Some Words Today

I’m having a lot of trouble writing these days. I don’t do much scholarship anymore; a little here and there, but not much since leaving the academy (proper). My other writing — about tenure — is draining in many ways; important, fulfilling, exhausting. The basics of that story are done, although there’s a lot more underneath it all. I’m just not feeing a lot of it at the moment, so not writing it. Over the summer I started designing a new website, a new blog thread, a book project, and a podcast. But suddenly it’s November and will be Thanksgiving before we know it. My husband pleads with me not to do this, jump ahead two weeks as if they didn’t happen. He wants — deserves — these two weeks. Too late; I’m already at the end of the Fall term with over 30 research papers to grade in three days before the winter holiday break. And high school for my first born and middle school for my second; new adventures, most of them wonderful, a few painful. For them too. I really like my kids; I would choose them. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, though, hoping that my retirement will be enough to help them pay for the therapy that I’m sure they’ll need after being raised by me. So, I’m a bit paralyzed, intellectually … and physically, as luck would have it, as I lay on the sofa with ice on my back because old and doing stupid 30 year-old-person things. The Buckeyes look horrible. And democracy much worse. So I’m off to touch base with my California peeps because fire again. Then write postcards to voters because those words are discrete, meaningful, communal, doable. I’ll try to stay off Twitter but, really, who am I kidding. I rationalize by counting those words as part of my writing each day. What a cheater. But I’ve got 326 here, so that’s something.

Taking Back My Happy Place

I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it's such a big deal.

* * * * *

The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.

After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.

Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.

* * * * *

When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.

Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.

But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.

I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.

For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.

At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.

The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.

Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.

What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.

Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.

Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.

And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.

But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.

I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.

* * * * *

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.

Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.

Or back, as it were.

First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.

Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!

Just ask!

When I was on the academic job market for the first time, salary was the least of my concerns. I wanted a tenure track position in a good department where I liked the people, where I had support to do my research, and where teaching was valued. The market wasn’t nearly as awful as it is now, but I didn’t take for granted the luck I had in getting two interviews early in my last year of grad school, and an offer from my first choice soon thereafter. I was over the moon! I got to be a professor! I was eager to sign on the dotted line the minute the letter arrived.

* * * * *

I’ve negotiated every salary offer I’ve ever received — for a grand total of 5 across academic and non-academic jobs — and I asked for a raise and promotion once too. There is so much at stake in a starting salary, not least retirement benefits and future raises. It’s an essential part of advancing your career and protecting your future. In my view, salary negotiation is non-negotiable!

But I hate it. I really don’t like talking about money, in general, let alone asking for more. And I’m not very good at negotiating (ask my husband about the native mask we may have overpaid for on our honeymoon). That would require many things of me, like knowing (and appreciating) the value of my labor and having the confidence to convince someone else of it.

There’s a ton of professional advice out there about how to negotiate salary (just a few are here, here, here, here, here, and here) and some of it is helpful. But a lot of it is generic and formulaic, and sounds great in theory but hard to put into practice.

The truth is, it’s just really difficult to know what to do.

* * * * *

So, when I got the offer, it looked looked pretty good (especially by grad student standards) and I worried about seeming too greedy in the eyes of my would-be colleagues. Asking for a bit more in research funds and other support was easier because it was directly related to my success in the job, which was presumably in the interest of the department too.

Asking for more salary was different. Knowing that retirement and merit increases would be a function of my starting salary didn’t make negotiating seem any less … selfish? Not surprisingly, this is not a feeling unique to me or to higher ed, as this recent piece illustrates beautifully.

Moreover, I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can be pretty assertive, but this was new territory and it felt awkward. I got some advice, but there’s just no one-size-fits-all way to manage most things, and this was no exception. None of it seemed right to me.

I was ambivalent and anxious, and ultimately asked the chair if there was “room to move” on the salary. Not the most confident ask ever made. But I was lucky, again. Perhaps she figured I’d have trouble asking because she seemed to anticipate my question and immediately suggested there was some flexibility. She would take my counter — such that it was — to the Dean, who made final salary decisions. In the end, I think we split the difference and I walked away with a little more money and a stronger financial foundation.

More importantly, I came away from the experience with a lot more confidence.

It was such a positive experience. I did it — I asked! And I succeeded! But mostly, I’d worked with someone who so clearly wanted me to be satisfied with my decision to join the department and to be a happy and successful member of her faculty. She provided an invaluable lesson about the significance of supportive leadership — especially for the uninitiated — and I had the benefit and privilege of working with her for many years thereafter.

