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Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul

Balance Is a Myth

February 1, 2010

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Each week this semester, I am identifying some of the most common errors made by tenure-track faculty and suggesting strategies to either avoid or overcome them. I received lots of e-mail about last week’s column Stop Talking, Start Walking! Most people expressed some version of the same sentiment: I'm overwhelmed, I don't have time to write because of other commitments, I'm falling behind, I can't keep up, I feel guilty, frustrated, angry and/or resentful because I'm working all the time but I'm not moving forward on my writing. I hear you, I sympathize with you, I’ve been there myself and it was miserable.

I hoped last week’s column would encourage you to see that the choices you make over how you spend your time each day can mitigate negative feelings by increasing your productivity in the areas on which you will ultimately be evaluated for tenure and promotion. This week, I want to go a step further by encouraging you to rethink the very assumption that tenure-track faculty are supposed to lead harmonious and balanced lives. In other words, another common mistake new faculty make is believing in “balance.”

Most tenure-track faculty members I work with seem to believe that they can achieve harmonious balance in their lives during the tenure-track years. To me, this is a problematic expectation because the structure of tenure-track life is one in which there’s far more work to be done than time in any given day. Let’s be clear -- if you have a stay-at-home partner who does the vast majority of household labor and child-care, you may be able to achieve balance in your life during your probationary period. But most of you are juggling multiple roles and care-giving responsibilities above and beyond new course preparations, heavy teaching loads, multiple service assignments, and ever-increasing research expectations. And you're often doing so with little social, financial, technical, and/or professional support in your departments, as well as varying in levels of assistance at home. In this context, the expectation of a balanced life seems just plain unrealistic. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but unfortunately this is often the way things are. And when we operate in the world according to how things should be, we can end up feeling like one of my mentees, who recently confided: "trying to achieve balance is just one more thing I feel like I’ve failed."

What would happen if you acknowledged that life on the tenure track isn’t set up to support balanced living and faced the fact that the years before you come up for your tenure review will be the most intense, stressful, and challenging years of your professional life? I believe that facing that reality head-on will allow you to release yourself from false expectations and shift your energy towards identifying your personal and professional priorities, working as efficiently and productively as possible, and remaining attentive to your emotional, physical, and relational health.

The Good News

There is good news here! First and foremost, while the tenure-track years may seem endless, please rest assured that this too shall pass. I can personally testify to the fact that after you receive tenure, your life will change because you will be free to determine the pace of your productivity and the stress of being on probation will dissolve. In other words, the balance you are likely to experience as an academic will come over the length of your career, as opposed to having ample time for everything you want to do during the tenure-track years.


While it's great to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, what can you do TODAY to manage your heavy workload?

1. Sharpen your focus.

The more you have going on in your life off-campus, the sharper your focus must be during the time you spend on-campus. If you have limited time each day, make sure a significant amount of that time is spent on activities (such as research and writing) that contribute to your long-term success and mobility. Likewise, if you find yourself working long hours and having little time for anything else, make sure that the things that are important to your relationships and your health receive attention.

2. Stop thinking you are selfish.

Last week, I was visiting a research-intensive university and had the opportunity to talk with a number of tenure-track faculty. During this visit, I kept hearing one woman after another describe the act of setting aside time for research and writing as "selfish." These same women described long days of putting everyone else's needs first and "hoping" they will have the time and energy to write at the end of the day. If you’re in a similar situation, release yourself from the idea that taking care of your own needs (not to mention making time to tend to the primary criteria in your promotion and tenure decision) is "selfish." It is not selfish to prioritize your research. In fact, it's your job.

3. Identify ONE problem area this week that you need to resolve in order to be more productive.

Try to identify the primary problem standing in the way of your productivity. If there are lots of them, then pick the biggest one. If you need some help identifying your problem, take a look back at the list on my blog “What’s Holding You Back?” If you still can't figure it out, try talking with one of your mentors and/or ask the peer mentors on my discussion forum. They are amazing at identifying problems and proposing practical solutions.

4. Take one small step forward to make a change.

Whatever problem you identify, come up with one concrete step forward you can take to resolve it this week. It doesn't matter how small that step is, just figure it out and commit to it. Maybe this is the week you are going to start writing every day for 30 minutes, saying "no" to any additional service requests this year, giving students a check mark instead of in-depth written comments, delegating non-essential tasks to someone else, and/or hiring someone to do your taxes, clean your house or shovel your snow. Making just one concrete change will create positive momentum, help you to begin resolving the deeper problems, and motivate you to take another step forward next week.

