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I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

The recent thematic posts here at on the work-life balance, plus a timely series of posts on obtaining tenure just started by DrDrA over at Blue Lab Coats prompted me to write this. It's something I've been thinking about on and off for a while.

How much do you need to want tenure in order to get it?

The answer is obvious, right? A lot.

But how much is "a lot"?

When I was a postdoc and while on the tenure-track (TT) I met several senior faculty who wore the divorces they went through while on TT as badges of honor. Their answer to the above question was clearly "more than anything else". To which I had (and have) one response:


Thankfully such senior faculty are going the way of the dinosaurs (although some do still exist).

I have never believed this. And neither should anyone. One shouldn't sacrifice family, relationships and/or having a life on the altar of tenure. It's simply not worth that much.

Okay, so that's easy for me to say, I have tenure. And obviously everyone's situation is going to be different. But it is important to evaluate just how much tenure is worth to you.

Let's look at the general pros and cons of tenure:


A "guaranteed" job. I put that in quotes because it isn't really. Sure, my position is far more secure than it would be if I were working in Big Pharma, but academic institutions do have ways of getting rid of you if they really want to. Or at least of making your life so miserable that you'd rather be anywhere else. They don't necessarily apply these "ways", but they can. Note that with the recent economic downturn some universities have closed down entire departments, sloughing off many of the faculty.

Intellectual freedom. This is the big one for me. I get to work on what I want to. Within the limitation that I have to get it funded of course... That's kind of a big limitation.

You can make your own hours. I have a family so this is important for me. There are things that get in the way though. Teaching. Committees. Seminars. Experiments. I have an unavoidable 8am meeting the morning my kids go back to school this year. That sucks, but such is the job.


Lower salary. I could be making much, much more money in Big Pharma or an established biotech company...

It isn't, and never will be, a 9-to-5 job. Okay, so I can make my own hours, but they aren't 40 hours/week. Can't be. Not if I want to be good at what I do. This is simply not a real choice.*

I've probably missed some pros and cons. If you think of any, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, for me the pros and cons tend to balance. It's the love of my job that really provided the driving force to get tenure and continue on from there. I love what I do. I wanted tenure so I could continue doing what I do in the way I want to do it.

At no point was I willing to sacrifice my family or having some semblance of a life for tenure. I didn't go into the lab most weekends. I took vacations. I took time off for my kid's dance recitals, school events, etc. I have tried to be there for my wife and kids.**

And I didn't (and don't) make my lab personnel sacrifice their lives either.

Despite that I sailed through the tenure process.

How did that work? I believe having a family to go home to - having a life - kept me sane. Focussed on what was important. And what wasn't. That's the real key to surviving TT. Knowing what you must do and what can be ignored. Having something outside of academia to keep you grounded makes it so much easier to distinguish between the two.

Of course I had a back-up plan in case I didn't make it.

My wife and I were going to open an ice-cream shop at a beach somewhere. Maybe we will when I retire.

* Yes, we all know deadwood faculty who "work" 40 hours or less a week. But is that really what you want post-tenure?

** And I'm not the only one here at Big State U who's made family and a life outside work a priority. They made tenure too. The only contemporary of mine I know who sacrificed all on the altar of tenure didn't make it.

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great post. This would have fit in perfectly last week with the theme. I just can't see myself going after a TT position though. Seeing all the crap that my previous mentors have had to go through just doesn't make it worth it. I guess if I was really passionate about my model/field...but I'm more in it for solving problems than making discoveries.

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Thanks! There is certainly crap involved. But that's the case in all careers to varying extents. In the end it's all about compromise - what you willing to give in order to get what you want. I just wish some academics would stop pushing the "it's TT or you're a failure" Koolaid...

Dr. O
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Thanks for this post, Odyssey. Staring at motherhood and another year of job searching, I've been questioning if I can actually do it. These reminders that others have done it, and are happy, are what keep me going.

BTW, Hubby's and my backup plan is to open a bed & breakfast, or flip homes if the housing market ever improves. ;)

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@Dr. O:
Running a B&B I can see. Flipping houses? Looks more stressful than TT!

Yes, it can be done. Being male I obviously don't have firsthand experience of being a mom on TT, but I have female colleagues* who have kids and made it. And are very happy. As are their husbands and kids. No doubt it's difficult, but far from impossible.

* n>2.

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Odyssey, great post.

I completely agree. I am a firm believer that for most humans (faculty included :) sacrificing the family at the altar of any career is ultimately not worth it. No matter how secure the job is or how much it pays...

It's absolutely possible to do it all -- have an academic career and a life.

Professor in Training
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I seem to remember you and I having this discussion many moons ago. And yes, this is exactly the way I plan to approach the tenure process. There's more to life than work, and definitely more to life than tenure. That doesn't mean I'm not going to work my ass off to get it but I'm a firm believer in not working 24/7.

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Hi PiT,
Yep, I do believe we did chat about this.

What I meant to note in the post is that there is behavioral science research that demonstrates that people are incapable of sustaining productivity working 12+ hours a day for sustained periods. So although my post is largely based on my own anecdotal data, there is science out there to support some of it. Now I just have to find that stuff...

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Excellent post. I worked for two profs who understood your message, and two who didn't. The former were infinitely more enjoyable experiences (and all 4 got tenure, so I must be a lucky charm!)

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One can of course get tenure while sacrificing all. There are however, plenty of examples like yours showing that you don't have to do that way.

But you do have to really, really want it.
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