Guest Post: Finding new definitions for career success: Turning down tenure

I turned down a permanent faculty position. Yes, I turned down tenure. The process led me to redefine what ‘success’ is for me, and hopefully sharing this unusual situation can help others broaden their definitions of success. To start, I love science. I have been sciencing long and hard for approximately 10-12 years, including a Masters, PhD, many post-docs, and nationally competitive Research Fellowships. I am a 42 year-old mother of two, working in plant biology, having graduated in 2007, and submitting my thesis while 8 months pregnant.

In the continent where I work, (not the USA) it is common for people to under-take multiple post-docs across up to 9-10 years. Given that I love research with a passion, and am prepared to sacrifice social life, food, and a decent salary, I decided to continue post-doc as long as I possibly could to ensure I have a strong CV, allowing me to win a permanent job in the city of my choice. Ambitious? Sure, but I felt (dreamt?) that if I worked hard enough, prioritized my career, published in high impact journals and won hundreds of thousand dollars of grants, I could be in the top percentage of scientists with permanent jobs. I don’t need to remind Tenure She Wrote readers, that the percentage of women is lower, and the percentage with children even lower.

This strategy of focus worked well, with me winning a university fellowship when my youngest child was ~1 (6% of applicants awarded), and then a federally funded Research Fellowship (12% of applicants awarded) with my youngest, of two children was ~4. I was thrilled to finally be working in the university of my choice, surrounded by women, in fact mothers, with international reputations and faculty positions.

The past 6 years have been a glorious honeymoon of research-only, independent grant funding, and the autonomy to work with the finest colleagues in the world. The grants have allowed me to fly to the best universities and field sites, collaborate with the world’s best academics, and this has clearly enhanced my international reputation, based on the invitations I have received in the past years.

Last year, with the final year of my research fellowship approaching, I started applying for faculty positions. This process led me to realize what type of universities I want to avoid (small town, isolated, and/or very under-resourced). During the process I was offered, deep breath, a faculty position in a city, not enormously far from where I live. I applied for the position merely to see what the job market was like, and because I felt like I was a decent match for the position. After they offered me the position, I realized more about the start-up package they were offering. Meanwhile, both my children and I became very sick, with fevers, and requiring friends to deliver us meals. The reality of relying on people for help, made me realize the cost of moving cities, and the benefit of grand-parents, and the support network of friendships earned over multiple years. Additionally, the negotiation process showed that this particular university wasn’t one where I could be the type of scientist I imagined. They do great work, with wonderful people and brilliant field sites there, however the process of deciding filled me with dread. I wasn’t able to sleep at night, and I confess, there were tears, while talking to older, wiser professors from different universities about the decision.

I finally decided to decline the position. Since then, the current government has ruthlessly slashed funding for science and research, such that the entire country has had massive layoffs, and the department and university is now on a remarkably tight budget. I hear from professor friends, of women who chose to work in industry as they can earn remarkably more, and work part time for the same income, and less ‘pushing shit uphill’.

Given the paucity of jobs in the city where my children (and their grandparents) live, I am faced with the very real possibility of leaving academia. I no longer view this as failure. I have now thrown aside the view that ‘only academia is success’ and instead realized that success is embracing choices which mean I can sleep at night. It is possible that my gifts may be better used in learning to program and code, perhaps within industry, rather than teach in an increasingly crowded university. After ten years of mothering, and academia, I see that my kids are not reaching their full potential, as I’m frequently thinking of work rather than their homework or social lives. Their father is helpful, but despite this being 2015 he does not take on board an equal role of parenting. I’m also deeply conscious that approximately only 10% of women with a degree reach tenure. Am I prepared to continue to pay the price? Time will tell.

I’m mindful that it is vitally important for us to encourage other younger women, that academia is not the only version of success, that a PhD is a stepping stone to multiple careers, and academia is only one. I’m also mindful of supporting other female under-graduates, and pregnant post-docs, that the road ahead is not easy and whatever choice they make is the best for them.

