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Mastering the Transition to Tenure: What You Need to Know

Mastering the Transition to Tenure: What You Need to Know

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesOct 30, 2017

The quest for tenure can be an all-encompassing one. In fact, many academics get so caught up in the pursuit of tenure that they forget about an equally important issue: What comes next? If you’ve recently gotten promoted with tenure, take a few minutes to pat yourself on the back. Then, prepare to make the most of your new position and status by reading up on how to smoothly navigate the transition from tenure-track to tenure.

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Acknowledging the Shift

In a recent article penned for the American Physiological Society (APS), Edward McAuley, Ph.D. contends, “Although this may appear a rather silly question, I am continually surprised by new faculty members’ realization of the complexity of being on the tenure-track. The majority assume, and often correctly, that the primary focus of their job is building a successful research agenda. This is certainly how our students are trained: develop a line of research; be productive; and fund your research, your laboratory, and your students. However, there are also those not so trivial elements of the position that encompass teaching and service (or public engagement).”

This complexity doesn’t go away just because you’re tenured. Writes faculty development and leadership expert Kerry Ann Rockquemore for Inside Higher Ed, “Every time we transition from one rank to another on the academic career ladder, everything changes: the rules of the game, the skills you need for success, your relationship to your colleagues and your campus, your professional identity, the amount of power you have to effect change, and the kinds of mentors and sponsors you need. I’ll bet you can remember how each of these things changed dramatically when you transitioned from graduate student to new professor. And each of those areas will now change again as you transition from probationary to tenured professor.”

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Charting a New Course

One of the biggest changes that occurs when you get tenure is mental. After all, it’s natural to feel somewhat adrift after achieving a long-term objective. But that’s all the more reason to reassess and set new goals.

Continues Rockquemore, “While you’ve been working for many years to meet externally-imposed expectations for your research, teaching and service, you’re now going to face a new and different set of challenges. Instead of working towards a specific set of expectations, you get to choose your post-tenure pathway. And faculty members make many different choices, including: immediately working towards full professorship; jumping into administrative roles; increasing visibility as a public intellectual; organizing for institutional change; becoming a disciplinary superstar; developing the skills of a master-teacher; or investing energy into off-campus projects (consulting, activism, entrepreneurship, etc.).”

The takeaway? There’s no right or wrong direction to choose when you have tenure, as long as the choice is a deliberate one. “If you fail to choose your path and move strategically in that direction, you may fall into the tenure trap: saying yes to everything indiscriminately, allowing others to choose your path for you and/or quickly getting pulled in many different directions simultaneously,” says Rockquemore. “If you fall into that trap, you may quickly find yourself working longer and harder than did you when you were on the tenure track, but without that work moving you in a clear direction or resulting in any particular mark of distinction.”

Professor With Students In Computer Class

Embracing the Big Picture

It’s easy to think of teaching and service as ancillary to research. However, while there’s no arguing that research is essential, teaching and professional engagement are also important parts of the equation. With the former, recall that professors are inherently educators. In other words, teaching shouldn’t stand in the way of your research; the two should peacefully co-exist.

Service, meanwhile, has its own place and payoffs. Insists McAuley, “It helps you to become a well-rounded departmental citizen. It can also increase your visibility locally and externally, which, in turn, can lead to collaborations that might enhance your research and teaching. Moreover, becoming more visible is important in advancing your reputation as you move through the academic ranks….Getting involved early is a great way to begin to understand the system within which you work and potentially to have some control over your own environment.”

That said, there’s also a “dark side” to service, according to McAuley: “Excessive committee work demanding more time than you can spare.” His advice? Learning to say no as a tenured professor is just as valuable as a skill as it was when you were on the tenure-track. Determining how much time you can spare and focusing your service efforts on activities you enjoy can further help you traverse this tricky territory.

One last thing to keep in mind, regardless of the challenges involved in the transition to tenure? Everything you’ve done in your academic career to date has readied you for this moment.

Says Rockquemore, “Your first semester after gaining tenure is the perfect time to pause and reflect on who you are and who you want to become as you transition into a new status on your campus. I believe that this process can be easy and enjoyable. It’s easy because you are already perfectly designed to do what you love (and you’ll have the greatest impact and influence on your campus when you’re doing what you love). In fact, all your previous experiences -- the good, bad, ugly and beautiful -- have prepared you for your post-tenure pathway. And it’s enjoyable because the work of choosing your post-tenure pathway is really about (re)connecting with who you are and choosing how best to do what you love on your campus and in the world.”

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.