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Note: I recently contributed to Dr. Veronika Cheplygina‘s blog series, “How I Fail,” to offer my own reflections on failure in academia. See the original blog post here. And, be sure to check out Dr. Cheplygina’s earlier writing on failure in the academy (here and here).
How I Fail
Veronika Cheplygina [VC]: Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.
Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.
I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.
Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.
VC: Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?
EAG: I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.
This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.
VC: What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?
EAG: I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.
But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.
I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.
VC: What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?
EAG: When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing. While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.
VC: What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?
EAG: Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.
VC: Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?
EAG: As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.
But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.
VC: Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?
EAG: Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!
VC: Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?
EAG: Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.
But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.
VC: What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?
EAG: To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.
I am embarrassed to state this… again.
My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSM — complex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.
But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).
Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”
I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.
But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.
The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.
And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.
I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.
There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.
I want to start this essay by thanking CC Carreras for taking the time to share her story with Huffington Post and the world. CC graduated from my university — University of Richmond (UR) — in May with a degree in Criminal Justice. She was in my Sociological Research Methods course a couple of years ago. I was initially shocked when I realized that she was the author of the HuffPo piece, that she would be so public about such horrific events and her critique of the university. And, then, I was heartbroken. CC isn’t a stranger; she is a student I saw twice a week for 15 weeks. I can put a face to a story. And, it makes me feel as though I somehow failed her as a professor.
I also want to express a deep sense of respect and admiration for CC’s bravery for speaking up. We live in a society — UR not exempt — that does not believe women in general, especially about their experiences of sexual violence; that would rather blame survivors for their own victimization than the perpetrators or the society and institutions that enable them; that would rather protect rapists than rape victims; that would rather discredit, undermine, and attack survivors who speak up than to support them. CC’s bravery has fueled others to speak up, either publicly or privately revealing their own experiences or fears of sexual violence at UR. CC is a role model in my eyes; she has spoken up about injustice at an institution she called home, only after failing to see justice by going through the “proper” channels. I hope that every UR alum feels called to speak up against sexual violence at UR and beyond.
Unfortunately, I also want to apologize to CC — as a faculty member, fellow spider, and concerned human being — for such an ugly end to her time at UR, topped only by being further failed by the university. CC, I am sorry that UR chose to imply that you lied about the mishandling of your reported case. I am sorry that the university chose not to support you as you bravely spoke up, or to apologize to you for failing you. I am sorry that it chose to distance itself from you rather than from the predator-student-athlete who raped you. I’m sorry that the university has not lived up to its desire to be a model institution, instead being one of over 200 that repeatedly fail rape victims.
Already, my words feel hallow. But, it took working up the nerve to sit down to write this. For, professors who take to anti-sexual violence activism do not fair well in the academy; some are censured, some are fired, some are merely tolerated. I already have three strikes against me as a Black queer non-binary person on faculty. And, I am pre-tenure, though basking in a much needed year-long leave from teaching to focus on my research. I have already developed a reputation for being outspoken on campus about racism, heterosexism, and transphobia. And, here I go again.
The fear I feel in speaking up as a faculty member is just another manifestation of a larger problem at UR: rape-culture. Despite having a feminist, sociological understanding of sexual violence, and sexuality and power more generally, despite having worked with a rape crisis shelter in the past, and despite a desire to work with students to improve our society, there is some chance that I will pay the price for speaking up. Rape-culture silences victims and their supporters, and it censures those who dare to work against sexual violence. Yes, rape-culture can exist even in where a campus office has been created for Title IX compliance, where “compliance” sounds an obligatory adherence to the bare minimum standard to ban harassment and discrimination.
Unfortunately, we have further proof: the University of Richmond sent emails to students, staff, faculty, and alumni that effectively implies that CC lied about the mishandling of her case:
While we cannot address specifically the contentions in the recent Huffington Post commentary, given our commitment to student privacy, and we respect the right of all students to express their opinion and discuss their perspective, we think it is important for us to share that many of the assertions of fact are inaccurate and do not reflect the manner in which reports of sexual misconduct have been investigated and adjudicated at the University.
Rape-culture, to me, is writing a two-page-long email to the student body and never once even mentioning the name of the alum — CC Carreras. It is speaking of her in the abstract — an “opinion” to be tolerated — only to say that she is making it all up (because who can trust rape victims, right?). Rape-culture is never saying a word about the rapist who may or may not still be walking around campus. It is using the cloak of confidentiality to protect certain details (the rapist’s name, whether he is still a student at UR, etc.) but not others (publicly stating that CC is lying about how her case was handled); it is using the law as a tool to revictimize a survivor and protect a rapist.
