Staying on the tenure track when you probably won’t get tenure

I was going to make my first post here a practical discussion of some of the challenges a chronic illness creates for someone on the tenure track, but that can wait a few weeks. This post is about how thwarted dreams don’t ruin your life, and how staying on the tenure track when you think you won’t make it to tenure can be a good decision.

When I was 13, I read Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. The next year I learned about botanists who worked for the Missouri Botanical Garden, travelling the world and finding new plants. I was already in love with all things photosynthesizing, but I was captivated by the idea of scrambling through rainforests and deserts to find ones no one I knew had ever seen. That was the only job I imagined myself in for many years.

 Rain Forest Fog by kahunapelej on Flickr

My planned field site, circa age 15 | Rain Forest Fog by kahunapelej on Flickr

I often felt unwell as a child. By the time I finished high school, it was clear I had a disabling and incurable illness. As I got sicker and sicker, my botanical adventurer dreams seemed further and further away. But I still stayed on the path I thought might get me there – college, a science major, and undergraduate research jobs.

By the time I began my first undergraduate research position, most fieldwork was somewhere between extremely unpleasant and physically impossible for me. So I fell into data analysis. I started with data that other people had collected, used, and promptly forgotten. I became fascinated by the stories this old data still had to tell. For my PhD, I’m answering big questions with a dataset that was collected to solve a very narrow problem and then shoved into a filing cabinet.

When I read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, I didn’t know I’d be good at math, that I’d love programming, that making nice graphs would feel so satisfying, that getting scans of data languishing in a dusty stack for decades is almost as nice as Christmas. I might not have realized these things at all if I’d been sent out to the field that first summer with the rest of the undergrads.

Untitled by chromatist on Flickr

Between me and tenure |Untitled by chromatist on Flickr

I will never be an ethnobotanist or spend weeks at a remote field site – and I no longer really want to. Illness has severely limited many aspects of my life, but I’ve discovered interests and developed skills and strengths I probably wouldn’t have with a healthy body.

My illness presents what may be an impassable obstacle to tenure, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to jump off the tenure track as a graduate student.  Who knows how I’ll like the track ahead, or what side-trails I’ll discover along the way? For now, I’m getting a comfortable paycheck, my schedule is flexible enough that I won’t get kicked out for being sick, and I get to work on questions that I made up using tools that I like.

If I keep spending the time I’m well doing the things I love, I’m confident I’ll be able to spend my career working on problems I care about – only time will tell whether or not that’s as a tenured professor!

11 thoughts on “Staying on the tenure track when you probably won’t get tenure

  1. Well done, this post is directly from the heart. Thanks for sharing. There are times in all our lives where we have to compromise for some reason or other, and it is refreshing to find someone who is positive about the alternative pathways she has found, even if they are not those she originally would have chosen. Sometimes people just get bitter and twisted and try to find someone or something to blame. You are not like that, you are a brave and strong person, and i wish you well and hope you can remain positive and find stuff you like doing. d.

  2. This is lovely. I thought that it was going to go in a different direction based on the title!

    Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made some wrong choices in my path since I feel like I could be more prepared for my current interests if I had done x, y, or z, but I often forget about how the path that I took has somehow got me to where I am…. “I might not have realized these things at all if I’d been sent out to the field that first summer with the rest of the undergrads.” Thank you for the reminder🙂

  3. I was just referred to this blog by a colleague and I was surprised to find a post from another female academic with a chronic illness! Thankfully I am (mostly) in a remission period now but I went through a period as a graduate student where I was unsure if I would be able to work a 40 hour week, much less pursue a tenure track position. A lucky combination of a fantastic rheumatologist and a very understanding mentor has lead a new path for me – I have a permanent soft money researcher position in the lab where I completed my PhD and postdoc. It allows me a flexible schedule with no tenure clock to introduce unneeded stress (and impossible work hours) into my life. Its not perfect, but its so much better than I could have hoped for when I was diagnosed 2 yrs ago. All I can say is hang in there – you have a great attitude and sounds like you have developed some marketable skills that should help you find a position doing things you find interesting/challenging while allowing you to take care of your health. Best of luck to you!

    • Your position sounds wonderful! I think I’d be pretty happy in a position like that.

      I’m glad you’re in a remission period right now. Have you thought about what you’ll do if you have another flare up? Especially one that lasts a long time? I go through unpredicable good and bad phases and I’ve been struggling to come up with a way to keep my career moving in the bad times.

      • I guess I have been focusing so much on feeling good again that I haven’t planned for the event of another flare-up. If a flare-up lasted so long that I was unable to write enough grants to support myself I would probably be in a tough spot. My first “bad phase” happened right at the tail end of writing my dissertation and I still managed to finish, although it was about 6 months later than I had planned for. I wasn’t completely incapactated during that period except for the first month and a half, where I was unable to leave the house some days. In the position I ultimately want (adjunct professor in my department), I do have the option of paying myself part-time if I chose (e.g. 80% time). That could come in handy in the future. I don’t know. I guess my plan is to ride this train until it derails and if I have to develop an alternative career plan due to deteriorating health in the future, I will. One of the silver linings of the chronic illness is that it has taught me the benefits of being flexible in one’s plans, something I wasn’t very good at before!

        I am looking forward to following your career trajectory! Maybe your department (or one in which you have connections) has a similar researcher type position that might interest you if a tenure track position doesn’t seem feasible…

  4. Lovely post, a lesson of life!
    You never know what life will bring you, and so many people give up following their dreams, keep living a shitty life… I am sure that doing what you love makes you a happier person – I really hope that you’ll get tenure and keep sharing your amazing experience with us!

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    • One of my science teachers had it tucked on a shelf in their classroom and lent it to me when they realized how much I loved plants. I think it’s actually pretty famous for a non-fiction book about plants (admittedly nowhere near the popularity of something like a Dan Brown novel…). but there was a documentary about it and Mark Plotkin has won a bunch of awards.

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