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Ask a Senior Colleague- Fall 2014

Thanks to all the junior scholars and teachers who submitted questions and the senior scholars and teachers who answered them!  Got a question or want to answer one?  Email Alesha Durfee at

Question #1: I'm in a great non-TT position right now due to geographical restrictions. I'm teaching the classes I want to teach and still doing research.  I love where I am but I keep getting the "But don't you want to be tenure-track?" question from colleagues. Frankly, I don't know that I do. I am satisfied in my current position. Given that I'm an interdisciplinary scholar, when I was on the TT market, it was difficult for me to find a "home." I think things are changing and many senior colleagues indicate they would never want to go through the TT process again! There is something really satisfying about my current position - because I'm intrinsically motivated to continue doing research - for research sake and not because someone is counting my publications and citations.

Answer 1a: Interesting question! But one I find difficult to answer with the limited information provided, though, because people’s wants and values are so far-ranging.

My gut reaction is: If you’re happy where you are, enjoy it! No need to assume that a tenure-track position would be a better “fit” for you. As you are no doubt already aware, tenured/tenure-track positions often are associated better working conditions e.g., security (is your current position vulnerable to budget cuts?), autonomy, and better salary and benefits but that certainly is not universal. Moreover, many tenure-track positions leave much to be desired in terms of pay and workload, department politics, ability to move on to a job in the "real world" (due, in part, to perceptions of lack of transferrable skills), for instance.  Perhaps the next time someone asks “But don’t you want to be tenure-track?” consider responding, “I don’t think so because I’m happy with my current arrangement, but why do you ask?”  and perhaps engage them in a conversation. They may have insight to bring to bear on the situation that a stranger from afar cannot.

Answer 1b: I think junior people should have the confidence to do what they want with their lives without being intimidated by the bogeyman of tenure.  You are well-educated and you love what you do; why trade happiness for tenure?  One of my favorite graduate students told me, when she had nearly completed her PhD, that she wasn't at all sure that she wanted to go into the academic world.  She was much more interested in working with agency people and in a world less removed from issues of crime and punishment.  I told her to do exactly what she wanted to; she was about to become well-credentialed, and she could do anything she wanted to with her life.  As it turned out, after a number of years of running an institute related to crime, race, and justice, she decided to join our faculty; and this past year, she earned tenure.  She wrote her own agenda, and I think you should, too.

Question #2: I’ve moved to a new (and much smaller) city for my tenure-track position and although I am not struggling to make friends, I am finding it much more challenging to build an intellectual community with whom I might connect on matters related to research and writing. My institution emphasizes teaching to the exclusion of research so few here are actively engaged in research activities, including producing scholarly articles. Given these conditions, how do I find or build a local community of scholars so we can support each other’s research and writing efforts?

This response is from a research-active professor who has worked in similar research isolation for more than a decade in the same institution.  While you cannot reinvent the culture of your institution, you can create a sort of research ‘bubble’ to feed your intellectual hunger and support your research agenda in pragmatic ways.  I have two sets of suggestions: 1) trying to build an intellectual community where you are, and 2) staying with your research agenda by other means.  First, where you are:  find the few who are research-active at your institution and even if their disciplines may seem have no apparent academic connection with yours, make an overture to meet with them to discuss ways to support each other with common goals such as writing for publication, grant-writing, setting research goals, and also as sounding boards about bumps in the research road and having research-active friends/colleagues close by to cheer you when you have a successful proposal or new publication.  I am in social sciences and did this with just a few research colleagues in nursing, engineering, and humanities.  Our substantive work differed but the practical stuff had many similarities, and the trust and support we grew for each other was so nice to have close by, in good times and in times more challenging.  My second set of suggestions is to seek research support – collegial more than financial – by applying for visiting positions such as research fellowships and summer fellowships in research-intensive institutions, to build a larger community with similar research interests to your own.  I have found this to be tremendously rewarding and very research productive, for collaborations on publications, research grants and projects, conference papers, etc.  Even if you are limited in your ability to travel often because of teaching load, you can work with your colleagues via Skype, Facetime, or other video conferencing tool, for little or no cost.  Visiting fellowships are available for all levels of rank, i.e., some designated for junior scholars through to the most senior and accomplished.  And if you are on the tenure track, the honor of visiting research fellowships or similar collaborations will buttress your CV and dossier, as well as lift your research profile for external review when the time comes.  Hope this helps. Best wishes.