Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Yes, Virginia, there is life after tenure denial

Over at ScienceBlogs, DrugMonkey has a post about a former ScienceBlogger who left academia when it was clear that he wouldn't receive tenure. The blogger has moved to a non-academic job, and both misses and doesn't miss academia.

But that's not what I want to respond to. One of the commenters asked about other possible outcomes beyond leaving academia or being hired with tenure someplace else:

Can someone start over at the Assistant Professor level somewhere else?

Yes, it is possible. I did it.

When I was coming up for tenure, I figured that the world just ends if you're denied tenure. When it happened to me, I thought about switching to a more lucrative version of geology, or maybe getting pregnant and becoming a stay-at-home mom. But I also read job ads and saw three jobs that fit my interests (teaching-oriented institutions, looking for my specialty, in places where I wouldn't mind living). I applied for them and headed to the west coast for a week for a family vacation and exploration of other career ideas.

When I got back, two of the three places wanted to interview me. I flew out to Durango, interviewed, and was offered the job. I cancelled the other interview (because, really, what place can compete with Durango?) and, six months later, started a new job as an assistant professor. Again.

Why would anyone in her right mind start over as an assistant professor? Ummmm... well, there were a lot of reasons.

1) I loved teaching. The worst thing about leaving my first job was leaving my students. (I mean, they were writing letters to the school paper and crying in class and crying in my office... and those were the male students.) And I had a chance to do it again, in a school that had values similar to mine.

2) During the interview, the provost looked at my C.V. and said he couldn't believe that I hadn't gotten tenure. So I knew that I was capable of meeting the expectations here. To be pre-tenure without the fear deep in my gut... you know, working hard isn't bad. It's being afraid, worried that I would never be good enough... that's what was bad in the first job.

3) I got a job here. I still have people come up to me at conferences and tell me that they want my job. (I smile nicely and say: "NO.")

4) Did I mention that there are hot springs in this town? I had always wanted to live someplace with hot springs.

So... here I am. And I'm not the only person who has come out of tenure denial and walked into another academic job. (I can think of at least five other women geoscientists, some from research universities, some from liberal arts colleges... but all who were denied tenure and went on to have great careers at another institution.) It is definitely possible.

In my case, I was able to get interviews because 1) a lot of people thought that my first institution had made a major mistake, and 2) I applied to schools that valued my skills (and which were public, rather than private, so they didn't see hiring a reject as a mark against their reputations). And I made use of my outraged colleagues. I had something like nine people write recommendation letters for me. (My colleagues from the old institution, members of my dissertation committee, research collaborators, and... ummm... former undergraduate students. I don't generally think it's appropriate to ask students to write letters for me, but they were already in grad school and beyond my ability to help or hurt their careers.) If you've been denied tenure, it helps to have potential employers read glowing letters that talk about how stupid the administration of your previous institution was to let you go.

And I got the job offer because I was comfortable lecturing, and I was enthusiastic about the place. (And because they needed to hire a woman, but half the interviewees were women, so it wasn't as if I was the last female geologist in the universe and they were stuck with me.)

And now I'm tenured.

And did I mention that I live in Durango?


Drugmonkey said...

so what dictated the tenure clock duration, if you don't mind me asking? A negotiated agreement? Rigid University policy?

Thanks for sharing your story.

Kim said...

When I interviewed, one of the administrators (either the provost or the dean, I can't remember which) told me that the new president wasn't allowing them to hire anyone with a shortened tenure clock, but that I could always ask to come up for tenure early. (Later, I was told that they didn't consider anyone for early tenure unless it was in their contract.)

I did end up coming up for tenure early, by making the argument (repeatedly) that my male colleagues with teaching experience - three of them, all hired within four years of me - had had shortened tenure clocks. When the only woman in the department is treated differently from the men, that looks bad. So they relented.

Maybe I could have negotiated a different agreement. I don't know. I felt that I was in a weakened position to push the issue (although I had another interview lined up, so maybe I wasn't), and I had come from an institution where the rules for the tenure clock were strict and written into the faculty handbook, so I hadn't expected that to be a negotiable point.

Narnian Rockhound said...

congratulations on your achievement! unfortunately, most people don't get a second chance - and few even get a first!

Drugmonkey said...

huh? then how did the men hired after you get shortened tenure clocks?

Kim said...

We were all hired with different combinations of dean and president, and it turned out that there weren't, in fact, hard-and-fast rules. I was told something different from my male colleagues when I was hired - but different administrators were making their mark on the institution, so they had an excuse for not being consistent. (And they eventually made things more equal.)

Jude said...

I don't understand your love for Durango. I can see that the geology is interesting, but for me the only bad part about attending FLC was having to put up with Durango for three years. It isn't a friendly town for people who like to walk.