Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

I heard you got Tenure – Congratulations!  Count me amongst the disappointingly small number of people in the world who get what a big deal this is.  Tenure is a complex concept that means many things, but it does not mean that people will stop telling you what to do.  Count me amongst the disconcertingly large number of people in the world who will continue telling you what to do.  Let’s begin directly!  Below are ten things that I want you to do.


Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

1. Be Careful … to tell only the small number of people that you are already certain will be happy for you.  Let others vine these grapes according to the whims of time and chance.  I know your first impulse is to race to Dr. Bozo’s office in order to taunt him, and it’s a laudable one.  “BOOM!” you rap to a victory twerk, “Dead-old-man-just-a-picture-on-the-wall  / I-still-be-getting-mad-pay-to-diss-you-in-the-hall!”  You’re recklessly risking your buzz in that Dr. Bozo may then respond with, “It was only because you’re a woman,” or the exhilaratingly direct, “I voted against it.”  Let him say these things to someone else while you are at home having a little party — a little party, not a big party.  Hey, I know Tenure feels like a victory over something or a reward for something.  IT’S NOT.  It will take you a little while to figure out what it is.  A while.  Like months.

2. Take A Walk.  Go to a hospital intensive care unit, go to a sewage treatment plant, go to your kid’s daycare – hell, go to the slaughterhouse where most of my friends from high school work.  Grab a cup of coffee and look around for a while.  You will notice lots of women and men working hard to make difficult things happen.  Now stop and wonder if any of these people will ever be eligible for Tenure at their jobs, regardless of how hard they work and how effective they are.  Then wonder the same thing about public defenders, sex workers and Starbucks baristas.  Realize that the answer is a resounding “no”.

3. Ask Yourself … why the concept of Tenure is reserved for academics.  Is it because what you do is more important than what these other people do?  Newsflash: it’s not.  Is it because you are a super smart special genius who deserves more out of life than the average unwashed global villager?  Glory be — if you believe that then you’re probably already beyond help.  Listen up: Tenure is actually some kind of a tool that might be particularly useful in your line of work.  It is up to you to decide if you will shove this rare and transformative tool into a drawer and let it rust, or if you will pick it up and use it.  It is your choice.

4. Get A Piece of Paper And A Pen … and write down a few of the things that you declined to do because you were Untenured.  Pick the things that you really feel guilty for turning down.  It can include all those STEM education RFPs to which you didn’t respond, or the Rape Crisis Center that needed a faculty liaison.  What about the OA journal that wanted new Editors, or the journalist that you didn’t have time for?  The fact that you actually got Tenure means that there will be at least five items on your list, but limit yourself to the ten most compelling examples.  And don’t get all freaked out on me dammit — you’re not necessarily going to sign up and do these very things, but listing them is a critical part of the exercise.

5. Now Write Down … the choice zingers that you declined to say because you were Untenured.  Pick your favorites.  It can be things like,  “Modeling plant evapotranspiration as a passive function of atmospheric temperature is feebleminded bullshit you dumbass,” or, “Why the f*ck are we still teaching optical mineralogy when our graduates don’t know the difference between a plant and an animal?”  Or perhaps, “F*ckyou you evil f*ckwad registrar, my best undergrad is dropping out because he can’t pay the exorbitant tuition,” or even, “We both know damn well that dickhead is also sliming on the students and the staff.”  Again, list no less than five and no more than ten.  We don’t want go down the resentment rabbit-hole here; whenever you start to feel put-upon, go back and do step #2.

6. Think Hard About #5.  What was really behind those things you didn’t say?  What was your truest motivation for wanting to say those things?  What part of those petty sniping sarcastic comments was your brave heroic best self trying to come through?  What was the real risk that you chose not to take when you bit down on your tongue?  Now rewrite those 5-10 things  within this new and better context.

7. Compare … the items in list #4 and list #6.  Is there any overlap?  If there is, then YOU’RE GOLDEN.  Somewhere within that overlap lies the key to your unique potential as an agent of real change.  Right there is the intersection between what you believe and the access that your Tenured position provides.  Now take a deep breath because what you just figured out is important: You just figured out Where To Start.

8. Make A Plan.  Here comes the hard part: It’s going to take you some time to map out a plan for how to activate this newly-found potential.  You’ll need to disengage from most of what you’ve been doing and decide what parts of the status quo to dump unceremoniously in favor of your new crusade.  Map out a great strategy, and then map out several fallback plans for when your awesome can’t-fail strategy doesn’t pan out.  Know that you are basically starting your career over, with a whole different set of performance standards set internally instead of externally.  A Sabbatical is the perfect time to do all this – in fact, this is what a Sabbatical is meant to facilitate, IMHO.  Removed from the habits and rituals of your accustomed institution, can you envision a new set of principles, the new resultant set of tasks and new inbox?  Can you come back from your Sabbatical meaningfully changed, ready to do your work differently and with more conviction?

9. Commit … to your new Post-Tenure identity.  Tell the people you love and who love you that you’ve decided to transform the nature of your job, and explain to them about the greater good for which you are now working.  Ask them if they’re OK with it, because if you do this right, your world – and perhaps theirs – is about to be rocked.  You are going to disappoint some people by ceasing to do what they have come to expect you will do.  It will be scary, too.  You’ve decided to stop relying upon what has finally been conceded as expertise in order to launch shakier skills that you haven’t tested yet.  You will inevitably upset some people.  You’ll lose some friends and gain others, and you’ll come to know yourself much better along the way.  You are opting for the discomfort of growth over the entitled ease of decay.  Many days, you’ll find comfort in one thing only: You are not wasting the most valuable tool you’ve ever been given.

