I subscribe to a number of LinkedIn groups, and one of them is the group Higher Education Teaching and Learning (here). The other day, I noticed an inquiry from a consultant and coach named Meggin McIntosh (here) in which she inquired as follows:
Is it possible to balance teaching, research, service AND a relationship while on the way to tenure? If so, how (real answers wanted).
As might be imagined, the answers were quite various ranging from “no” to “yes” with “maybe” in between. I weighed in in the affirmative as follows. In doing so, I imagined addressing the tenure seeker directly one on one:
I think the answer is “yes” and I think there is a threefold success formula: (1) form habitual practices around those things and people that are important to you (2) do a minimally acceptable job preparing for teaching first time through, thereby giving you maximum probability of satisfying your institution’s research requirements to tenure, and (3) do your research and writing to please yourself, not for the approval of others..
The fundamental problem is that any one of the Big 3–research, teaching, and service–can consume all available time in your life. Stephen Covey made the distinction between urgent things, things important to others, and important things, things important to you. The Big 3, particularly research is urgent, important to the university, but in the pressure cooker of pretenure university life, make things important to you, spending time with a partner, kids, and friends, a habit. Make other important-to-you non-work related activities–sports, exercise, eating right, music, hobbies–habitual, and sacrifice your habits only upon rare occasion. Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit, is a nice reference for the value, formation, and maintenance of habitual practices.
Second, when it comes to teaching, first time through a course, give yourself enough time to prepare, but make it a fixed amount of time (x hours per class period, for example). Don’t allow your perfectionist tendencies to take over. Stick to your fixed time allocation. Also, capture and reuse your notes next time through. If you follow this prescription, most days, you will do fine. Some days, you will be underprepared, but second time through you will probably be peak and do well if you haven’t overdone it.
Finally, do your research and writing to make yourself happy. A lot of heads and profs tell you otherwise: do this, and don’t do that, but my experience has been that most of that advice is well intentioned and not tailored to you. Do your research for yourself and your interests with gusto and enthusiasm. View it as “publish and flourish” not “publish or perish” and follow your heart.
Two things can happen if you do this. You will get tenure on your own terms and you will be a happy, confident camper, ready to continue on your own terms. If you don’t get tenure, you will have been true to yourself and perhaps the academy really wasn’t where you were meant to be. You can then move on to something else with integrity knowing that you’ve learned something about yourself.
To do otherwise is to risk unhappiness in two different ways. If you do your research to please others, you might get tenure, but you risk diminished confidence in your own judgment to the possible detriment of your future courage and boldness. If you don’t get tenure, you’ll always wonder what might have been had you remained true to your own vision, and you may regret not having found out.
Of course, my advice risks not being tailored to you, as I suggested other well-intentioned advice might be, and if that is the case, only use those portions of what’s being suggested here that seem reasonable to you, your aspirations, and your context.
Best wishes in navigating the tricky thicket of getting to tenure.
I don’t think this is a unique “correct” answer, of course, and one’s perspective might vary depending on one’s gender, responsibility at home, desire to pursue a program of research consonant with an institution’s values, and other factors, but to the degree that someone can be disciplined about keeping up habits that maintain strong relationships and the other items mentioned, I do believe one can have a life and get to tenure, both. If you agree or disagree, share your views at firstname.lastname@example.org.