Ask the Grumpies: What to do after tenure denial?

Someone who is feeling quite grumpy writes:

I am hoping for some advice from you and your readers: I was denied tenure— what should I do?

Some background that might be useful: When I initially went on the job market, I had a fair bit of success and received several offers. I made a list of what I wanted in a job, asked the same set of questions during each campus visit, took notes, and made detailed charts comparing offers. I accepted a position at a SLAC that seemed great and (literally) checked all the boxes. My husband found a job in the same city, and we moved across the country.

I quickly began to suspect that I had made a mistake. Things were so different than promised that I actually dug out the notes I had taken on my campus visit to confirm that my memory wasn’t failing me. Both the department and institution are incredibly dysfunctional. The patriarchy is strong here.

I considered leaving many times. The economy and the academic job market were weak, but I did some (discreet) searches. Once, I was told I would receive an offer, but then the entire position was cancelled. My general plan, though, was to maintain professional connections, develop a long-term research agenda, and eventually leave the craziness behind. I wasn’t incredibly worried about tenure. However, tenure requirements rose dramatically fairly recently.* I scrambled to get more publications out, but turn around in my field can be slow, and I have several papers in the R&R stage.

1. What should I do now? I mean this almost literally. My institution does not offer a terminal year, so I need to figure something out! I can relocate. My husband has a job, so I can remain unemployed for the next year. I’d prefer not to adjunct, since I really should focus on getting ready for the job search. However, I’ve heard it can be difficult to search for academic jobs without an affiliation. I’d ideally like to stay in academia, but I’ve been told a tenure denial can be difficult on the job market. I’m not even sure how to explain it yet. I’m feeling a bit battered and bruised and am tempted to move to some Zika-free tropical island for a year.

2. Should I appeal? I wonder if anyone has any experience with this?

3. How do I deal with feelings of regret— regret that I didn’t take another job, regret that I didn’t leave earlier, regret that I’ve been working really hard at this job for years for no purpose, etc., etc., ?

Any advice really would be appreciated.

Congrats on the R&Rs!  If everything lands soon that will put you in a good position to go on the market.  Definitely revise and send those back out if you’re still holding on to them. (#2 says: Get those R&Rs out ASAP. That will help you in the future. Do this right away. A tenure denial per se may not hurt you on the job market that much, but a lack of publication certainly will. But R&Rs are a great step! Congrats on getting those decisions. Now revise until they say yes.)

1.  That is bizarre about not offering a terminal year.  We agree that you should try to get affiliation somewhere, but disagree about whether or not that affiliation should come with adjuncting.  #2 thinks adjuncting a class or two to get the affiliation is fine.  #1 thinks you should not adjunct if you can afford not to and to spend that additional time researching or job hunting.  She suggests to see if you can keep your current affiliation for a year (no strings) or to find an affiliation elsewhere.  Many places will be happy to give you an unpaid official position that allows them to put you on their website and allows you to use their letterhead, and possibly library, but not much else.

Additionally, if you are movable, the temporary (but non-adjunct) job market isn’t over yet.  You may still be able to aim for a visiting professor position for a year… we sometimes hire for emergency temporary positions in the summer which come with full benefits and a reasonable salary.  Or, depending on your field, you can also look for post-doc positions depending on your field.  These types of jobs often target people right out of the market who didn’t land a TT job, but if you can find out about them and you’re able to move, you may be in a very strong position for such positions.  If you are going to be teaching, aim for someplace more prestigious than your current institution if you can.

2.  #1 and #2 are in complete agreement on this item.  The job sounds like it sucks horribly.  If you appeal and get the job, would you want to keep it?  It doesn’t sound worth the hassle of an appeal.  However, there are some things to think about, like your other job opportunities, your husband’s other job opportunities, etc.  If you’re in a case where you’re kind of stuck where you are and there aren’t other job opportunities then an appeal might be worth it.  If you have more flexibility, spending the year waiting for things to land and publishing new stuff sounds like a better idea. #2 notes: don’t appeal. This is a blessing in disguise. Read stories from people who were denied tenure and later became successful either at another school or in another career. There are many better places to work (both inside and outside of academia). Remember academia is just a job, and you can get another one.  #1 notes that she does have a friend who did a successful appeal– zie had a bunch of R&R stuff that landed during her extra year and suddenly was a hot commodity on the market (we tried to lure hir away ourselves).  But hir case was different– zie’d had some bad luck with publication timing (and lack of early mentoring) and pretty much all of the papers that should have been published while tenure track landed at the same time when it was too late.  There wasn’t a problem with the department, just bad luck, and everyone was happy about the appeal which succeeded.  (Query:  Would appealing extend your affiliation without forcing you to teach?)

