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Advice on the tenure process

Posted by Melissa on March 20, 2011

As Arjendu noted in his last post, I got tenure this winter. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to be able to be a part of the Carleton community for the long term. What a privilege!

Nevertheless, the process of getting here wasn’t easy. There are two types of challenging experiences: those that invigorate you, causing you to grow and stretch in ways that you never thought possible, and those that dishearten you, reshaping you in ways that leave you feeling like a shell of your former self. My tenure-track experience has been a bit of both. There were numerous times over the past few years where I wanted to blog about some aspect of being a junior faculty member, but couldn’t find the appropriate words. Distilling my reflections on some of those unbloggable moments, however, there is one topic that I think is worth commenting on, namely the role of advice and mentoring for junior faculty members.

Some of my conflicting feelings about my time as a junior faculty member can be characterized by a general feeling of being adrift in a sea of advice. Everywhere I turned I felt like I was bombarded by new (and incompatible) advice about how to get tenure. At times the advice seemed reasonable, at other times outlandish, but rarely did it feel comfortable.  The onslaught of advice left me feeling wholly inadequate — I could never live up to all the advice given.

Take for example one of the most common pieces of advice given to junior faculty, “Find yourself a mentor.” This advice is akin to telling a single person who wishes s/he was married, “Find yourself a spouse.” One can’t simply grab the nearest person and make him or her a mentor. Yet every article I read about the importance of finding a mentor outside your department made me feel like a failure for not having one. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of people I could turn to for help. As I’ve mentioned before, I am lucky to be a department with extremely supportive colleagues. I could go to them with questions about a variety of topics—how to handle a particularly challenging situation in one of my classes, what I needed to do to improve a grant proposal, or reassurance that the particular feeling of work-life imbalance was to be expected given particular circumstances. Nevertheless, my senior colleagues were inherently judges of my performance and so there were things that I could not discuss with them, or when I asked, there were times when I was told that they could not help me.  Having the right mentor would have been incredibly valuable at those times.

Beyond getting tenure, my goal as a junior faculty member was to build the foundation of a professional life that would be personally satisfying, and how-to-get-tenure advice sometimes conflicted with personal values and priorities. I suppose all’s well that ends well, but the process of getting here… let’s just say, don’t ask me for advice.

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2 Responses to “Advice on the tenure process”

  1. Kris said

    There are numerous times in both my personal and professional life where I too thought having a Mentor would be invaluable, but I imagine that many of us rely on a wider support net more than on one true Mentor. Not having a Mentor is not about failure, it’s about reality.

    Too bad we can’t all be like Jasper Fforde’s character Thursday Next who through a time glitch gets mentored by an older version of herself. Nothing like having a mentor who can say, “It’ll all work out,” with authority.

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