The tenure adventure continues

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted all my materials for my tenure application. Now comes the time where I obsess about what I could have done differently, what people are going to think about this or that, and whether I should have included/excluded that classroom activity, talk, poster session, etc. The list of things I can worry about goes on and on, but the truth is there is nothing I can do about this now. The documents have been submitted, and very soon my colleagues are going to start deciding whether to keep me or not. What I wanted to do with this post, given that I cannot do anything for myself at this point, was to “pay it forward” by telling anyone who might be going through this in the near future some of the lessons I have learned. Some of these seem really obvious, but they are easy to forget when you are stressed out.

  1. It is never too early to start putting things together. I knew this, and I still left some things kind of for the last minute. Especially the things that you think are not going to take that much time, usually do end up taking a lot of time. In my case, making my teaching portfolio was a huge undertaking. We started using an online tool for submitting the materials, and the learning curve was a little steeper than expected. In the end, every time I changed my mind about how to organize things I had to spend another hour organizing and uploading or deleting files. It was so much more work than I thought. One of the things I wanted to upload (a video I recorded for my Complex Analysis class), was not the right type for the website and I only realized this the night before things were due, so I wasn’t able to fix it! Fortunately, they gave me access for a few more days and an IT person helped me do it, but it would have been so much easier had I realized it a week earlier.
  2. Don’t leave hard things for later. Sometimes, you think it is better to get the easy things out of the way. But just remember that you will want to edit and re-edit those teaching and research statements a million times, and so giving yourself time to do this is important. Of course, on the other hand, no matter how much time you have you can probably keep editing forever and never be satisfied (at least, that is my case).
  3. Those papers that you have been working on for two years won’t magically get finished the month before you apply for tenure. You want them to, but the truth is you have a lot of other things to deal with (see 1 and 2), so your time to focus on hard math is reduced quite a bit. Also, your needs are not necessarily the same as your collaborators’. Maybe they just moved far away for a postdoc, had a baby, have brand new large classes, have other projects with other collaborators (I know, the nerve). You can’t expect people to work for your needs, as much as they can’t expect you to work for theirs.
  4. You STILL have to do all the other things you usually have to do: teaching, committee meetings, teaching, grading, department meetings, all the stuff you sign up for…. Give yourself time so you don’t have to catch up with the actual thing that is your job! Late-night grading is just not the best way to get things done. On that note, make sure you are not doing any new preps the semester you are preparing your materials (thanks to my department chair’s thinking about this, I have been teaching two classes that I have taught before during this semester). Less class prep means more time to work on other stuff.
  5. Unexpected things happen, cut yourself a little slack, too. This semester, I had an important death in my family, and hurt my lower back running. These two things set me back quite a bit, and I was feeling really bad about how I wasn’t doing my work properly. But some things are completely out of your control. It is OK for things not to work out like you expect them to, you can catch up, and if you let some things go so that you can do others, people will understand. I was lucky to have such a gracious and understanding group of students and department. They were completely supportive when I left for a whole week, and my students were very understanding when I could not give them back their homework as soon as I usually do. And with the tenure dossier it’s the same. Maybe that last edit of your teaching statement still had too many run-on sentences. Maybe your research statement is not as easy to understand to a non-expert as you would want. It is OK if things are not perfect, you were doing other things that were important.

But in the end, the thing to remember is that you are not doing what you are doing because you want tenure, you are doing it because it is what you want to do, what you care about, and it is the job that you have chosen. Not everyone can say this, but most of us in academia are privileged to do something that we really love. So if I get tenure, it will be really great, but if I don’t, I am happy that I have done this job with no regrets. Everything I have done, I have tried to do the best I can. I have also learned a lot and gotten better at what I do. I have been able to do many things that I think are important and good for me, my students, and my institution. Call it my own version of the seven-year postdoc.

So, how about my readers who have gone through this process? Any advice for the future generation of tenure-trackers? Anything you wish you had done differently or think you did particularly well? Please share in the comments section below.

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