"BUT...what puzzles me, then, is the abundance of stuff we read in the blogosphere about how time-consuming it is to be on the tenure track, how it sucks up your life, etc. I'm not saying that less time demanding equals less challenging, but all this time I've carried around the impression that my life is going to be hell when I get the job I want. I've even told some of my friends when we marvel at how busy we are and how buried in work we are that "It's only going to get worse--this is like boot camp for when we find jobs." Maybe all this time I have been inflicting this upon people without knowing what I was talking about...only I read what I was talking about from profs on the tenure track!"What is striking to me is how much of a divide there seems to be between grad students' expectations about the profession and what professors do or should do (and I include my own expectations that I'd had as a grad student in that description) and what professors perceive as "common knowledge" about the day-to-day grind. And I think that the gap between these two perspectives leads to a lot of miscommunication and misinterpretation on both sides. So, the point of this post is to attempt to articulate my experiences with the different roles of this job that I've got, as somebody who is on the tenure-track and not-yet-tenured, at a state university that emphasizes teaching, who is in the humanities. Let me say for the record that I am decidedly not speaking for All Professors here - just for myself. It would be great if this gets a dialogue going where people from other disciplines, other kinds of institutions, other perspectives in the promotion and tenure hierarchy (including adjuncts, full-time instructors, VAPs, etc.) threw in their two cents as well. The point here for me is not to paint One True Picture of life on the tenure-track, but I suppose it is to clarify some things that I think I tend to assume are implicit in what I write on the blog but that don't come across to the entire audience of the blog.
When I was in graduate school, one of my mentors told me a version of what Manorama's quote above describes: that if I thought grad school was hard/time-consuming, that life as an assistant professor would be 10x that. This, for me, has been true in many ways, though I think that requires explanation. Graduate school for me was intense and grueling. I am not going to deny that. But it was intense and grueling in ways that were decidedly different from the ways in which the job now is intense and grueling. It's that difference that makes being on the tenure-track more difficult, in my estimation.
So what are the differences?
1. Social networks.
- One thing about grad school is that one has a ready-made cohort of people with whom to discuss one's work and with whom one can socialize. One enters at the same time with a group of other people, and one has a common experience with that group of people. Even if you don't like every person in your cohort, you do speak a common language, at least to some extent, if only because you're taking the same courses with the same instructors. In addition, there is a strong likelihood that there will be one or more people generally working in the area in which you focus your research. Finally, everybody in graduate school basically has the same primary goal: to finish the program successfully. Even if there are differences between you (plans for after the degree, family situations, hobbies, whatever), every person's primary focus is that degree, otherwise they wouldn't be in graduate school. Now, the group-think and paranoia that can result from that can be a burden, and I remember in grad school longing for "regular conversations with normal people that have nothing to do with work."
- When one enters a job on the tenure-track, one likely has moved to a part of the country where one has little-to-no social network in place, and one typically does not enter with a cohort of people with whom one will have any sort of common experience. Unless one is in a huge department, it is likely that you will be the only person who works on whatever it is you work on. Moreover, people do not necessarily have goals that in any way resemble each other: some people are focused on raising children, some people are focused on hobbies outside of the job, some people are focused primarily on teaching, some people are focused on research interests, etc. And perhaps most importantly, when you enter a job on the tenure track, while your department may be quite friendly in a professional sort of way, people have their own lives and priorities and becoming your new best friend probably is not high on the list. So you get plopped down in a place where you likely do not have family or friends, and you have to invest time in developing a social life that you just did not need to spend when you were in graduate school. One of the difficulties in managing how to do this, at least for me, has been that up until I got this job I'd pretty much let my social life take care of itself and used most of my energy on my academic life. If you do that at the expense of your personal life once you get on the tenure-track, it can lead to profound unhappiness. The problem is, graduate school trained me to efface my personal needs in favor of my academic pursuits, and so it's required a kind of rewiring of my internal hardware in order to allow myself to make my personal life a priority.
- I taught independently throughout graduate school, and I also TA'd in large lecture courses. My work in the classroom was twofold: to teach students (obviously) but also to learn how to be an effective teacher. While obviously there were some administrative tasks that were under my purview, particularly in the courses that I taught independently, the buck did not stop with me. If there was a problem with a student, I had the support of "real" faculty who would step in should the need arise (for example, with plagiarism cases, conflicts with student behavior, grade disputes, etc.). Moreover, the number of students for whom I was individually and solely responsible never exceeded 30 or so. Finally, teaching was always regarded as secondary to research, as what gets one a PhD is not, in fact, teaching, but rather writing one's seminar papers, passing one's comps, and writing one's dissertation.
- In my current job, I am independently responsible for approximately 90 students per semester, not counting advisees (if I don't have a course release). I do not have TA's. The buck stops with me for all administrative tasks. By Spring 2008, I will have developed approximately 10 new courses. Teaching as a whole does not take less time than when I was a graduate student, but certain tasks associated with teaching now take less time because if they didn't, I would be either insane or dead. Teaching technically counts more than anything else toward tenure at my institution, but while this is the official party line, good teaching alone will not get a person tenure here. There are no awards for excellent teaching available for junior faculty. So the expectations for junior faculty in this regard can be muddy, for if one spends too much time on teaching, one is often advised that one should assign less, etc., but if one does not perform well on evaluations, one will be criticized for not devoting enough time to teaching (and often this criticism will be couched in terms like, "maybe you're spending too much time on research"). It should be noted that none of this has anything to do with actual time spent, but more with hitting a kind of middle-range with one's teaching, which can be difficult to do in one's first year or two when one is still getting used to institutional norms and expectations.