3.  #1 says:  Sunk cost And, of course, you’ve learned a lot of things since taking this job, you’ve made a difference in people’s lives, etc. etc. etc.  There is no optimal decision and in any case, you can’t change the past, you can only look at where you are now and go forward.  It sucks, but now you’re going to end up in a better situation.  This is an opportunity and somehow the universe has decided you’re not allowed to be miserable at this horrible school all your life.  It made the choice for you so you didn’t have to.  #2 says:  Try a counselor. I bet you have lots of feels right now. At the very least, cultivate your friends and share what you can with them. Ask for whatever support you need from them. Non-academics might not know what a big deal this is, but if your support system sees that you are in distress, then hopefully they’ll mobilize around you.

Additional comments:

Start saving up now and think about how not to get into debt.  Read your money or your life.

Think hard about what you want in a career and what your other opportunities are.  If your uni has a career counseling service, you can visit it– they don’t usually limit themselves to helping students.  Even better is talking to career counseling at your own grad and undergrad schools, especially if they have more resources.  Are there other parts of the country you’d like to live in?  Are there non-academic positions that would be of interest?

TALK TO PEOPLE.  Update your linked in profile, make sure all your work is on REPEC and you have a google scholar page, etc.  Email your grad school professors.  Talk to friends from grad school and who you’ve met at conferences or who like your work.  Email your papers to scholars whose work you cite.  Hook up with alumni groups virtually and in person.  Network like crazy.

Also:  Tenure denial does not have to be a negative signal on the job market.  Tenure denial means that you’re not just playing for a salary increase and you’re not wasting anybody’s time.  It means you are going to move. It means you’re willing to start as an assistant prof (unless you’re denied tenure at say, Harvard), so they don’t have to take as much of a risk on you.

When on the market, talk about how the department’s expectations changed, not in terms of more vs. less research but in terms of the emphasis placed on research vs. teaching/students/service (you weren’t not publishing, you were excelling in things that no longer counted) and as soon as you got the memo, you made the switch (while still being an excellent teacher/colleague) which is evidenced by your hefty pipeline, but you didn’t get the memo in time to help your case given some bad luck in timing (hopefully now resolved and resulting in publications).  Also you talk about what draws you to the other schools, etc.

But yes, focus on the job market. Do you want to stay in academia? Breathe, reflect, refocus. Work your professional networks as much as you can. Would your husband like to move? It could be an opportunity for both of you to work towards long-term career plans or hopes or experiments.

And here are some links from other places on the internets: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2014/04/02/essay-how-deal-tenure-rejection
https://conditionallyaccepted.com/2015/03/24/tenure-denial/
http://chronicle.com/article/Life-After-Tenure-Denial/63815/

Good luck!!!

Grumpy nation, do you have any suggestions for our Grumpy colleague?  (Also, sorry we had to bump the how to take care of your glasses post, but this seemed timely and important.)

13 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: What to do after tenure denial?”

  1. accm Says:

    I’d say check with the faculty association or equivalent as to whether it was really “legal” to apply tenure criteria that came into effect or were revised after the initial hiring contract. That is, shouldn’t she have been grandfathered under the old criteria? Are there other faculty members caught in the same situation? This will allow a better sense as to the grounds for an appeal, even if she decides that she wouldn’t want to stay even with a successful appeal.

    • Historiann Says:

      Agree 100%. Their procedures won’t hold up to scrutiny if it is as the LW says it is. I think paying a few hundred bucks to consult with an employment attorney would be worthwhile, but also agree with the Grumpies that you ma not want to fight for this crappy job & instead spend your energies getting out and moving on. We all know of people who left academia either voluntarily or involuntarily and got back into it–so you can do it if you want to, if you can be mobile and flexible, and if your success on the immediate post-Ph.D. job mkt. is to be believed!

      Also: I think adjuncting a class or two somewhere else could give form and structure to your day. It’s also a means of getting to know other locals in your field/s and getting their advice & assistance for the job market. (Do you want to have to get letters from your crappy SLAC employer/colleagues?) Going from full to zero employment is a tough emotional and organizational hurdle, so consider picking up at least one class to keep you engaged with students & your subject. Also: library privileges, and an organized twice- or thrice-weekly get-out-of-the-house event.

