What to do after Tenure?
February 9, 2015 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Recently Tenured Prof - Now what? Research limp, teaching meh, admin not thrilling. What did you do? Nonstandard (social-justice?) career/activity arcs for PUI Science faculty? Dealing with midlife-minicrisis?

Firstly I realize this : I’m lucky that I can even ask these questions.


Lab-based scientist. Early 40-something guy. Recently tenured Associate Professor at a PUI (predominantly undergraduate institution) in a major metropolitan area with a reasonable teaching load. OK department - the department is cordial but has no will (or means/ability) to transform significantly given the woes of higher education, heavily staffed by contingent/adjunct faculty, no new influx of tenure track faculty; ossifying somewhat.

 My research ideas are OK-ish but my passion for them and the field has diminished;the low-hanging fruit has been plucked in my field, the work goes really slowly with undergrads - I’m under no illusion that I’m contributing meaningfully to my sub-discipline, much less the field.
 I have a reasonable network in this field that I am loathe to give up, not because of the fields intrinsic interest, which stirs something  in me occasionally, but because the network is useful, and I feel somewhat respected. I’m also seen as a go-to person for this on campus - minor “status”.

I’ve developed an OK reputation as a teacher-scholar, claiming that science research is good training. I have been somewhat productive and won some grants.
Most if not all of my students are going on to non-research careers; I feel like a bit of a fraud peddling this stuff. Honestly they could be best served by critical thinking classes and a better broad education; after a while of doing science research the way we do it, the benefits are mostly in persistence.   

My standard mid-career choices of PUI faculty seem to be:

i) I could continue to struggle with research, be a big fish in a small-ish pond (no-one here on this campus does much real,impactful,  research). Or reboot research - to what(?) - with a vast inertia issue for funding and knowledge and network.

ii) I could try to radically change part of the curriculum  for teaching science to majors and non. I’m an OK teacher (esp for my field) but again, I’m under no illusions that I am transformative…..and I’ve seen lots of PUI faculty do this with very limited success

iii) I could go the administrative  and/or committee hopping route; spend 5 years as chair, get a assistant-deanship and try to leave to a different place… This doesn’t appeal to me as I really don’t respect the institution and it’s mission that much…..I also don’t know if I have the stomach for Administration with a capital A for it and don’t know if i *could* leave....although admin would be more deal-able with if I really respected the goals of the institution.

My questions are these: 

1) Are there any other arcs available to tenured PUI faculty,  that are more satisfying and worthwhile given the nominal freedom that tenure implies?

I have inchoate social justice-meets-science yearnings; perhaps like this guy
Does anyone know of any others? Know of anyone else that has mixed social justice with science?

2) How have other faculty dealt with the “tenured, now what” at PUIs question?

 Advice gratefully received for the dealing with the  midlife-crisis that (this question obviously signals) is upon me!
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of science do you do? Could you write and do activism on climate change impacts or other environmental issues?
posted by lunasol at 4:14 PM on February 9, 2015

My advisor recently got tenure and started a nonprofit and a student group related to one of his hobbies and has gotten a university grant for a "green" project on campus (all semi related to his field). There's probably some freedom for you to change focus a bit or pick up roles. Pursue stuff you're interested in and see what follows (the uncertainty sucks, but it's the only way through, AFAIK).

I'd keep learning about social justice and see where it leads. Female and minority representation is a big issue in the sciences and something you might reasonably affect at a pui (encouraging promising students, survey studies on barriers to participation, standing up to crappy culture at your institution). Scientists getting involved in policy making also seems like a hot thing now, are there local/state/maybe national issues where you could share expertise?
posted by momus_window at 4:35 PM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know of a scientist that went on to work with the Riverkeeper initiative, after getting training in mediation, and has brought a number of communities together to talk about difficult topics.

Upon reading Physics for Future Presidents (with my Book Group, no less!) that helped connect undergrad research and wanting to create positive, informed change.

Anecdata points. Regarding where you are now...you've updated your tenure status, maybe recruit a mid-career mentor?
posted by childofTethys at 4:49 PM on February 9, 2015

Am I correct in reading that part of your problem is that you're trying to do lab based research but it's just too resource intensive for a PUI? You don't have the funds, equipment or grad students to carry out impactful work?

