Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Tenure Track

            Early on in my career at UBC I found myself with my two young sons at a Thunderbirds’ basketball game in War Memorial Gym.  I’d picked them up from their swimming lessons. On the way home we stopped to watch the women’s game.  The wife of one of my colleagues was also there with her children.  After a few moments watching the game she turned to me and said “ I never saw my husband for the first three years he worked as a faculty member at UBC.” 
            Nearly twenty years later that comment sits with me as though it had only been said yesterday.  At the time it seemed to be part warning, part regret, and part observation on a crazy system of apprenticeship that compels faculty members to sacrifice all to publish as much as they can. 
            As the boys and I walked home after that game I wondered what if I was making a mistake in my priorities. Was I undermining my career?  Did even my colleague’s wife think I wasn’t doing enough to keep the job?
            Getting an academic job is just the start of a very long process of keeping it.  Most of us will have spent a dozen or more years accumulating the education, degrees, and debt required to be eligible for the job offer.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a series of part-time or grant funded positions before landing a tenure-stream job. The tenure-stream position is not, however, a guarantee of a life long job. Now comes the pre-tenure period that I was in when I found myself at the basketball game speaking with my colleague’s wife.  There is no guarantee that at the end of seven years a faculty member will keep their job. A denial of tenure is not rare and it comes with massive social and emotional upset and disruption to family and personal lives.
            The couple of years leading up to the tenure decision, plus the year or more that it takes to make the decision, are arguably the worst years of most academics’ professional lives.  Given the nature of academic work there is no Hail Mary Pass that can save a weak record no deus ex machina that saves the hero at the last minute. By the time one starts to prepare the paper work and compile the portfolio the die has been cast.  It is now a matter of waiting.
            The reality of all of our lives is that we have multiple and conflicting responsibilities and claims upon our time. Figuring out a way to manage all of this is a skill that is seldom taught but necessary to master if one is to succeed in an academic job.  Early in my career I would glance around at my colleagues and wonder whether they had a personal life at all.  It seemed that all they ever did was research and write.  The pressure of the tenure system leads us to squeeze whatever spare hours we might find in our day (or night) to do more work.  This is mostly a system of self-exploitation compounded by the fact that most of us also love what we do. We feel compelled to do as much as possible –even more than is possible- while most of us constantly feel inadequate compared to what we see others doing (even if the others feel the same as we do).
            Given this kind of work environment one needs to deliberately and consciously pause and set aside one’s worry and anxiety.  This is not easy to do.  It is important.  One of the best pieces of advice I every received from a mentor was to reserve a period of time each week for myself to refresh and to step away from my work.
            Reflecting back on that basketball game some two decades ago I am glad that I kept my eyes on the ball – not trying to pump out the most papers, not trying to get the biggest grants- but rather staying as focused as possible on family, friends, and the aspects of my work that is fulfilling and rewarding.  This is ultimately the path to success.  If a new colleague were to ask me for advice I’d say: “get out with your family or friends, go do something fun and forget about the deadlines for a while.  Deadlines will always be here; close friends and family may not.”