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Rebuilding my conception of the academic life
A professional (and personal) update
For any subscribers who didn’t catch my announcement on Twitter or Facebook: I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be joining the UT Austin psychology department as a clinical associate professor this Fall (while wrapping up my teaching/mentorship responsibilities at YU/Ferkauf remotely).
This decision reflects an important evolution in my understanding of the academic life and the kinds of choices it affords. At the heart of that evolution has been my effort to reexamine every aspect of my life through a builder’s lens. That’s why I want to share some of the relevant thinking and data-gathering with you here, lest it offer inspiration or comfort to any of my kindred spirits looking to build their own idiosyncratically functional, win-win relationships with whatever mainstream institutions they find themselves entangled with.
What I’m giving up
To any fellow academics reading this, what likely jumps out most immediately and eyebrow-raisingly in my new title is that little word “clinical” in front of “associate professor.” What that word signals—in case you’re not in the know—is a “non-tenure-track faculty line”: in other words, no matter how long I remain in this position, I will never be eligible for that hallowed bestowal of life-long respectability and job security which is a tenured professorship. What’s crazier still is that I’m walking away from that most coveted honor preemptively, less than 2 years shy of what I’m told on good authority would have been a successful tenure review. For those in the startup world who are reading this, imagine someone telling you they’ve decided to sell all their equity and walk away from a successful company they’ve built with their bare hands, right when it’s about to IPO. That’s about the level of puzzlement I expect a fellow academic to feel when they read this announcement.
And it’s not just the prospect of tenure I’m giving up, but of gaining tenure in a program I genuinely and unabashedly love. Here in Ferkauf’s adult clinical PsyD program at Yeshiva University, I’ve been uniquely fortunate to work with a group of brilliant, intellectually diverse faculty who sincerely love their jobs, their students, and each other. Of all the tenure-track faculty jobs I might’ve found myself in, this was the most perfect and well-suited by far—to a degree I didn’t even think was possible prior to discovering it. It was the job where I came of age professionally, finding my voice as a scholar and mentor; where I got to experiment with new approaches to teaching, research, and clinical conceptualization; where I was given the freedom and support to pursue a weird, hybrid research + coaching/consulting partnership with Entrepreneur First—the most rewarding partnership of my career to date. Above all, this job empowered me to run a fully honest test of my fit with the traditional academic track. Without these past 4 years at Ferkauf, I would’ve always wondered whether I might’ve been better off on the tenure track; just as, without my stint at the New England Conservatory, I would’ve always wondered whether I might’ve been better off as an opera singer (which, LOL, but seriously).
In a way, Ferkauf was my first professional love; and I’ll always be grateful to it for my start.
That’s to say nothing of my love for NYC, which deserves its own post (or many); but suffice it to say that we’ll be back, and, in a deeper sense, we could never really leave.
What I’m gaining
So, then, you might ask: why would I give all that up?
The first two reasons are strictly personal: 1) most of our support system has moved to Austin in the past 2 years; and 2) it’s a much more affordable place to have a 2nd kid. But these might have waited another couple of years, if it weren’t for reason #3: that UT Austin’s psychology department has utterly and unexpectedly swept me off my feet. While visiting Austin for a workshop this past April, I happened to sit down for an informal conversation with the department chair, Dr. David Schnyer, and the clinical area head, Dr. Andreana Haley (all thanks to a very generous introduction by fellow UVA graduate program alumna and soon-to-be colleague Paige Harden). Walking into the familiar sterility of the blocky, squeaky-clean psychology building, I steeled myself for the ossified academic norms and curricular inertia I’ve come to expect from a prestigious R1 university.
What I got instead, upon walking into David’s sunlit office and later touring the just-renovated, playfully colorful training clinic, was a giant gulp of fresh air. Here was a program in the process of active self-reflection and entrepreneurial thinking, aware of the changing shape of academia and the mental health landscape, and eager to help architect that change for the better.
To give just one example, of particular relevance here: far from viewing this Building the Builders newsletter and my other work with startup founders as a distraction or, at best, neutral side gig, David and Andreana welcomed it as a feature, noting that their PhD students have clamored for more of these kinds of interdisciplinary, off-the-beaten-path training opportunities.
Same goes for our discussions around course planning: what, Gena, you want to take this traditional CBT class and turn it into an integrative “principles of change” class? By all means—the students already get enough CBT, they could use a fresh perspective!
At some point in the conversation, after getting so excited I almost accepted a job offer right on the spot, I jerked myself back to reality and asked a candid question: what would this mean for my prospects of ever getting tenure?
David’s response was equally candid: “If you’re asking whether you’d ever get tenure in our department, the answer is almost certainly not. If you’re asking how it’s ever likely to matter, given your interests, well… I don’t really see how it would.”
Non-tenure faculty get all the same salary and promotion benefits, he explained, and have come to command the same respect from students and fellow faculty, who increasingly recognize the need for a broader range of applied specialties and areas of expertise than the traditional tenure track permits.
Ok, but what about academic book publishers? The media? The public? Will I have more trouble getting my ideas out if I’m not a tenured professor? “Yeah, none of them could possibly care less,” David and Andreana both answered almost in unison. And then each of them went on to recount examples of colleagues getting published and celebrated in top outlets for their ideas, with no one ever inquiring about the details of their (sometimes entirely absent) academic titles.
Upon reflection, my favorite parts of academia have always been 1) the intellectual community, 2) the flexibility to engage in my kind of scholarship, and 3) the chance to teach and train future psychologists. As it turns out, I get to keep all three parts as a non-tenure faculty at UT—stripped of all the frustrations that previously diluted them: the constant publish-or-perish pressure; the need to apply for federal grants just to say I did; the forcing of conventional research methods I don’t love on graduate advisees who aren’t crazy about them either, but have to prove proficiency in them anyway. I get more of the wheat in exchange for giving up the chaff.
Onward and upward
Four years ago, the faculty job in Ferkauf’s PsyD program expanded my conception of what was possible to build within academia. Now, the UT psychology department has expanded it still further. Who knows what even wilder possibilities I might discover from here?
Anyway: the immediate upshot is that Matt, Alice, and I have now moved to Austin.
Austin friends, let’s meet up (anytime after July 11, when we’re back from another upcoming bout of travels and hopefully no longer swimming in boxes).
NYC friends, we’ll see you again soon.1
Fellow wayward travelers and progress-minded thinkers everywhere, take heart: the world might just be ripe for what we’re building.
As further attested by Matt’s projected 40-year life map, pictured below along with the corresponding Tweet: