How it feels NOT to get TENURE (life time contract as a professor)
This week I received a link from my dear friend Dr. Jennifer Bernstein to check out one article that was published in the Huffington Post. The headline caught my attention instantly: What Is It Like To Be Denied Tenure as a Professor? by Dr. Pablo Pomposiello Miravent.
After I read the entire article I experienced a brutal reality check and contacted Dr. Miravent instantly to request an interview and fortunately he agreed to share his story with us.
More specifically you will learn:
- What tenure in the US actually means.
- Why tenure is the ultimate goal of every researcher who wants to keep working inside the university system.
- Why Dr. Pablo Pomposiello Miravent despite his very successful academic track record DID NOT receive tenure.
- How Pablo recovered from this career shock.
- What Pablo recommends to all tenure trackers.
About Dr. Pablo Pomposiello Miravent
Pablo is a microbiologist, genetic engineer, teacher and biotech entrepreneur. His main field of expertise is the genetic responses to oxidative stress in enteric bacteria. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in Biology in 1997, and was a Research Fellow at Harvard University between 1997 and 2001. Pablo became a Professor at the Microbiology Department at the University of Massachusetts in 2001 and worked in Amherst until 2009, when he moved to Spain. In Madrid, he worked as Chief Scientific Officer at Microbionta SL. In 2011, together with scientists at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia (CNB-CSIC), founded Bacmine SL, a biotech company that produces novel tools for synthetic biology. Pablo lives in Madrid.
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Hi and welcome to How to Become a Professor.com. My name is Stephan and I’m your host today. Today you will experience a brutal reality check all among you who are thinking of becoming a professor one day or are actually in the middle of becoming a professor, watch and listen carefully. This week, I received a link from my dear friend, Dr. Jennifer Bernstein, to check out one article that was published in Huffington Post. The headline caught my attention instantly. “What is it Like to be Denied Tenure as a Professor?” by Dr. Pablo Pomposiello Miravent. After I read the entire article, I’ve experienced a brutal reality check and I contacted Pablo instantly to request an interview and fortunately he agreed to share his story with all of us. Pablo is a microbiologist genetic engineer teacher and biotic entrepreneur. His main field of expertise is the genetic responses to oxidative stress in entering bacteria. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a PhD in Biology in 1997 and was a research fellow at Harvard University between 1997 and 2001. Pablo became a professor at the microbiology department at the University of Massachusetts in 2001 and worked in Elmhurst until 2009 when he moved to Spain. In Madrid, he worked as Chief Scientific Officer at Microbionta SL. In 2011, together with scientists at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (CNB-CSIC), founded Bacmine SL, a biotech company that produces bacterial cell factories through synthetic biology. Pablo lives in Madrid.
Stephan: Pablo, thank you so much for being here with us and sharing your very personal and must story, very important story. Thank you so much for that.
Pablo: Welcome Stephan. Good. It’s good to help
Stephan: Pablo, before we dive into your story, please do us a favor and explain what tenure actually means and why is it important to receive tenure.
Pablo: Well tenure is both a process and the result of the process. It is also a goal that academic scientists have during their careers. It’s also the sort of the ultimate recognition that the scientist is doing the right thing. And of course I did hear about art science and humanities. Since for tenure officer, researcher component is required. So typically, one access is an academic position as a junior professor, assistant professor and is given a number of years to show that he or she can become essentially a leader in his or her field. And this is measured by different metrics according to the institution but essentially, what the process is after a number of years they get all your production in terms of teaching and service and research and they put it together in a big folder and the department might see and the collage authorities will read and goes to the process etc. And everyone says yes or no, and if everyone says yes, then you are essentially hired for life. There’s no contract reservation there’s no more negotiations. Your job is yours to have it if you want it for the rest of your life which is great, of course. The ultimate job security, it’s good both your career and your family and your personal position of course. So when we talk about tenure, we talk about the process of getting there to that point of hired for life and also the result of process. And also tenure is made for us as a goal, something you aspire to. And also the ultimate recognition that an academic professional is doing the right thing, so that’s what tenure is as a process and as a product process.