I am relieved that CC refused to let the university have the last word. She took the time to write an extensive response, in which she shares many official correspondences regarding the case and the many times the rapist violated a (rather flimsy) no-contact order. If you take the time to read the entire thing, your head may begin to hurt as mine did. The legalese used to protect a rape victim from further contact from the rapist is quite off-putting and cold; it reads more like divorce papers for a couple that is splitting up property than an effort to protect someone from violence. I have to wonder — why has the university asked CC to stay away from the rapist, just as it asks the rapist to stay away from her?
More importantly, I am inclined to agree with CC’s sentiment that the rapist received a slap on the wrist from the university, even as he repeatedly violated the no-contact order and admitted to raping her. He admitted to committing a violent crime and, as far as I can tell, was never arrested nor spent any time in prison. He was instructed to avoid certain parts of campus, but his time on the field and gym was not to be interrupted; that proved to be more important than CC’s safety and well-being. Further, the university has effectively allowed the rapist to attack other people. Indeed, there is research that is now 15 years old that highlights the reality that rapists tend to be repeat offenders.
As I dug through the many documents in CC’s second HuffPo piece, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, I was reminded of the ways in which the university is perhaps complicit in facilitating sexual violence. There is sociological research that highlights the ways in which institutions and organizations either fail to genuinely prevent sexual violence and punish perpetrators or actually enable rapists to attack people. The Hunting Ground, a recently released documentary, highlights the ways in which the promotion and protection of Greek Life and athletics provide free reign for college men to make a sport of sexually assaulting college women. It is naive to assume that campus rape is the “good guy” who slips up or goes to far or got a little too drunk, or that an obligatory three-hour-long workshop on drinking is enough to prevent rape, or that the university is a neutral party in this crisis.
As a professor at UR, I am quite troubled by the position the university has put me in. I vehemently disagree with the official statement that the university sent out to dismiss CC’s story as lies, and, instead, pat itself on the back for how well it handles sexual assault cases (despite being under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases). This is blog post serves as my statement — I speak for myself. Believing CC was never a question; my only question was how do I support her and ensure that students are able to do their work on campus free of harassment and violence.
The university’s email to faculty and staff, unlike its letter to students, gave no indication of responsibility or how I might get involved to prevent sexual violence and support survivors. It seemed as though the sole purpose of the communication was to let me know I could sleep easily at night because CC made it all up. It gave no reminder of my obligation to report to the Title IX office any instance in which a student has disclosed that they have been sexually assaulted. It made no mention of how I might navigate contact with the rapist, or even who he is. (Just last year, a student and advisee of mine mysteriously withdrew from the university — something about “for Title IX” reasons I learned. Was he a rapist? Since there is little punishment for perpetrators, how many of my students have been rapists? These questions are unsettling.)
Rather than keeping faculty in the dark, instead relying on staff tasked with “Title IX compliance,” the university has right at its finger tips a wealth of expertise about sexual violence, sexualities, gender, oppression, law, the criminal justice system, and so on. Rather than relying exclusively on peer-to-peer sexual violence education, the university could be employing professors to give talks, host workshops, teach courses, consult Title IX affairs, etc. Even outside of those of us with research-based expertise, it should be giving faculty more opportunities to work on sexual violence prevention. I know from private conversations that many of us are concerned, and now outraged in light of the university’s statements about CC’s original post; we are ripe with passion, concern, and conviction to see that UR reverses its reputation as being one of the must unsafe campuses for women. Can you imagine a university that has a reputation for a near-perfect record of punishing perpetrators, for supporting and affirming survivors, and for truly practicing a bystander intervention approach to sexual violence prevention? That could be us, UR!
We have to do better.
Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman (they/them/theirs) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Affiliate Faculty of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA. They teach courses on gender and sexuality, sociology of health and illness, social inequality, and sociological research methods. Their research examines the impact of prejudice and discrimination on the health, well-being, and worldviews of oppressed communities. They are also an intellectual activist and maintain the blog Conditionally Accepted — a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed for marginalized faculty.
Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.
I am currently wrapping up my third year as a tenure-track professor at the University of Richmond – an elite, small liberal arts college in Richmond, VA. This semester is the first time I am teaching courses I have taught at least once before; and I’m teaching the “two” of my 3-2 yearly course load. Finally, I have a little breathing room to really advance my research.
