Monday, April 10, 2017

How can you be authentic on the tenure track?

At a recent personal effectiveness workshop I attended I was asked to look up the definitions of "authentic" in different dictionaries to find the definition that would work for me.

- Genuine.
- Worthy of acceptance or belief based on fact.
- True to one's own personality, spirit or character.
- (In existential philosophy) Denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible mode of human life.

I have been longing to be more true to myself in my life. Despite the fact that I have been able to be authentic to my feelings and experiences in this blog, I have not been the same at work. By not being myself most of the day, I sometimes feel like I turn on the same facade outside of work, even without thinking. This generates a disconnect between who I know I AM and who I am being, which comes off as guarded and detached.

Armour, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
Being on the tenure track means being thrown without training in a leadership position and being judged about your performance for 5-9 years. I am being guarded with people in my department because even people I do not like will be voting on my tenure and I need to be seen as a helpful team member. I am being guarded with my superiors and admins because when I want to get things done in a somewhat dysfunctional environment I have to say the right words and grease the right wheels. I have to smile and bite my tongue when some days I just want to scream. I am being guarded with most of my peers because I don't want to mention I am considering leaving and because I want to support the new hires, from whom I withheld information through the interview process, as their experience could be different from mine. I am guarded with the people in my lab mostly because one day I may have to fire them if I don't get funding and I hired them on a promise that I am not sure I will be able to fulfill. Also, like with children, you don't want to show you have any favorites.

This is not much different from any other job, apart from one detail: the tenure clock. Similarly to grad school, you are waiting for a group of people to tell you that you have done enough to join their club. This touches different aspects of self-worth that the more impostor syndrome you have, the more results into neuroses and uneasiness. I am not sure that tenure is synonym with job security in academia anymore, but it is certainly still a token of acceptance, of having made enough on an impact. Being passionate and engaged in your career, which is a critical part of doing science, is hindered by constantly having to hide your feelings.

So, how do you reconcile being yourself with being on the tenure track? I wish I knew! The answer may different for different people as everyone may be using different strategies to cope. For me, it is mostly that I am dead tired to be wearing a full set of armor every day and that I will do my best to negotiate being myself with the demands of the job...I know I still cannot express all my frustration, but I may be able to identify new ways to affect change.


  1. (I adore your blog.) In your shoes, I would ask myself a couple of questions: 1. When was I myself in my professional life? (grad school? postdoc? other job?) and 2. How can I achieve that now, even with my misgivings and grievances? I tend to think that people don't change much, and that tenure clock or not, your self-described reserve in your professional life may indeed be your genuine 'professional self'. This hunch would be challenged if you were much less reserved or very different in a previous position. In any event, it's not uncommon to have multiple personae that come out in different environments. I am a slightly different person with my family than I am at work than I am at play -- overlapping ven diagrams to be sure, but the centers shift. In any event, if you feel like there is some aspect of your personality *needing* to be expressed in front of your colleagues, you might take a risk with someone you know well and see how it goes, and ease in to expressing more of these challenges in person more broadly. On the other hand, don't beat yourself up about not being 'genuine' just because you have more dimensions to yourself than one group gets to see. Cherishing that privacy is perfectly ok. Stay strong!

    1. Thank you this. You nailed the situation, since these are exactly the questions I'm asking myself now. As a PD and student I was more connected with my lab mates and a large network of friends in other labs. I didn't feel I was not allowed to say no to my boss. Now, it's more complicated and I worry (maybe wrongly) about sharing too much with my colleagues. This turned the situation from "We're in this together" to "I'm in this alone". Don't get me wrong I have some trusted friends, but where I am does not have a culture of collegiality and sharing, so that I feel we're all a little lonely trying to keep our heads above water. I have done a lot to try and foster a different culture, but attempts have sometimes not been successful. One solution as you mention may be to go one on one and see how it goes.

  2. Sounds like a tough situation.. hang in there! I just started so I haven't encountered most of these questions yet, but what I think is already helping, is having peers who are in a similar position, and mentors outside of my department who have seen this process before. Just by talking what I'm doubting about to them, helps me make choices that I stand behind (rather than make choices and and endlessly stress out about it).

    1. Thank you, Veronika! The mentors and the peers have definitely beed a great help. Things are not as bad as they may sound and the feeling is very subtle, but in the long term it gnaws at me. This is what I was realizing and I'm hoping that I will be able to build better/stronger and more effective relationships by being less guarded. :)

  3. I totally agree we all need to be more authentic in our lives, Lets provision the world with more originality. Nice post.