Hello, there! Yes, you! I am talking directly to you.
I know that you probably took a quick look at the title, wondered what “bowling for tenure” means and then decided that you’re far too busy to read this blog post.
But if you’re in your pre-tenure years, give me five minutes…three minutes if you’re a fast reader! I know you’re in a hurry but you will have plenty of time to obsess over your revise-and-resubmit feedback later, if you want.
So, I’m like you…I’m new to my position as a faculty member. Still pre-tenure, still trying to keep my head above water. Fortunately for me, I’ve had plenty of conversations about staying well as pre-tenure with Ian Matheson, my buddy from grad school (#queensu #tricolour #gogaelsgo), who was hired at University of Regina. I’d like to share some of our collective advice for staying well as pre-tenure academics.
Deets will follow, but here are the headings: (a) go bowling, (b) curate your priorities, and (c) read, dammit, read!
If visit my office today, you’ll see my bowling trophy on my book shelf. With zero experience as a bowler, I joined a bowling league with some work colleagues (official name: “Pinhead Profs”; unofficial name: “Bowling for Tenure!”). Not to humblebrag, but the trophy for B-Division Roll-off champs was not the only thing we won. Cue cheesy music: we also became friends!
“Friends?! I don’t have time for friends!” you might be thinking. I recommend you think again. There are two reasons why bowling may be your salvation.
First, connecting with others has been recognized as essential for well-being and self-determination in many fields, and academia is no exception. In our job, it is important to know the people with whom you work. Find a source of support. Whatever it is in your life that gives you that feeling of balance, make sure you invest in it.
Second, disagreeing is more palatable if you know each other. Disagreement is important, especially in our business! In fact, the entire institution of science is predicated on different opinions! Unfortunately, disagreeing with others may be a drain on your relational equity. We work in a closed biome, which means that neither of you are going anywhere anytime soon. We need to offer each other a modicum of respect, even when we are at odds. And so, sometimes sharing a platter of waffle-cut potato nachos and failing miserably to break 150 may be the foundation of a collegial work relationship.
NOTE: Does it have to be bowling? Of course not. Go bowling, but maybe not literally. Figurative bowling is also acceptable.
Curate your Priorities
In our experiences, being a member of the academic community feels like being a kid in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Everywhere we look we see tantalizing opportunities. “Hey, do you want to jump in on this committee?” “Do you want something to add to your annual professional report?” “I could really use your help with these data.” Our answers? Yes! Yes! Yes!
But is “yes” really the best decision?
Saying “yes” may seem like a natural decision. Would you be employed if you weren’t saying “yes” to anything that you could? Better question: if “yes” was central to your success as a graduate student, mustn’t it also be true for you as a faculty member?
Let me explain. You’re not Wonder Woman, pal, so stop trying to do it all. Just like those kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who were tempted by all the treats, our insatiable desire for more projects is a character flaw. Yes, that character flaw helped us to be successful grad students, but we no longer have the luxury of desperation. When you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing well.
So, be choosy. As early as you can, find the thing(s) that you really care about and focus. Write a mantra about being choosy on a post-it on your computer screen to remind yourself every day. (Possible post-it mantras include: “be choosy,” “every no is a yes later,” “I’m not Wonder Woman”).
Read, Dammit, Read!
Ever heard the idea that your expertise in your field peaked on the day of your defence? Unfortunately, it is a little bit true. Unless we’re careful, every day after defense we stale a little bit on our knowledge of our field. Staying current in the literature in our field is incredibly important, but it is also difficult to do. As a task without a direct deadline, reading academic literature tends to be shuffled down our to-do lists. It is easier to schedule a meeting than it is to reliably schedule reading time.
Another reason that designating time for reading is hard is because we feel pressure to produce something. Like, actual words…on actual paper. After all, we constantly hear about are other people’s successes. Roberta published another paper? Sanjit’s funding came through? “Sweet Moses! I’m falling behind!”
Two things. First off, take a deep breath. You aren’t falling behind. Much like a well-maintained Instagram account, academic profiles are curated to appear effortless and successful. But we all know that each academic success comes after horrendous amounts of work. Also, you don’t see that extra work because nobody sends their rejection letters out to the listserv.
Second, you’re a pre-tenure, early career academic. In 15 years, you’ll have reams of graduate students and a bajillion publications. But nobody expects that from you at this point. Just keep working, as steadily as possible, and try to not implode. Like the launch of a shuttle, there’s a lot of danger in the first few minutes of flight. We lose a lot of rockets in the pre-tenure stages.
Instead of stressing too much, designate some time to read. And then guard it like a vicious wolverine. Everything that we do in this business (teaching, research, service) is enriched by our expertise and knowledge (that is to say: what we read). Processing new ideas continuously is the only way to keep the grist mill buzzing. Treat your reading like an important meeting with the Dean. You’d never cancel with your Dean, would you? Reading is THAT important. Refine your habits and prioritize reading.
Read, read, read, read, dammit, read.
|I’ll leave you with this point: staying well is not something that can be solved with a brief blog. If you find yourself still struggling to manage, find some help. The link below has some excellent resources about coping with stress and some contact information to get some support:
by Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack, University of Lethbridge, with Dr. Ian Matheson, University of Regina