10. Change The World … into what you wished it was when you were coming up, as an undergrad, as a grad student, as a new professor.  Go out and give someone what you wish you had gotten.  All these things you’ve been bitching so bitterly about for years: Public apathy over Climate Change, lack of minorities in STEM, how damn dumb the students are – it is up to you to make the data that shows these things are getting better.  So gird your loins, Take Up The Tenured Man’s Burden and carry with you all the good luck that I can possibly conjure.  Go change our world a lot or a little.  Or a lot.  Because you are now finally doing something that only Tenured You can do.

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How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

Academia is funny.  At the beginning you keep asking yourself, “What if I am not really any good?”  Then once people finally start admitting that you are good you ask yourself, “What if I’m not really as good as they are finally admitting that I am?”  Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not judging — I used to ask these questions too.  A lot.  My own favorite version was always, “Why am I so much more famous than I deserve to be while not being nearly as famous as I want to be?”  But then I got over it and stopped giving so much of a shit, which makes me cured.  Here are six things that helped, in case you’re interested.

How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

1.  I got Tenure.  Let’s just get that out of the way, shall we?  When you don’t fit the mold or look the part and you constantly get messages saying you don’t belong, there is no Earthly substitute for a piece of paper that says you can never ever be kicked out.  The people who say that tenure should be abolished because it doesn’t mean anything anymore are both full of crap and without exception white men who’ve never been anywhere near the wrong side of the line.  My only quibble with tenure is that the people who have it don’t exploit it nearly enough to take new risks and generally agitate the system.  But that’s a whole other and more bitchier post.

2.  I took a good, hard look at my stuff.  And some parts of it ain’t pretty.  Particularly my early stuff.  Some of that was just bad bad bad bad bad.  If it came my way now I would reject the shit out of it.  I would use Microsoft Paint to scrawl “Your proposal is bad and you should feel bad” across the summary page and then upload it to Memebase.  No friggin wonder there are people out there who think I’m way overrated.  But you know what?  My science has gotten a lot better over the years.  A LOT.  So while I don’t have any confidence that what I am doing now is good enough, I have tremendous confidence in my ability to fix whatever inadequacies are shown to me.  I’ve also accepted that some of the poor bastards who had to review my early crap will never respect me.  Others are just plain prejudiced.  I can’t do anything about either, so why stress over it?  By the way, the folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends.  A thin skin is the way to go.  Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal.  But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply.

3.  I worked myself to and through exhaustion.   I could tell you the details, but they would make you question my sanity even more than you already do.  I will say that it involved years of high doses of nicotine, maltodextrin, lorazepam and prednisone, along with a lot of other things, and not always in that order.  And while I can’t in good conscience recommend it, it did accomplish something important for me: I don’t have to wonder if my Science could be improved if I just tried harder or put in a few more hours.  It might make me a lot deader than I am now, but aside from that nothing would meaningfully improve, and I have the data to show myself.  So Merry F*cking Christmas, because whatever you’re getting from me is the very best I can do, and we’re all just gonna have to live with that whether we like it or not.

4.  What I am is separate from what I know and how I perform.  I’ll even go you one better: I believe that my carnate self is necessarily and inescapably an imperfect approximation of my truest self.  Yea verily I say unto thee that I am one of those poor sorry sonsabitches who actually believes all that crap.  And you know what?  I lean pretty hard on this belief every goddam day.  Ok Dr. Bozo, you think that my science is garbage.  Well DUH!  Of course it is, you dumbass.  It is merely one rotten brick within this great subcelestial City of Shit that we are collectively tasked to remake for a better purpose.  So shut your hole, pick up a shovel and help me out.

5.  I lost interest in the question, How good do people think I am?  I wondered and wondered but I never came up with a satisfying answer.  It was like trudging around one of Dante’s circles minus even the companionable presence of other wretched souls.  I eventually realized that endlessly interrogating my intellectual worth was akin to weighing myself three times a day, which I also used to do and which was an equally pointless exercise.  When I finally conceded to myself that, well, f*ck it — maybe I’m not as good as people say I am.  Maybe I’m not as good as I should be.  Maybe I’m just actually as good as I am – then a more interesting question presented itself: What now?  What now.

6.  I realized why I the hell I am doing Science anyway.  And you know what?  It turned out that I am not doing this to please the Academy.  I don’t covet the approval of people who will never respect a face like mine.  I’m not even doing this in the hope of recognition, though should fame come my way I will unctuously welcome it with greedy open arms.  I confess that when Science is fun it feels like I am doing it for me, but in reality that’s not true either.  I am doing this because I am too small and the world is too big, and so I need to be part of something that is bigger than I am.  I am doing this for the women in my family who told me that they wanted to be scientists but never had the chance.  I am doing it for my grandmother who couldn’t have imagined the luxury of thinking for a living.  And I am doing it for the women who will come after me.  Each day I will deal with a little more of this shit in the hopes that they will someday deal with a little less.  I will roar like a dangerous Pekinese at my male colleagues, laugh in their faces as they twist the knife, and then go back to my office and cry into my blistered hands.  I will postpone lunch, then dinner, then pissing, then the dentist because I need Science now.  I will pound on the door of one funding agency after another until something finally opens.  And I will always keep doing too many things.  I will want too much, say too much and go too far.  But I will not wonder whether I am as good as I appear to be.  Because I am far too distracted with the fond labor of making myself into what I want to be.  Because I know that I am good enough.  For that.