5. Be gentle, loving, and patient with yourself.

Learning to manage your workload and maximize your productivity takes time. Two years ago, I decided I was going to start running for exercise and stress reduction. At first, all I could do was walk around the track while other people flew by me. I told myself, "Don't compare yourself, you're just getting started, and you're doing the best you can for right now." After two weeks of walking the track, I was power-walking so fast that I passed several slow joggers and it occurred to me: “I can do that!” Each week I jogged one lap further than the previous week and before I knew it, I was running three miles, four days a week.

I could tell the exact same story about learning to work efficiently on the tenure-track. When I finally understood that I couldn't physically work 80 hours a week anymore, I started to make the changes that my mentors suggested. Again, I told myself, "Don't compare yourself to others, you're just getting started, and you're doing the best you can for right now." I took small steps forward, one week at a time, and pretty soon I was writing every morning, completing drafts, publishing my research, and feeling confident. Not perfect, not balanced, but confident that I could publish and flourish without sacrificing my health, relationships, and sanity.


This week I challenge you to:

  • Acknowledge that life on the tenure-track places incredibly high demands on your time and energy.
  • Take a look around your department and identify who is currently living up to your expectations of balance. If you find someone, consider initiating a conversation with her about how she makes it work. If you don’t find anyone, ask yourself if your expectations are realistic.
  • Release yourself from whatever negative self-judgments and criticism are keeping you from aligning your time with your institution’s priorities.
  • If you’re unhappy with your productivity, gently ask yourself, what’s holding me back?
  • Identify one CONCRETE step forward and commit to executing that change this week.
  • If you need support in making writing a daily priority, consider joining the Academic Ladder’s Writing Club.
  • If you haven't written your Semester Plan, it's not too late!
  • Express thanks to yourself for all the hard work you have done this year.

I hope this week brings each of you a sense of clarity about the structural origin of your time pressures, a spirit of gentleness towards yourself as you navigate this difficult terrain, endless creativity in designing your own solutions, and the feeling of empowerment that comes from moving forward.

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


Comments on Balance Is a Myth

  • This makes me sad.
  • Posted by Robert , PhD Student at Big State U on February 1, 2010 at 12:45pm UTC
  • "Maybe this is the week you are going to start writing every day for 30 minutes, saying "no" to any additional service requests this year, giving students a check mark instead of in-depth written comments, delegating non-essential tasks to someone else, and/or hiring someone to do your taxes, clean your house or shovel your snow."

    So your suggestion is to punish students by not giving them valuable feedback? I'm fully aware that teaching isn't fairly rewarded at research universities like mine, but there are lots of institutions that reward teaching. I guess assistant professors at teaching universities don't matter, just like students at research universities.

    Students are better off starting at a cc and transferring to a research institution after two years. That way, they get faculty members who are more likely to care.

  • Balance on the tenure-track
  • Posted by Cary Fraser , AAAS at Penn State University on February 1, 2010 at 2:00pm UTC
  • Many of the problems of balance that junior faculty encounter on the tenure-track are the consequences of institutional incoherence and administrative incompetence - often a reflection of poor leadership at either departmental, or college, or university level. Those problems often arise out of the confusion over institutional objectives - should the universities be about (1) the production and propagation of knowledge; or, (2) about educating students to be effective, educated citizens and decision-makers. The first set of goals is about focusing on faculty productivity and increasing institutional "visibility" to the exclusion of other demands, while the second requires a focus upon ensuring that students are empowered to pursue productive lives.

    The quality of the American university education, especially at undergraduate level, already reflects the costs of this institutional incoherence. As someone who was educated from kindergarten to the Ph.D. outside of the US, I am amazed at the low intellectual standards that inform the American educational system across the board and the failure to educate students effectively.

  • Posted by Shannon on February 1, 2010 at 3:00pm UTC
  • In short: you need a wife. If you ARE the wife, too bad for you. We need to work to change this structure, not ourselves. It's a residual effect of a time when college professor meant man with a wife at home circa 1950.

    I appreciate your realism, but I don't accept it. Which is why I'm not in traditional academia anymore.

