Finding Your Posttenure Pathway

Interview Your Role Models

As a newly tenured professor, you should talk with people who are doing the work you dream about to discover what it’s really like on a daily basis -- and how they got where they are today, advises Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

October 4, 2017
 
 
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We are halfway through the series on how to find your posttenure pathway! I am delighted to hear how many of you enjoyed mapping possibilities and identifying role models that are actively engaged in the work that you are considering. That is an important step in reprogramming your approach to the future. Most tenured faculty members simply react to opportunities that other people present to them -- i.e., “Do you want to be director of graduate studies?” I’m encouraging you to do the opposite by actively imagining possibilities that emerge from who you are and what you love.

At this point, you should have a long list (or a big mind map) of eight to 12 possibilities for how you can use your gifts and talents to do what you love. And you should also have a list of role models and their contact information. This week, we’re going to move on to the next step of the process in identifying your posttenure pathway: interviewing your role models.

Contacting Your Role Models

That’s right, I want you to have a conversation with people who are currently doing the kinds of work that you are dreaming about in order to learn what it’s really like on a daily basis and what path they traveled to get to where they are today. That will require you to pick 10 of the people on your possibility map and email them a request for a brief phone call this week.

Before you start to panic and come up with all the reasons you can’t contact your role models (“They’re too busy,” “I’m too busy,” “Who am I to contact them?,” “I don’t want to impose,” “I can already imagine what they’ll say, so no need to bother them,” and on and on), please know that all I’m really asking you to do is send out 10 emails.

I suggest you do this quickly and efficiently by setting a timer for 15 minutes. During that time, draft a brief email template (three to five sentences max) that you can use for all of your requests. In your own words, I recommend you:

  • say you're a newly tenured professor who is considering various posttenure pathways (one sentence);
  • let the recipient know you have identified them as a role model and why (one to two sentences);
  • request a brief phone conversation (20 to 30 minutes) this week (one sentence); and
  • use a subject line that directly indicates your request and the deadline.

It should go without saying that no matter how much you admire the person, remain professional in your communication. (Don’t tell them you love them or go fan girl on them.) Once you have a workable template, fill in the specific details for each role model and send the emails. You can expect that some people will respond quickly and affirmatively, others will ignore you completely and others will say no for a range of reasons (or none at all). All of those responses are normal and perfectly OK. For anybody you don’t hear back from in 48 hours, follow up with an additional email.

Keep in mind that the goal of this step is to get on the phone a living, breathing human being who is doing the kind of work you are imaging as a future possibility for yourself. This is a moment when you do not want to let perfectionism get the best of you. Specifically, you don’t have to find the penultimate person who is nationally recognized as the best person in the world in their field.

You may work your way up to that person if you decide to pursue that particular path, but the point of these conversations is to move you from what you imagine a particular option is like to the reality of what that option actually is on a daily basis and how it compares to other options you are considering. For example, you can imagine what it’s like to be a dean, a journal editor or a public intellectual. But having a conversation with a current dean, journal editor or public intellectual will be far more informative.

Drafting Your Questions

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few conversations right away. You’ll want to be prepared for the conversation by having a small number of questions ready. Pause and consider what that person -- and only that person -- can answer for you as a newly tenured faculty member considering multiple possibilities for your posttenure pathways. Thirty minutes can go by quickly, so get clear about what you want to know from your role model. The most common questions people ask are:

  1. How did you start doing _______?
  2. What were the key decision points in your career?
  3. What do you like best/least about _______?
  4. When you started doing _______, what was surprising about it/what didn’t you expect?
  5. Who else do you recommend I speak with?

Manage Your Resistance

Of all the steps in our Posttenure Pathfinders program, contacting and interviewing role models raises the greatest resistance. It is most likely to manifest as procrastinating or avoiding sending the emails. So if you find yourself unwilling to send an email to another human and ask for a conversation, it’s time to figure out why.

A prerequisite for posttenure success is the mind-set that you live in a friendly universe that is organized to support your highest good -- that you can ask for what you need and the right people will respond and provide you with it. To be blunt, the inability to ask for what you need will limit your career. So understand this exercise as a low-risk way for you to build your asking muscles by making a straightforward request: 20 to 30 minutes of someone’s time to answer a few questions about their career path.

If you cannot do this simple task, it’s important to understand what is holding you back. Is it a technical error? (You can’t find someone’s email address, you haven’t set aside time to write the emails, etc.) Is it a psychological obstacle? (You’re afraid to be rejected, you’re afraid to have a conversation with a role model, etc.) Or is it an external reality? (You can’t even think about emails because a hurricane resulted in your lab being flooded, you’ve become ill, you’ve experienced an unexpected loss, etc.) Once you identify what’s underneath your resistance to sending the emails, you can acknowledge it, move around it and hit “send.”

The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

  • create a short email template for requesting informational interviews;
  • customize it for 10 people on your role model list;
  • send the darn emails;
  • draft a short list of questions to ask your role models;
  • call the people who agree to talk to you and follow up with the ones who ignore you; and
  • if asking another adult for a quick conversation sends you into a sweaty panic, gently ask yourself: Why?

This is the week and the activity when I hope one thing becomes very clear: you are 100 percent responsible for choosing your posttenure pathway. Nobody is going to do the work for you. Nobody is going to choose the best path for you. And nobody but you will experience the consequences of not choosing your path.

I’m not saying this to be mean, but to inspire and motivate you to send some emails, request some conversations and learn what you can from your role models this week. Every bit of this work will provide you with information you need to make an informed choice about your posttenure pathway.

Peace and possibilities,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

Founder, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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