What about retooling gradually toward "computational X", where X is whatever you currently do as benchwork? If you have a pretty good network now, maybe you know people at other institutions who have the resources to carry out experiments you can't but aren't fluent with cutting edge statistical methods for doing new things with that data? Maybe there are publicly accessible data sets you can work with (this is the case for someone at my institution doing genomics work, for instance). This might really be a boone for your students too, if you end up teaching a new upper level course that pulls in some of this work.

There is an argument to be made that the best thing you could teach your non-research path students is what to do when faced with a lot of data and some vague goals and questions; go from that to a hypothesis you can actually test, and arm them with as many tools as they can learn. The tools that translate outside academic science aren't benchwork anyway; they're things like Bayesian prediction or neural networks, which now have recognized business applications.
posted by slow graffiti at 5:08 PM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can you take a sabbatical? They are often used to jump-start research into a new direction, get some preliminary data that could get a grant funded, establish or renew a collaboration, learn a new technique, open your mind and your heels will follow, etc.

If you could do a sabbatical in anyone in the world's lab, where would you go?
posted by Dashy at 5:29 PM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're up for an interesting challenge in the public-policy arena, there are the AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellowships; a partner society likely has one in your specific field (I'm applying for an AMS/AAAS fellowship myself, so this is on my mind). It's more of an experimental plan than a radical change of direction, since it's a one-year posting, but if you're interested in where the rubber meets the road in your field of science, it might be a stepping stone to a more public-service-intensive career arc.
posted by jackbishop at 5:45 PM on February 9, 2015

As a fellow tenured academic in a kind of "small pond" institution who sometimes struggles with similar feelings, you have my sympathies. Some ideas:

* If you have an interest in education, but are no longer convinced of the particular angle you've been going with recently, is there a way to feed that interest in another way? I'm thinking of things like writing an undergraduate textbook that would be useful far beyond your particular institution, or investigating other issues in science-based teaching at a PUI (e.g., teaching to undergrads with the demographic characteristics of your population, or given your resource constraints, or figuring out how to work better critical thinking training into your existing curriculum, or whatever).

* Similarly, you could think about becoming a populariser or explainer of your field to laymen. That kind of thing is often very necessary depending on the area, and can be richly rewarding if you have a certain kind of personality. You can start slowly with this -- keep a blog, write articles for niche publications, etc., which will both serve as a "proof of concept" that you can do this (and eventually work up to book or ongoing series somewhere) and will also help you determine if you actually like doing it. Heck, depending on the area and your predelictions, starting a youtube channel might even be fun.

* Can you identify what aspects of your job really piss you off the most? Those things are, I find, the areas that I am most motivated to do something about and change. For instance, I was super-irritated at the poor quantitative and stats training our undergraduates got, and that got me involved in helping to restructure that curriculum. Which is not to say that it's all been smooth sailing, but it's been motivating and refreshing in a different way to be doing that rather than the same-old same-old teaching. You might find something similar if you dwell for a little while on what annoys you the most.

* I like the idea of thinking about how you can change the direction of your research so you don't have to rely so much on undergrads. I realise that, depending on what you study, this may or may not be possible -- but you do have time on your side now that you have tenure, and you can make this kind of change a long-term goal. Perhaps either by moving in a more computational/theoretical direction or finding a collaborator in a larger institution who can supply the grad students while you help with the analyses or ideas or theoretical backbone. I've been trying to change the direction of my research too (albeit in a different way), and it's very slow because of all of the inertial effects of grant funding and needing to get up to speed in a different area and so forth, but I think if you can frame it to yourself as a new challenge to get excited about, then it can inject new life into a research program that feels stale.

I hope any of that helps. Like I said, I sometimes struggle with similar feelings and I don't think it's that rare. It's a lucky problem to be having but don't feel bad about feeling this way, because it's natural after studying the same thing for that long and being in one place for that long. There are still options and you have a lot of freedom -- it's just really important to take the long view because none of this will change quickly. For what it's worth I think some of the most interesting researchers are people who have struggled with this and then done things that you wouldn't have predicted based on their early career work.
posted by forza at 5:51 PM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

You could look for consulting gigs on the side. Many scientists with an applied bent find that they can contribute in various ways to industry/government. Tenure gives you the freedom to reject things you don't like, which is huge. As you seem to be a good networker this is a new network you might start to grow, of people outside academia that might share some of your interests.

