FEATURE: The new post-postdoc
Fraught with anxiety for most — a “great first job” for others — chasing tenure comes with high stakes for Yale’s junior faculty members.
In his office on the third floor of 27 Hillhouse Ave., economics assistant professor José-Antonio Espín-Sánchez has a picture of his 1-year-old son and little else. There is a black sticker of the Iberian Peninsula — where he is from — adjacent to a wooden bookshelf and a print of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” that famous woodblock of an impending, almost apocalyptic rogue wave. The rest of the room is relatively bare.
After all, he is fairly new to Yale. While older, tenured professors have stacks of books, plaques and pictures of themselves posing with celebrities and presidents, Espín-Sánchez has a white wall and a slowly crowding desk. The few decorations that co-opt the various shelves and corners of his office have accumulated since 2014.
That would mean only a few more years until tenure, if he gets it. Historically, Espin-Sanchez said around 30 percent of professors are awarded tenure.
Tenure, he explained, is the ultimate job interview. Assistant professors are evaluated on nearly every aspect of their academic career. Write enough papers for the top academic journals, attend the most prestigious conferences and win lucrative awards, and you get a job for life at one of the most elite universities in the country. Fail to do so, and you are out of a job. He said he plans to submit five research papers. If all five are accepted, tenure could be very likely. But if only one gets in, “I’m screwed.”
Yale’s tenure process has become less painful than most since a 2016 overhaul improved transparency and sped up the agonizingly slow tenure clock. Still, Espín-Sánchez and his colleagues say they are faced with subjective and uncertain requirements to earn tenure. Several have criticized the arbitrariness that goes into Yale’s decision to hire them for life — or to force them to look for alternative trajectories.
“It’s very hard to predict,” Espín-Sánchez said. “You can do all your work you can, [but] at the end it just depends on if someone likes your work or not.”
Espín-Sánchez turned to his bookshelf and sighed. He’s racing against the clock. He worries if his papers will be published by the time the University Tenure and Appointments Committee mulls over his performance. And even if they are, would the committee appreciate his work?
A picture of Espín-Sánchez’s smiling son hangs on the wall behind him, looking over him as he works at his desk. The young professor’s periodic review is coming soon. If he gets the sense that pursuing tenure at Yale may not be the right idea, he will consider moving to a lower-tier institution. If so, his stint at Yale, he added, would have been more of a training opportunity, a “post-post-doctorate,” than anything else.
“IT WAS TRAUMATIZING”
University of Florida professor Lillian Guerra knows what it’s like to go through Yale’s tenure process — or, at least, part of it.
An expert on Cuban and Caribbean history, Guerra said she joined the Yale faculty in 2004 with two acclaimed books already on her résumé. Soon after she arrived, however, the young professor felt like she was not taken seriously. Some of her colleagues told her that her research interests were irrelevant. Cuban history was “a waste of time,” she remembers one saying. In her first week, Guerra said that a male colleague told her that two other women previously occupied her new office in the Hall of Graduate Studies — and hoped she’d last longer than they did.
“You could talk to them until you’re blue in the face about [Cuban history],” she said. “It was extremely disturbing to me that people who already had tenure … all seemed to be convinced that never would I really be able to achieve the throne. It didn’t matter what I did.”
Guerra left in 2010. Retrospectively, she is happy she decided to pull out of her tenure-track position before she “lost her sense of purpose.” But along the way, while she was writing the manuscript for a new book and teaching classes at Yale on Latin American history, she said senior faculty members presented her with insurmountable roadblocks to tenure, aiming to nudge her out of the University.
“There is nothing I could have done to change the minds of many people who were required to evaluate me,” she said.
By the time Guerra was up for review at Yale, she had drafted her book “Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971” based on recommendations she had received from Laura Engelstein, the then-chair of the History Department. According to Guerra, Engelstein told her to compile all her research into an entire manuscript — instead of sending in several polished chapters. Guerra now believes that the advice was malicious and was meant to torpedo her chances at earning tenure.
“It wasn’t just bad, it was incorrect,” Guerra said. “It was erroneous, and probably deliberately so.”
Engelstein wrote she did not remember the details of Guerra’s tenure review in an email to the News. But, she wrote, “I can say with assurance that as chair I always gave junior faculty members the advice I thought would best serve their interests in advancing their careers at Yale.”
For Guerra, the experience was telling: Not long after she left Yale for her new appointment at the University of Florida, her book won a handful of prestigious awards and even helped her win a Guggenheim Fellowship — an honor that comes with a hefty, no-strings-attached research grant. Compared to the awards committees that gave out the grant, Guerra said that those who handled her professional fate at Yale were not nearly as objective. In fact, she argued that they reeked of “ethical flaws and racism.”
Yale’s tenure process, she said, was not traumatizing as much as it was “outrageous and revolting.” As she recounted her experience at Yale she began to cry. “You have to continue to believe in fairness and justice,” she said between sobs.
At Florida, Guerra has served on tenure committees herself — and knows how much sway members of these bodies have over their colleagues’ futures. Like a lever, workplace spats that happen early in one’s career can mean drastically different outcomes later.
As other professors inch closer to their evaluations, Yale molecular, cellular, and developmental biology professor Valerie Horsley said that the high stakes of tenure caused her stress and anxiety. Like Guerra, Horsley built a résumé thick with honors, articles and awards. Still, the process made her nervous — so much so that she often lost sleep over it.
Horsley received tenure in 2016. She currently leads her own lab in the new Yale Science Building, where she conducts research on wound healing in the skin. Three years after she learned she would indefinitely hold a post at the University, the tenure process still haunts her.
