More than 12 years have passed since Charlene McMahon learned that she was denied tenure at Carroll University, but the memories from that time are so painful that she still fights back tears thinking about it.
“You work really hard for something, and you wonder, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ ” says McMahon, who is now a chemistry professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. “I remember sitting in the parking lot at Target. My husband and I had planned to go shopping for baby stuff, and instead we sat in the parking lot and cried.”
That same day, her husband, who was also on the chemistry faculty at Carroll, learned that he had been awarded tenure. “He was never able to celebrate his tenure because it was at the exact same time as my denial,” McMahon says.
Faculty are used to disappointment. Grant applications and papers get turned down, and research doesn’t always work. But getting denied tenure is perhaps the ultimate form of rejection for an academic.
“When you’re denied tenure, it’s an attempt to comment on the quality and significance of your work,” says Mark Biggin, who was denied tenure from Yale University in 1998. “It’s a peer review system that doesn’t always work well.”
Although it may seem like the end of one’s career, getting denied tenure is anything but. In fact, the reflection that follows such a life-changing event often leads to a new and potentially even more rewarding vocation.
“I’ve been able to continue my research,” says Biggin, who is now a principal investigator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “I write grants, I still run my group, and I’ve been able to expand it. It was a bump in the road, but it actually opened up new opportunities.”
In the short term, however, tenure denial “completely upends your whole life,” says Gavin MacBeath, who was denied tenure at Harvard University and is now senior vice president at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a company he cofounded as a postdoc at Harvard. “I did six months of soul-searching following that decision to figure out what my next move was.”
Typically, after a tenure denial, faculty are granted a “terminal year,” where they wrap things up and look for another job. “It certainly was an awkward year, but there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around feeling sorry for myself,” says Rebecca Conry, who was denied tenure at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1999. “You have students to educate, job applications to prepare and submit, and you have to fit in job interviews. Just one foot ahead of the other and get through the year.”
One of the hardest parts about the rejection process is not knowing why you were denied tenure. “Something people have to accept is that you may never get a full explanation,” says Mary Ellen Lane, who was denied tenure at Rice University in 2009. Lane, who is now an associate dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says her tenure rejection came in a two-line letter. Lane went through a lengthy and unsuccessful appeal process, which provided some information, but no concrete answers as to why she was denied tenure. “There are going to be a lot of unanswered questions,” she says. “At some point, you have to move on without knowing.”
Biggin suspects that he was denied tenure because his research challenged the norm at the time. “I see it as a difference in opinion, and it says more about the people who weren’t able to appreciate my research than it does about me,” he says. “You shouldn’t arrogantly assume that it’s everybody else’s fault, but at the same time, you shouldn’t beat yourself up and assume it’s all your fault. Do what you can to improve the situation, and keep going forward.”
A tenure denial can have a ripple effect, disrupting the research of graduate students and postdocs in the lab. MacBeath had 12 graduate students and postdocs in his lab at Harvard at the time he learned he did not receive tenure.
Fortunately, MacBeath’s R01 grant got renewed, and he got a million-dollar challenge grant. “Getting these grants enabled me to continue the lab such that all the students could graduate and the postdocs could all find jobs without having to change labs.” MacBeath was able to move his lab to Harvard Medical School, and he came in once a week to meet with students while he worked full-time for Merrimack. He did that for four years until all his students finished.
Another consequence of tenure denial is that you can lose your sense of belonging. “It felt like I was being cast out of this place that I had felt a part of,” Lane says. “In addition to the shame that comes with failure, there’s also the social disintegration. That was the biggest surprise to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends outside of science and Rice, and that network was suddenly gone.”
Family is also affected. MacBeath faced the prospect of uprooting his wife and three kids when he began applying for other faculty positions. Fortunately, Merrimack is in Cambridge, Mass., so he and his family were able to stay put.
For couples in which one partner is a tenured faculty member, moving isn’t a viable option. “With another professor in the family, and a daughter about to start kindergarten, I didn’t have a lot of flexibility as to where I wanted to move,” says Sharon Palmer, who was denied tenure at Smith College in the 1990s.
She found a one-year position at Williams College but had to commute several hours a day. She later took a position as a student services coordinator at the University of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, she took classes in education and eventually landed her current position as a high school chemistry teacher.
“I really like being back in the classroom,” Palmer says. “I’m influencing students, and they come back and tell me they got their Ph.D. and they loved my class. I’m happy where I am.” In 2013, she received an American Chemical Society regional award for excellence in high school teaching.
Conry has also found a good fit. She says that one of the things she enjoyed most about her faculty position at Reno was mentoring undergraduate students. So after she was denied tenure, she focused her search on primarily undergraduate institutions. “Many people find out that the negative tenure decision is an indication that the institution is not quite the right fit,” says Conry, who is now a tenured chemistry professor at Colby College. “You can learn from your experiences to figure out what might be a better fit.”
When Conry interviewed for positions at primarily undergraduate institutions, she highlighted her strengths in teaching and mentoring. She told the hiring committee, “Here’s how this position is a good fit for me, here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s what I bring to the table.” That helped her overcome the stigma of having been denied tenure.
Lane says that she had always enjoyed the service and leadership aspects of her faculty position at Rice. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m glad I have a job that allows me to do both of these things. But if I ever have to choose, I’m moving toward leadership.’
“When I didn’t get tenure, the choice was ‘Do I go somewhere and start my lab again and give up all this stuff that had really come to be meaningful, or do I focus on that other stuff and give up on the research?’ ” she says. “All of that mental energy that went into initiating and nurturing a research project was now available for something else. It was a huge change in perspective.”
MacBeath is similarly grateful for having discovered a new path. “I don’t want to call being denied tenure a blessing, but to some extent, it was a blessing in disguise because had that not happened, I would not have considered a career in industry,” he says. In fact, MacBeath recently cofounded another company, Chestnut Pharmaceuticals. “I’ve always had an interest in trying to take what I was doing in the lab and translate that into more a practical, direct impact,” he says.
Even McMahon has made peace with what happened to her. “Things are good. My career is good, my students are good, and my workplace is good,” she says. “It’s the injustice that you just don’t get over.”
Nevertheless, most of the chemists C&EN spoke with for this story said they still support the tenure system. The key perhaps is to keep things in perspective. “Don’t let that one moment in your life define who you become,” MacBeath says.