In another direction, given that growth of MOOCs you can see if there is a topic that you would like to build one around. Something in your specific specialty or something tangentially related. The potential for impact here is much greater.

In terms of shifting research directions, even though academia is a bit cagey, your easiest bet is to see if you can collaborate, even in a minor way, with someone doing something you have some interest in. Collaboration with someone good can be much more satisfying than working in a vacuum.
posted by blueyellow at 5:54 PM on February 9, 2015

You could consider serving as program staff at NSF for a year. That would take advantage of your existing research networks, and give your mind new directions to travel in.
posted by Dashy at 6:37 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

How long have you had tenure? A week? A month?

It strikes me that making tenure is the culmination of many years of hard work. Maybe the thing to do is to take a well-deserved break - either a vacation or a sabbatical (as was previously mentioned) - and give yourself a chance to really relax, chill out, and do some deep thinking and planning.

That said, if I were in your shoes, I'd maybe go for promotion of some cause I really believed in. While also working to become the Neil deGrasse Tyson or Jared Diamond of your field.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:49 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Know of anyone else that has mixed social justice with science?

Whenever people talk about "mixing social justice with [career]", I think you have to start with: When you think about social justice causes, totally aside from your work, what gets you going? Social justice encompasses this huge swath of stuff. I really care about representation issues and getting people from nontraditional backgrounds into tech--I don't know what I'm going to do with that yet, but I realized like the third time I went out for drinks and ended up going on at length to friends about this subject that it's clearly something that needs to be integrated with my future plans. Get that focus narrowed down. Doing Good is entirely worthwhile, but you can't do all the good, the same way you couldn't study everything even though I bet you were interested in more things in undergrad than just your current discipline, you know? To do some good, you have to make a conscious choice not to do other kinds of good.

If you can narrow down particularly to, say, 1-3 particular aspects of social justice that get you going, then I think you'll find it's considerably easier to brainstorm ways in which your current work could intersect with those things. And if you had trouble at that point, you could burn some questions on AskMe asking for help figuring out ways that, say, molecular biologists could assist with issues like food insecurity or voter disenfranchisement. I don't think this is particular to academia, though--I think many people end up not contributing much because they get caught up fretting about everything instead of just picking somewhere to be helpful.
posted by Sequence at 6:55 PM on February 9, 2015

I did, and would recommend looking into, the fellowship program jackbishop mentions above. There are other smaller programs that are similar as well. Thinking of what niches of social justice you are interested in (human rights? STEM education in developing nations? Etc) may help you narrow down organizations and programs to each out to.

Dashys suggestion is also a good one if it fits your discipline at all.
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:33 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your current institution simply isn't a good fit for you. Is it an option to look for a senior-hire position at a different institution that's more research oriented?
posted by kickingtheground at 8:56 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Post-tenure depression/blues is a real thing. Read about it, talk to tenured colleagues, and use this freedom to take a step back and figure out how you really want to contribute.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:25 AM on February 10, 2015

It looks like your question is really aimed at how to deal with job dissatisfaction in academia. Here's a few options you have.

1. Take time out to reassess your life/goals/etc., as others have mentioned, especially since you've recently gotten tenure. You've fought the fight, won the race, taken the prize... now what? Having to decide what to do with the rest of your life without the tenure pressure takes some adjustment.

2. Change institutions. If it really isn't working out where you are (e.g. you want to do more research or whatever), find a place that better matches what you want.

3. Live with what you have. Make your current institution work for you, whether it be in the teaching, service, or research areas. This may involve some settling, or may involve adjusting your expectations, or some creative thinking.
posted by aarondesk at 10:25 AM on February 10, 2015

I am in the humanities and achieved tenure eight years ago. I spent the last two years on a leave of absence, teaching in the Middle East. It was kind of a terrible gig, but there were some wonderful people there. Anyway, that time away has given me some perspective on my tenured position that has been helpful.

I would dig a little deeper into the whole "midlife crisis" element of your situation. I am 49.

Disclaimer: I don't know that my advice is worth anything, but it might be useful in a heuristic sense.
posted by mecran01 at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2016

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