What Do You Do When They Say “No”?
By Dr. Becca
It’s funny to look at my blogging history and note that my last post was exactly one year ago. 2017 me had just made it through unanimous recommendations for Promotion with Tenure from both the department and college committees and was working on a short list of grad applicants to invite for interview weekend. My current (and only) PhD student was less than a year out from defending and I was excited to bring in some great new students to train and mentor. Little did I know that just a few short weeks later, I’d be asked to un-invite the prospective PhD candidates, because the Dean had overturned the committees’ votes*. He would not be recommending me for tenure.
My initial response was one of stunned anger. All I remember saying to my chair upon hearing the news was, “This is a mistake.” But there was nothing I could do until my case went up to the Provost, which would take several months. And so my semester began, and anger gave way to sadness–unrelenting, soul-crushing sadness that everything I’d worked for my entire adult life was all about to be taken away. I think I cried every day, sometimes in my office. Sometimes after I went to bed.
I did my work, though. I taught three days a week (and twice on Mondays), met with students, submitted grants, and helped an undergrad put together his first first-author paper. I traveled to Washington, Ohio, Montreal, and Botswana. In June, the Provost informed me that he agreed with the Dean, and that per the Faculty Handbook, I had ten days to submit an appeal. My chair didn’t see the point of appealing–what grounds did I have? This wasn’t a case of blatant discrimination or a failure to follow protocol–just my opinion that he made a bad judgment call. But I couldn’t simply shrug and accept this Wrong Thing. I had to push back until pushing back was no longer an option.
How do you convince someone to change their mind? I couldn’t magically make an R01 appear (if only!). In my mind, my best play was to drive home how accomplishing what I had without a million dollars was even more of a testament to my tenure-worthiness. To help bolster my case, I emailed essentially every senior colleague in North America I could think of, asking for a letter of support to include in my appeal package.
I received twenty letters within a week. Strong, detailed letters. Such an overwhelming response provided much-needed validation that I was doing the right thing–I belonged in academic science and had earned the right to stay. On a train rumbling up the northeast corridor, I pounded out what might be the best piece of writing I’ve ever crafted, a passionate, clear-headed letter laying out why I was an asset to the university, and how misguided it was to outsource tenure decisions to NIH study sections. I used words like “persisted” and “enterprise,” and brought up documented implicit biases in peer review. No snark, no bitterness. Just honest arguments about who I am and the realities of my field. I put that letter together with those from my colleagues and one very powerful letter from a former undergraduate (who had heard about my situation and volunteered), and sent it to the Provost. A few days later, he asked to meet.
“I can see that you are very popular,” he said, “but I still need to be convinced that giving you tenure isn’t a risk to the university.” My heart fell. This was still about money. I took a breath and said, “I am the opposite of a risk. My lab’s been running on fumes for the last 2 years and I have continued to publish and build recognition in my field.” I explained how through collaborations I could be highly productive without spending a lot of money, and that my most recent paper was entirely the result of undergrad work. “Ask anyone here with a big lab and multiple grants what their plan is to keep going if everything ran out tomorrow, and I bet they wouldn’t have one. I do.” He thanked me for my time and said he’d have a final decision in the next week or two. I left feeling terrible, and fought back tears until I got out of the building. Hadn’t he heard all this already? I was so tired of begging for my job.
I went to Ireland and then to Maine, where it rained every day. We came home on a Friday, and I became very, very sure that this was not going to work out. Why would he change his mind? He wanted me to have money and I didn’t have any. Over the weekend, I started to make a job search spreadsheet and update my research and teaching statements (although I was not optimistic that I’d be competitive – who would want to hire a “damaged goods” candidate?). On Monday, the letter from the provost was waiting in my mailbox. I didn’t open it right away, visiting first with my department BFF to catch up after a few weeks of on and off traveling. While still in her office, I waved the envelope and was like, “Ugh, here’s my stupid letter from the Provost telling me that I’m fired.” I decided to just rip off the band-aid and at first glance, the brief letter looked identical to the first one, using expressions like “My evaluation of your tenure case is now complete” and “My decision is based on a thorough evaluation of your dossier,” and I concluded that I’d been right about the way things had gone. But then I noticed some different language.
“I am pleased to inform you that I am recommending to the President that you be awarded tenure and be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor.”
HE CHANGED HIS MIND. He just changed his mind! People can change their minds about things like this, it is honestly so strange to me. I think my colleague and I set new decibel records for our hallway with the shrieking that ensued.
What was even stranger was understanding how to feel in the aftermath. After almost 6 months of consuming depression and hopelessness, all of a sudden the source of those emotions was just…gone. What was this new brain-space I was in? Do I just go back to normal or do I get some time to acclimate?
My PhD student utterly slayed her thesis defense and moved to Los Angeles. I went back to Botswana and then to Zimbabwe. When I returned, I received an NoA for an R56 – a full year of R01-level bridge funding to kickstart a promising project. Although I was technically on sabbatical this fall, I had no senior full-time personnel, and so did my best to be present in the lab for my undergrads and regroup both mentally and physically. I would say that only in the last month or so has it really felt like the fog has begun to clear. I’m hiring people, I have concrete plans for grants and collaborations, I am ready to be a strong leader again.
Although this is obviously a happy ending in which (IMNSHO) justice prevailed, I would not wish going through what I did on anyone. It SUCKED. And I know it would have sucked a thousand times more if it weren’t for the emotional and professional support of dozens to hundreds of colleagues and friends, many of whom I know through this blog and/or twitter. Thank you to everyone who reached out along the way with advice, letters, gourmet chocolate, a spa day, or a shoulder to cry on–I never would have made it through without you.
Finally, here is my favorite photo from my safari in Zimbabwe.
It is a juvenile black rhino, and I love it not just because the lighting happened to be incredible and it is an adorable creature, but because this rhino is the success of conservationists who did not want to give up. There were no rhinos in this game reserve, and a few years ago they did a Noah’s Ark and put two in. Now there are twelve!
*The reason for his decision was that despite having a healthy independent publication record, great reputation in my field, stellar teaching evaluations, and one small and one medium sized grant, I still hadn’t received R01-level funding.
This post first appeared on Fumbling Towards Tenure, a Scientopia site, on January 3, 2018 and has been shared on EdgeforScholars.org with permission from the author. See the original post here: http://drbecca.scientopia.org/2018/01/03/what-do-you-do-when-they-say-no/
Follow Dr. Becca on Twitter @doc_becca and check out her other posts at dr.becca.scientopia.org.