Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Academia: Tenure is no big deal

I've had several people tell me this both pre- and post-tenure.  I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree.

Pre-tenure, I was required to to run a research lab, compete for federal funding, publish papers, teach, and sit on committees.  Post-tenure, I still need to do all of those things . . . but with more committees.  I get that.  I know that tenure is not some magical pass to stop working and spend every day rock climbing.  But, that doesn't mean that it's not a game-changer in many other ways.  Perhaps I view this job differently than my friends and colleagues who have told me that tenure is "no big deal," but from my viewpoint, here's how tenure changes everything:

Tenure changes the fundamental driving force for our research.  Every year, my research group goes on a 3-day retreat where we spend most of the time brainstorming on current and future research projects.  As the opener to this retreat, I give a "state of the group" talk where I present our metrics, talk about what's on my mind, and share what I view to be our strategic goals for the next year.

Pre-tenure, the goals I listed were:
-More federal funding, especially from [federal agency]
-Publish [number] more peer-reviewed research papers in high-impact journals
-Give [number] more talks at conferences and universities
-Have group members present [number] posters or talks at conferences

Post-tenure, the goals I listed were:
-Continually evolve and innovate - something might have worked for us last year, but that isn't good enough for next year
-Constantly seek out unmet scientific needs and find creative solutions

Yes, pre-tenure we wanted to innovate and solve important problems, and post-tenure we want to (and have to) continue to publish and bring in funding. But, the ability to change what fundamentally drives us is a big deal.  Pre-tenure, there is little margin for error - if we put too much effort into a research idea that doesn't pan out, that can be a career ender.  Likewise, the papers have to go out the door as quickly as possible, leaving little room to do those extra few experiments that might bring things to the next level.  As it turns out, the 12 months directly following submission of my tenure package were our best ever with regard to publications and federal funding.  But, more important to me is that we now have the opportunity step back and put our full focus on doing the best science, without the distraction of trying to get "over the bar" with all of our metrics in a set amount of time.

Tenure allows me to tackle new challenges where I might fail.  I'm in this job because I love research and I love spending time with other people who love research.  But, I also crave new challenges.  One of the great benefits of academia is that it provides a whole other world beyond research that is filled with new areas in which I can challenge myself.  Once our research program was up and running, I started challenging myself to be a better teacher and mentor.  I had the opportunity to dive into building design and curriculum reform.  But, doing these things pre-tenure was risky.  The question was always in the back of my mind of "what if I had taken the time I spent on this and used it to get one more paper out the door, and that makes the difference between tenure or no tenure?"  I'm very thankful to not have to ask that question anymore.

This year, I decided to take on two big challenges outside of our research program.  First, I am now the Deputy Director of my research center, which means I am in charge of organizing the programming for our center and managing the strategic planning for our move into a new building next fall.  Second, I'm co-leading a group of Cottrell Scholars who are together working to promote curriculum reform in chemistry lab courses, with the goal of increasing the adoption of inquiry and research-based activities.  Both of these responsibilities take up a significant chunk of my time.  But, they are both things that I care deeply about, and represent fun new ways to challenge myself in a new arena.  Pre-tenure, it would have been reckless to take on either one of these challenges.  But, now I can do so and know that if I get in over my head, I have time to re-adjust my priorities without wrecking my career.  In the first few years of my independent career, just starting up a lab and figuring out how to be a decent leader and mentor was challenge enough.  But, now I'm ready to add on some new challenges, and the freedom to seek these out and go for them is something I don't take for granted.

Tenure gives me the freedom to do and say things that I believe in, even if others may disagree.  To me, this is a core part of "academic freedom." I'm fortunate that my department is open-minded and supportive to the point that even as an assistant professor, I could speak my mind or politely disagree with a senior colleague.  But, tenure takes this to a new level.  For example, over the past couple of years, I've been inspired to re-think failure, and have bought into the idea that we actually need to teach students (and ourselves) how to embrace short-term failure as a key step on the path to success.  This is easy to promote in the context of my research lab, and is an area where I constantly challenge myself to grow.  But, promoting comfort with failure is much more difficult in undergraduate courses, given the current norms for student assessment.  This year, I decided to take what many would consider a radical step - in each exam, 20% of the points are in the form of a collaborative problem, and the students are allowed to work in groups and among groups to solve the problem.  The idea is that students can put their ideas out there, and if their idea isn't correct, they can use the feedback from this short-term failure to ultimately do better on the problem.  It also promotes a sense of teamwork in the course, as working together collectively raises everyone's grade.  Most of my colleagues don't know about this yet (though they will if they read this blog), and maybe they will think this is a great idea.  But, I never would have had the courage to experiment with something like this pre-tenure.

I can now be much more vocal about issues of diversity and equity.  Those who know me know that I've never really been great about keeping my mouth shut when it comes to bias and discrimination.  I've always tried to do this in a respectful way, and continue to do so.  But, now I don't have to sit in my office after a meeting or conversation and think "Uh, oh.  I probably shouldn't have said that."  Perhaps this is an idealized view, but I think that one key value of the university system is the collective of people who have academic freedom, and thus can speak out vocally against all forms of injustice.

Perhaps I view my job differently than do the people who tell me that "tenure is no big deal." Perhaps they have been tenured for long enough that their memories of assistant professorhood have faded.  Perhaps they are just so much better than me at everything that they weren't subject to the same constraints that I felt pre-tenure.  For me, tenure is a "big deal."