Collapsing at the finish?

Nov 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tenure. It's the goal we're shooting for, right? The five(ish) year race to show you can make a go of things on your own and produce some money for the university that floated you that small business loan* in the first place. Really, it's the final true make-or-break point for this profession, after which you are afforded some job security now that you have fought through probably close to two decades without that commodity.

I recently got my departmental letter in support of my tenure case that will soon be sent to the Dean and fed further up the food chain. It was good. Unanimous support, solid excerpts from external letters, praise for my work in all three phases of the tenure pie. Whereas I won't get any official word on tenure until late in the spring, so far all the proper hoops have been jumped. I'm happy.

But I'm also exhausted.

I don't know whether having tenure, assuming it is bestowed, is going to change my outlook. Will I let some things slide? Will I take on more in service of the department? Will I say no more? I can't see that far ahead. What I do know is that I'll need to find some time to back away a little bit. Maybe I can now, not sure, but I fully understand why a sabbatical** is usually a feature that follows tenure. At this point I would settle for one deadline-free month to read and think.

It's almost cliché for people to tell you that getting tenure is like a marathon, but there's a reason that you can google "marathon finish collapse" and be treated to hundreds of videos of people stumbling across (or not quite) the finish line. The will power to push through the end doesn't extend indefinitely.

And I didn't the finish line fatigue coming.

I've always been one to avoid focusing in tenure as an end point, but rather something that will happen if I do my job well. That seems to have worked out, but the idea of a pat on the back while being handed another committee responsibility*** isn't exactly the post tenure outlook I was picturing. But so it goes.

At least I can stop wearing pants to the office.

*Sure, they call it start-up, but same-same.
**Unfortunately, mine will be more than a year away.
***Or maybe it's a test to see if I will use the tenure power, vested in me, to say no.

16 responses so far

  • mtomasson says:

    I feel you, my friend. It felt for me a bit like having PTSD. People asked, "how does it feel??" But, I think, NOT getting tenure is a bigger deal than getting it. Getting it means more of the same. Put another way, tenure is the reward the university gives people it realizes are workaholics who won't stop no matter what. Seriously, congratulations. And I hope you do get a chance to look around, reassess and let tenure do what it's supposed to: allow you to focus on what's important and interesting to you.

  • Busy says:

    Congratulations, your odds of getting tenure are now in the 90-95% range.

  • Chris says:

    Congratulations! I was in your shoes last year. And I can attest that it really DOES feel good when the final letter comes. Even though everyone's been telling you you're in for months. There is a sense of freedom.

    My challenge is that I am now stuck in a sort of existential identity crisis. Do I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life? What else is out there for me now that I've finished this marathon? I've set a few things in motion for this year - things that I want to do but didn't want to be "distracted" by before tenure. And I'm with you on the sabbatical lust. I will work that in somehow in the next year or two. But considering the federal research funding situation and the challenge that some students have getting jobs after their graduate work, I'm wondering if I want to continue in the scientific research enterprise. The answer is probably yes, but I think it's worth considering. Leaving because I didn't get tenure would have felt like a failure to me, but opting out after receiving tenure feels more like a choice. The trouble is, it's hard to imagine anything else that I would enjoy as much.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Congratulations, your odds of getting tenure are now in the 90-95% range.

    There's a Hunger Games joke in here somewhere.

  • dr24hours says:


    You're a known badass. Good luck, congratulations in advance, and when you get the decision, have a party.

  • Alex says:

    Congratulations! Now you are finally free to be openly scornful of the hopelessly inept students, and say what you really think about the nonsense coming down from the administration!

    That is the purpose of tenure, right? Um, right?

  • DJMH says:

    Congratulations on getting this far! I think a couple of weeks of vacation, at least, is in order. Seems normal to want a break from the running....

  • labrat says:

    Good for you guys. I am at an institution where not even the full professors have real tenure , if they do not get grants the institution carries them only so far and the word tenure doesn't mean anything, really. No sabbatical either.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks folks. Fingers crossed for no shenanigans as it moves through the admin.

    I think a couple of weeks of vacation, at least, is in order

    Hahaha, before the NSF deadline in Jan? Or during teaching next semester? Or the Conference/field season? Maybe next year then.

  • DJMH says:

    "during teaching next semester"

    Winner! Find a trainee or colleague to carry a couple of classes and set an exam for another, to be proctored by someone else. Isn't this what having tenure is FOR?

  • FSP says:


    I have had way more fun post-tenure than pre-tenure with research, teaching, advising, and even service. I hope it is the same for you.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks, I hope I find the same.

  • Bala says:

    I was in the same boat last year. But it is eerie how I could have written the post by Chris above. For me, nothing changed. I have written more proposals this year than when I was at y3-y4 (after the honeymoon period, watching my startup run out with few papers yet).
    So....have a beer (have two), and sit your ass back to work 🙂

  • EarthSciProf says:

    Congrats! Hope you figure out how to take a break somehow. I'm in my 3rd year of tenure-track and some of the questions you mention are already starting to surface. Speaking of 3rd year, reading your accounts of 3rd year are somewhat encouraging. It's definitely been more of an uphill battle than I expected this year and the other 3rd years all seem to be feeling the same way.

  • Psycgirl says:

    Congratulations! I'm very interested to see how you do feel post-tenure because I am only 2 years behind you and I am starting to stagger a bit in my drive for that finish line.

  • I found, at least for me, that it actually gets harder to say 'no' to things for the university after tenure, because you don't have an excuse of being pre-tenure. After tenure, there are a variety of incremental costs to not being perceived as a team player when it comes to service.

    At least on my campus, it's pretty easy to divide the senior faculty into to pools: those that don't give a fart about running the place, and those that are engaged at some level. The ones in the first group outnumber the second group. Some folks in the latter group do more service than others, but they all are carrying weight. However, if you're not a member of that latter group (or perceived to be), then you could find yourself drawing the short straw in a variety of ways, like access to discretionary funds, priority for acquisition of new equipment, space, how fast someone works to process your paperwork, whether or not you have chips to be called in when you really need something. Finessing these politics is something that I'm bad at, and don't like to even think about, but managing these relationships well makes more time for your lab and your students.

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