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9 Academic Freedoms Of Not Having Tenure
February 1, 2012 - 8:20pm

Sometimes I regret not pursuing a life on the tenure track.  Academic freedom and job security both sound pretty good. 

Life took me in a different direction, however, and at points I need to remind myself that it has been a pretty good ride.

We all know the challenges of not being tenured or on the tenure track. Making a life of teaching or research outside of the tenure path is particularly difficult. But there are some great things about working in academia and being non-tenured. Here are 9 that come to mind:

1. The Pleasures of Being a Generalist: Academic success on the tenure track is all about specialization. Post-tenure, it may be possible for the research academic to transition into a generalist orientation, with review articles and perhaps books aimed at a non-academic audience. But during the tenure climb the name of the game is specialization. As an academic technology person I get to work in a range of areas, from learning theory to network infrastructure (and everything in between). I need to be able to converse with professors in the humanities and sys admins in the server room (and everyone in between). Off the tenure track we end up knowing a little bit about a lot of things.

2.  Social Media vs. Journals: Publishing in peer reviewed journals is great. Not only great, but necessary to get tenure. Off the tenure track our promotion (and job continuation) is not based on our peer reviewed publishing record. We are free to spend our energy contributing to and participation in the communities of social media. Many tenured and tenure-track colleagues I know are great social media participants, but this social media participation does not count towards their promotion and tenure (although maybe that will change?). The web has changed the way the people in our discipline communicate, share, and build our networks. Participation in job related social media is part of our work.

3. Portability: The initial reason that I did not pursue a tenure track job out of grad school had everything to do with my partner. She is a pediatric oncologist, and I've followed her 3 times through med school, residency/fellowship, and her first attending job. Hats off to those of you who have made a dual-person academic career work, you have my admiration. I've found that the geographic freedom to follow my spouse has been a good bargain. It is frankly more feasible to get an academic gig outside of the tenure track as a trailing spouse.  We are portable.

4. Family Friendly: Those of us who are not tenured should not romanticize the process. From what I have seen, the run-up to tenure as a junior faculty is a grueling. The people who make it through are some of the most productive, efficient and passionate people I know. That is one of the reasons why I have trouble being anti-tenure, as I've seen how the process selects for some truly amazing educators and researchers. During the time that I would have been going through the tenure process I would have also been parenting two young children. I am thankful for the time and flexibility I had when my girls were young. And I have nothing but admiration for those who are currently juggling a tenure track career and a family (or those who have navigated that path). The tenure track is not particularly family friendly.

5. Change Agency: Paradoxically, I've found life outside of the tenure track has allowed the taking of career risks that may not have been possible had I gone the route of a junior faculty member. Getting tenure involves (among many other things) the ability to conform to the norms and standards of tenure committees (as well as outside reviewers).  I've spent much of my career pushing against the boundaries of institutional structures, advocating and working for change. In the world of academic technology, if you are not a change agent you are not embracing the potential of technology to catalyze new opportunities for learning. It is very hard to simultaneously be an agent of institutional change while getting tenure.

6.  Skills and the Marketplace:  I may not have a job for life, but I believe that I have the skills to get another job (or at least that is how it has always worked out).  Keeping my skill set up-to-date, and in tune with the demands of the market, has always been an active professional goal. Lacking the protections of tenure is a great motivator for enhancing one's skills.

7.  Cross-Disciplinary: When I first started teaching I mostly hung out with other sociologists. Today, I interact with everyone from physicists to economists, psychologists to biologists (and everyone in between).  Academic technology people tend to work with faculty who are most interested in working with us, and that motivation is not discipline specific.  It is great to have the opportunity to learn enough about the disciplines of the faculty that I work with to have productive conversations. 

8.  Cross-Industry:  One of the aspects I like best about my job is the opportunity to interact with people who work for technology and publishing companies.   If you work in technology you work with vendors.  (True for many librarians as well).  Understanding how technology and publishing industries are evolving, how companies operate, and how to negotiate and partner with these companies is a key aspect of success for many academic staff jobs.  I love working at the intersection between academia and industry.

9.  An Unknown Future:  I have no idea what my job will look like in 10 or 20 years.  Every decade my work seems to take a dramatic and unexpected turn.  I'm still working in academia 15 years after finishing grad school, but what I do in academia has changed and evolved in ways that I never could have predicted.  The pace of technological change has something to do with that unknown future, but so does the fluidity on a non-tenured career.   I sort of like not knowing what will come next.

Can you add any academic freedoms to a career outside of tenure? 

 

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