One Small Step Towards Tenure


That’s me in the middle.

Today I went through my second-year review, which is the first step on the path to tenure.  (I’m actually half a semester into my third year, but details…)

I’d been stressed out about it, because it was supposed to happen last semester and didn’t, and I’d been bugging my department chair at progressively shorter intervals because as time went on I started to fear that something was going terribly, terribly wrong.  He kept reassuring me that it wasn’t, and that everything was fine and he was just busy, but as my colleague / carpool buddy quipped, “Great, but can I have that in writing?”

Well, after two failed attempts at scheduling my review, it finally happened today.  And as my department chair had told me, there was nothing to worry about.  He had nothing but positive things to say, including the interesting statistic that apparently I have the highest teaching evaluations in the department (I had no idea!).  Really the only constructive criticism I got was that I could lighten up on my students a little, since they all rate my classes as “strenuous” even though they also rate my teaching as “outstanding.”  That, I can do. 🙂

It was really nice to hear from my department chair how well things are going from their perspective, and how much they appreciate having me in the department.  My brain had been coming up with all sorts of possible criticisms they might make, but they didn’t make any of them (and when I asked about some of them at various points during the review, he reassured me that they were not important or even relevant).  I still have worries about the tenure process (that’s my personality, and it would probably be a bad thing if I didn’t), but now I’m much more able to put them in perspective.  It helps to have a nice official glowing letter, written by my department chair and signed off by the administration.

The loss of our daughter came up once, obliquely, during our conversation.  The three pillars of tenure are research, teaching, and service.  I was a little bit worried about the service category, since I haven’t yet served on any major university committees — I was elected to one last year, but after I requested parental leave for this semester they decided to remove me from the committee… but only a few weeks later, our daughter died and the point became moot.  I could probably have asked to be reinstated, but I didn’t (I had other things on my mind…).  I was worried that it might look bad for me to have been elected and then not to serve, but he reassured me that it wasn’t a problem (a bit too emphatically — obviously he knows the reason, but I know not everyone looking at my case will).

I was also worried about it in a different way that I didn’t bring up during the review, namely the gap in my CV that I can see even if nobody else can.  I not only turned down three invited talks, but I avoided those conferences entirely, just because I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation that might result if I put in a contributed abstract after I’d turned down an invited talk because I was supposed to be on parental leave.  So I missed out on some serious professional visibility.  I also did approximately no research last semester, while I was picking up the pieces of my life and dealing with the medical fallout (tests, treatments, surgeries), which will show up in a couple of delayed publications and some proposals I didn’t find the time to write.  And I completely flaked out on a couple of professional service activities I’d agreed to do — also not good for my professional reputation.  The impact is real, if most likely insignificant in the long run.  My chair reassured me (in a general way) that I am exceeding the departmental expectations in the research category, so hopefully it won’t be an issue in the end (because wouldn’t that be an awkward annotation to my tenure package…).

But it made me think about how many people probably have similar issues that aren’t accommodated in academia: a prolonged or serious health issue, for themselves or a spouse or parent, a divorce, a death of a sibling or parent… we’ve all got issues.  I guess it mostly evens out in the end.  But it would be nice if there were some official way to annotate significant gaps in a CV that happen for some reason other than a parental leave to care for a living baby.

Anyway, I’m very happy that my review went so well, and relieved that it’s finally over, and that I finally have in writing what my department chair has been casually alluding to every time I’ve mustered up the nerve to badger him about my review.  It was also nice just to have a formal opportunity to ask questions about the tenure process that have been nagging at the back of my mind for a long time — everything from “Does it matter if my PhD advisor is a minor coauthor on most of my papers?” (we’re in a very small and team-oriented field so it’s hard to avoid him even if I wanted to; the answer was no, as long as there’s evidence that I’m responsible for driving my own science and being recognized as a scholar in my own right) to “Are there other materials I should be assembling for my reappointment review [now only five months away], and can you please go over that process with me?”  I left it feeling pretty good about how things are going, and a little more relaxed about some of the things that had been stressing me out.  All in all, a win.

And then I left work a little early for my second volunteer shift at the barn, my first as a horse leader instead of a sidewalker.  Tacking up a horse for the first time in over a decade, leading her around the arena, giving high fives to her grinning rider, and coming home dirty and covered in horse smell was a great way to end a beautiful spring break day.

I hope spring has sprung where you are!

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