What motivates me after tenure

I was just at a conference where I get to hang out with lots of my friends.  Some of us got to talking.  They’re generally at better schools than I am and have longer and better CVs than I do.  But I’ve got tenure and they don’t have it yet.  And we were talking about trying to get stuff published and trying to find time for work… and they asked me why I care where I publish or about how much work I do because I’ve got tenure.  My school doesn’t expect as much as theirs does.  (And I have a higher teaching load and more service and a smaller salary…)

But I was never really motivated by the tenure expectations in my department.  I placed lower on the job market than most folks in my cohort, and I’ve always thought that if I did what I want and then didn’t get tenure then I’d finally be able to move to Northern California and at least live someplace nice.  I’ve always figured that if I stopped liking it, I could just leave.  If I’d gotten an offer at one of these better schools maybe I would have been more nervous, I don’t know.  (And, since getting here, the school has made a lot of really good hires, including mid-level hires with amazing CVs, and I am no longer under-placed.  I’m placed!)

What motivates me:

1.  I want to do good work.  I answer interesting (to me) questions.  I tell good (theoretical) stories with (empirical) evidence.  My work is important and it’s fascinating.

2.  People are doing things wrong and I want the profession to do things right!  Efficiently!

3.  It is a crime that nobody is answering these important questions.

4.  I kinda do like the fame and fortune aspect.  Gotta admit it.  And they give me just enough of a taste of it to make me crave more.  More.

5.  I like to watch things grow.  I want my department to do well, my school to do well, my little corner of academic research to do well.

6.  Ambition.

7.  And maybe just a bit the fact that I may need to be mobile some day, for example, if DH’s job situation changes.  And I kind of like being able to occasionally get grants to pay for RA work and summer salary.  And if they ever cross a line, I can walk and I’ll be in demand somewhere.

I used to be more motivated by being under-placed.  Sort of an, “I’ll show them!”  But I’ve kind of shown them, and, like I said, I’m no longer underplaced.  So #4 has replaced that entirely.  I probably worked a little harder when I was rage-researching, but it’s much more fulfilling to be love-researching instead.

#2 and #3 above bring me more self-confidence.  They help me talk up my work in ways that #1 doesn’t.  More of that contrarian aspect to my personality showing through.  #4 and #6 sometimes give me less self-confidence.


The answers of #2 revolve around research.  And then quitting.

What motivates you to work hard?

14 Responses to “What motivates me after tenure”

  1. xykademiqz Says:

    You might be my long-lost twin!

    After a deep post-tenure slump (which in my case might have also been postpartum blues) I find I have more energy and motivation now than ever before, and I think I am doing better work.
    I have cut loose some collaborations that were taking up a lot of time but were inherently too asymmetric to be healthy.
    Working on problems of my choosing, the way I want to, with my own students, has been extremely energizing. Actually, for me the definite upswing happened after becoming full prof (three years after tenure; my department was very supportive).

    Having tenure means, to me, that I can stop thinking almost entirely about what others will think of me (need to get grants and papers out ASAP) and think about what types of questions I find interesting and how I want to answer them. The tenure track has all but made me lose my love for science; having tenure enabled me to find it anew.

    Like you, I am ambitious and I crave recognition. Being too focused on these, however, makes me feel exhausted and generally crappy. I feel best when I am in the middle of writing a paper or when that noob grad student finally starts getting it and shows me the first sets of data that actually tell us something new about the world.

    I am enjoying my job way more and doing it better, I think, right now than before tenure. Making peace with where I am (a giant public uni in flyover land), realizing it’s a great place and than if anything is holding me back it’s me. Whenever I am focused on my work, as opposed to recognition and other crap, I am happy. So I work more than ever!

  2. Liz Says:

    Question: what is/is there a difference between wanting recognition/fame/fortune, and wanting one’s good work to be acknowledged? I wouldn’t say I want fame or fortune or attention. I enjoy working on the sidelines or behind the scenes – at least for now. But lately I’ve been feeling like people at work are using my efforts and achievements to their benefit without acknowledging me, and that is making me quite peeved. Up until this point, I would have said that any work worth doing is worth doing well, by somebody else if my idea is best served through their talents. But I’m beginning to doubt that credit will be given where it’s due, which can have negative consequences for advancement, raises, and finding external opportunities. (I am speaking up. So I’m just curious: does this make me a fame-seeker, or just an incensed employee?)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      As someone who has recently been the recipient of not being acknowledged, that’s pretty infuriating. And yes, getting credit does make everything else easier later.

      I don’t think many of us want to be Kim Kardashian, but we do want the benefits of being known for doing the good work that we do.

      Most likely, what it makes you is a patriarchy-fighter. Fight the good fight!

