Because I have written about promotion and tenure and the academic career track for more than 15 years, whether in books or magazine essays, I have gotten a chance to talk to hundreds of doctoral students and tenure trackers. Their fields run the gamut of the academy, from philosophy to biochemistry to psychology.
But over and over one observation has recurred: Doctoral programs usually do at least a decent job in training you to become a researcher and sometimes a good job in training you to be a teacher. But across the board, especially for those who have no family experience of the professoriate, the people and politics of getting a Ph.D., a tenure-track job, and then tenure are surprising, disconcerting, and puzzling. As one bench scientist put it, “I know what to do with my centrifuge, but nobody told me how to deal with the lunatic who’s the head of the promotion-and-tenure committee.''
Just because you feel like a deer in the headlights, however, doesn’t mean that you, a sentient, highly-educated human, have to freeze up. Yes, many factors, wholly and partly out of your control, affect your success in academic careers. For example, you may go on the job market in a year when there are few openings in your area, and several of them are fixed, with no chance of your getting them. But I have seen and heard too many young scholars whose careers have been tripped up not by supervillains or a rigged wheel of fortune but by their own inability or unwillingness to embrace a central wisdom of becoming a professor.
In brief, to paraphrase Dickens, you are the hero of your own story. People may try to trip you up or help you out, but you have to train yourself to become as savvy, shrewd, planning-oriented, realistic, and soberly self-appraising as possible. You will never be able to discount the malevolence of others or bad luck, but just like a blackjack player, knowing how to play the game like an expert can reduce the casino’s odds against you. Specifically:
Find and seek out active mentors and indirect role models…for specific goals. Young academics are often given the advice to find good advisers or mentors. The problem is that they forget the wisdom of the Roman historian Livy: “The gods do not give all their gifts to one man.” A good mentor for classroom teaching may be a poor one for research and an uninformed one for putting together a tenure packet. Alternately, there are ways to take someone’s advice without asking for it. Look at the cohort of successful doctoral students and tenure trackers in front of you via their CVs. What did they do and how often did they do it?
Think ahead. You plan out your research, you prep for your classes, but do you set goals and benchmarks for your career? Make sure you have thought out exactly what you need to achieve and by when you need to achieve it. In terms of productivity for tenure, for example, pace and timing are often as important as raw quantity.
Become your own best critic. Two major character flaws mark those who tend to stumble the most in doctoral programs, the job hunt, and the tenure track. First, they are the “fragile Frankies” (taken from a Seinfeld character) who wilt under any criticism whatsoever, from anyone, including themselves. At the other end of the spectrum are the “full-metal arrogants,” who ignore any criticism, bad or good, useful or unhelpful. Learn to gauge whom to trust and the value of a good critique of your work and even your behavior.
Finally, find the middle path between confidence and delusion. Don’t listen to the Disney movie mantra: You can’t achieve anything you want simply by force of will and pixie dust. Create rational, reasonable objectives—a dissertation that can be completed given the time, resources, and finances available, for instance—and then pour all your strength and effort to making sure the goal is met. Don’t dream the impossible dream, but don’t sell yourself short either.
It is difficult to succeed today in a doctoral program through getting promotion and tenure; so much more the reason to plot your path to success carefully and thoughtfully.
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