“I was terrified,” she said. “It was traumatic — especially when you’re 40 and you have a family.”
By the time she came to Yale, Horsley had already completed an extensive post-doctoral fellowship at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan. When she arrived, she recalled that many of her colleagues told her to think of her time at Yale as another long fellowship or a multi-year ticket to tenure at another institution. Without much feedback from senior faculty members, Horsley said that her ability to gauge her chances at tenure was significantly stunted. “I did feel that my department supported me, and that they thought I was successful,” she explained, “but I didn’t feel like it was a slam-dunk case.”
Then, after waiting for months, she learned she was approved for tenure. Her post-post-doctorate had been a success. But at what cost?
INSIDE THE PROCESS
The tenure processes that Guerra and Horsley endured are different than current University protocol. Reformed in 2016, the new Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tenure and Appointments System dedicates two periods of performance review — one at the four-year mark, the other at year seven — and a total of eight years until tenure is usually granted. Compared to the old model, the new system’s tenure clock is shorter by one year and far less arduous, Horsley said.
“It used to be much more horrible,” she said. “They would advertise your job and if someone better than you, more famous, or more senior applied, then you wouldn’t get tenure.”
The reviews also give assistant professors the chance to hold their fingers to the wind and gauge their chances for tenure without going through an arduous review process. But these windows also cause many to cut their losses and apply for jobs outside Yale.
The University has “high expectations” for its tenured faculty members, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler. And because of this, the FAS offers various means of support for assistant professors, including resources for a colloquium on their academic work and three semesters of academic leave.
For those that stay on board, the path to tenure is steep. Candidates must submit a portfolio of materials for review by a tenure and appointments committee, which works confidentially with the department chair and departmental review committee to determine if promotion is appropriate. Then, the relevant faculty members review at least 10 letters from outside experts in related fields to verify that a candidate “stands among the foremost leaders in the world.”
If they vote positively, the candidate’s dossier must receive approval from three additional bodies: the Tenure and Appointments Committee, the Joint Boards of Permanent Officers of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Fellows of the Yale Corporation. Multiple professors said cases that reach the Corporation are more or less a shoo-in.
For associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies Joseph Fischel, the experience was all fairly recent: He learned that the Tenure and Appointments Committee had voted in his favor in late October.
Before the announcement, Fischel told the News he had several backup options if tenure failed to materialize. Plan B, he said, was to look for jobs at other top-tier institutions. That way, he could use offers to leverage tenure at the University or to secure other employment opportunities if he decided to jump ship.
Fischel said he had emotionally prepared himself for not receiving tenure. After all, when he first arrived at the University, he said his advisor told him that the post was a “great first job.”
“Just consider it a nine-year post-doc,” he remembered his advisor saying.
If Fischel makes it through the process, he will be the University’s only tenured professor with a sole appointment in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, he said.
Along the way, Fischel pursued leadership positions and teaching experiences as much as he could. Just a short time after starting his job in 2012, he became the director of undergraduate studies for his department. Then, he assumed his current post as the director of graduate studies — which he will occupy at least until 2021, according to his curriculum vitae. His list of honors, awards and publications spans several pages.
Despite this, over the last few weeks, he was still worried about his chances. He had the option of switching to the new, faster tenure clock, but decided against it. He was too far into the old one, he said, and it seemed like a better fit for him. Even so, the past few weeks were “very anxiety-filled,” and he said he did not sleep much. Despite Fischel’s hard work, the decision was ultimately up to Yale and other external arbiters.
“I believe I performed well, and I worked very hard on my research projects,” he said. “I’m very committed to teaching and equally committed to institution-building at Yale.” Fischel had checked off most, if not all, of Yale’s boxes. If he didn’t get tenure, he said, “I would have been devastated.”
“How can this change?”
Sixteen current and former Yale professors — including those in tenure-track positions — declined to comment on the tenure process. Some feared retaliation if they spoke candidly. Others declined without providing any explanation. Twenty-nine others did not respond to several requests for comment.
Professors interviewed by the News all agreed that Yale’s tenure system was a source of stress and anxiety in a way unique to only the nation’s top institutions. For a university that already courts scholars in the highest echelons of their fields, Yale’s expectation for standout professors often makes tenure difficult to achieve, they said. Several pointed to other systems across the country, like that of the University of California, as exemplary processes for awarding tenure.
The University of California, which includes nine undergraduate campuses across the state, has a tenure process with clear rules and guidelines. According to the system’s website, it cuts checks to over 10,000 tenure-eligible or equivalent faculty members. A publicly available 40-page document lists the requirements for promotion. A portrait of the ideal candidate emerges: one who is a steward of intellectual freedom, who fosters academic growth and pursues equality and free speech.
Yale and the University of California are very different. But as Espín-Sánchez looked down at his desk and sorted through books and papers piled high in a relatively barren room, it was an indication that something needed to change. At the very least, he said that Yale’s tenure process could be more transparent. Guerra agreed. So did Horsley and other professors who spoke to the News.
Hanging on the wall, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is caught frozen in action, as if the blue, brackish water is ready to devour what’s out of frame at any moment. As in the painting, the tension in the office was palpable, but Espín-Sánchez said he wasn’t afraid of the ultimate tenure decision. After all, come what may, his future will involve academics. That, he said, was comforting.
But when it comes to decision time, will his work speak for itself? Will his time at the University be considered a post-post-doctoral experience?
“It depends on what my colleagues think of my work,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”