  3. gwinne Says:

    This is interesting and timely for me.

    I think mostly it’s about the work now, instead of about anxiety about work and work habits. I’ve also been in my profession long enough that I have a pretty good sense of how/where/when to expend my energy. Having a major sleep deficit and a toddler will do that, too!

    I’m also better able to separate out my career (my writing) from my job (the teaching and service).

    I earned tenure in 2011 and will probably go up for full around 2016. I think I have enough pubs to do that already, and that feels pretty damn good. That allows me to experiment, to read and write in ways that I really want, or even just want to play with and see what happens. It’s extraordinarily liberating.

  4. Chelsea Says:

    I like solving puzzles/problems. I also enjoy feeling like an expert in my little piece of the universe. It’s pretty cool to have developed enough proficiency at something that someone can ask me a question, and I can just rattle off a good answer for them. I remember how it used to amaze me to watch people do that when I felt so uncertain about my knowledge/abilities and like I had to clear EVERYTHING through a supervisor. Now that I think about it, I bet my supervisor is glad I’m past that stage, too!

  5. Cloud Says:

    Motivating me right now: I see so much wrong with how we “do” work in corporate America, and I want a chance to show people that we could do better. This is my “big, hairy audacious goal” (a term from some HBR article that a former CEO made us read)- to build a company that is successful enough to get noticed, but to do it *my* way, where people are treated like people, not “resources” to be used up and replaced.

    Obviously, I have a ways to go in reaching that goal. I am starting so small I’m practically microscopic! But, I’m having a lot of fun. And that is also very motivating.

    Also, I have all sorts of somewhat crazy ideas that are like middle-sized, sort of audacious goals, and I’m excited to see if I can make any of them happen.

    However, I am also fighting a pretty massive flare up of imposter syndrome right now. I find it interesting that I can be super motivated and super insecure all at once.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Right, it’s all, how can I be so incompetent while I also realize that everybody else is doing it so wrong. An irritating sort of cognitive dissonance. I think the imposter syndrome is the part that’s wrong though.

    • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

      I didn’t read this before posting my own comments, but I think you summed it up pretty well about people wanting to feel like they are part of a community of smart people all working towards the same goal…not some easily replaceable cog in the corporate machine.

      • Rosa Says:

        Different people want different things. I LOVE being a cog. I want to walk away from my desk (or right now, my warehouse) and not look back til I have to be there again. I want to take weeks off to go camping. I want to take sick days and actually sleep and get better, not answer urgent questions all day. And when I stop getting what I want, whether it’s flex hours or good coworkers or the ability to actually fix the problems I see, I want to be able to quit and walk away without feeling like things will fall apart without me.

        My paid job has never been my main focus – I just want to be happy at work, and make enough money to fund the rest of my life.

  6. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about career a lot lately.

    Anyway, I’ve been spending a BUTTLOAD of time mentoring people, both formally but more often, informally. It’s amazing how many people come to me with advice, questions, etc. I make their little world a little easier to work in and as a result everyone raves about me. Now the downside to this is that for every time someone else’s problems get answered, one of mine is piling up, so it’s a balance. This means I probably won’t ever be at the very top in terms of numbers performance, but I get to do what is fulfilling, which is helping others be successful. So, now I guess I just have to figure out how to make that a bigger part of my job (mgmt. I guess).

    As I get older and have a strong resume to fall back on, I feel like I have more license to do things “my way.” Now, in hindsight, “my way” is often also the most productive way because it’s stuff I want to do, vs stuff that sucks. Also, the helping others piece also ends up helping me a lot of times as well, so it’s somewhat self serving.

    I think the very simple answer is that everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated which leads to personal fulfillment. For some people, that comes from an awesome published white paper, a patent or rock star status. For others, it’s something totally different. Job security is different from job satisfaction. Once you hit tenure, I’d think you could shift your activities from the former to the latter.

  7. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I really like your motivations. Especially the one where you like answering interesting to you questions. Different parts of my job are motivated by different things and I can always tell which are the ones that are motivated by my simply being interested in them and the ones that are motivated by stress (deadlines, numbers, etc.). My caliber of work is much higher when I’m doing something because I want to and because I like to.

  8. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    The main thing that keeps me motivated post-tenure is working with and mentoring amazingly creative, driven, and talented grad students and post-docs.

  9. RBOC | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] feel unloved by inside higher ed.  Our last few academia posts have been completely ignored.  […]

  10. ask the grumpies: Post-tenure motivation | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] #1:  Here’s some links we collected back in 2011 back when we were … asking for a friend.  Here’s some of the stuff we thought we wanted and should revisit to see if they happened.  Here’s a post on what motivates us after tenure. […]

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