  • teaching
  • Posted by Tanya , Asst Prof at R1 on February 1, 2010 at 3:30pm UTC
  • Many of the comments below Dr. Rockquemore's columns critique her for implying that faculty members spend less time teaching.

    I read her suggestions differently. She argues that faculty should align their time with the institutional priorities. So, if you are at a place where you will be rewarded for putting detailed feedback on every student's quiz, then of course you should do that. If, on the other hand, you are at a place where all of your colleagues give multiple choice exams, then you should be aware that you likely will not be rewarded for assigning multiple papers and throroughly critiquing each of them. In fact, you may be punished for doing this - "sad" as it may be.

    Dr. Rockquemore's advice, it seems to me, is about how to achieve tenure, given the institutional constraints. Once you achieve tenure, you may begin to work to change those constraints. If you don't work within your institutional constraints as a tenure track faculty member, you will be fighting an uphill battle.

  • Good advice but limited focus
  • Posted by JoVE at on February 1, 2010 at 4:15pm UTC
  • There is some great advice in here. I particularly like #2 and #4.

    But this whole series seems to assume that every tenure-track professor is in the same type of institution.

    I agree that one needs to align time spent on tasks with what is actually going to be valued in your tenure review. However, if you are really disturbed by the idea that your institution doesn't value teaching, maybe you need to focus on getting a job in a different kind of institution. Your tenure case is not a place to make significant changes to institutional culture.

    However, if you are not in an R1 institution, you need to be really clear about what the expectations are. Because there will still be research and scholarship expectations for tenure. And time needs to be devoted to meeting them.

    Similarly, good teaching doesn't necessarily mean giving long comments on every piece of work a student submits. Nor staying up until 3 a.m. preparing lectures or classes. There are plenty of people out there who are spending a lot of time on the wrong kind of teaching preparation. Or being available to students without boundaries rather than being available in useful ways. Or setting way to many assignments and burdening themselves with more grading than is really necessary for successful learning.

    By focusing on the R1-type tenure requirements, I fear that the many tenure-track professors in other types of institutions are having to work awfully hard to figure out what they need to do.

    Though following suggestions #2 and #4 above cannot hurt for anyone.

  • a wife would help
  • Posted by lisa on February 1, 2010 at 4:30pm UTC
  • I agree with Shannon's comment. As a wife, mother, and tenure-track assistant English professor with a spouse in a highly demanding professional job, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to make academia work is if one person stays home, or the spouse is also in academia and therefore has a flexible schedule. Most of the women whom I entered graduate school with have dropped out. Of the women who started the tenure track at the same time as me in my college, all of them have had to add time to the tenure clock--the men, however, are now all tenured and have received more bonus pay raises over time.

  • balance
  • Posted by skyking , asst prof on February 1, 2010 at 8:15pm UTC
  • It's not just R1's that put pressure on research. I'm at an open admission, medium size private university whose mission is teaching, especially to poor and minority students, with a high degree of unprepared students. Every administrator mouths proudly how we're a teaching institution, but every year since I've been here they've upped the ante on publication requirements for tenure without giving *any* financial or time support for research or writing. If you were paying attention to who got tenure and who didn't it was clear what the administration was doing. My dean told me point blank that teaching will not get me tenure, only increasing my publications will. His point on teaching was that if I were an awful teacher they would have figured that out early on and I wouldn't have made it past the first couple of years. Essentially, mediocre (or slightly better than awful) teaching at my teaching-first institution is perfectly acceptable, so long as you are publishing. I understood this early on, so put more of my effort into publishing (though I should make the claim that I am a perfectly fine instructor). Others put all their eggs into their teaching and service baskets and then wondered why the dean dropped the hammer on their nonpublishing heads. At this stage in our careers, I can't imagine that anyone in a ft tt job can't figure out what it's going to take to get tenure. If you can't, maybe you should...

    And I can't resist a token swipe at the woes of those with children. While not female, I do have wee-uns and a wife who works way more hours than I, and so I am the primary caregiver. And yet, I have managed to do some writing, enough to get me tenure anyways. FT academics have a lot of nonstructured time on their hands. A lot. (Admit it, you do.) Even with child care and dinner and cleaning, etc. If you can't put aside time for writing (or whatever needs to be done) that's your issue. The article's broad point is that not getting your work done is often a time management issue. Maybe then you don't need a wife, you need calendars and watches.

