The last push to tenure

Time on the tenure track is like being in labor. It is like five or more exhilarating and painful years of labor, with the promise of a hard-earned and beautiful reward at the end. Just as every labor and birth story has its own arc, every person’s time on the tenure track will have unique plot twists and challenges, and sometimes the outcome is heart-breaking.* The process of birthing, whether a baby or a tenure package, isn’t always what we had idealized.

Acknowledging these variations, if we proceed with the analogy anyway, then there a few generalized stages of the process: early labor, active labor, pushing the baby out, and delivering the placenta. In early labor and active labor, mothers experience contractions that dilate or open the cervix, making a passage big enough for the baby. On the tenure track, those contractions are the periods of intense busyness (and often stress) that we periodically experience in the years leading up to tenure. Each contraction, hopefully, results in some product — a paper or grant submitted or revised, a student defended, a new course taught — that moves us closer to our goal of tenure. If all is going according to the stereotypical script, the contractions — and their products — become more frequent as time goes on, and we show a “trajectory of success” that brings us to tenure. Sometimes, though, things stall out for a while, and contractions don’t produce as much progress as we would like. Eventually though, though the mother is fully dilated and we approach the end of our tenure clock. Time for the next stage.

After the birth canal is fully dilated, most mothers feel an urge to push the baby down and out. In our analogy, this stage represents the final few weeks or months before submitting our tenure portfolio for review. At this point, experiences can diverge dramatically. I’m told that some mothers find the pushing to be the best part of labor, as it’s the point where they finally feel in control of the process. Other mothers talk of pushing once or twice and out comes the baby, making that stage a relative cinch compared to what came before. So too, some faculty members seem to find the final weeks and months before tenure a comparative breeze. I know of at least one person who turned in all of her materials two months early, knowing that she had easily cleared the bar for her institution and that there was nothing else she needed to (or even could) do to strengthen her case. I envy those mothers — and those faculty members.

For both of my birth experiences, the pushing stage was the hardest part, where my body was working at its maximum capacity and it seemed like nothing was happening, where the concern grew on the faces of the people attending the birth, and where I felt the least confidence that I was actually capable of delivering a healthy baby from my body. So too, the pushing stage of at the end of my time on the tenure track strained me intensely and was fraught with fear that all of my work over the last eight years would not be enough to earn me the right to stay in the job I love. A terrible combination of personal and professional factors – some a long-time building, some unforeseeable – meant that I felt I had to push hard in the two months between returning from my too short maternity leave and submitting my tenure dossier. Maybe in my childbirth experiences, exhaustion and strain meant I was reading too much in the expressions and tones of those around me and maybe things were actually going great — but that doesn’t diminish how hard it was on me physically and emotionally. So too, some people may say that my last push to tenure was unnecessary and that I would have been fine without it, but no one but the people voting on my tenure case knows that for sure, and those people are not in the practice of making guarantees. So I pushed, and I strained, and it was hard on my body and on my spirit. Now, I won’t know for nearly a year whether the contractions of the last eight years and the pushing of the last few months have produced a healthy tenure decision. So I wait, just as I waited while they whisked my baby across the room in case he needed resuscitation. (Those minutes felt like a year. This wait will be an actual year, but the minutes for my baby were a million times harder.)

Now, having pushed hard on my tenure dossier, I am left to deal with the afterbirth. I need to pick up the pieces of projects and students neglected while I focused on the few things that would show up as substantive line items on my C.V. More importantly, I need to make things up with my family, who bore my strain too in those final weeks. I also need to muster the energy to continue to look focused and productive in front of my colleagues who won’t vote on my case until months from now. But I am exhausted, so I really just want to rest and heal. Because I know that life with a newborn — or life after tenure — comes with its own set of demands and its own set of rewards. And I am looking forward to meeting them.

*I really hope that in making this analogy, I am not trivializing anyone’s experiences with infertility, pregnancy loss, or still birth. It is, most assuredly, not my intention. I have suffered those anguishes too and find it hard to put them into words.

9 thoughts on “The last push to tenure

  1. A soulful, heartfelt piece and thanks for sharing. I want to be respectful of childbirth analogies, given my observer-only status. I am a bit concerned though…”the promise of a hard-earned and beautiful reward at the end?” Um, yeah, kind of. If you’re looking for some kind of post-tenure Eden, someone needs warn you: it does not get easier. Different at different institutions, obviously but, heh…keeping with your analogy…after your tenure baby comes, you’ll loose a lot of sleep and you will have to deal with a lot of shit.

    • True. As I said at the end, I’m under no delusion that post-tenure life is all snuggles and no spit up. But compared to having spent nearly a decade with the threat of “if you’re not good enough, we’ll get rid of you in a few years [or sooner]” the concept of tenured job security seems like a pretty beautiful promise.

  2. Huh, interesting. Have done the childbirth bit, but only watched the tenure process bit. Seems like a reasonable analogy. But… I almost died during the delivery of the placenta; I realize that for most people (and for 1 of 2 births for me), the afterbirth part is not a big deal, but if your analogy holds, the period post submission of the dossier can have hidden dangers. Make of that what you will.

    • Yikes! Yes, I feel like the period post-dossier submission, pre-decision is when you most vulnerable to the unpredictably shifting winds of academic politics within the university. But tenure is not a literal life or death situation, thank goodness, so my analogy is at its root imperfect.

  3. I just wanted to chime in here to appreciate your disclaimer at the end. I started reading this piece and it really put a damper on my lunch break, but having that recognition helped a lot. I’ve been through labor and delivery once, but it was 4.5 months into my pregnancy and it was to deliver a dead fetus, so… I sure hope my tenure process isn’t anything like my L&D experience. I am coming up for reappointment next semester, after all! Anyway, yeah, I’m glad you get it, and I’m sure that all the normal women out there will really appreciate this piece.

    • I’m so so sorry. I hope that your future brings much happier tidings. I was really worried about hurting someone, so I’m glad the disclaimer helped, at least a bit.

  4. thank you so very much for this post! i’m currently in the last push to tenure (literally in the pushing stage right now–not feeling in control at all as this is a first baby and i don’t really know what to do and didn’t know it was going to be like this) and have been scouring the web to find blog posts or academic advice that really tells it like it is to no avail. if you know of any, please let me know! your post brought me great comfort in knowing that others feel the way i’ve been feeling and that my immense struggle at this stage isn’t because i’ve been lazy/done it all wrong. i hope all turns out for you and that the waiting on the final result isn’t too excruciating!

  5. Pingback: Tenuremoon | To be tenured…

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