Stephan: Okay, got it. Is there a written rule or may be unwritten rule until what age you’re supposed to be ready to receive tenure?
Pablo: No, there’s no age limit really. I have to change that one. This is important. I’m talking about the American educational system differently in different countries in the world. I’m exclusively talking about tenure system in the US. I made that very clear. So no, there’s no age requirement. There people who got tenured in their 20’s and there are people who got tenured in their 70’s. Age is not a determinant. Typically, we can say, someone will finish college at age 20 something, do a PhD at age 30’s and become a professor so, middle to late 30’s, early 40’s is typically your tenure strike area.
Stephan: Okay, got it. I understand. Thank you so much for clearing this up. Let’s start on your personal story which is really important. I mean your track records have been impressive as far as I can judge. You know, PhD at the University of Michigan, research fellow at Harvard, being a professor at the University of Massachusetts and it seems you were on the best way to receive tenure ultimately but unfortunately is you did not. So the question is, what happened or to put it differently, why didn’t you receive tenure?
Pablo: Well, first of all, thanks for your appreciation but you can hire me in your company of course, one day, I can work for you. Yeah, I was pretty successful when I was a student. I got my PhD, I got a series work, I work on series solid papers in the area, solid contributions to the field. I had no problem in getting a post doctoral position in a place of my choice which is Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. I was a fairly a successful post doc too. I also published very well. I networked. I did all that is supposed to be done at that point. In fact I went, after my 2nd year of post doc., I went on a job hunt as an experiment and I got a job offer on my 1st interview. So I was by some metrics, a successful scientist at that time. So, you know and also I was that kind of kid that played with the magnifying glass looking at ants and all I want to be a biologist. I always wanted to be an academic biologist. The life of being a professor was the best. And I had never been in doubt that I was ultimately become. Many people go to PhD. with doubts and angst. What’s going to happen to me? Am I really good for this? I never had any doubt. It was natural for me. It was kind of fun. I couldn’t believe they would pay to me to do that. It was really a lot of fun and I had no doubt that I will succeed because I was doing what I was loving. So again, I got a 1st job offer in Boston, I didn’t take it because I kind of was saving myself maybe for something better, so I stayed a couple more years as post doc. And tried to go on a 2nd job hunt and then I go to some other offers from which I chose Massachusetts in Ammers because the place was great, I love doing England. I had friends there. It serves all my purpose reason and goals. So, I started the life of tenured trek professor which is extremely busy and you have to wear these many hats and you have to teach. And I have to say the university was very supportive at that time. They really made my teaching load light. They helped me as much as they could. They gave a large start up fund which is money they give you as a sort of a check to spend as I wanted. I could hire people. I could buy equipment and I could go on trips. I could do whatever I wanted with the money. It was really, really good. So the university did its part. It was supported my position with everything they could after all it’s a public school, resources were limited but I had a great set of colleagues. They did everything right. So I have no criticism towards the university on the thing they did and this is important to say because in negative tenure decision there’s always some controversial aspects, there’s always an adversarial aspect, there’s always professor versus university and that is one of the crazy things, you know, until that moment its professor with university. During tenure, it feels like professor versus university. It’s like they’re putting all these obstacles and problems for you. Two days ago you were perfectly fine member of the community and then suddenly they’re looking at you with scrutinizing eye to see if you are good enough. And through these, that is very difficult sometimes to say what is good enough. So back to my story, to finish your question, so I started the assistant professor life. I went through a 1st year review. It was pretty positive. I went again to a 3rd year review which was not so positive when the university told me officially ‘Paulo, you need to get your act together and you do publish more and get more grants’. Your teaching looks great. Your service looks great but you have to publish and have to get more money, because it’s a little bit like return on investment. University gave you big check, do whatever you want. They need at least recover the investment and that makes sense of course otherwise you would be losing proposition. So at that time, my 3rd year review I was trying to feel like, although, I’ve been preparing seemingly all my life to fulfill this role, the actual role, the reality of the job was much less satisfactory than what I suppose it would be. And that was kind of eating at me because simply I had no other idea what else could I do. You know, it was that or nothing and at the same time I had this growing feeling that, that place in the universe was exactly the best for me. For personal reasons, for professional reasons, I discovered that being in dear track require to learn the things you like to do, for example constant networking, constant polishing of the network, going to meetings and staying and talking to the big guys so you get recognized by name and they know your work and dragging people to your poster and showing them what you’ve done lately. I didn’t quite like that part, you know. It was sort of smoothing like they sometime called it in the industry which does nothing wrong in it. It’s just that I was not very good at it. I am a pretty social person but that kind of, you know, targeted networking. