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On Being Halfway to Tenure (and Wondering How on Earth That Happened)

Allison S. Gabriel

Somehow, seemingly overnight, my third year as a professor came to an end this May. By standards for tenure at most universities, this means that I am at the official halfway point of my tenure clock. Really, I’m over the halfway point when you consider the fact that your tenure dossier gets submitted at the beginning of your sixth year, but let’s not lose sight of the main point. The point is—where did the time go?! It’s been 3 years, and a lot has changed, but there is still a lot left to figure out. In light of the benefits of some reflection and evaluation, I figured this would be a good column to take a breather, and take stock, on what I kind of know and where I still need to go en route to associate professor status—at least, here’s hoping!

Things I (Sort of) Have the Hang Of

            I’m able to say “no” to things—within reason. This was the biggest challenge I had during graduate school, and one that followed me into academia. Naturally, I wanted to not let anyone down and constantly be there in every capacity—as a coauthor, teacher, mentor, and in regards to engaging in service outside of the field (particularly when it came to being invited to review for journals). But, I found this adding up, and I realized that my time was getting split up too much and concentrated in some areas and projects that I didn’t find particularly enjoyable or wouldn’t assist me when it came to going up for tenure. Now, I realize that whether something “counts” for tenure shouldn’t always be the focus, but when time is limited and you’re already committed to several endeavors, it begins to take a toll. Additionally, splitting my time up felt frustrating because I couldn’t get in a groove in regards to certain aspects of my research (e.g., reading different literatures for totally different projects was taxing), and I felt other aspects of my life shifting towards being extrinsically motived. As someone who conducts research on self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985), this was alarming for me to experience. Now, I’ve found a lot more joy in my work as of late by channeling my attention into a few—ideally interrelated—endeavors. In regards to research more specifically, I’ve learned that it is OK to not have data constantly being collected and have found a lot more satisfaction in finishing up a project more efficiently versus having too many occurring at the same exact time (go figure).

            I’m more comfortable serving as a referee at a journal. The first time I was asked to serve as a reviewer, I remember thinking that it was a mistake—there was no way that someone wanted to trust any decision I was making on a manuscript, and I was so scared about being that Evil Reviewer 2 on someone’s paper (you know it’s always Reviewer 2). Now, it’s become a bit more natural. I’ve found a structure that works for me in how I write my reviews (e.g., I read the article and jot down notes under different categories [theory, methods, analytics] and then group the notes together to identify 3–4 major concerns) and have found myself being more mindful in regards to making sure the tone I’m setting in my response matches the recommendation I am making to the editor. Being on the other side of the review process has also been developmental in my own work. Recently, I had concerns over how statistics were being reported for a study—it wasn’t that I doubted what the authors were doing, but there were many decision points they made that were unclear. After providing this review, I went back to my own manuscript that I was working on and realized that I could have provided the same critique of my own work! So, through serving as a reviewer, I’ve learned a lot about how the publication process works, but I’ve also been able to take my advice to authors and apply it to my own work as well.

            Conducting research with undergraduate and graduate students is becoming more fun every single day. As I mentioned in my previous column, I’ve learned to let go quite a bit and be myself when it comes to working with graduate and undergraduate students. This has changed my experience working with students—I’m less stressed, I’d like to think that they are also less stressed, and the end product we generate becomes a celebration rather than just a goal listed on an honor’s project contract or CV. I’ve also begun to work on projects where there are multiple faculty members and graduate students collaborating, and it has been interesting to see how different people advise doctoral research. Working with students on research has become the best part of my job, and I’m hoping this continues as I work with more students and restart a research lab here at Arizona (to my Workplace Well-Being labsters—you guys were the best).

            I’m OK being a little weird and quirky. Emphasis is on a little here—but really, it’s been a relief being myself at work and having a lot of fun in the process. After all, it is kind of hard not to be a little quirky when your family waiting for you at home is comprised of your spouse, a blind Pomeranian, and five cats, but that is another story for another day and column.