But, the service demands, and my own campus, community, and professional involvement have increased with each passing year. As far as I know, I am the only out Black queer faculty member on my campus – one of few LGBTQ faculty in general, and one of few faculty of color in general. My classes tend to have a heavy queer, (Black) feminist, and antiracist focus. And, I make an effort to be visible on campus, hopefully letting my fellow “unicorns” on campus know they are not alone. Students’ need for me to be a teacher, mentor, and role model seems particularly great at our small, slightly diverse university.
And, then there is my intellectual activism, especially my blog, Conditionally Accepted, which I hope will expand into a bigger initiative for change in the academy. There are the symposia, conference panels, and workshops at which I have spoken about discrimination, exclusion, and health problems in academia. Though less consistently, there is work I have done to make academic research and knowledge accessible to the community. Trying to earn tenure to stay in academia, while also working to change academia, sometimes I feel as though I have two jobs – and those two jobs are typically at odds with one another, unfortunately, to the detriment to my health.
I am undeniably spread thin. Due to fear of unclear and biased tenure expectations, I do my best to exceed what I suspect that I need on the research front. (Don’t we all aim for that “slam-dunk” tenure case? And, at what cost?). I sometimes push even harder on the research front to “compensate” for my advocacy – again, owing to fear of how others’ perceive my approach to being a scholar. Despite the fears that my blogging would cost me my job, I’ve kept at it since I started my position in August 2013; I’m now the editor of an Inside Higher Ed career advice column that is read nationwide (at least among academics). I’m frequently invited to speak on campus, attend various events, facilitate discussions, and so forth. I’m flattered. But, I’m also frustrated that the campus hasn’t employed more faculty like me to share the labor. For, that’s what all of this is – work. Work that is incredibly important, and affirming, and enjoyable. But, I’m only one person!
I’m only one person. A person who has suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder since 2010. An academic who was traumatized by graduate school, and is now seeing a therapist to begin the recovery process. And, now I suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, probably from the anxiety and trauma. And, I finally got over myself and started taking Lexapro. Health-wise, I’m a mess, or at least a work-in-progress. Why push myself so hard at work? If these were physical health problems, I would not hesitate to rest, resist demands of work, pace myself, and seek proper treatment.
Recently, my perspective has changed. I have shifted toward taking the long-view. I want to be in the academy for a loooooong, long time. I’m coming for the structures and culture that allows for the exploitation of, yet lack of support for, minority scholars. I want to educate thousands of students about the social problems of the world, and what they can do to solve them. Maybe I’ll serve as a dean or provost one day; hell, maybe I’ll defy the odds and become a university president. Or, forget thinking inside of the box; maybe I’ll start my own academic justice organization, working with multiple universities rather than within just one.
With that in mind, I have realized it is time to radically reprioritize. I have identified the two most important goals for my future as an academic and intellectual activist: 1) get healthy; and, 2) earn tenure.
Self-care is my number one goal. That means making a serious effort to do the things that will promote my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I hate exercise, but it’s good for me. I can never seem to find the time to meditate, but I have to let my brain recharge just as I let my body recharge nightly. I’ll continue to limit work to 8am-5pm on weekdays (with no work on weekends, of course), with a mandatory lunch break for leisure reading, seeing friends on campus, or walking. I will continue to see my therapist, take my anti-anxiety medication, and use workbooks and private journaling to recover from the trauma and anxiety. I realize that I will be useless to everyone if I am sick and suffering or have a limited capacity for anything other survival. And, to be grim, I can’t help anyone if I die young. I deserve to be healthy and happy!
Earning tenure means lifetime job security at my current institution – an incredible privilege these days, even in the academy. It means more freedom to take chances in the classroom, in my research, and even in my advocacy. Tenure means power and access to make meaningful change on campus, in my discipline, and in the academy in general. It will also come with the responsibility to be in service to other academics, serving on various committees, mentoring junior faculty, and becoming involved in faculty governance. I find six years on the tenure-track tends to encourage junior scholars to play it safe, prioritize their own career and status over change and service, and promotes worry and mental illness. But, it is, at worst, a necessary evil to make real change.
Together, these goals help me to determine whether I can accept or take on a new invitation, initiative, or opportunity. For example, when I received a last-minute invitation to facilitate an on-campus discussion about racism scheduled for late in the evening, I quickly declined. Staying late and providing the necessary emotional energy would not have enhanced my health, and I am well aware it would do little to strengthen my case for tenure. But, I did finally agree to attend enVision – a social justice weekend retreat hosted by my campus’s Office of Common Ground; I found it incredibly affirming to interact with students outside of the traditional classroom context on these issues. Blogging doesn’t help me for tenure, per se, but it is a necessary outlet for me to vent about injustices that I and others have experienced, to build community, and advocate for change. Unfortunately, I realize there are still some things that will help for tenure that aren’t so enjoyable or health-enhancing – like networking at conferences, occasionally publishing in high-impact journals, etc. As I said, it’s a necessary evil; I can chalk it up to job security as a matter of health and my livelihood.
