On tenure and promotion and associate professor-ness and “what now?”

I really enjoy the columns of Kerry Ann Rockquemore on Inside Higher Ed. Rockquemore writes about productivity, mentoring, tenure and promotion, and I find her advice always spot-on and honest.

Her latest column is specifically aimed towards my demographic: the disgruntled associate professor. (The link takes you to an article about a recent story receiving a lot of press: a study showing that associate professors are unhappier than assistant and full professors in almost all areas of professional life.) She moves beyond the usual reasons given for this angst—a large increase in service expectations, especially for women and faculty of color; inadequate support for research (travel, interdisciplinary work, time); unclear promotion expectations—and focuses on another cause:

The problem for many post-tenure faculty is that they have grown so accustomed to being in a position of external constraint from the tenure track that when they pass into the next stage of their careers (one in which the primary benefit is the ability to choose), they struggle in choosing a path.

Why? Because they: a) don’t know what they want, b) have been working so hard for so long they forgot what they love, or c) are genuinely interested in so many different things that they don’t know what to do first. No matter what the reason is, the outcome is the same: if you don’t choose a clear a path and focus your best energy in that direction, you get pulled in many different directions at once in support of other people’s agendas. And whenever your energy is spread out in lots of different directions, it’s difficult to achieve excellence in any one area.

Her key point is here (emphasis mine):

…[T]he challenge is no longer meeting externally imposed standards, but instead clarifying who you are as a professor, what you want from your work, and where you want to be five years from today.

This article comes at a particularly apt time. At Carleton, all tenured and tenure-track faculty fill out biennial reports for the administration. The reports summarize what you’ve been doing in your teaching, research, and service over the past few years. While we complain about them as another hoop to jump through, they do provide an opportunity to reflect on where you are now and where you want to be next. Associate professors write an expanded version of this report at 2 and 4 years post-tenure; these reports are not only read by the administration, but by senior faculty in the department as well. The senior faculty and associate professor then meet to discuss the report and reevaluate the associate’s path to full professor. I’m currently putting together my 2 year post-tenure report.

Luckily for me, I’ve been thinking about Rockquemore’s key point for some time now. Right after my promotion to associate, I attended CRA-W’s CAPP-E workshop, a workshop for mid-career (mostly newly-promoted) women in CS academia. One of the first questions the organizers asked us was “So, do you know what the promotion process is at your school for full professor?” (I’ll admit, sheepishly, that I did not know.) The second question they asked was “How are you going to get to full professor?” The workshop provided us with some framework to help us navigate the post-tenure transition and to figure out how we wanted our careers to go. There was a ton of mentoring, a ton of advice, and a ton of strategies offered up. That workshop was incredibly useful, and I find myself thinking more critically about my career and about opportunities offered to me, in light of where I want to be. (I don’t always follow the advice and strategies I learned, but at least I’m aware of them.)

(As an aside, Rockquemore’s first question to ask yourself as you define your path is “who are your role models?” Essentially, she advises her readers to find someone(s) who is at the place for which you are aiming, and connect with that person. I was able to connect with one of my role models, someone who’s career path is very similar to the one I want, at this workshop, and she’s been a tremendous resource for me. Which reminds me—I need to send her a long-overdue email!)

So really, I’ve been in a sense writing my biennial report since I earned tenure. But it’s an interesting exercise, to put down in words what has been in my head: where I want to be, how I’m going to get there, and whether or not I’ve been doing things that get me there or whether I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from my path. I have to say that while I’ve accomplished a lot post-tenure and while many of those accomplishments contributed to my desired path, there are way more distractions than I’d like, and I can see things in my career that need to be streamlined—things that are interesting, and sometimes important with a small “i”, but not Important with a capital “I”. I’m certainly not alone (as the study results indicate) in this regard, but recognizing them is, hopefully, the first step in dealing with them appropriately.

One final point that Rockquemore makes is to give yourself permission to explore different paths. It’s so easy at the associate level to just move through your day-to-day, putting out various fires and operating in crisis mode. It’s hard to make time to dream and to think about alternate paths. The biennial report serves as a reminder that post-tenure, thinking about alternate paths is not only a luxury, but in a sense a requirement as well. With the freedom of tenure comes the freedom to branch out, AND the expectation that you will do so, for the good of your own career AND for the good of the institution.