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t feel good doing it. And it’s also an objective reality too that in between the time was a post doc. and the time I become a professor, I approaching my tenured position, the funding landscape of America had changed a lot. America went to the Clinton years of budget surpluses to the Bush years of wars and budget shortcuts, short comes so it was quite a different funding landscape and that was objectively so we have to work harder to get the same amount of dollars. So through this, I didn’t get any large grants which is the sort of the benchmark for academic assessing in my field, ISF, NSF type , multi year, multi million grant which are really the, would allows our field to be possible because we do in experimental biology is quite expensive. It’s not part of physics but it’s quite expensive. I wasn’t really very successful doing that. And my publication record was lukewarm. It wasn’t terrible but I wasn’t finding good ideas. I wasn’t finding motivation to write and to convince editors and that work was great. So essentially, on one hand, objectively, the landscape had changed and subjectively, my energy was much lower than it had been. So by year number 5, 6, the final tenure process started, which I really had to put together my folder, get all my little clips and everything I have done, green folder and give it to the department. And here is where public schools, differ from private schools. Private and public are different. Private schools, many times, the chairman of the department would say, ‘I’m sorry your case is not strong enough we’re not going to put you up for tenure.’ And that’s it. Here’s one more year of appointment, look for another job. Public schools are mandated to go through the tenure process at least most of them are so they have to do it even if they’re not going to give it to you. They have to go so you have to go to the department. Department gets together, all the tenured faculties form like a special committee for each case and every tenured faculty votes and have to reach an agreement by majority if they want to give a tenure or not. Actually, they don’t give you tenure, they just advice the next level of administration to say yes or no. and the next level of administration is the college. The dean together with the college student committee gets together. They get to your file. They get to the departmental. They advise what they say, yes or no and they say by themselves, yes or no and also vote by agreement. It’s a long, long process. In the meantime, they ask for letters from your colleagues outside the university, typically experts in the field that know your work and they can say if you’re up to par with them or not if they want you in the club or not more or less. And finally goes to the probes, you know, to the higher echelons of the administration were things pretty much get sanctioned. If everyone said yes, some viewpoints, some are very rare that the pro is going to say no. If there is any problem in between, they may find may come and go, there might be appeals etc. So it’s a long process. It takes a year, more or less. And all through the year, again in public schools, the professors are informed, typically by letter what’s going on. So by the time it hits the department, you know and in my case, my department was split. Typically, the faculty writes the report and then the department head writes a report. And the faculty was a positive vote but not by much and my department head was actually a close friend and a dear person in which I’m still in contact with, told me he couldn’t vote for me. He was, he thought about it. He suffered a lot. He was visibly shocked by his own process but he really couldn’t give me his support. So without the support of the chairman, I knew it was to be very, very difficult. So I started preparing for the final decision and I took a few more months but by then when the chairman of the department came to my office, told me that it was not going to happen at his level at least, I knew that it was going to be very, very difficult. So eventually, in a few months later, I got the letter and at that time, I was married, I told to my wife and I said we knew so we have to start making some plans and they were very nice to me. They gave me a lectureship and I was able to keep some research activities. The university was really supportive. The dean took me for lunch and essentially offered a helping hand so it was really nice what they did for me in a way. And of course, I was not happy about the whole thing. For me it was crushing because like you mentioned many times in your website, I got the ‘mix don’t blame la me’. We don’t spread the risk. All my risks were there. All my effort was there in that particular position. It was a big part of my identity. It was a big part of who I was being a professor. I was Paulo the professor. There was no Paulo that’s something else. Okay, so it was quite crushing for me. It took a long time to come to terms with the cold fact.
