Monthly Archives: December 2017

Brief Tenure Update

As I wait for the endometrial biopsy Friday and the follow-up visit with the RE, I thought I’d give a (sorta) brief follow-up update on my tenure saga.

After all my angst, my 5th-year pre-tenure review happened promptly and smoothly.  At my university it involves an official letter summarizing the department’s evaluation and a one-on-one conversation with my department chair.  Both were glowingly positive.  The conversation with the chair may have made me blush a little bit.  It was basically my chair talking for maybe ten minutes about how great I am at my job.  Then, when he asked if I had questions, I was like, “Um, thank you, this is all wonderful.  But if I had to concentrate on one thing this year to make my tenure case stronger, what would it be?” and he said, “Really, there’s nothing.  Just don’t let your teaching evaluations slide, because the university-level committee gets hung up on trajectories, and yours started out so high that it’s hard to show an upward trajectory.”

So, yay!  But also, ack!  My department has never yet officially told me anything I can do to improve, and it constantly freaks me out — because everyone can improve in some way, of course, and having no direction is disconcerting.  And also because I watched a close friend go through a horrific tenure debacle last year in a closely related physical science department, during which she worked really hard on fixing the things they told her to fix (mostly related to teaching) and then after a whole long saga her department ultimately denied her tenure on the basis of something they hadn’t told her to fix (purely research).  There were many major WTF moments during her case, and it really soured me on my institution (particularly the offending department), and has made me far less trusting of the tenure process and some of the people at my institution.  I’m pretty sure that my department is a heck of a lot more functional than my friend’s former department, and that my case is a heck of a lot less borderline than hers was, but still, I worry (she and her husband are now happily employed at a small college back in the Midwest, closer to their families, so her story thankfully has a happy ending).

And, what about all my angst about thinking that my chair was going to recommend that I use my extra year before going up for tenure?  It didn’t amount to anything, or at least nothing that I could decode.  We talked about the timeline a little, and he said that the main thing was to make sure that everyone is on the same page about my timeline, but that he wanted to make sure I understood that I only get one chance to go up for tenure, which I assured him was very clear to me (for the non-academics: the tenure decision is up-or-out, in the sense that if you are awarded tenure then you are more or less guaranteed a job for life at your university, but if you are denied tenure then you are fired and you have one year to find a job before you are unemployed).  My impression was that he was basically covering his / the department’s butt, to make sure that I couldn’t come back later if my tenure case was denied and say that I didn’t understand that going up early meant I couldn’t also go up on time.  Which I get.  Everything else about the review pointed to the conclusion that my department thinks I’m doing great and doesn’t foresee an issue with letting me go up “early,” but they can’t officially say that because it would look like a promise that I will get tenure next year, which they can’t officially make.

One bizarre thing about this whole interaction is that we have a new chair this year, who also happens to be the second-youngest member of the department (after me) and also the person with whom I am most friendly.  So it’s been awfully weird interacting in this very official way with a friend, and we have both had to carefully monitor our verbal filters in a way that we do not normally do.  He’s usually the first person I go to for advice on sticky situations or to kvetch about some problem in the department, and I am usually really appreciative of his honest and thoughtful advice and perspective.  But as chair, there are things that he’s not allowed to say, and also things that he is obligated to say that he wouldn’t normally say.  And there are things that I would normally want to ask him that I am no longer allowed to ask him (for example, I am no longer allowed to discuss with him which scientists at other universities to solicit for external reviews of the research portion of my tenure case, which stinks because he is the person who works closest to my field and also the person in my department who has been through the tenure process most recently and I would really love his advice).  It even came up towards the end of the review when he gave me some official-sounding line about how we don’t have an official junior faculty mentoring arrangement in the department but that I should feel free to go to any of the faculty for advice (I think this is an awful way to “mentor” junior faculty, by the way, but that’s a subject for another post), and I said that I always appreciated his advice and then there was this moment where we both acknowledged that it stinks that he is now chair and can’t give me unfiltered advice when I really need it.  Ah, well… this is one of the down-sides to being in a tiny department.  The flip side, of course, is that my department chair is a friend who I am confident has my best interests at heart and genuinely wants to keep me as a long-term colleague.  He’s inexperienced, but capable and ethical.  It could definitely be worse.

