The professorial and pre-professorial blogosphere rambles on a good bit about the tenure process. It is one of the greatest anxieties of the career-- after one has acquired the first appointment as an assistant professor. Universities and colleges use fear of being denied tenure to motivate high levels of performance in the first six years of the career and most fresh-faced Assistant Professors respond. Receiving a tenure denial seems like a complete and utter failure. It is not.
I want to revisit the life and times of one of my favorite ScienceBlogs for my readers, many of which I assume are not familiar with Galactic Interactions. Rob Knop's blog was one of my go-to reads during the yearlong period in which I was a mere reader of the Sb offerings. He talked about academic careers, funding woes, junior faculty problems, gender bias in physics.... and got in some epic battles with Sciblings. I'm sure you can deduce my interest.
Rob stopped blogging here at ScienceBlogs in December of 2007 but the overlords saw fit to maintain the archive, if you know the sekrit address! Go Read.
It was about a year ago that Rob anticipated what he saw as a probable denial of tenure from his Assistant Professorship and accepted a new non-academic job.
As I noted at the time,
The details of Rob's case don't really matter. One can always debate quality and supply/demand and all that crap. We've all seen people in this exact situation, regardless of academic specialty or department and heard all the arguments. And we all know at some level that competition is a GoodThing and that the tenure bar is Meaningful and all that. Phoo. His blog shows he Gives a Crap about things, I'm therefore inclined to believe he's a decent professor in my book. He's going to move onto a new job where they actually appreciate him and five years from now he's going to tell all comers that this was the best thing that ever happened to him. All true, I've seen this over and over again in such decisions.
Do I miss it? The answer is an emphatic yes, and an emphatic no.
They are mixed feelings, for sure, but keep in mind that Rob always sounded like a heart-on-sleeve type, very self-reflective. First, the bad:
Most of all, though, I really miss the teaching and the interacting with students. ... I really love the basics of Physics and Astronomy, and while research and pushing the frontiers was a love of mine, it paled compared to how much I loved re-exploring it and helping others discover it. I am sad, and wistful, that a couple of years ago when I was interviewing at small liberal-arts colleges, I didn't get an offer ... I still understand that my true calling is to be teaching physics and astronomy to motivated and interested students at the college level.
And that IS sad. A loss for the Academy, as I put it. That avenue, however, is never completely closed. Tenure track faculty, perhaps. But chances to adjunct instruct, teach for those much-despised online universities and heck, blog about science abound. So there are mediating factors.
Next the good:
Well, I'll tell you this much: I'm happier, more content, and more comfortable in my life right now. I'm less stressed in a deep and abiding sense. I feel like I'm doing my job well, and that I'm getting feedback that matches how well I'm doing at my job, and that doing my job well is what matters- there's no Sword of Damocles hanging over me saying that I will be judged unworthy because of something mostly out of my control (i.e. funding).
Yeah. I've known a handful of people to leave academic science jobs or careers because of denial of tenure, loss of grants or "I'm scraping by but I've just had enough!" reasons. All situations that people still in the biz might think of as "not hacking it" or "failing" in some way. Reality is considerably more nuanced of course. The majority of people that I talk with end up quite contented, happy and less stressed out when they take other career paths. Whether this is because of objective reasons or because the human animal is great at making the best of all situations is irrelevant. The important point is that when you are in that stressful pre-tenure mode it is good to keep in mind that denial of tenure is not the End of the World as you Know it.