Stephan: Got it. I mean, how did you experience? I mean how much time was between your talk with the chair, that he said he couldn’t back you up and the final decision. How long was it?
Pablo: It was about 5 months.
Stephan: 5 months and how was this time for you? I mean, you’re still unsure if you were receiving tenure or not but you cannot expect or probably not. How did you…..
Pablo: I was expecting most probably not. Something inside me was telling me, it’s not going to happen.
Stephan: Okay. Which period was more crushing, this period or the period after the final decision?
Pablo: It was actually the putting my files together and going into the process with essentially with no faith in myself because I knew enough all the system. I knew enough about the other cases. I knew it was a weak case. And I was depressed because, you know, I prepared all my life for this and when the time comes finally, face the music and really be destined in a hard way, you know, I know I’m not doing well. I’m failing. I knew it. I knew I was even performing to my own expectations. That’s probably, the most depressing aspect of it. I’m not doing as well as I say ‘No, I should do. I’m not doing as well as I want to do.
Stephan: Alright. What happened, you know, you got the warning in your 3rd year of the tenure track process. It’s kind of…
Pablo: I got the warning, right and I knew I was not complying with those instructions.
Stephan: Alright. And this kind of wake-up call didn’t… have any effect on you at time or…?
Pablo: Yeah…I tried. Put a better veneer, put a better mask but like I told you before I also had this feeling that I was not in the right place. I was sort of caught in an internal fight between I have to perform and I’m not sure performing in the right place. You know a race that I’m not sure if I want to run. That was the reality of it. So of course with that conflict in my mind and in my soul, I really couldn’t do well.
Stephan: Alright. I understand. In your article, in the halfway described that you felt depressed and withdrawn and it also came together with mid-life crisis and you also shared in this article that you started a therapy which helped and tried antidepressants that didn’t. I know it’s really personal but could you walk us through this very challenging period of yours and how ultimately have you managed to recover from it.
Pablo: Well I think I went through a typical 40’s middle life crisis. It was only made clearer and more painful by this process in which I, it’s like a slow train wreck. So, I saw it happening, I couldn’t do anything about it. Everything feedback, you know, in to this depressive look. You know, I’m not good enough but I couldn’t do anything to make myself better enough which makes me feel worse, which makes me worse all myself, makes me more depressed and because of this typically depressing look which you can only see the negatives, okay. As a biologist, as an experimentalist I was never afraid on drugs so I took what the psychiatry paraphernalia recommends for everything which are SSRI anti- depressants the most typical kind. It didn’t help. They made me anxious. They make me edgy and they affected my sleep patterns. It didn’t work. On the other hand, I had some good experiences with therapy in my young years. I’m from Argentina originally. Argentina psychotherapists you know are part of middle class, typical, what people do. It doesn’t raise any eyebrows, it’s not a stigma associated with going to a psychologist, therapist or psychoanalysis of any persuasion and just go off your problems and seek some help. So I did. In University of Massachusetts in America, a great mental health, that’s how they call in America, mental health department, which, you know there are all kinds of therapists available from natural teas to massage to whatever you want. It’s really, really good. Mostly because there is a large student population and that you know suffers from quite a bit of all kinds of mental conditions. I was also available for faculty because I don’t use it very much because we were supposed to be the strong ones and I went and I got some help so I went to a speech based therapy which I sat with a therapist and talked out all my problems. It was all directed to the actual problem and you know, what could be done. It was not kind of therapy that let’s talk about your dreams and your relationship with your mother and your sister. It wasn’t like that. It helped a lot. So little by little, I started a process in which I understood that, yes there was an objective reality but that was not all you know. I’m not my work. I’m not my job. I am a person. I have all kinds of other dimensions to my life that I’m not seeing. I’m not making a good thing about because this elephant in the room is capturing all the attention. So little by little you know also with help of some good friends, there were people that helped me a lot, talked to me every day, came to my office, caught me by the hand, took me for lunch make sure I ate, that kind of thing. So it was good being part of the community. And of course, when you are depressed it’s going to be okay and you won’t believe it but eventually you get better. Eventually, I got married. I started planning in life and in fact everything was okay.
