I wanted to dequeue one more post before the semester gets going for real. This is a collection of random observations about the contrast between being an untenured and tenured professor.
Tenure is an up-or-out process: either you get it or you lose your job. This is stressful for everyone. Getting tenure is excellent in that this source of stress is removed, but it is also a little bit confusing since we are suddenly forced to ask what exactly it is that we are doing with our lives now that—at long last—we aren’t living up to some random collection of external expectations. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of people who have voluntarily left academia after getting tenure; my guess is that this effect is sometimes a factor.
Basically everyone who gets tenure, including me, finds him/herself continuing to get busier every year. Not only do the demands on our time increase, but we can no longer fall back on the convenient selfish excuse “sorry—can’t possibly do that time consuming task while I’m on the tenure track.” The constantly overloaded TODO list gets old, and it also makes it hard to get actual research done. It’s no coincidence that a lot of tenured professors rely on students to do all of the technical work associated with their research programs. Untenured professors not only have more time to do research but also may be reluctant to risk their careers by putting students on too many critical paths.
I used to knock off work between 11 and midnight, whereas I now generally quit between 10 and 11. Additionally, during many of my pre-tenure years I got very little exercise, which resulted in high blood pressure and various other problems; now I spend some time staying in shape. On the other hand, I don’t take as many days off now, probably due to more stuff going on in general and the kids being on a school schedule. Even so, I probably work fewer hours per day now than I used to.
I’m trying to write fewer papers now, and to make each paper a really solid one. This blog is part of that effort: it siphons off a good deal of writing energy. At some point leading up to tenure I realized that writing a mediocre paper makes no sense; it is almost as much work as writing a good one and it dilutes whatever reputation for myself that I may be managing to build up. A few of my more recent papers, most notably the Csmith one, are the result of a large amount of effort that would simply not have made sense to allocate to a single paper before tenure. I could have turned Csmith into a series of papers, but why? I can’t see that as being useful to anyone. There’s an avalanche of crappy papers and I would love to not be part of it. It is possible that I’m doing my PhD students a disservice by publishing less; I try to deal with this by being up-front with them about the academic track: if they want to get on it, they need to learn to write fairly rapidly and extremely well. I’m happy to work with them on that project, but I’m not going to push. The impetus needs to come from them.
When I got tenure, one of my plans was to avoid letting my teaching be compromised by research pressures. I’m afraid that I have not accomplished this goal. I do a pretty good job teaching, but no better than I used to. I do, however, feel more free to take risks in the classroom by trying teaching techniques that aren’t totally tried and true and by throwing out old assignments more often. This causes me to take a hit on teaching evaluations sometimes, which is OK.
Finally, I’d like to say that I now take more time to think and read, but I’m not sure that this is the case. Probably the main thing that I do differently along these lines is write blog posts, which is certainly useful as a way to motivate thinking. I read relatively few books and papers related to my research, except on occasional bursts where I need to learn some new research thread or subfield.