But, admittedly, there is also a third focus: my post-tenure future. I have heard the horror stories of post-tenure depression. Junior scholars who keep their mouths shut and their heads down find that they are lost when they raise their heads upon receiving tenure. I am beginning to work toward the career I want for myself as an Associate (and eventual Full?) Professor. Maybe my research will catch up with my passion and advocacy; that is, I could turn blogging into actual research on injustices in academia. Or, maybe my joke that Conditionally Accepted will serve as the launching pad for my academic talk show, Academic T with Denise, will actually become a reality. (I could live with just a podcast like On Being, though.) There is life after tenure; so, I’m doing what I need to to have both of those (life and tenure), but also doing the groundwork for my goals for intellectual activism post-tenure.
I am fortunate to have friends, family, and colleagues who support me in these endeavors. I realize that this is not afforded to everyone. But, I also recognize that these concerns – job security, health, and needing to make a difference – are particularly heightened for me as a Black queer person. That is, maybe I’d be stressed, but not mentally ill and medicated, if I were a white cishet man. Maybe I’d be a touch nervous about tenure, but not concerned that my work would be trivialized as “me-search” – even if I studied the lives of other privileged people. Maybe, maybe, maybe – but that is my reality (for now). I need to stick around along enough to ensure that this is not the reality of future unicorn scholars.
At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches. Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?
Initially, I felt offended that they would ask. Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply. I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university. Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job). As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year. So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.
By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job. In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure. Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them. I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did. But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem. These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.
What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution? That never happened while I was in grad school. But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students. One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market. Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children. Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.
Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon. In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations). Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia. (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.) The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.
The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.
Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job
- There is no real reason to leave. Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.” They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere. They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc. They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city. Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic. My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again. Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs? That’s foolish and selfish.
- I like my job. Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
- Starting a new job is hard. Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard. Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust. I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about. It only took me two years to find them! And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community). Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea. The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
- Starting over is worse. I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution. So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not). Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track. That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over. No thanks.
- The job market takes up a lot of time. Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time. All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was). In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure. However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment. And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation. I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
- It’s too late. Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology). And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
- I need to work on my health. I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school. (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.) Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Wonderful, just wonderful. All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job. Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive. Again, why would I give that up? Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary. I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
- The job search is an awful experience. As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent. My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school. I was moody and self-absorbed. It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up. I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching. My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
- I’ve got baggage. And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent. I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program. Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters? Would they even say yes? Would they be positive in their letters? Do I even want their letters? With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate? (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market. Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.) Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence. Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
- There are few places that would be a good fit for me. I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school. That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me). Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation. Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out
most (all?) places in the country. The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
- There are no guarantees on the job market. Let’s say I went on the market next year. I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year. They may not fall into my areas of specialization. They may be in undesirable locations. They may include schools for which I don’t want to work. I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers. That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back. And, what if word got out in my department or college? Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search. I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me. Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
- Greener grass is deceptive. I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs. In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.” And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.” JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier. And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough. My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that. But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow. I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities. (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”) It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution. But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.
Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)
- Don’t settle. I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating. There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled. (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.) I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job. But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll. It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times. So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it. I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
- Being taken for granted. I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted. The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay. If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving. Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention. (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me. Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
- Know my value. I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth). You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers. Nah, I’m good. I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution. That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me. I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost. I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
- Increasing my status. Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school. I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin. I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do. At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation. I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world. Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community. With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.
“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say. “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking. My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job. The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move. It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges. Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).
In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics. You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc. I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life. On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose. But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career. I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.
I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good. If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship. We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door. (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)
I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet). But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life. You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself. To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization. Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc. Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.
If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.
- “How To Apply for Your Second Job” by Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In
- “Switching Institutions? Here’s What Your Progress Toward Tenure is Worth” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “How to Hop From One Tenure-Track Job to Another” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “Should You Switch Tenure Tracks?” by on Chronicle of Higher Education
- “Faculty Movers” by Female Science Professor (summary: moving jobs is controversial)
- “Academic Shopping Around” by Female Science Professor
- “Starting over on the tenure-track” by sciwo on Tenure, She Wrote