And that’s the update!  I now have written evidence that my department thinks I am doing a great job, and verbal assurance that there are no obvious weak spots in my tenure portfolio that I should try to fix in the next year.  I definitely have an agenda of things I would like to get done before I submit my portfolio, which I briefly outlined with my chair.  I think it’s achievable and will represent a body of work that I feel proud of.  I’m feeling good about going up on my desired timeline.  And, honestly, I’m feeling much more positive about my job than I have for a while.  It’s amazing what a little bit of acknowledgement and appreciation can do for your motivation.  I’ve felt more creative and committed to my department.  During our meeting, my chair included a little pep talk about how the department loves the work I’ve been doing and how it seems like my interests and skills are really well aligned with the department mission so I should just keep doing what I want to do and try not to worry too much about external pressures (like tenure criteria, I guess).  And I do feel like I’ve grown into the position — I’ve gotten my sea legs with teaching, and I’ve reached some sort of equilibrium with finding a research advising style that is effective without being too draining.  I can almost feel the breath of fresh air that I felt when I got my first faculty job offer — suddenly, I felt freedom to define my own research program rather than worrying about working on projects that would get me letters from specific superstars in my field.  Tenure is also supposed to grant that sort of freedom, and I can almost feel the burst of creativity and self-direction that is supposed to come with tenure.  I have ideas for ways to experiment with teaching that I’ve been afraid to try because they’d introduce unpredictability into my student evaluations.  I have ideas for research directions that are a little wackier than I was comfortable with when I needed to show that I could get proposals funded consistently.  Now, if I can just keep my teaching evaluations from sliding this year, maybe I’ll be able to take advantage of that freedom and space for trying new things!

Testing Cycle and Tenure Ruminations

OK, quick update for the people who care about pregnancy/RPL, and then longer rumination for people who care about tenure.

I’m now about halfway through the testing cycle that my RE had recommended.  I had my second SHG last week, and have gotten the results of most but not all of the blood work she ordered.  The short news is: everything looks pretty much normal.  Of course, I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand: yay, no obvious problems!  On the other hand: if I have no obvious problems, then there are no obvious solutions to help me stop having miscarriages.  The SHG did show that the lining on the posterior wall of my uterus was noticeably thicker than the anterior wall, and they said that it was slightly unusual but might not be clinically significant.  So my RE recommended an endometrial biopsy, apparently forgetting that she had already recommended an endometrial biopsy, which I already had scheduled for December 29.  So, endometrial biopsy it is!  Now I’m just waiting for that test date to roll around, and after that, we can presumably start trying again.  My follow-up appointment with the RE isn’t until later in my next cycle, so perhaps technically we should hold off for another cycle in case there’s more testing or treatment she recommends, but we probably won’t.  Since there’s been no significant abnormality so far, there seems no reason to wait.  Plus, it probably won’t matter anyway, since I ovulated on my “good” right side this month (two follicles, apparently!  Blargh, I was bummed to miss the opportunity…) and next month I’ll probably be ovulating on my “bad” left side, which means all attempts at conception are likely to be futile.  Oh, well… but one cycle of missed opportunity still seems worth it, just in case they can find a treatable cause of our recurrent miscarriages.

Now, on to the tenure rumination.  If you don’t care about tenure, feel free to skip the rest of this post.

First, some context: Friday was the deadline for my department to submit its letter for my 5th-year review to the administration.  At our university, the 5th-year review is the last check-in before the big tenure review one year later.  It’s a department-level review, but the administration wants to see the letter before they give it to me, basically to cover their a$$ses legally and make sure there’s nothing controversial in there that could come back to bite them if I get denied tenure in the future.  My chair tells me that usually this administrative rubber stamp doesn’t take too long, and he hopes that we will be able to have our one-on-one meeting about the review before the end of the calendar year (though obviously at this point the timing is out of his hands).  Which of course means that I’m freaking out a little, so keep that in mind for the rest of this discussion.