Stephan: Okay. Awesome! Tell us about your new life. So eventually, you made peace with yourself and accepted the current works situation. I mean basically, you have 2 choices right? So the one choice would be to start looking for another job and so in that case it would’ve meant to start the entire tenure process again at the Northern University, isn’t it?
Pablo: Yeah, of course. So when the final tenure decision came. Actually, it was a big relief. It was like it’s done. It’s clear. Now I know what’s going on. By then, I knew it’s going to happen that way. Today, I was feeling better and the university kept me. First, they gave me a year in my current position and after that year, they gave me elector shift. I started actually the same teaching I did before but minus research. So that left me a lot of free time. So what I started doing was consulting for biotech company that was starting in the area. A fellow professor had started the biotech company based on her research and they ask me to consult for them as a geneticist, which is my field of expertise. So I started working for them and I discovered this dual life of lecturing at the university, so I was doing the teaching job, I always loved and I was doing the research without running to have my own lab and I liked that. It was great. I said, if I’ve known that it was possible, this combination of not just one job all encompassing, all in one job but rather 2 different jobs. Part –time, doing partially what I like on each. This is great. I would have never gone for tenure if I knew that I could’ve done that. And that’s part of what you say all the time that which we don’t know our alternatives, when we go almost blindly, towards one objective which is the big hanging carrot, the big dangling carrot of tenure, I would go for other things. For example like I just told you I could’ve done this before, just have lecture and do consulting. I would have been much better. I would’ve saved myself a little trouble.
Stephan: Okay, cool. So currently, what are you doing now? As you mentioned, you started now, the 2nd biotech company by yourself.
Pablo: Currently, I’m the CEO of a small biotech star-up called Back Mine in Madrid. We operate essentially a spin of the Ceneve which is the centre you’ve mentioned before and we do bacterial genetics so we take bacteria, we modify them to program them to do certain tasks. So its genetic engineering, which is in this days called synthetic biology, which to take parts from different organisms and make it and now reboot it noble organism that has characteristics of the parts.
Stephan: Okay. Awesome! So now you’ve switch to academia to entrepreneurship which is naturally related to your research as well. It’ awesome! I have 1 big question left. As you know, as you mentioned several times, thank you so much for that, one of the traditions of how to make become a professor.com is not only to show the young academics how the world’s best professors of all times would plan their career today but also to encourage them to spread the career risks by finding alternative ways how they can apply their qualifications on the job market beyond academia and my question to you is what would you recommend scholars who are in the natural sciences as well, what should they to do and to refrain the question, what is your final recommendation to all tenure trekkers out there who are literally working their asses of to receive tenure? What is your final recommendation?
Pablo: Well first of all, after going through all the process I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses that path because it’s really challenging and hard. So first of all, my first word is respect to all of them. In second place, I would say, consider alternatives and people should look for what they like because in what they like actually, is really the most solid base to build anything else. So many times in the academia, we’re sort of Spartan. We concentrate on what we should do and we forget what we like to do. And in the likes, there’s a lot of solid base to build upon. And many things come naturally, to train your trekkers like networking, like quantitative thinking, critical thinking which is extremely rare in many environments so we are, although we don’t know if we’re really trained to do other things to evaluate possibilities, to make decisions with limited information is a great, great characteristic in other fields, and it’s appreciative by companies, by government, by NGO’s. The number of alternative things, a person who had reached a tenure trek point can do is limitless.
Stephan: Okay. I’ll take it from there. Pablo thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I’m trying to wrap this up so in the first part Pablo you explained what tenure exactly means and why is it ultimate goal for most researches who wants to keep working within the university’s system. In the 2nd part you’ve shared with us why despite your successful impressive track record, you didn’t receive tenure and also by objective metrics. And in the final part Pablo you’ve provided this final recommendation for all tenure trekkers out there to build upon your passion and interest and also keep your eyes open for alternatives even if you really focus on the tenure trek. Okay. Awesome! Yeah so I’d like to end this interview with certain quote ‘Best advices are worth nothing if it’s not put into practice’. Pablo, thank you so much.
Pablo: Thank you Stephan.