Now what?

My tenure packet is wending its way through the nearly year-long process, and while I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, all signs point to me having a job here in the future. My teaching load and service load have already seen step function increases, and I’m starting to acknowledge that I am finally, well and truly, mid-career. It appears that this professor gig is what I’m going to do with my life. Now what?

With job security in the offing, there’s a world of possibilities out there that aren’t constrained by what my PhD committee, search committee, or tenure committee will think of my choices. With job security in the offing, I can make choices that aren’t simply to always push for that extra paper or next grant proposal in case that’s the make-or-break statistic for my tenure portfolio. It’s liberating to be able to make those choices, but it’s also daunting. What do I want to do with my life? Now what?

Now that I don’t have to simply calculate what the highest-short-term-reward-least-time-cost item is on my  to-do list, I can actually decide what I want to do with my research time over the next few years and beyond. Do I want to stay the course and continue to focus on the topic where I have been making progress over the last several years? Do I want to pick up some lost threads from earlier in my career? Do I want to pivot – slightly or acutely – and explore new directions? Now what?

Now that I don’t have put “papers and dollars über alles” to keep my job, I can also decide how much of my discretionary time I want to put into those research products. I’m not suggesting I’d stop doing research, but maybe I’d like to reclaim a few evenings a week for relaxation (and housework). Or maybe I’d like to invest more of my time and energy on outreach, pedagogy, mentoring, or working to enhance diversity in my field. But maybe I really like research – and I’ve gotten to be reasonably good at it – so maybe I want to keep pushing hard. Now what?

I can see why there has been a tradition of giving faculty a sabbatical or research leave after a successful push to tenure. That semester or year off teaching allows for some deep breaths that reinvigorate. It allows for soul searching and finding new directions in research and beyond. It allows for the exploration of new ideas that might be more risky than what was pursued pre-tenure. Whatever justification is used by university administration, my suspicion is that post-tenure sabbaticals are really used to answer the question: Now what?

I won’t get a post-tenure sabbatical, because I haven’t been at this university long enough. Instead I’m trying to answer my Now what? questions while doing even more teaching and service than ever before (and parenting a big kid and a baby).  I know I want to make some changes in my research stream, but I’m not sure which ways I want to turn. I think I want some changes in the mix of ways I spend my discretionary time, but I’m not quite sure what mix I want. But I definitely want some more of those evenings off.  Yet I don’t have time, or really the quiet space, to carefully plot out how I want my research and life to shift, much less to explore new ideas that require investment of sweat and brain cells. Instead, I find myself making snap judgements and saying yes or no to things without a careful plan. I feel like I’m not so much asking Now what? as What now?

But maybe rather than beating myself up for feeling a bit adrift and storm-tossed right now, I could be OK with not knowing the answers. I could tell myself to just be excited by the opportunities that are coming my way in this new post-tenure world. The things that I’m saying yes to *are* exciting and they will lead me on new professional adventures. Maybe better answers will emerge after I’ve drifted for a while.

Wikipedia tells me that “emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.” Maybe that, in and of itself, is the answer to my Now what? question. Watch the patterns and wait for emergence.





14 thoughts on “Now what?

  1. This is pretty much exactly where I am right now. I am eligible for a sabbatical, but am also starting two years as graduate coordinator, so I can’t take it yet. I feel like my life for the past 5 years can be summed up by, “What’s next?”

  2. Here’s something that I wish someone had told me when I finally got tenure: figure out when you’re going to be eligible for sabbatical, and plan to apply and take it. (I’m going to take my first sabbatical here after 16 years on the faculty. I never found out what the rules were for people who had credit towards tenure from prior experience, and I committed myself to things that kept me from taking one, while watching my colleagues go through two rounds of sabbaticals. I’m finally taking one next year, but I could have used it about nine years ago. The “what’s next?” question never totally goes away, and I think a sabbatical will help me feel more free to really answer it.)

    • Great advice. And learn when the deadlines are so you don’t miss them. We don’t get credit for time at other institutions, so it will be a while before I’m eligible.

      Enjoy your well-deserved sabbatical!

    • Yes, good advice. Sometimes sabbaticals are not automatic, they need to be applied for and assessed by committees. So planning ahead, often a year ahead, is a good idea. In my case, it also helped to have letters of invitation from colleagues in other institutions, to spend some time following up on those loose threads that otherwise we had no time for. So well worth planning.

  3. I am on sabbatical right now, and for exactly the reasons you list here. Setting essential priorities, going in new directions, and/or paring down research directions is next to impossible when you are in the full flow of your job!

  4. It sounds like you embarking upon a whole new chapter of your life- CONGRATS! After decades experience in academia, I’ve observed good & bad come from tenure (thankfully, most of it good). In my humbled opinion, those who handled tenure best simply continued with what they were already doing. In other words, they did not “cash in” on all of the benefits of tenure simply because they were available.