The other context has to do with parental leave and the tenure clock extension policy at my university.  Since these policies vary from place to place, it’s worth a bit of explanation about how it works here: these days, the parental leave policy is that you get a full semester of leave at full pay if you are the “primary parent” (usually birth mother) of a child.  (If you’re not the primary parent, the leave policy is less generous.)  Then our clock extension policy is that all parents have the option of taking zero, one, or two semesters of tenure clock extension for each child born/adopted while on the tenure track.  I agonized over whether to take the clock extension and how much clock extension to take, but in the end my (previous) chair made the point that at least in theory there’s no down side to taking the full two-semester clock extension, since there’s no penalty for going up early for tenure at my university, which means that even if I take the full year of clock extension, I can still go up for tenure at the normal time if I am ready.  So, that’s what I did, and I have been discussing with my department all along that my plan is to go up “on time” according to my original clock (which would be one year “early” with the extension that I got because of the birth of my son).  So according to my current plan, I would submit my tenure materials next fall, around October or November.  This review is therefore an important final check-in about my progress towards tenure — if there are any red flags, I can delay the submission date of my tenure materials by up to a year, but I’m hoping to just get it over with and submit on time.

Yesterday when I checked in with my chair about the progress of my 5th-year review, he said a few things that made me think that he was going to encourage me to take the extra year, which freaked me out a bit, and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since.  The caveat here, of course, is that he didn’t actually say “I think you should take the extra year,” and I’m probably reading way too deeply into offhand remarks, but I actually think it’s probably not a bad thing for me to do some thinking through the issues so that I will be prepared for our official 5th-year review conversation.

If he asks me, “Why do you want to go up early for tenure?” … what will I say?

I think my answer breaks down into two major professional and personal answers, and two minor but still valid supporting answers.

Professionally: First of all, I want to remind my chair that I’m not going up early.  I’m going up ON TIME according to my original clock.  Basically, I don’t want to spend an extra year on the tenure clock unnecessarily even though I am grateful to my university for giving me the option.  Because I think I’ve earned it, darn it.  And because I don’t think there’s any substantial deficit in my tenure packet that an extra year would fix.  My reviews so far have been glowing.  Advisors inside my department, outside my department at the same university, and outside my department at other universities have told me that my department would be nuts not to give me tenure, and a few of the people outside my department at my university have told me I should *actually* go up early… like submit my materials now.  And when I look at the evidence, I think they’re right.  My university requires “excellence” in three categories: teaching, research, and colleagueship (this last category is also known as “service,” and even though we are technically supposed to be excellent, nobody ever gets denied tenure because of colleagueship, and my colleagueship is just fine).  As a liberal arts college, the emphasis is a bit more on teaching, and the research expectation is a smidge lower than at a research university.  My teaching evaluations are consistently the highest in my department, and comfortably above average for the university and my division within the university.  I’ve taught every level of course that we offer, multiple times.  I will have supervised six theses, an average of one per year, by the time I go up for tenure, which is consistent with my department’s number of majors per faculty member (and I’ve never turned a student away from my research group who wanted to work with me).  My thesis students have gone on to be very successful, both in and out of academia, even when it wasn’t a priori obvious that they would be (and my first postdoc just got an offer for a permanent job this week, woohoo!).  As for research, here I also think I’ve clearly exceeded my department’s expectations.  My department expects that we should publish 1-2 papers per year.  In my five years on the tenure track, I have been an author on 33 papers, with 8 originating directly from my research group (where I or one of my students or postdocs is the first author).  There will be at least three more from my group in the next year (one already in revisions, one to be submitted this week, one drafted and to be submitted next semester; in my field it’s rare for a submitted paper to not be published within six months, as in, it has never happened to me).  Anyone in academia knows that h-indices are fraught with all kinds of issues, but as a blunt instrument they’re commonly used to indicate research impact.  My h-index is essentially identical (+/-1) to the next two most senior members of my department.  Let me be clear: it’s not identical to what theirs were when they went up for tenure.  It’s identical to their current h-indices, even though one is 8 years ahead of me post-PhD and the other is a full professor who is a couple of decades ahead of me post-PhD.  For them to deny me tenure on the basis of research quality or quantity would be absurd.  External letters matter too, but I am well known in my field and have received several high-priority invitations in the past year that will get me significant visibility in my final pre-tenure year — and I’ve been networking and inviting senior people in my field to my university for talks to make sure I have enough exposure.  There’s no official guideline about external funding (just that we should seek it as needed), but I’ve brought in almost $1 million in grants during my time on the tenure track, which is a typical milestone for tenure at a research university (which ours is not).  Professionally, when I look at my case objectively, I just don’t think there’s a reason to wait.

