Many thanks to Robyn Robinson for her assistance in answering this newsletter’s question!
Future questions for ‘Ask a Tenured Professor’ should be sent to Lisa Growette Bostaph at
I am going up for tenure next year. This is my second institution that I have worked at, but the first in which I am actually going up for tenure. Between the multiple days of teaching, the service, constantly trying to get published, and, oh yes, a family, I am hitting a wall of stress. Even though I recently had a manuscript accepted for publication, I have found myself in tears on a number of occasions just because of the stress level. How do I manage the stress level surrounding the tenure process when I still have another year before I go up and need to continue to be productive?
Anxiety and fear, and a plethora of demands that produce anxiety and fear, likely are building that wall you're hitting. So you need clarity about what you have to do in each sphere of your life to reduce or eliminate these energy-intensive negative emotions from your daily reserve and protect your energy for the tasks and pleasures you need to be happy and productive. Your goal is tenure, and you have one year to polish your dossier. Presumably you have been proceeding along a path toward tenure prescribed by a union contract or other personnel contract, and so far your evaluations (annual? biennial?) have been strong enough to move you along. Reflect on what your senior colleagues and administrators have told you about each criterion for which you are evaluated. Use this information to formulate a set of objectives to see you through. Though, of course, each individual is different, generally a clear overview of the real situation and time management consciousness applied to the tasks of the real situation can be quite helpful to reduce stress.
1. Is the evaluation process toward tenure transparent? Do you understand quite clearly how your evaluations happen, and how your tenure decision will be made? If you can, ask for meetings with your senior colleagues, chair, dean, and provost to clarify anything you don't understand specific to your own case, to increase your comfort level with tasks that you actually have to do and eliminate those that you can minimize. For example, you might feel compelled to prove your worth by chairing a committee or committees, when your helpful input as a committee member would be indication enough of your worth to the institution and much less responsibility and work. If you are teaching large classes, use manageable assessment modalities that don't take up a great deal of your time and still demonstrate your fairness and commitment to your students. If you are pushing to publish a bit more, decrease your stress by asking your peers exactly what they'll want to see in your dossier next year.
2. You include family in your list of stressors. This is a time for your family to focus on their contribution to your short-term need for their support and cooperation: their contribution to your success. If you have small children, perhaps you could set yourself regular writing and class prep time after their bedtime, not for hours so you're exhausted the next day, but for a reasonable time that will make you feel like you accomplished something before you sleep. You could also make a chart to hang in the kitchen or someplace you hang out with your family that lists everyone's tasks for the week, including yours (how many pages toward finishing that article, how many papers graded, whatever your list looks like for work), and stickers for each day to mark accomplishments toward goals. Have some fun with this and, depending upon the age of your family members, work with them to make fun out of household and personal tasks. All of you will feel less stress the more structured you make the multiple and varied demands of your respective job/school/home and the more you try to infuse these demands and tasks with humor and respect for the work each has to do, including your work as a priority for the family's happiness and security.
3. Start compiling your dossier now. If your university has a template to follow, read it now. Buy the binders you will use, make the labels for dividers or folders, and start placing documents that you already have into the binders. You may well find that your anxiety decreases as you build a record of what you have done, and you won't have that daunting task looming near the deadline. You can draft, if you haven't, statements about your teaching philosophy (which may have changed a bit since you were hired), progress of your research agenda and your vision of what's next, your service priorities and accomplishments, and other summary statements most universities expect. Once you have organized your dossier and have begun to fill it, you can also spot questions or issues about the coming tenure evaluation more swiftly and clearly.
4. As you move through your work week, try (this may take practice) to focus on what you feel happy about at work and/or at home, just at the moment, really. Tenure can be a mess to slog through, and you are not alone at all in your struggle, though it may feel that way at times. But you're going through this, presumably, because you have a passion for your work, you want a life in the academy, and you love the art and craft of teaching. After a few years with tenure, this method of reflection still works for me when the stress starts to build.
5. If you're comfortable to do so, ask a recently tenured woman at your university (needn't be in your department) to have a coffee or lunch with you off campus, to chat about how she approached the process and what suggestions she can offer, particular to your university and your community. Lots of nice people from all over are willing to make suggestions, but it might help to have someone who knows your institution and town/city offer specific suggestions.
6. To cut into the stress, do one activity every week that is not about work or home, and requires no preparation. Swim, take trapeze lessons, sculpt, walk in the park, meet a non-work friend for an hour or two of fun, go to a movie, or just watch a movie at home that is just what makes you happy. You have to get out of your head and away from that ‘responsibility thing’ at least once a week.