they imagine you want to know as much as possible (the good, the bad and especially the ugly). Maybe you do or maybe you don’t, but it really is your choice to make and your responsibility to communicate. Whatever you decide, tell your allies directly, otherwise you may find people oversharing in ways that they believe are helpful but feel inappropriate, insensitive or awkward to you.
And in terms of how you will respond (verbally and nonverbally) in those awkward hallway encounters with members of your tenure committee, I want you to imagine now what it looks like to appear pleasant, confident and completely unbothered. Whatever that is for you, practice it, own it and make it your default hallway strut for the 2015-16 academic year. There’s no reason to break stride or make unnecessary small talk -- just keep moving and stay positively and professionally focused.
Conversation #4: Talk With a Therapist
I know some people are uncomfortable with the notion of therapy, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough during your review year. If you are up for tenure, you probably have insurance, so why not use that benefit to set up a series of appointments for the fall (before you actually get into the stress of the term and feel you need it)? Seeing a therapist has several benefits: 1) you’ll be making a space to process the stress, 2) you may get triggered this year when you least expect it (long, drawn-out processes have a way of bringing to the surface any deeper unresolved issues that exist) and 3) you’ll be relieving pressure from your family and friends by creating a built-in safe space with a trained professional.
I hope it’s clear that having these foundational conversations will help you not only get clear about what you want and explicitly request the support you need, but you’ll also be able to return to the agreements made in these conversation when people inadvertently cross boundaries. You can simply remind them, “Remember when we talked in August and we agreed that _______________?” That one sentence will quickly re-establish the boundaries and help you to feel empowered during those awkward moments.
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President and CEO, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
P.S.: I know readers will have lots of additional ideas and suggestions, and I recommend you post them in the comments section to further support those who are being reviewed for tenure this year. As always, I welcome your questions on my Facebook page.