    When the department head or dean came a callin’ for a favor, they did it. When a committee was short of the people it needed, they stepped in. When the custodian was out with the flu, they swept & mopped their floors. When students needed extra help, or could not meet during scheduled office hours, they made an accommodation. Teaching remained a passion, and they stayed focused on research. As mentors of graduate students, they actually spent more time, not less with them (because they learned initially you must nurture them).

    Now, for the bad. I’ve seen enough to know the phenotype is nearly monophyletic. The tenured professor comes to work when it’s absolutely necessary, but not otherwise. They flaunt their new found power by telling peers to “shove it” when asked to do a committee assignment or teach an entry-level course. They blow-off duties required via their contractual agreements, but no one bothers to complain, because they have “tenure.” Mentoring of graduate students usually occurs over the phone, but the conversations are short because the symphony is about to take the stage. They go on a one year sabbatical just after bringing in several graduate students and a new grant. Before hanging up on them, they order the graduate students to not only their job, but the mentor’s job too.

    It is an excellent sign you have put of your sabbatical to attend to the needs of graduate students. I believe that is a sure-fire sign you have nothing to worry about. Just be who you’ve always been, and life will be grand.

    • I don’t know where you got the idea that I put off my sabbatical to help graduate students. I’m not eligible, plain and simple. And I don’t think that delaying a sabbatical on behalf of graduate students is a particularly good idea. You can always plan your student admissions around times when you know you’ll be on leave and tools like Skype and Dropbox make it relatively effective to work with advanced students even from a distance.

      Let us hope too that the your tenured deadwood professor is a shrinking phyllum. Most of the tenured faculty I know fit your first description much better – though I think many of would draw the line at mopping floors.

      • Ah, I misunderstood- I thought you had delayed your sabbatical to serve on the grad committee- my bad. Perhaps I did not come through clearly on the sabbatical thing too. I believe if you have a PhD student into their third year, you are fine leaving. I don’t know as I would leave if I had MS students, unless there was a post doc around to fill in as a mentor. As we all know, graduate student life is rife with pitfalls and politics. “Fresh flesh” is often treated as such, and new students can become red meat awful fast. I would recommend against electronic mentoring for the newbies- and by newbies, I mean anyone with less than 2 years in your lab.

        Concerning tenured faculty- my experiences have been most are very attentive and responsible. Invariably the dead weight exists in any profession. I’ve also learned department heads absolutely set the tone and the agenda concerning effort and productivity. A good leader doesn’t tolerate bottom feeders- and, if they insist on playing golf, then the clubs are replaced with mop handles & broomsticks.

  5. I’m in a very similar boat, except my promotion/tenure coincided with a change of institution. I am MUCH happier now. I feel much more at home in my new department. While for many the new Associate Prof status might invite a ‘slow down’, getting myself reestablished in a new place with a growing lab has meant more hours mentoring, teaching, and doing research. More multitasking and a higher workload. And for now, I am actually loving it.

    The big philosophical question for me is what direction to take my research. I received a large NIH grant before moving on a project that was not really a focus of the lab, but more of a ‘bill paying’ endeavor. The trouble is, I am now much more motivated to pursue other directions and focus on what I really love to do (which is, of course, also much less fundable). I view this fresh start as an opportunity to invest in research that excites us, even if it isn’t the most practical. Somehow I believe I will make it all work, but time will tell. My biggest concern is the voice in my head (and the voice of some other colleagues) that insist I should double-down on the direction that yielded funding; that I risk diluting myself and becoming a jack-of-all-trades. I have a lingering fear that I am in a ‘honeymoon’ state of mind and I will end up frittering away my progress thus far and never get a grant funded on this ‘new’ research direction. I take comfort only in (1) my conviction that I must do what excites me in order to stay successful and (2) I am now in more of a hard money position. So I take tenure to mean a ticket to work harder than ever in pursuit of my next dream.

    • Abstitutely, positwively follow your heart. It’s no coinkydink that the best scientists are the ones whom were enveloped by their work. I worked for years as a biochemist because there were great paying gigs everywhere. After 12 years I asked “Why- with all the success & accolades, do I feel so marginal & unfulfilled?”

      Answer- I really didn’t love it. I walked away from $1.1 million grant just 6 months into it and said “Asta la Pizza, Baby!”

      Best decision of my life. I could not be any happier now. I am immersed in my love of science. It envelopes me. It ain’t that four litter word anymore (W-O-R-K). It’s my passion, and it’s better than any vacation I’ve ever had.

      Just Say Moe- as in Moe passion and less W-O-R-K! It’s the medicine of the soul.

  6. Just a thought: it may be that you’re over-estimating how much time you need to clear you mind and do some thinking. How about taking a day per month “off” (or two half days per month). Don’t do research. Don’t do teaching. Go somewhere quiet. Think. Write. You might be surprised.

  7. This is very good news! And I believe your thoughts on emergence at the end of your reflection might be a useful pointer for yourself. Often things cannot be worked out on a real or imagined sheet of paper because they need some doing first. The doing will help with the thinking and ultimately the being. Perhaps you feel like you have to have all the answers now but maybe you don’t! Maybe emergence really is the key to your questions. – I hope it’ll all go well for you, and congratulations again!

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