Goodbye, tenure track

I wasn’t sure about sharing this, but in the original spirit of my blog, that I ought to. 

I am leaving my tenure track position. 

There it is. It feels good to write it down. There are a lot of failure related thoughts here, which I will be sharing in future posts. But first, a bit of background about what happened. 

Tenure criteria 

In the previous post I wrote about starting my tenure track position and what I was planning to achieve in 4 years. To recap, here is summary of the goals, which were approved by the department

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a course, co-teach in other courses
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Progress so far

As far as teaching goes, all goals are achieved. I setup a course, taught in another course (both 3 years in a row now), and recently gave a number of lectures in a MSc course. So far I supervised 5 MSc students and 12 BSc students. I’m the daily supervisor of two PhD researchers, one based on my own funding efforts.  I also received my university teaching qualification in 2019. 

Research-wise, things are alright. I published six journal papers and one preprint, but it could be argued that some of these do not count. For example three were started during my postdoc, although I put in more hours during my tenure track. There’s also the Twitter paper, which is not on the topic of my research, but probably has had more impact than the others combined. I am also quite happy with my Google scholar numbers.

I am not sure about the funding. I applied for two larger grants per year as agreed, and 1 of these was funded. The others are in my failure CV. This is in line with the overall success rate, and several smaller grants were funded as well. But I have the feeling this is not sufficient, even though the tenure criteria do not specify it.

In terms of visibility, things are good. Especially in the first two years when I was blogging regularly, my website and Twitter were growing steadily. I think this has contributed to invitations for talks, and I have given more talks, including international ones, than I ever expected. I’ve also been invited as an associate editor, social media chair and other similar roles. 

So overall, not bad, considering that in my third year I was seriously ill and I spent several months recovering, which was extremely difficult. Even so I did get a few things done in that time, such as the teaching certificate. Overall, things could have been better, but given that I had no start-up nor PhD researchers I could co-supervise from the start, overall I’m actually quite happy with what I achieved.

Perhaps here I should mention two other developments. The first is the artificial intelligence “brain drain” in the Netherlands, limiting the number of people willing to teach. The second is a position paper by several organizations (including funding agencies), that aims to redesign how researchers are evaluated, and to recognize factors other than the h-index. Music to my ears.

Midway evaluation 

As I explained in the previous post, traditionally there is a midway evaluation halfway through the tenure track, to see what else is needed to fulfill the tenure criteria. My midway evaluation was scheduled for May 2019, but a month before that I became ill, so this was cancelled.

Towards the end of 2019 I was working full-time again. The idea was to schedule an unofficial midway evaluation, a year ahead of the final evaluation. I gave a talk about my research and updated my CV and progress document (summarized above).   

Given this information, the committee advised that, I will probably not get tenure if I have the final evaluation as planned in 2021. The proposed solution was to give me a temporary contract and have the final evaluation later, so that I have more time for, between the lines, getting funding and writing more papers. 

Tenure clock extension, that’s good right?

Although to many readers this extension might sound good, I declined the offer. I will therefore be leaving my tenure track position.

The first reason for this decision is the uncertainty. I believe that the trigger for my manic episode was staying up at night to write grants, and I don’t want my life to depend on a lottery. There is also no definition of what “enough” would be, and that once I achieve those things, I would get tenure.

Secondly, I feel like my illness is a bad excuse that there wasn’t enough time to evaluate me. But people are at times evaluated after two or three years – researchers who are employed by the same university before starting a tenure track position, due to the labor laws.

But most importantly, I don’t want to be in a place with such priorities. I have achieved most goals on my list – goals that were agreed upon at the beginning – despite having a major illness. I will not be an award-winning researcher, but I feel – and people have told me – that the things I do are valuable. If the university does not see this, I need to find a place that does.

What next?

My current contract runs out at the start of 2022, but since I made this decision already, I will probably leave earlier.

For now I will be finishing up various projects, and slowly searching for a job.

So dear readers, I am now officially open for job opportunities! I don’t want to limit myself to specific job titles or sectors just yet. So if you think you could use my research, teaching, outreach, organizing, blogging skills (academic CV here), please get in touch.

That’s it for now, but expect more failure-inspired content soon!

