June 24, 2007
June 24, 2007
June 27, 2007
Women in Engineering
12.1014.1 - 12.1014.9
Leaving Tenure Behind: Lessons Learned
The goal of many Ph.D. engineering graduates who aspire to an academic position is to land a tenure-track job at a large research university. Certainly, this was my goal – I had been trained at a large engineering research institution (ERI), and was unaware of that the majority of engineering colleges in the U.S. were smaller, undergraduate-focused engineering teaching institutions (ETI). Indeed, when I was considering whether or not to pursue an academic career after graduating, I was encouraged by my Ph.D. advisor and student peers to apply only to the top-ranked research universities. I also assumed that a tenure-track faculty position at a large research university would give me the necessary flexibility to balance my career with my family life.
My husband and I were the proverbial “two-body” problem when searching for academic positions in engineering. We were fortunate to land tenure-track positions in engineering at the same large research university. We both successfully built research labs and were awarded tenure. Fifteen years and three children later, however, we both left to teach at an ETI that does not award tenure, but instead awards one-year contracts to faculty. This school, however, has excellent students and facilities, and an administration that is genuinely interested in improving the academic quality of the institution. Since I was looking for a significant change in professional direction, toward undergraduate teaching and individual scholarship, this was an ideal opportunity. Without doubt, many of my friends and colleagues thought—to not put too fine a point on it—I was crazy. Yet, I have found great satisfaction being at my current, smaller institution: I am able to focus on undergraduate scholarship and thus play a large role in shaping the intellectual lives of students and in actively mentoring the students.
In this paper, I share my experience at both institutions. While I gave up tenure and the tremendous institutional resources that foster cutting-edge research, I gained more flexibility for balancing my career and my family, in addition to the benefit of a smaller institution that has the ability to make quick decisions and craft teaching assignments to foster family life and can better address dual-career issues. There is great security that comes with tenure, but there is also security in a non-tenure system that carefully mentors its faculty. There is clearly no “one size fits all” solution; indeed, I have succeeded at both a large research university as well as at a small undergraduate school.
My experiences have given me insights into careers at both types of institutions that can provide guidance to new faculty entering academic positions. In addition, these insights can aid chairs and deans in fostering the development of women faculty, as well as addressing career and family balance issues, with solutions that are independent of the type of institution.
Birmingham, S. (2007, June), Leaving Tenure Behind: Lessons Learned Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. https://peer.asee.org/2520
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