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In the early summer months, I received lots of emails, texts and private messages from faculty members sharing exciting news: they got promoted with tenure! And as the new academic year begins, I’m now receiving the predictable follow up question: now what?

After such a long probationary period and a stressful year of deliberations, it’s perfectly normal to feel a mix of emotions when returning to your campus as a newly tenured professor. It’s common for the euphoria that follows achieving a monumental professional goal to give way to confusion, ambivalence and even disappointment. As much as we look forward to change, transitions can be challenging.

That’s because every time we transition from one rank to another on the academic career ladder, everything changes: the rules of the game, the skills you need for success, your relationship to your colleagues and your campus, your professional identity, the amount of power you have to effect change, and the kinds of mentors and sponsors you need. I’ll bet you can remember how each of these things changed dramatically when you transitioned from graduate student to new professor. And each of those areas will now change again as you transition from probationary to tenured professor.

But the most important change of all is that you have moved from a short-term relationship with your college or university to a long-term commitment. While no ceremony took place, you’ve gone from dating to marriage with your campus. That implies a deeper shift from the “me-centric” perspective that is both strategic and highly functional when you’re on the tenure track to a “we-centric” perspective that’s appropriate for a permanent member of your campus community. That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice all your needs and desires for the collective good. On the contrary, developing clarity about who you are how you’ll contribute creates the healthy interdependence that thriving campus communities rely upon.

The Post-Tenure Challenge

While you’ve been working for many years to meet externally-imposed expectations for your research, teaching and service, you’re now going to face a new and different set of challenges. Instead of working towards a specific set of expectations, you get to choose your post-tenure pathway. And faculty members make many different choices, including:

  • immediately working towards full professorship;
  • jumping into administrative roles;
  • increasing visibility as a public intellectual;
  • organizing for institutional change;
  • becoming a disciplinary superstar;
  • developing the skills of a master-teacher; or
  • investing energy into off-campus projects (consulting, activism, entrepreneurship, etc.).

While this list of varying approaches is neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, it’s critically important for newly tenured faculty to consciously and intentionally chose a path. If you fail to choose your path and move strategically in that direction, you may fall into the tenure trap: saying yes to everything indiscriminately, allowing others to choose your path for you and/or quickly getting pulled in many different directions simultaneously. If you fall into that trap, you may quickly find yourself working longer and harder than did you when you were on the tenure track, but without that work moving you in a clear direction or resulting in any particular mark of distinction.

How to Avoid the Tenure Trap

To avoid the tenure trap, set aside some time during your first semester (or quarter) post-tenure to pause and reflect on who you are and who you want to become as a tenured faculty member on your campus. It’s also the best time to choose your new post-tenure pathway, upgrade your mentoring network (so it supports your new goals) and plan how to move forward. None of these activities are going to just happen, and nobody can do them for you. Instead, you must do the inner work in order to be successful at the next level.

While I’ve made this general argument before, it’s unclear for many people how exactly to go through this process. So over the next nine weeks, I’ll be sharing with you a step-by-step process to identify your post-tenure pathway. It’s a process we use in the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity’s Post-Tenure Pathfinders program and it’s been effective for both newly tenured faculty members and those who may be feeling stuck at mid-career or transitioning to full professor.

By post-tenure pathway, I do not mean finding your purpose on planet earth, planning the rest of your life or career, creating a rigid vision with predictable linear steps, or establishing a set of goals that are divorced from the reality of your life and family commitments. Instead, the best way to approach this process is to view it as an opportunity to create a vision for your next three to five years, to choose a path that’s driven by what you love, and to figure out what it means to move in a clear direction that works in harmony with the rest of your life.

The Weekly Challenge

Each week, I’m going to challenge you to take a few concrete steps to move forward. They may seem odd or unrelated to the seriousness of academic work, but trust and believe they will each add to your clarity and your ability to choose your path.

This week, I challenge you to:

  1. Pull out the list of “things you wanted to do once you got tenure” and re-read it.
  2. Purchase a journal or notebook that you can dedicate exclusively to the process of exploring your post-tenure pathway.
  3. Spend 10 minutes journaling about why you want to identify your post-tenure pathway.
  4. Start to notice the different pathways that senior faculty in your department and people whom you admire beyond your campus have taken.
  5. Make a list of 20 things you love to do. (They can be personal or professional.) Get as specific as you can.

Your first semester after gaining tenure is the perfect time to pause and reflect on who you are and who you want to become as you transition into a new status on your campus. I believe that this process can be easy and enjoyable. It’s easy because you are already perfectly designed to do what you love (and you’ll have the greatest impact and influence on your campus when you’re doing what you love). In fact, all your previous experiences -- the good, bad, ugly and beautiful -- have prepared you for your post-tenure pathway. And it’s enjoyable because the work of choosing your post-tenure pathway is really about (re)connecting with who you are and choosing how best to do what you love on your campus and in the world.

Peace and Possibilities,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD

Founder, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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