When I went back on the market some time later, my approach to salary negotiation was a bit different. I dreaded it, but I was more secure professionally, a tenured associate professor with years of experience under my belt, and I was getting married so had more than myself to consider this time around. Unfortunately, the open positions in the city to which I was committed to moving were junior, but I thought my more senior status might give me some leverage. Also, I knew much more clearly than I did before that so much of an academic’s work goes uncompensated. Still not singularly focused on salary, this time I did my homework on the cost of living differences and comparative salaries, and I thought carefully about how my experience might be valuable in a salary negotiation.

When I received an offer, I was glad I’d prepared. The salary seemed low and I thought there must be room to move. I had an appointment with the dean and my argument was ready. And while it’s always possible the answer will be no — I didn’t know if my plan was any good, if my ask was convincing — I was completely unprepared for the response I got.

It was obvious that I’d surprised him by asking. He looked stunned and seemed offended by the prospect of negotiating; he suggested that no one before me had asked him for more money. I remember having one of those split seconds of panic when you wonder if you’ve just done something terribly wrong. But no. His response was totally bizarre. No new hires during his tenure had negotiated their salaries? How was that possible?

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to sit quietly, to not fill the silence with my chatter that might result in me back pedaling or him talking me out of countering. And in the end, he agreed to some amount more than the original offer but less than I asked for.

As disappointing as it was, the experience made me realize with greater clarity how very important the ask itself is. It would be nice — even appropriate — if the hiring process were collegial, where the new employee and the new boss are on the same page. You know, the page where the one wants the job and the other one wants you to have the job, and everyone works together to make that a productive relationship. But it’s often not.

So, I discovered that for me — however uncomfortable and nausea-inducing, and whatever the odds of success — just the act of asking for more money is priceless. If it doesn’t bring more money, it can build self-esteem and be a decent gauge for how invested and supportive future bosses and colleagues are. [For a similar perspective, see this great twitter thread.]

Since that time, I’ve negotiated my salary three times, twice with new job offers and once for a promotion and raise. None of these positions were (traditional) academic jobs, which changed my approach to the ask. First, starting salaries are higher off campus than they are on campus; I had to force myself not to settle just because the offers were already greater than what I was used to. Also, I struggled with what my skills and experience were worth, a challenge that came on the heels of my painful tenure denial. But with help from my husband and friends familiar with the “real” world, I reframed my academic career and accomplishments into a resume that reflected my expertise.

That sounds very confident. Frankly, the memory makes me want to puke.

Still, it worked, sometimes better than others.

With one offer, I got an immediate “no” to my counter. To be honest, my heart wasn’t really in it and I probably wasn’t very convincing. To his credit, he gave me an explanation and reason to believe that the opportunity for a higher salary would come sooner than later (and it did). Despite my rather cynical view of workplace integrity at the time, he seemed sincere in his approach. I didn’t have loads of job offers, but I did have a few choices and time to consider them. Still, this position came with generous benefits, which changed my calculus about the value of the original offer. Ultimately, it felt like a good decision for the time (and it was).

Several years later, I returned to the job market again. But this time was different than any other time. I didn’t need a new job; I wanted one. This job hunting came on the heels of asking for a promotion and raise at my then-organization. I prepped more thoroughly for this negotiation than any other with a list of my accomplishments and the tasks I was performing at the level of the promotion I sought. I didn’t expect an outright yes, but I felt pretty confident going into this meeting that I had a compelling case.

I got an outright no. And it wasn’t a I-wish-I-could-because-I-value-your-contributions no. It was more of a this-is-a-ludicrous-proposition no. He seemed incredulous that I had asked.

Ooof. There’s nothing quite like the gut punch that tells you how little you’re valued. After the inevitable (for me) period of self-doubt, I knew it was time to move on.

Which is why I was overjoyed to get an offer for what I believed — and rightly, it turns out — would be a phenomenal opportunity doing valuable work that would return me to an academic environment and the classroom. It came with a lower starting salary than I was currently making and less robust benefits, but more flexible hours meant much more time to spend with my kids. The team seemed terrific and my would-be boss had a vision that included a valuable role for me. Like I had 20 years before, I wanted to sign on the dotted line immediately!

But, no. Negotiate! So, I did. Albeit a bit ass-backward. I accepted the offer. And then I asked if there was room to move in the salary. I wanted to act in good faith; this was a position that marked a new beginning for me in many ways, and I didn’t want to be coy. I was going to take the offer regardless of the response to my counter. But if there was an opportunity to raise the salary, even a little, it would have important implications for my benefits. And, I hoped for the affirmation that, at the start of this new chapter of my life, I would be considered a worthy and valued member of the team.

She said yes.