We are tenure obsessed. For the majority of assistant professors, this is the ultimate and all-consuming fixation in life.  My goal is to: (1) make some sense of why this obsession is so strong and (2) attempt to convince you (and myself) that there is life outside this [obsessive] pursuit.

I feel you, people. Been there, done that…eh, I am still there. I certainly understand why this is the default thinking.  Over a period of 4-6 years, we were conditioned to look for the best possible academic job and to get tenure at that “awesome” academic job. When the mentality all around us is that personal self-worth is determined by a Journal of Finance or Nature publication (or whatever the equivalency is in your field), it is really hard to figure out what normal life really is.

Before we go on, let’s take a step back and look at this from the outside. What does your spouse/parents/friends (who have nothing to do with academia) think about your quest for publication glories and the tenure obsession? I don’t know about your life, but my husband certainly doesn’t read my articles, my mother thinks I teach students, and my students have no idea that I actually have to publish something for a living. And most importantly, if I never acquired a top 3 publication in my life (which is most likely how life is going to turn out), the Earth would still rotate around the Sun.  Let’s just say- perspective is important.

I feel like we need a clarification paragraph right about now. At this point, if you are not from academia, you might be confused why I am talking about publications. This, my friends, is the reality of academic life. A tenure track professor does not get tenure by being an awesome teacher (although some schools value teaching way more than others[1]) and a tenure track professor does not get tenure by doing lots of service (but you’d better do that if you want to have a job). A tenure track professor gets tenure by publishing. Thus, for most professors, being obsessed with tenure equates to being obsessed with publishing.

The degree of publication fixation varies. The degree of teaching and service importance vary as well. There are research-oriented schools, there are teaching-oriented schools and there are balanced schools out there. If you are really bad at teaching and never show up on campus, you might still not get tenure, even if you have 3 Journal of Finance publications. But while teaching, service, and being a normal human being (in other words, not a jerk) are required, they are not sufficient.  Without your minimum publication requirements fulfilled[2] you are not getting tenure. Tell me if I am wrong.

I guess that’s it. The intense focus on publications contributes hugely to the tenure obsession.  The constant “I have to write this article”, “I have to publish it in XYZ journal because otherwise, my life will be over” drives our tenure obsession.

Fast-forward a few years. So what exactly will happen if you do not get tenure? Nothing will happen. You will get another job.  Now, if you are currently teaching at Small Town, USA college and that’s where you want to be for the rest of your life, you are probably out of luck because where else would you work if you didn’t get tenure at the Big State school? But if you are willing to move, you are most likely going to get a job somewhere else. The statistics are certainly in your favor.  Cal State used to put out a report every year (the last one I found is from 2011) about the number of people who did not get tenure in the system. It can be found here: http://www.calstate.edu/HR/FacRecruitment.shtml [3].[4] As you can see, most assistant professors do get tenure.

Think about this issue from a different angle: How obsessed would you be with tenure if you were not a professor? Think about a corporate job. Does anyone ever give you a guaranteed 6 years contract no matter what? Does anyone give you a 3 year contract with a mid-tenure “we can fire you clause”? Noooooo, the world does not work like that. My boss at Citi would have fired me in 5 minutes flat if I didn’t do my job. I did not have a 2 or 3 years of “let’s see how well you do” arrangement upon hire. That is the reality of life outside of academia. We actually got it pretty good here, so why are we so stressed out?

Is tenure actually good for the assistant professor?

Why does tenure exist? There is a long history lesson about academic freedom and expressing yourself. We can argue about the philosophical points all day long but I am really not interested in that.  Here is something I copied from a WSJ article that makes a lot of sense:

“Tenure has social benefits along with its costs. The strongest justification for academic tenure is that it enables scholars to acquire deep expertise in specialized areas that have limited payoff elsewhere in the economy”.[5]

And that is true; I got nothing on this. If you are a professor studying the 18th century opera costume design (yes, I know of someone who actually does that), it is really hard to translate this interest into money making outside of academia.  No matter what I say from where I stand, I understand that person will never get a job at a hedge fund and tenure is way more important to her than to someone with a PhD in finance.

So back to my wondering if tenure is actually good for the assistant professor. Personally, I can see how I would be a much more relaxed person if there was no tenure to be achieved. There is just too much pressure (for both myself and the school) hanging on this one decision. A number of schools have already gone away from tenure and adopted the multi-year contracts instead. What does that mean? I think it means that you have to be good (rather than ridiculously amazing) to keep your job. When the contract is for 3 years rather than for life, the decision to keep you becomes much more reasonable.

Is there going to be tenure in the future? I don’t know. A few schools have already gone away from the tenure model but the trend has not caught on yet. In August 2015, Scott Walker got severely criticized for saying that “faculty members should be evaluated based on performance”.  I am no fan of Scott Walker but it’s hard to argue with that. Somehow, it seems that if we put the same emphasis on the entire career of a college professor that we do on the first 6 years, things might look quite different for everyone.

[1] This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I do judge professors who think that teaching is interfering with their “research time”.  Teaching is part of the job so we’d better be able to handle both. Students don’t pay for my Financial Review publications, they pay for me to teach them something useful.

[2]  The minimum will vary too much between schools and departments for me to be able to generalize.

[3] Yes, I know an Ivy League schools is not Cal State, but what percent of us are actually trying to get tenure at Ivy League Schools?

[4] Here is a comprehensive article on this topic, along with more data: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/dont-worry-too-much-about-whether-youll-get-tenure-because-you-probably-will/

[5] http://www.wsj.com/articles/college-tenure-has-reached-its-sell-by-date-1439335262

Want to live on the Edge?


Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Saving subscription status...


“We actually got it pretty good here, so why are we so stressed out?” Indeed compared to pressures described by peers with similar duration of education and training in media, the arts, and banking we have amazing freedom to succeed at exactly what we love. How do we change the narrative? Or do we just crave the angst?

Helen Bird says:

As the spouse of a tenured engineering professor, the ultimate and consuming fixation in life of tenure was so worth it. I see my husband’s counterparts in industry making twice as much money, but traveling 75% of the time and used to living with the daily stress of take-overs and lay-offs. My husband works on research he loves and never misses a violin recital.

This is really helpful post to those of us running around putting out frenetic energy getting tenure.
While there are no guarantees in life, the protections that come with having tenure are a BFD. The raise is substantial, sense of security is real and ability to discharge someone who is not serving their community is a real horror show. Some professors have been reprimanded for horrible behaviors that you would never survive in industry* but they can get away with it exactly because they do have tenure. I don’t know that there is a parallel to having tenure in the private sector but maybe just need to look around at more industries?


You May Also Like