- Service was barely on the radar for me as part of this profession when I was in graduate school, and I say that as a person who actually made an effort to do a few service activities just to have them on my CV. While I was vaguely aware that I would have to serve on committees and advise students, I really had only half a clue about this component of the job. And the few "service" things that I did do as a graduate student took maybe one or two hours a month.
- Oh holy hell. Service now. Where do I even begin. First of all, all service is not created equal, and depending on one's institution, some service "opportunities" count more than others. For example, at my university "service to the community" is a big thing. That doesn't mean that one can skip out of other "service," which includes things like serving on department committees, university committees, professional organizations within the discipline, reviewing articles for journals, advising students (although many places now try to place this under the teaching heading), writing letters of recommendation for students, advising student organizations, judging student writing contests, requesting new acquisitions for books and other materials at the library, and god only knows what else. Oh, and while this doesn't count as service, one also needs to attend things like department meetings, campus events, etc. It's all about "visibility." (Note that in grad school people often expect you to be kind of invisible because it means you're writing.) I'm going to estimate that during the academic year I spend at least as many hours on this sort of stuff as I do in the classroom.
- In graduate school, research was the thing. Research is ultimately the point of a PhD. While there are anxieties associated with this, it also means that one can maintain certain periods of long and intense focus on research, and that such activities are rewarded. One is expected to be reading, expected to be thinking, expected to be writing. And everybody else is doing that same thing alongside you, so it does not necessarily have to be a tremendously isolating experience (though of course, it sometimes still is). I had space in which to think about research in complicated and intense ways in graduate school.
- Research now... well, it means a lot of other things for me now that it just didn't mean when I was in graduate school. First, research is an essential part of keeping my job. Yes, there are tenured faculty at my institution who received tenure without any publications, without conferences. But that was in days gone by. The requirements are changing, and have changed even since I first arrived here, and there is no grandfathering where tenure requirements are concerned. What this means is that, because one can't predict in year one what the requirements will be in year six when one goes up, that one must maintain at least a minimal level of research productivity throughout one's years on the t-t, whatever advice one might receive from senior colleagues who claim that research is not important. It is also helpful to try to remain under-the-radar as much as possible with one's research accomplishments, in order not to alienate those same senior colleagues who will evaluate one for tenure even though they may have fewer research accomplishments than one has. But ok, so what might a minimal level of research productivity look like? Let's say it's two conference presentations a year and one or two articles in peer-reviewed publications. Not much, right? But. Let's say one chooses just to do that bare minimum. Will one have any potential to get another job should something go wrong come tenure time (which it still could, of course) or if one wants to move to another job? At least in English, your chances would be dramatically reduced, especially if you hoped to move to a better institution than your current one. But, you say, what if you have no interest in getting a new job? That minimal research agenda can still hurt you because the reality is that one of the few ways to increase one's base salary is to get an offer from another institution and to negotiate with your current one to keep you. Moreover, research matters in terms of maintaining one's own reputation in the profession, and one of the reasons why I wanted to be an academic - and not "just" a teacher - is because I care about being part of a scholarly community, and let's not forget that it's membership in that scholarly community that makes letters of recommendation that I write for students or mentorship that I am able to offer them more meaningful.
Professors are not merely bitching because their precious vacation time (or evenings, or weekends, or whatever) is interrupted. And they're not bitching because they don't care about students or they don't care about their jobs. And they're not merely lounging atop their PhDs getting a free ride when the rest of the world is off working.
Now students (undergrads or graduate students) may say, "but we're juggling, too!" I'm not saying that you're not. I'm not saying that I didn't. But the reality is that when I was a student, I felt like I was juggling maybe 5 balls at any given time. Now I feel like I'm juggling about 15. And part of any frustration I feel related to that comes from the perception on the part of many (both inside and outside academia) that I only, in fact, am juggling one ball - the ball that relates to students.
What seems apparent to me as I edge ever closer to tenure is that students, while they may be the "reason" for institutions such as mine to exist (particularly in a customer-service model of higher education), are not the only raison d'etre for the professor. Indeed, my job includes a hell of a lot more than "serving students" in the conventional sense (office hours, time spent in classroom, correspondence with or related to students, meeting with advisees). At least at my institution, the only employees who have that single mission are adjuncts or non-tenure-track faculty, and that is only if they do not aspire to tenure-track positions in higher education.
Now again, let me reiterate: It is important to note my specific context here. I am not saying that this is the one true picture of what it is to be a college professor. Moreover, let me just state for the record that I would not trade this job for another. I didn't write this post to complain about how hard my life is, or to say that this career is the most demanding or any other such nonsense. The fact of the matter is, I have a great deal of control over my working life, which is the benefit that occurs alongside the frustrations that may come from needing to juggle so many competing demands. I'm challenged by my job, and I continue to feel passion for what I do. My job allows me - in fact requires me - to have an intellectual life. Those are not small things, and I know that they're not. But if we're going to have a discussion about how professors should treat students or about how professors spend their time, I feel like we've got to get specific about what this job actually involves. And I feel like most of the time, those specifics are absent from the conversation.