Academia: Off the tenured track

[from: Nature 491, 627-629 (2012) doi:10.1038/nj7425-627a. Published online 21 November 2012]

Academia: Off the tenured track

by Kendall Powell

The desires to pursue personal goals, escape university pressures or get off the grant-writing treadmill convince some US professors to leave the security of a tenured post.

At the beach in Mantoloking, New Jersey, in summer 2011, the possibilities of Colin Purrington’s sabbatical year stretched out before him. Purrington, then an evolutionary biologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, intended to stay on campus and was almost giddy thinking of all the undergraduate research projects he had planned, with no teaching or service duties to interrupt them. And then it hit him like a 600-page textbook. When the year was over, he did not want to return to those duties — duties that had led to miserable all-nighters and family strain.

The next day, he asked his wife, the family’s main breadwinner, what she thought of him resigning his post to become a stay-at-home father to their two children. Looking up from a Sudoku puzzle, she replied: “Whatever you’d like.” Purrington’s on-campus misery made the decision easy. He walked away from his tenured position, and his 14 years at Swarthmore.

For many scientists in the United States, where tenure is most common, the decision comes with much more angst. Leaving a position that they worked for decades to attain, and that is often coveted as the pinnacle of academic achievement, is a huge step. It can also leave colleagues mystified, jealous, hurt and sometimes thinking the worst — imagining research misconduct or even a scandalous affair with a student. In interviews with professors who have left their tenured posts in the past decade, Nature found that the reasons for such moves ranged from the very personal — no marital prospects in a small college town — to the loftiest goals of shaping national educational or science policy.

 Almost all wanted to live in a more desirable location — an indication that the age-old view that academics must ‘go where the jobs are’ might not lead to long-term career satisfaction. Some tenure-leavers sought to improve the balance between work and family life, or wanted a better environment for research. Most emphasized that their colleagues did not drive them away: on the contrary, talented, passionate departmental comrades were treasured. But the evidence is clear: ‘giving up’ hard-won tenure is indeed the right move for some. Here, four researchers explain why they are happy that they relinquished those coveted posts.

[continue at Nature]

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