18 thoughts on “Goodbye, tenure track”

  1. I am not an academic, but I have had a long career managing the creation of technical and scientific products alongside government scientists and academics. Looking at the bullet list under the ‘tenure criteria’ section of your post, makes it very obvious why the system is broken. The list has only products without attached measurable outcomes for society as a whole. These are product metrics and are not sufficient for measuring real value or progress. For example, one can produce stacks of papers in ‘high impact’ journals and still be as ridiculous as a snake making great progress eating its own tail. Until the tenure criteria include outward-facing societal impact goals, people will continue to live a ‘gamified’, dispassionate, and recursive academic life. If this continues, the relevance of academia will continue to decline at a pace that will only accelerate more than it already has. Academics really need to turn around and face the world honestly and give back real value. This is not only an individual imperative for the psychological health of said academics, but an institutional imperative for universities, which are seeing a great decline in their perceived value and relevance to society.

    • Gamified it is, but it is a game of chance dressed up as a game of skill. Certainly when it comes to the acquisition of funding.

    • My sympathies for your situation, and my respect for so openly talking about it, hopefully opening some necessary debates.

      Since I’m in a similar situation to you (TT at a European university), I hope it’s OK if I raise some detail questions about the process:

      1. You mention in a tweet that the communicated reason for a possible denial of tenure was a “not enough body of research”. Did the committee comment on the fact that “body of research” was not an explicit tenure criterion and thus, arguably, should not matter for a tenure evaluation?

      2. You mentioned that some of your papers might not count towards tenure since their conception goes back to your pre-TT days. Was this openly communicated for you, either (a) at the start of your TT, (b) by the evaluation committee? I guess (a) would be fair, as it would have allowed you to focus your efforts on new things, while (b) conversely, would seem terribly unfair.

      • I did not have the official tenure evaluation, only an unofficial advice of what might happen at the official one a year later. Since it was not official, these criteria were not explicitly addressed (except in my updated progress document), it was more a general comment.

        That some papers might not count is a guess by me, I could see how papers on different topics might lead to a perception of less “body”.

        • OK, thanks for your reply! It might be interesting to respond to that unofficial advice, asking how this preliminary assessment complies to the explicitly agreed tenure criteria. But then, I see the point of not asking, since a place in which you encounter such “advice” in a major career-relevant process might not be a particularly desirable place to stay anyways.

          • Exactly – these meetings have not been great for my health so I’d rather avoid any additional ones given that I already made the decision.

    • I totally agree, which is why on the How I Fail series I also ask people about their successes not found on CVs. Thank you notes from students, readers of your paper, etc – important but invisible 😕. If you come across examples of evaluation where this is taken into account, please share it

    • “The list has only products without attached measurable outcomes for society as a whole.” Uh, what do you call teaching and mentoring?

  2. Hi Dr. Cheplygina — I just want to thank you for writing this, and for your other work on normalizing professional obstacles & failures (of course, your decision to leave academia in no way makes you a failure, rather it exposes the failures of the system itself). As an aspiring future professor, your honesty on the subject is both refreshing and much appreciated. I wish you the best in your future endeavors and wherever you end up will be lucky to have you.

  3. Good luck! I hear ya. I had my worst manic episode after a trip back to the US after an international conference. But I had other episodes triggered by the stress of academia and lack of sleep. I took a job in industry after my postdoc and haven’t looked back. I think I could have gotten a better handle on my meds and tried for TT but I didn’t want to live that life with or without bipolar.

    • That sounds terrible! I went on a trip while manic but never made it to the destination, but luckily this was within a few hours drive so my husband and a friend found me. Great that you found a better place!

  4. As someone who was briefly (unsuccessfully) looking for a job outside of academia and recently (unexpectedly) landed a tenure-track position at a Dutch university, I’d like to repeat something previous commenters have already said and something my wonderful and supportive PhD supervisor also told me: it’s OK to leave a tenure-track position! It is OK to continue to have priorities other than tenure itself and it’s OK to let those priorities change. Congratulations on making the decision to leave, which I personally think is surely not a failure but simply another career step – towards a team that values your achievements as well as your health. Best of success!

  5. Thank you for this post. As someone who was diagnosed Bipolar before coming into graduate school, I can say emphatically that the graduate program made my prognosis worse and is the direct cause of many episodes. I want to be an academic but I also understand that such a life puts a lot of pressure on you to put pressure on yourself which I feel is a recipe for creating episodes. I’ll be starting a family in the same time period and I feel like my main responsibility now is to that and being healthy/stable and supportive for my partner who also has her own issues. It’s making it hard to decide if I want to move forward on this path.

    • Thank you for sharing that. For me I think it was more the pressure you put on yourself, but the external circumstances (security dependent on funding) only make it worse. I am not sure how it would be with a family, maybe it puts things more into perspective and you care less about such things… on the other hand, the need for security increases. I hope you find the answer that’s best for you, but staying healthy certainly sounds like a good thing!


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