  2. chacha1 Says:

    I’m not an academic so I have no useful advice, just wanted to say: sorry this happened, and good luck! fwiw, I have never regretted leaving a job I didn’t like, even that time I voluntarily downsized myself and took a 30% pay cut.

  3. CG Says:

    Second the advice to take the year and regroup. My Ph.D. advisor was denied tenure at his first university for what I’ve been told were suspect reasons. He took the next year and wrote an article that has since become a foundational text of our field. He got a new job at a better university and eventually got tenure there. I’m pretty sure that allowing himself that space was what enabled him to write that article. And I’m also sorry this is happening to you. I do hope that in time you look back on this as the opportunity that allowed you to do the next great thing in your life, although it’s hard to see that in advance!

  4. illiniblech Says:

    This is a great post, very thoughtful. I’m sorry this happened. and I third the advice to take the year to regroup. However, I would hope that year is on your horrible SLAC, and this is the reason to appeal (or, in some places, an informal inquiry prior to an appeal). Not b/c you want the job back, but b/c a) you allege a kind of bait-and-switch, and it sounds like you’re organized enough to have actual data, and b) if they’re anything like other slacs (and i must say, they may not be, given the lack of a terminal year), your appeal will result in offers of $ to make you quieter. In the best circumstances, you can make your own terminal year on their dime.

  5. Chair of a Research Center Says:

    Your alma mater might be another place to try for a Visiting Prof or Visiting Scholar position to ride the year out; they may also help in terms of making healthy and positive connections needed to find new positions.

    Visiting Scholar positions overall can be great if you have the time and money. It would allow you to reset your scholarship in an appropriate setting. At my (major public) university, many of the research centers sponsor Visiitng Scholars, who have library access and work spaces, for a relatively small fee ($1k+ a year).

  6. moom Says:

    Appeals can definitely work in many cases….

  7. Susan Says:

    As a survivor of tenure denial who appealed (and kind of won, but then managed to lose again with the pres) and brought a law suit, I’d say only appeal if there are procedural errors in the process. It’s much easier to appeal on procedural grounds (not, I should have got tenure because I’m so good, but you did not follow your own rules, and that messed up my case). And *to some extent* it buffers the emotional issues. But people respond to procedural claims much better and generally more rationally than they do to substantive ones. And, if you appeal, be clear about what you really want. Is it for your honor? To stick it to people who mis-behaved? etc. And don’t appeal if the appeal can’t get you what you want.

    I’d agree with taking time to regroup, but also keep your eye out for good VAP positions that might show up around now. Because Historiann is right, the really hard thing is a lack of structure. That combined with the combined anger and sadness is a recipe for not much happening in your life. It’s really easy to sit at home and play lots of solitaire. So whatever works to give some structure to your life is good.

    And try not to beat yourself up. You did all the homework you could in advance, and you made the best decision with the information you had. Some of that information was wrong, or dishonest, but you’re not responsible for that.

    I’ll also say that my tenure denial was the best thing for me intellectually. . . it really opened me to whole new areas of knowledge and ways of thinking. So it was bad, but I am now a much more interesting scholar as a result.

  8. xykademiqz Says:

    I got nothing, other than shameless self-promotion through a link to this post
    that is on the topic of tenure denial, but likely not very helpful in practical terms.

    I am currently serving on the university level committee that is *the* hurdle to jump over in the tenure process. I can say that we really scrutinize every word in the dossier and discuss things at great length; nobody on the committee votes “no” lightly, as we know we are likely voting against a person’s future in academia.
    However, my university has a strong tradition of faculty governance, so it’s essentially unheard of that the dean or provost would overturn the recommendation of the committee, especially a positive one…

  9. psycgirl Says:

    My advice (which might be terrible btw) is to cover all bases – appeal the denial because it sounds like they didn’t apply the standards given at time of letter of offer, which is probably not appropriate/not allowed. That will buy time and an affiliation if you win. In the meantime, start seriously looking for jobs which you can do from the security of a tenured position. If you lose, no harm done expect some prolonging of the (shitty emotional) process. If you win, half ass everything and leave ASAP.

    Also, you should look after YOU first, but an appeal also sends the message that you can’t screw over other junior faculty by the bait and switch, because it won’t go smoothly.


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