Things That Are Still a Work in Progress

            This whole “work–life balance” thing is still really tough. Now, I am proud of some decisions I have tried to make starting this past academic year. For instance, I try not to work too much in the evenings; at most, I might fire back a quick response to a pressing email, but if it can wait, I try to let it. I’ve also committed to trying to work less on weekends, or at least limiting any work to 2–3 hours on one weekend day. Of course, there are times when this segmentation is not possible, such as revision deadlines looming or a teaching and/or advising-related emergency with a student. But, by actively trying to separate my two lives, I’ve found myself getting a slightly better handle on my work-related stress. Moreover, this conscious choice has made me more efficient with my time during typical working hours because I know that I have a “stop time.”

            That being said, what I’ve noticed is that I’ll now let some workdays go really long; if I know I’m not going to work in the evenings when I get home from the office, I might go ahead and stay at the office until 6pm or 7pm, which kind of makes segmenting obsolete when there is little time left to segment! I’ve also noticed that I’m a bit more likely now to talk about work-related things during nonwork time. On a hike recently, I found myself talking to Mike about a revision I was working through, and eventually, I had to catch myself because (a) Mike isn’t my co-author, (b) I was getting myself worked up talking about it, and (c) I was missing out on the gorgeous scenery we were walking through. So, I would say that I have made some progress in this area, but it is far from being a perfect balance.

            Teaching outside of undergraduate and PhD programs is scary. Recently, I’ve begun to dabble in our Executive Education programs, and goodness is it a different ballpark than being in an undergraduate classroom or PhD seminar! Just when I finally felt comfortable navigating a large lecture hall, I found my teaching world turned upside down (in the best way possible) this past spring after teaching a 4-hour seminar on groups and teams to a room of 40 executives local to the Tucson area. It was a challenging experience taking content that I teach—which is typically very research heavy—and breaking it down to have stronger practical impact while keep the integrity of the science intact. If you ask anyone who saw me leading up to the class, I was so nervous and was equally anxious afterwards as I waited to receive feedback from the executives in the session. But, during the class, I found myself humbled by the personal experiences they were bringing to the topic, and I loved seeing how much they enjoyed working through different team building activities. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard during a marshmallow challenge1 as I did in this class, and it was fantastic watching people roleplay as different types of leaders and followers while making origami frogs (e.g., Sronce & Arendt, 2009). Moreover, it was great speaking with many of my Arizona colleagues about their experiences teaching in executive education, and reconnecting with peers at other institutions (I’m looking at you, Lily Cushenbery—you rock). I’m looking forward to tackling different types of content in our executive education programs and am hoping that, over time, this gets me ready to feel more comfortable jumping in to our MBA program as well.

            As comfortable as I am getting with research, I still self-doubt quite a bit. I feel fortunate to be working with a lot of amazing people, both professionally and personally; it’s a great feeling to have collaborators where you can have a research meeting that is 80% work but also 20% catching up on what’s happening personally as well. In fact, having these types of positive working relationships has also helped me achieve my current level of work–home balance: We are all respectful of the lives we have outside of academia, which makes it easier when you decide to take a break that may delay turning something around. Yet, despite having a strong network that I really connect with, I’ll still find myself second guessing my ideas, my analyses, and so forth. Luckily, I have coauthors that will call me out on this imposter-syndrome type of behavior (which is exactly what it is), and for that, I am truly grateful. But, as I move on into the next 3 years as an assistant professor, I am hoping to really get this feeling of self-doubt in check. It isn’t a comparison game, and ideas are just ideas that sometimes may be good and sometimes may need some (or a lot) of tweaking to get there. That is what makes this job so fun on a day-to-day basis. We are puzzle solvers, and I’m looking forward to another 3 years of learning and growing in this crazy process being on the tenure-track mill.

1 If you have never conducted a marshmallow challenge for a team building activity—do it! Visit http://marshmallowchallenge.com/Instructions.html for great instructions and other resources to make it a success.




Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientation scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109–134. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(85)90023-6


Sronce, R., & Arendt, L. A. (2009). Demonstrating the interplay of leaders and followers: An experiential exercise. Journal of Management Education, 33, 699–724. doi: 10.1177/1052562908330726

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