Waking up

I’m your worst nightmare.

Not as in, I’ll do terrible things to you, but as in, what might happen to you.

I’m the kind of cautionary tale that you tell graduate students about. I’m the reason you warn new assistant professors to never be secure – to always look over your shoulder.

You’re a new professor, and you’re at a job that was exactly what your advisors expected of you. Maybe you secretly hoped for Harvard, but you know no one gets tenure there anyways. Instead, you’re at a good university with a second-tier PhD program in your field. Maybe you’re in demography, but it could be something else.

For three years you work hard. You have a steady stream of articles – it works out to 2.5 per year – plus a book chapter and a few reviews. Your teaching evals are solid, and stellar in your multiple regression class, which is unheard of. They protect junior faculty from service, but you do advise the undergraduate chess club, which doesn’t require much.

That third-year review is good. You’re right on track for tenure.

You pick up the pace: Year four sees four articles come out. (If you were in a different field, maybe it would be a book instead.) You have a couple of advisees that pass their area exams, and one of your undergraduates gets into the number-two program in North America. Year four and year five go similarly. You’re a shoo-in for tenure, everyone tells you.

You’re worried about a colleague of yours, though. He’s going up for tenure at the same time, and while he had a lot of promise coming in, he hasn’t lived up to it. Besides, there are rumors about inappropriate behavior with students. Just what that consists of you’ve tried not to find out.

Then there’s the collegiality thing. You get along with everyone, more or less, but he’s in with a particular set of faculty, which means he’s out with the rest.

But the news is good. No one is supposed to tell you, but the committee chair slips you the word that the department has recommended both of you for tenure. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, especially your wife. She’s pregnant, and you’ve managed to get the baby onto the list for campus day care. You haven’t applied for any other jobs, and you love your house.

Then you get the bad news. The college has recommended neither you nor your colleague get tenure. The department can appeal, and they usually do. Still, you walk around campus with anxiety in your stomach and a cloud of ignominy over your head. Everyone reassures you that it will work out fine.

On one sunny Saturday, you get the news. The department is appealing you colleague’s denial. They’re not fighting yours.

You go sit in your office in disbelief. You were a model tenure candidate. The only thing you hadn’t done was go out on the market this year, because you were busy and didn’t think this could happen.

You’re stuck here, among colleagues who have rejected you, for one more year. You have to break the news to your wife. And all your anxiety for your colleague was for nothing. You wonder what you should have done differently.

You wonder how you’ll get through the year.

You wonder what you will do every year after that.

The author is finishing his seventh and final year at a second-tier demography program in a first-rate university.



About almosttruetales

The stories contained herein are entirely fictional. Any resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Anyway, what seems like a unique story probably plays out dozens of times in other academic departments each year. I don't know if that's consoling or depressing.
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