December 11, 2022
In August 2022, after almost two years as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Computer Science, I resigned from my position at the University of Vermont. This was not my preferred path, but something I felt I had to do in light of some family stressors and an increasingly untenable mismatch in values between me and my institution. Thus I joined my Millennial brethren in the Great Resignation.
My current position is intentionally transitory in nature. I don't know if I will be in this role (or one like it) for three months, a year, or three years. What I do know is that, rather than seeking the impossible criteria of "work-life balance," moving forward I will be seeking "job-life balance." I make this distinction because while the work of being a professor is largely the same everywhere, the nature of the job differs dramatically, depending on institution.
Though I left my professoring job, I will never stop the work: I've continued mentoring students, pursuing collaborations, and producing research results. It hasn't been easy, and I stress constantly about financial stability and security, but I am making it work. I realize that not everyone who leaves a TT academic position can remain connected to academia. Thus, I count myself very lucky and have immense gratitude for the robust network of mentors who have given me their time, advice, an ear, and in some cases, professional connections and job opportunitites.
While I haven't ruled out moving back to a tenure-track position, I do intend to be very deliberate about that process. I've described the current state of academic hiring as a bit like a shotgun wedding, when what I want is a long engagement or arranged marriage. I am quite fortunate that, as a US citizen, I have considerably more freedom to make choices about my employment and take my time to pursue the kind of environment where I can effectuate my goals and values.
So what is it exactly that I'm looking for? I've thought a lot over the years about what our ethical — rather than operational — duties are as faculty. We tend to view the acquisition of faculty jobs as competitions, as prizes to be won, and because we imagine the academy to be egalitarian in nature, we think of the people in those positions as being "worthy" of the research (and to a much lesser degree, teaching) standards of our field. We think about faculty in terms of being "deserving" of their jobs and this is reflected in our annual evaluations, promotion, and tenure processes. All of these evaluation criteria are about catering to the standards and preferences of the people above us in the org chart. In some places there are empirical criteria; in others for better and for worse, it's fuzzier. In all places, there is an uneasy tension between how we want or imagine things to work and how they actually work.
I would like to work in a place that carves off time to discuss and be deliberate about the bigger questions: what is the role of a university in today's world? How do we balance economic considerations with a university's mission? What are our objectives in undergraduate education? What is the purpose of graduate training? How do we convey to students the limitations of what faculty can do for them? How do we set expectations and minimize harm in our interactions with students, staff, and folks who are generally more vulnerable than we are?
I prefer to think about the faculty job as an obligation to a community. Faculty positions are fundamentally service and care positions. Therefore, I want to be in a place that understands and promotes a care mentality from the top-down. This is something that is both exceedingly hard to measure and impossible to verify during the job search process when committees are overtaxed and undersupported.
When I say "care mentality," I am fundamentally talking about working in an environment that values difference and dissent. It's about promoting a growth mindset and listening mentality amongst those with power. It's about understanding that the most important part of the job is not the papers we publish or the grants we acquire, but how we spend the limited time we have and making the many hours we spend on the job worth living, because if we have a care mentality, those other empirical measures of success will come. This means being in a place where admitting you are afraid or feeling insecure is seen as a stength. It's about being in a place that takes self-compassion seriously and treats professional development on par with personal development.
You see, I do think there's something to the notion of being "worthy" of a faculty position. However, to me it's not about whether your past accomplishments caused you to beat out someone else.1 Instead it's about asking faculty to live up to the ideal of what a professor can be. Maybe it's because I don't come from an academic family and so I have a more idealized notion of what higher education is, but I think where we really fail to live up to our potential is in our collective lack of wisdom and compassion. We can't leave it up to individuals to purse these values on their own; for our work to really matter, we need to pursue them together.
If this resonates with you, I do have academic materials available:
I am currently weighing some options, but I am also trying to make all decisions independently in an effort to prioritize fit and moving toward something new, rather than picking a path to avoid fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. I've compared the past two years to losing my faith; there is something sacred in what we do in higher education and whether I find my way back to the faith or learn to live without it, I will always be trying to do work that matters and pay forward the opportunities I've been given.
Don't get me wrong, I do generally love ambition and the spirit of competition, to the point where my partner won't play non-coopoerative board games with me anymore...