On Transitioning after a Tenure Denial

By Katharine Bullard, Service Employees’ International Union

There are lots of reasons to leave the professoriate. Some people figure it out in graduate school despite the intense pressure to stay in the pipeline. For others, it’s a sense that the work and pay of an adjunct is not worth it. For me, it was a tenure denial that pushed me over the edge and out.

I think there are a few seldom-acknowledged truths about tenure denials. First, there are many complicated reasons for not being granted tenure and in my experience it has little do to with how good of a teacher or scholar you are.  Second, it doesn’t mean you have to leave academia but it is intensely difficult to stay, whether due to the taint of denial or because of the logistics of moving away from where you’ve likely made a life for yourself. Third, tenure denial is traumatic. There is a kind of grief to it that has to be acknowledged.

I landed pretty smoothly in a new career but looking back there were a few things that I learned in the process that might help others in a similar position:

  • Take time to process your grief and think about what you want. I saw a therapist and recommend it to anyone.
  • Think carefully about what’s next. Generally tenure denial comes with a terminal year. Take it and use it. Making a decision about what you want to do next needs to take into account the rejection you feel. Leaving academia is a big decision to make in reaction.
  • In that year, work your contacts. Get in touch with your former graduate school colleagues. Many of them will be have left academia or know people who have. Talk to them.  In my case, a high school friend even turned out to be a helpful contact.
  • Use the year to try things out.  You want to continue to be a good teacher, but you will find you are generally released from service. Use that time to try something you’re interested in. It could be a doing a mini-internship or volunteering. Even working a weekend job.
  • If you worked before you received your PhD in a different field, go back to those contacts as well.

In my case, I realized I was done. I was tried of the system by which teaching is the lowest priority and students, especially first generation and low-income students, take out enormous loans and receive little to no support.

When I thought back to when I felt the most empowered to make a difference in higher education, I realized it was as an activist in a T.A. union in graduate school. While it had been 10 years since I was a labor activist, I found that former colleagues who were working in the field where happy to help me reconnect. During my terminal year, I began working part time on an SEIU campaign and accepted a full time probationary position soon after.

Networking is the key to transitioning and alternative-academics are very open to talking about their job and their career path. Reach out and then reach back.

Join Katharine and other PhDs who switched to careers in non-profits and government for a panel discussion, Saturday, 2 May, 3:30 – 4:50pm EDT during Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

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