My new mindset is that, given I made each choice in the process with an enormous amount of thought, leaving academia is not failure. Staying in academia is not my current definition of success. This has been a hard paradigm to release, given most professors have a deeply restricted view of success as equal to tenure. My new definition of success includes not only ‘tenure in a city I was flexible about’ but now also ‘being flexible about a good job in the city of my choice’.

Tenure is not, I repeat, not the only metric of success. Those young in their career will scoff and say ‘ha, but for me, I can have it all, I can have tenure in the city of my choice, and children’. Perhaps you can, and perhaps also, we can broaden our definitions of success, to include multiple examples of success, working in industry, consulting, the Non-Profit sector, or government. Success, I realized now I have turned down tenure in the wrong city, is making choices that enable us to sleep at night.

Today’s guest post is by Melanie, an Australian Research Council Early Career Research Fellow (DECRA) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. 

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Finding new definitions for career success: Turning down tenure

  1. “I’m mindful that it is vitally important for us to encourage other younger women, that academia is not the only version of success, that a PhD is a stepping stone to multiple careers, and academia is only one…. TENURE IS NOT THE ONLY MEASURE OF SUCCESS.” Wow. I really needed to read this. Thank you for sharing your story. It is so hard when we live in a world where we achieve our goals in education and in our careers, but then we become mothers and nothing is as clear anymore because we have different priorities. I am so happy I read this and I commend you on your wonderful decision. It sounds like it is going to work out for you!!🙂🙂🙂

  2. Those are pure rationalisations (just to stay polite and not calling them otherwise). She’s not so passionate about science and research after all. She jus has other priorities (i.e. family and sleeping well at night). It’s nothing wrong about this, But please stop complaining about ‘’not enough mothers in academia’’ when you yourself are not willing to make any sacrifices for your so-called ‘’passion’’.

    • “Passionate about science” does not necessarily mean “research”. There are many ways talented and enthusiastic people can contribute to the increasing science knowledge in our society, without being in a University research lab. None of us can judge the passion or otherwise of another human being in the context of a blog like this. If the person takes the trouble to say she is passionate, then there is no skin off our noses to believe her.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. I do have one question, though. You say that you “turned down tenure.” Was it really tenure that you turned down or the possibility of it some years later? In the US, academics are initially hired as “tenure-track,” during which they must prove they are worthy of tenure (i.e., a permanent position) over a period of about 6 years. Is the system different in Australia? And does tenure in Australia mean that you are guaranteed a salary irrespective of grant funding (i.e., hard money vs soft money position, the latter being where, if you run out of grant money, you are essentially out of a job)?

    • Not sure if Melanie means ‘continuing’ position when she says ‘tenured’ – in Australia, continuing positions are paid salary, highly competitive and there are not many around. Incumbents do go through a probationary period (usually around three years) and are expected to apply for grant funding, which can then be used to ‘buy-out’ their teaching commitments and time off for research. Continuing positions used to be permanent tenure, but I know of many academics who have been retrenched despite this.

      And just to note that being granted a DECRA in Australia is a really great achievement – this is the premier research fellowship for early career academics in all disciplines. Well done, Melanie! All the very best in your future career, wherever that might be🙂

  4. Thank you! I recently decided to stay in my current city and prioritize my family and well-being rather than move to a city with more job possibilities. It feels really good to hear others further along in their careers validate this choice!

  5. What Ina Library said – and great post Melanie.

    Congratulations on the SUCCESS you have achieved so far. (yes, intending to shout from rooftops) For many, this would be a career maximum. It is wonderful that you are working out a way to flow with the “phases” of your life to suit your whole self and family.

    As an aside, being here in Oz and knowing academics in the US, I understand your predicament … things are not necessarily so straightforward here, either in a University or in Industry (if you can find the latter). Good work on making your own individual decisions, I hope you find something that suits your talents – old and newly-developed. And all the best for the future. With your ‘can-do’ attitude, I know you will make it. Or at least, make something of it.

