This one’s a little off topic, but it might be of interest to graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty navigating academia.

The end of the academic year 2015-2016 was the low point of my career. By then I was certain that I was going stay at Columbia as Associate Professor of Political Science, with tenure.

Both my department and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences had supported my case, and the statistics were clear: The Provost’s advisory committee pretty much never denies anyone who has made it that far. Confused about the long wait, my colleagues told me we should celebrate before the summer since it’s clearly a done deal.

But there it was: I got the bad news at the end of May. That itself was a source of concern, given that it was quite late for schools interested in my services to start preparing for a senior faculty search.

The practical problem at hand, of course, was the least of my concerns on that dark day. What went wrong? Would anyone actually want to hire me now?

I recovered from the worst shock pretty quickly, partly because tenure denial is a pretty minor setback compared to what I’ve had to weather in the recent past. But equally important was the flood of messages expressing compassion and, in many cases, asking if I was interested in a position at the sender’s institution. I knew that many of these questions would not turn into actual interviews, but it was still reassuring to see that so many people did not agree with the Provost’s decision.

In August and September, I actually sent out more applications than eight years ago, fresh out of grad school. The market in 2008 was awful, but this year there were jobs everywhere for someone with my profile. I had also expanded the range of my interests quite a bit.

I applied to all kinds of jobs, from quantitative international relations to vanilla comparative politics, and most importantly — energy and environment policy. I applied to political science departments and policy schools alike. I applied to North American, European, and Asian positions.

The annual meeting of the American Political Science Association was a seemingly endless series of meetings with possible employers, and everyone else I met wanted to know why Columbia had denied me. Some of the far out conspiracy theories from the rumor mill were pretty entertaining, too.

The fall semester was grueling. I gave job talks — some very formal, some very informal — around the world. I had already scheduled a large number of regular talks and run-of-the-mill workshops before the Provost gave me the boot, so finding time for everything was a royal mess. On the upside, my frequent flyer status went up one level.

Visiting Singapore for a job talk was fun, but I don’t recommend spending only 36 hours there and then heading back to teach two classes straight out of the airplane. My teaching assistant for mathematical methods deserves a medal for filling in for me so many times. As for my students, they deserve an apology for my sleep-derived rants.

My first breakthrough came early. Johns Hopkins SAIS had reached out to me pretty much within days after my tenure denial to see if I would be interested in a Full Professor’s position in Energy, Resources and Environment. After both I and them had done our background research, and very much liked what we saw, I gave a very early talk and met with everyone there.

It was a great deal of fun, and less than two weeks later the Dean called to share good news: the SAIS Academic Board had unanimously recommended an offer. I then negotiated as hard as I possibly could, knowing that I had no competitors because there was no formal search. The deal was very sweet, so my wife and I had every reason to celebrate.

I gave a number of other talks as well, but at some point fatigue kicked in and I started rejecting invitations. Unless I thought there was a chance that an institution might match the SAIS offer — all things, not just money, considered — I did not interview.

I learned that the big difference between the senior and junior markets in political science is the level of organization. Junior searches follow a reasonable schedule and the ads contain relevant information, but this is not true of senior searches.

The whole process takes a long time, and is very confusing. Several places (no names) advertised a Full Professor job, and then the search committee told me that the best they can do is Associate without tenure. Almost the same thing, yeah — and a waste of everyone’s time.

By January, it was very likely I would take the SAIS offer. However, SAIS had to complete a formal tenure review. While their leadership did an admirable job reassuring me that the decision would be positive, I ended up irrationally stressed out about the tenure review. Publication machine or not, I’m also a human being with a brain evolved to survive in the jungle, not to deal with academic bureaucracy.

Waiting for the tenure review was more stressful than waiting for the offers, especially after I began to imagine myself at SAIS, finally doing the energy/environment policy work that is my real passion.

So when I got the good news that the tenure review was over and the decision positive, I was ecstatic. The day before I signed the contract I also learned that I actually had an endowed chair waiting for me at SAIS. For a lifetime environmentalist, being the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor is good fun for sure.

At the end of the day, I cannot say the Columbia tenure denial bothers me. I had a great time at Columbia and will miss my colleagues and students, but I’m also very excited about the opportunity at SAIS. I’ve wanted to work in a great policy school for a long time, and that’s were I’m heading now.

Dealing with the denial is also a lot easier because the decision was made at the administrative level. It would have been much more difficult if my senior colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire, had decided that I’m just not good enough to be there.

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