Personally: I think I probably shouldn’t bring this up with my chair, but there’s one huge personal reason that I want to go up for tenure this year: I do not want to be worrying about tenure when (assuming we’re lucky enough to get there) our second child is born.  I really hate that I put pressure on myself to be productive during my first parental leave, and to come back to work and start traveling again before I would have if I hadn’t been worrying about tenure.  I don’t blame my university, but it is an unassailable fact of my personality that if I have tenure hanging over my head, I will be worrying about my productivity while I am on leave.  I know that no matter when our second child is born, I will need to worry about some professional things: I will still have a responsibility to my research students and collaborators to help move projects along.  But I want to remove the tenure pressure from the equation.  I’ve worked so hard to earn tenure, and so hard to have kids, that I think I’ve earned a parental leave that is on my terms.  I also have the feeling that if I take this one tenure clock extension, and have a second kid during the clock extension, that I’ll have no choice but to take the additional clock extension, and that means I’ll spend nine years in pre-tenure purgatory, which just sounds miserable.  We’ve been trying to have a second kid for almost a year now, and if it had worked out, I most definitely would have used this clock extension — but in my mind, the silver lining of two miscarriages in a row is that now my second baby definitely won’t be born before next fall so I can get tenure out of the way before baby #2 comes along.  While I think a year is a reasonable long-term approximation of the impact of a child on one’s career, the impact is extremely front-loaded, and in the short term, a year is not enough.  I can’t shake the feeling that the more clock extensions I take while my kid(s) is (are) young, the farther behind I’ll fall as tenure approaches, though I am quite confident that in the long term I will be an asset to my department (and in the short term as well, as I discussed above).

In addition, the two minor issues that I mentioned are:

(1) The feminist in me wants to get tenure on time because I see how parental leave and clock extensions put women behind men and I think it sucks.  The last successful tenure case for a woman in the sciences at my university took nine years (two parental leaves) and a bunch of controversy before it went through.  Meanwhile, the guy in her department with three kids and a stay-at-home spouse sailed through early — and in fact, her department encouraged the woman to delay her tenure case so that she wouldn’t go up for tenure the same year as the man.  So now she’s less senior than him (and paid less!) even though he started after her, and even though they both had kids on the tenure track.  I think it sucks.  I don’t want to delay my seniority, and I want to show other women in my university that they don’t have to be scared to go up when they’re ready.  I think the clock extensions are a good option to have, but I don’t think anyone should be putting pressure on pre-tenure women to use them for any reason other than their intended purpose.  Not to avoid going up in the same semester as the hotshot young guy, and not (in my case) for no clear reason other than that it’s expected.  One question I would like to ask my chair (but probably won’t) is: if you pretend that I don’t have a baby, but that my record is otherwise identical, would you still be sitting here now at the end of my 5th-year review telling me that if I only had an extra year on my tenure clock it might make or break my ability to meet tenure expectations?  I am really quite confident that the answer is no.

(2) Money.  With tenure comes an 11% pay raise.  One of the main reasons that women’s salaries lag behind men’s salaries is that they advance more slowly in the childbearing years.  I don’t have any interest in being part of that statistic, thank you very much.  I did a sketchy calculation yesterday about the difference in lifetime earnings between getting that boost one or two years from now.  It’s definitely in the tens of thousands and approaches the hundreds of thousands of dollars (depending on what you assume you do with the extra money).  My husband and I are not strapped for cash, thankfully, but I want fair compensation for the work that I do, including timely raises when I have earned them (like now, I think).

Of all of these reasons, I think I’ll have to focus on the professional reasons when I talk to my chair.  But I think the other reasons are important, and I wish I could talk about them.  Particularly the personal one about wanting my next baby to be post-tenure.  I get a little weepy when I think about how I might have spent more time with little baby S if I hadn’t been pushing myself to get back to work and not fall off the tenure track.  I still get weepy every time I think about being away from him while he’s so little.  After all I’ve been through for S and the future sibling we are hoping for, I want to take the professional pressure off a little and just be there for them while they are small.  Possibly this is exactly the kind of thing my university dreads when it considers the institution of tenure — that it provides a license to take a step back from professional responsibilities.  But I’m not that kind of faculty member.  Believe me — I don’t have a dead wood bone in my body.  I have every confidence that over the course of my career I will be an enormous asset to my department.  I’m just a human who wants to shift priorities a bit for a few years and not jeapordize my entire career as a result, which is the nature of the up-or-out tenure system.