  • Research Professors BAD Community College professors GOOD
  • Posted by chris , Associate Professor on February 2, 2010 at 10:00am UTC
  • I don't know where Robert is getting his stereotypes and cynical view of Research professors BAD community college professors GOOD (especially if he's a Ph.D. student at a big university). Getting tenure is a herculean task. It's often unfair and brutal on persona lives. But his naive view of which kinds of teachers care and which do not will prove to be an obstacle in his own attempts to play the tenure game if he ever chooses to be a professor at a research institution. If he rather teach at a community college, that's fine as well. There are great teachers there, and some great students too, as there are at research institutions as well. But he shouldn't go the community college route because he thinks that where professors who care go to teach. That's a bit too simplistic.

  • Posted by Philosophy Prof on February 2, 2010 at 12:15pm UTC
  • I disagree with the all-or-nothing sweepingness of Robert's claim. There are some weeks when I have more research or service responsibilities, and in some of those weeks I will tell my students that I will not be giving any feedback on their short weekly writing assignments, but that they can come to office hours to talk them over if they would like. Other weeks I give extensive comments. It's a zero-sum game, and outstanding research takes a tremendous amount of time.

  • The Societal and Personal Costs of the Tenure Track
  • Posted by MethodsMan , Ed. Researcher on February 2, 2010 at 3:45pm UTC
  • As a child, I witnessed my father who was working towards tenure type out his first book on an IBM Selectric in his home office (the size of a small closet) page after page, day after day, month after month and year after year. During that time, I can count on one hand the number of times we went outside to play. I also witnessed how academia forced my parents to live far away from their families and contribute to the abrupt dissolution of their marriage. For this reason, and as a person who wanted children, I decided not to go into academia as a professor. The tenure track-- a combination of hazing, exploitation and professional devolution (think about the narrowness of the journal article you just read)--contributes to unnecessary competition, social abstraction, geographic frustration, and temporary, if not somewhat permanent, self-absorption in the professoriate. (I can also count on 1 hand the number of professors I know who are not these things.)

    Though it winds up being a good thing in the end for many, the social and personal costs of the process of landing a tenure-track job and getting tenure are greatly overlooked. The system of tenure track in combination with the staffing arrangements of most colleges means that most undergraduates are taught mostly by instructors whose last priority is teaching. I saw this fate ahead of me when I was preparing to leave grad school and gladly and happily went into applied research (if not also with some sense of doubt and shame). For these reasons, I strongly support the idea of developing a second tier of professoriate, the teaching professor, and the expansion of community colleges into teaching intensive institutions for all 1st and 2nd year undergraduates.

  • Academia as child abuse??
  • Posted by chris , Associate Professor on February 2, 2010 at 7:45pm UTC
  • So, let me get this straight... not only are research profs mean to students (Robert), they are mean to children and families, and also just plain bad people (MethodsMan). It's too histrionic and melodramatic for me.

    I would like to remind people that as a research professor, I and others have summers off from teaching, and we spend our professional lives discussing ideas with young people, exercising our creativity every day as teachers and as scholars. We don't have bosses to answer to, either. After tenure, all professors are free to quit research, or cut down considerably, and be stay at home moms and dads who only show up to campus to teach.

    What other professions can say as much? If you stop and think about it, it's really pretty cushy if you get past tenure. This is the elephant in the room that is not being acknowledged. Yeah, I got tons of service now as a tenured professor, but I don't work at night anymore (as I used to as an assistant professor) and rarely work on the weekends (as I always did as an assistant professor). I also actually take vacations and mess around over the summer, which was never the case when I was untenured. That's what you get for surviving all the suffering involved in the tenure process: a pretty damn cushy life.

    This mania about how twisted academics are is really amazing. What's next? We kill puppies for fun because we're on the tenure track?

  • For those with dedication of another kind
  • Posted by Anonymous Today on February 3, 2010 at 3:15am UTC
  • This semester I am working 40-60 hours a week, teaching and tutoring. I am a contingent faculty member who does not earn a living wage. Of course people in other professions struggle. The "apples and oranges" discussion above -- as in teaching vs. research -- makes me despair that contingents will ever eat at the table with other faculty members. We are neither apples nor oranges yet vital to the institution. Achieving tenure is a genuine achievement but so is continuing to serve students without it.