  6. Echoing what the above commenter wrote… I really needed to read this. As a 4th year postdoc, I am coming to a crossroads where I need to decide where to go next. After doing research for 15 years in academia (undergrad through postdoc) I am feeling the need for change. But my mentors and those around me keep urging me forward, encouraging me to keep at it, stay in academia. I seriously take pause and ask, why? For the amount of education that I’ve had, the hours that I work, and the stress that come with my job, I’m not so sure its worth it anymore. Part of me wants to buck the trend and strive to be one of the few senior female faculty members, but I wonder that maybe there are fewer women “at the top” because they realize that their mental health and happiness is worth more. Before I get any more long-winded here, thank you for so succinctly putting-to-words the thoughts that simmer in my head, and for giving me courage to do what I feel is right for me, not what my degree dictates that I should do.

  7. I know it’s the norm in some fields, but it’s absolutely inhumane to make people have so many postdocs before being qualified for a faculty position.

    I am an expat, so I kissed goodbye grandparents and friends as a means of support many years ago. They would be nice to have around, but I can honestly say I now know how much I would have missed if I hadn’t moved away. It’s liberating in a way, even if sometimes lonely. Once I left homeland, I don’t care where I live; I am not really at home anywhere, which is fine. Having a great job and a great standard of living helps.

    This stuck with me: “I see that my kids are not reaching their full potential, as I’m frequently thinking of work rather than their homework or social lives.”

    I really wish it weren’t always expected of mothers to be responsible for everything under the sun in regards to their kids. But, I think you might be doing your kids a favor by not overscheduling them and not hovering over them. Often what we think as making them reach full potential is pushing them towards what we think they should do, rather than what they want to do. However, I think kids benefit from seeing adults who are passionate about something. And they do find their interests, but those may not be what you thought they’d be.

    I am a full professor in a physical science field in the US and I have 3 kids; eldest just finished freshman year of high school. It turns out he really loves his musical instrument (brass), spends a ton of time playing alone and with an ensemble, has become really good — and even started composing! Who knew? He found the passion all on his own. He also internalized that it’s important to be good at school and he loves getting good grades, so we don’t really have to push him at all. He’s a kid over whom I obsessed that he didn’t have enough extracurriculars as a young boy compared to other kids. In reality, he now seems happier and better adjusted than most. I think kids benefit from a bit of “benign neglect.”

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I LOVED your blog post and the honesty you shared. And huge congratulations on your achievements so far.

      I find myself in a similar situation and unfortunately, think this is stereotypical of the Australian setting . I did the overseas PhD/postdoc thing twice, second time dragged my non-academic husband kicking and screaming, got an NHMRC postdoctoral fellowship, then baby, then back at a research university. I found that my 10 years of academia had prepared me for the standard scientific journey (lack of funding, rejected papers, etc) but I was unprepared for an unsupportive culture, and how much these factors would impact my scientific productivity. After 2 years of persistence and trying many options and being frustrated and deeply unhappy, I realised that it’s not normal!

      It takes HUGE and I think more personal strength and courage to take control of your life and explore all the options available instead of continuing down the uncertain postdoc path and having to make decisions about where to live, where to work to be productive, how many papers you need to apply for grants, who to talk to at the next conference, bla bla bla. And even more thinking goes into the process when partners and kids are involved.

      Best of luck to you on this exciting journey to a new career.

    • “I see that my kids are not reaching their full potential, as I’m frequently thinking of work rather than their homework or social lives.”

      This line stuck with me too! I don’t have kids, but this sort of excessive optimization sends chills through me. I grew up in an environment (Silicon Valley) where resources were just heaped on kids, and many of us became incredibly stressed out from the pressure. Some of my saddest friends were the ones whose parents were obviously sacrificing the most for them, hoping they’d become perfect little wonders, and now said parents are failing to disentangle themselves from the lives of their 30-something offspring. I hope the OP is in fact finding a good balance.

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