Everyone talks about how stressful the tenure process can be but no one talks about how emotionally loaded this experience can be. Not so much because you fear or worry about a negative outcome — this is just the outer layer of multilayer set of emotions you will experience as you prepare your tenure packet — but rather because you are forced to think critically of
- what you have done so far,
- why this matters,
- how this defines who you are, and
- how this sets the foundation of what you are about to become.
In summary, you must justify your existence as a faculty to yourself first and then implicitly to everyone through your tenure documents and personal statement. You have to justify why the university should keep you, and in particular, you must justify why what you bring is unique and extremely valuable to your institution. In order to do this, you need to answer these questions first, so that you may be selective and only include things that serve this purpose. When you have been out of graduate school for a long time, say 9-10 years, like I have, and thus by default have accumulated so much, the process of discriminating what is worth including, and what is not, is extremely difficult especially because we tend to categorize the value of our work or things depending on the time we invested in them, not its impact. We do not realize that some things that we invest our time on are just a means to other bigger things. So, initially everything is important in our eyes. But we cannot and must not include everything, as this hides or devalues things of impact that you have done and that deserve special attention, for they define who you are and give a glimpse of who you will become. They are not to be mixed with things that might be somewhat important but not of much impact. Discriminating and thinking carefully about the answers to the questions posted above will allow you to put your best tenure case forward.
A peripheral but equally important outcome of this is the opportunity to truly evaluate your life, see the cumulative effect of your work and efforts, and reflect on what you have done and why, as well as ask yourself where you want to be both professionally and personally in the near feature. Reflecting gives you an opportunity to ask yourself Do I want to continue on this path or is it time to use what I have done as leverage to move in a different direction? The course of unraveling the answers to all these questions (including secondary questions that arise) is the source of emotional turmoil that is not spoken of but that some of us go through as we prepare our tenure packet.
In the process of preparing your documents and drafting your personal statement you are forced to look back and evaluate your career and professional trajectory as well as to look forward and project where you are heading and implicitly/explicitly map out the next 10 years or so of your career. You are barely getting used to the idea of being called Dr. or Professor X and you are finally starting to see yourself in this light and now you have to see yourself further than this and in a profound way that shows that you truly understand where you are heading and where you see yourself in the future and most important, that you have a real, coherent, and tangible plan to get there. This is scary- but you have to do it and most important believe it, so that you can write about this and tailor your packet with this in mind. This is like asking a kid not what they want to be when they grow up but if they want to have kids or get married and why. The idea of growing up is still so foreign to them and now we are asking them to expand their concept of growing up to things that they really do not understand, other than very superficially and that they can only see from a very limited lens. This is how I felt as I sat down for the first time to write my statement, for I knew that if I wanted to convince the external and internal reviewers that I indeed have something unique and extremely valuable to offer, I had to discuss my future plan in a very deep way and connect it to my past trajectory (especially things that were in tune with the mission and goals of the university).
While this was daunting at first, the process forced me to connect the dots of my career and take a holistic perspective, highlighting the meaningful things that make my research, teaching, and service a successful blend of the professor I strive to be and that in the my pre-tenured years started to take form to a large degree. Whether this really occurs or not is up to each individual case and the expectations that we set for ourselves. In my case, I still questioned to what degree the latter is true. But regardless of your self-perception and confidence, you have to justify this and to a certain degree be convinced that this is the truth so that your personal statement is strong, positive and convincing to all the individuals sitting in the various stages of the review process.
Inevitably in the development of your statement and packet, you subconsciously end up evaluating your life and asking yourself: How far have I come? What have I done that is significant? Who am I? What do I value? Why do I value this? What is my purpose in life? Why have I sacrificed the things I have to get here? and Where am I going? The process of answering these questions can take us through a big emotional journey but in the answer to them we gain a perspective that we never had about our role in academia and what matters to us, which together give meaning and define our future goals. We gain an appreciation for the obstacles we have overcome, what we have learned, the price that we have paid to be where we are, and why we would do certain things all over again. It also gives us the opportunity to see resilience and our strengths. Finally, it allows us to see that indeed we have earned our current (and hopefully permanent) place and that it would be very unwise for the university to let us go because someone else would grab us immediately.