What I Wish I’d Known Before Tenure

Based on his experience over the past 25 years, Mike Gunter Jr. shares five core strands of advice.

June 17, 2021
 
 
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Over the last quarter century, I’ve seen my share of ups and downs in the academy.

I’ve successfully negotiated the job market twice. And from the other side, I’ve helped shape our tortuous hiring process, leading or serving on over a dozen search committees. I’ve toasted esteemed colleagues proudly retiring after decades in the profession and witnessed stalled careers from graduate school to the assistant, associate, even full professor level.

Through it all, five core strands of advice stand out in my mind -- humble suggestions on how to not simply survive but also thrive as a professor. None of these are discrete steps, mind you. In fact, more often than not, they overlap in obvious as well as not-so-obvious ways. Neither are they in any particular order, although the first is undoubtedly the sine qua non of any successful career, academic or otherwise.

Have passion and perseverance. Borrowing from Angela Lee Duckworth and her 2016 New York Times bestseller, Grit, a healthy dose of passion and perseverance shapes success. Passion is your fuel. It powers you through the more tedious moments of academia. For me, that’s anything environmental. I’m trained in its political components, and better understanding how and why environmental mistakes are made -- as well as how and why they must be corrected -- is fascinating to me.

That said, as much as you love your work, remind yourself periodically not to take yourself too seriously. Talented intellectuals can struggle with this. Beginning in graduate school, develop a thick skin and the ability to take constructive criticism, well, constructively.

The catch here is not all criticism is constructive, and distinguishing the haters from the helpful isn’t always easy. Sometimes an outside opinion, even one from beyond academia, can unmuddy these waters.

Alas, passion is often not enough in this cruel world. Equally important, if not more so, is perseverance. And it’s the combination of perseverance with passion that greatly enhances your odds. It only takes one yes in the publishing world, for example, even if that yes was preceded by countless nos. That was my experience with my first two books, and many famous works have followed a similar path.

Make a conscious effort to network from the earliest stages of your career. Regional and national conferences are the traditional venues for networking, although such settings can be intimidating when you first start out. Just as in learning another language, however, don’t obsess about possible mistakes you might make. You have to shed your shyness.

Instead, treat conferences as information-gathering outings that will help you develop not only your immediate research but your overall career, too. Be prepared to say a little about yourself and your work but, more importantly, ask questions of the people you meet. That means doing your homework beforehand -- familiarizing yourself with attendees’ past work and their institutional strengths.

Think of this as akin to the beginning stages of research, where you identify different schools of thought and how your work compares. The difference with networking is that you are identifying institutions and potential colleagues, as well as how your career might merge with theirs. And remember, in order to make a good impression, to be interesting, you have to be interested in them. That’s not something you easily fake.

Keep in mind that while networking typically begins at conferences, it need not end there. The American Library Association, for example, is always looking for new reviewers. These short, no more than 190-word descriptions are a great way to keep abreast of the literature in your field, as well as an opportunity to introduce yourself to someone you might not normally meet.

I tackle a handful of Choice reviews each year. Years ago, one facilitated a fruitful interview with someone the Sydney Morning Herald dubbed as one of the “top 100 voices” in Australia. If not for reviewing her book, I doubt that interview would have been possible.

Beware of the potential for professional pressures to unbalance your personal life. This is a constant battle. For years, I tried to compartmentalize my work and home commitments, to preserve parts of the weekend or weekday evenings for family. I still do this somewhat when it comes to email, and some colleagues swear by it.

But with experience, I better appreciate that true work-life balance means not constantly having to choose between the two. Our profession should not be engaged in a continual zero-sum game with our personal life. Akin to the ecological interdependence I study, family and professoriate passions are most resilient when intertwined.

I’ve also found this merger of the two more rewarding. Serving as a Fulbright scholar in the Slovak Republic, for example, I scaled back my commitment to six months so my whole family could join me. We then added two more months for exploring East-Central Europe afterward, and our children have become expert experiential learners, thanks in large part to that early exposure.

One more key point about work-life balance: as a former colleague once advised me, “Don’t bring home the unfun parts of our profession.” For me, that’s grading and less stimulating service responsibilities. It’s not always possible, as in the case when I had to review 107 candidate files for our last tenure-track line. But, as much as possible, I’ve focused my homework on the aspects of academia that highlight why I became a professor in the first place: to learn and create. That means plenty of reading and writing, as well as preparation for class lectures and community presentations.

Don’t lose sight of what first attracted you to the professoriate. For me and for most professors I know, that is intellectual curiosity. But while my recommendation here is simply said, it’s not as easily done. Our multiple commitments with research, teaching and service often translate into downright unhealthy hours. Unlike typical 9-to-5 professions, our work is never complete. We can always do more -- from better course preparation to additional service commitments to expanded research agendas.

But don’t let that starve your intellectual development. Seek out talks with other scholars and intellectually stimulating people, from the cozy confines of your campus to the wider community. Know your limits but promise yourself you won’t handicap your personal learning trajectory. And by all means, if you have a close colleague giving a presentation, attend it. The timing might not be convenient, but trust me, they will remember -- and you might gain added perspective on your own work.

Create synergy within the holy trinity of our profession. Connecting teaching, research and service in your every enterprise is a bit like searching for the holy grail. But the journey here is often more rewarding than the destination, and as Meat Loaf once said in song, two out of three ain’t bad.

So, for example, I make sure my research trips, whenever possible, do double duty as not only book material but also course lesson development. Students really do appreciate integration of their theoretical readings with tangible examples you relay from the field.

One year, I found this even can be true outside of exotic Peruvian rain forests and the frozen peninsula of Antarctica. When I announced a class schedule change due to a conference paper I would be presenting, students surprised me with endless questions and genuine curiosity about the conference process. Their passion inspired me to finish the paper early and present it to them before sending it out to my panel discussant. That experience improved the paper immeasurably and better prepared me to present it.

And then, every so often, you hit the trifecta. A few years back, for example, I wrote an op-ed for USA Today that originated from a campus panel addressing the aftermath of a brutal Florida hurricane season. I later adapted that same talk into a course on climate change politics, using the op-ed as a thought piece for class discussion.

In closing, implementing these five objectives takes time. Like our academy, they are a continual work in progress. That is what I probably most wish I’d known pretenure: that our profession really is more about the journey, not the destination.

Bio

Mike Gunter Jr. is a Cornell Distinguished Professor in environmental politics and director of international affairs at Rollins College. He is author of Tales of an Ecotourist: What Travel to Wild Places Can Teach Us About Climate Change (SUNY 2018) and Building the Next Ark: How NGOs Work to Protect Biodiversity (Dartmouth/University Press of New England 2004/2006).

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