What do you do when they say "no?"

Jan 03 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

It's funny to look at my blogging history and note that my last post was exactly one year ago. 2017 me had just made it through unanimous recommendations for Promotion with Tenure from both the department and college committees and was working on a short list of grad applicants to invite for interview weekend. My current (and only) PhD student was less than a year out from defending and I was excited to bring in some great new students to train and mentor. Little did I know that just a few short weeks later, I'd be asked to un-invite the prospective PhD candidates, because the Dean had overturned the committees' votes*. He would not be recommending me for tenure.

My initial response was one of stunned anger. All I remember saying to my chair upon hearing the news was, "This is a mistake." But there was nothing I could do until my case went up to the Provost, which would take several months. And so my semester began, and anger gave way to sadness--unrelenting, soul-crushing sadness that everything I'd worked for my entire adult life was all about to be taken away. I think I cried every day, sometimes in my office. Sometimes after I went to bed.

I did my work, though. I taught three days a week (and twice on Mondays), met with students, submitted grants, and helped an undergrad put together his first first-author paper. I traveled to Washington, Ohio, Montreal, and Botswana. In June, the Provost informed me that he agreed with the Dean, and that per the Faculty Handbook, I had ten days to submit an appeal. My chair didn't see the point of appealing--what grounds did I have? This wasn't a case of blatant discrimination or a failure to follow protocol--just my opinion that he made a bad judgment call. But I couldn't simply shrug and accept this Wrong Thing. I had to push back until pushing back was no longer an option.

How do you convince someone to change their mind? I couldn't magically make an R01 appear (if only!). In my mind, my best play was to drive home how accomplishing what I had without a million dollars was even more of a testament to my tenure-worthiness. To help bolster my case, I emailed essentially every senior colleague in North America I could think of, asking for a letter of support to include in my appeal package.

I received twenty letters within a week. Strong, detailed letters. Such an overwhelming response provided much-needed validation that I was doing the right thing--I belonged in academic science and had earned the right to stay. On a train rumbling up the northeast corridor, I pounded out what might be the best piece of writing I've ever crafted, a passionate, clear-headed letter laying out why I was an asset to the university, and how misguided it was to outsource tenure decisions to NIH study sections. I used words like "persisted" and "enterprise," and brought up documented implicit biases in peer review.  No snark, no bitterness. Just honest arguments about who I am and the realities of my field. I put that letter together with those from my colleagues and one very powerful letter from a former undergraduate (who had heard about my situation and volunteered), and sent it to the Provost. A few days later, he asked to meet.

"I can see that you are very popular," he said, "but I still need to be convinced that giving you tenure isn't a risk to the university." My heart fell. This was still about money. I took a breath and said, "I am the opposite of a risk. My lab's been running on fumes for the last 2 years and I have continued to publish and build recognition in my field." I explained how through collaborations I could be highly productive without spending a lot of money, and that my most recent paper was entirely the result of undergrad work. "Ask anyone here with a big lab and multiple grants what their plan is to keep going if everything ran out tomorrow, and I bet they wouldn't have one. I do." He thanked me for my time and said he'd have a final decision in the next week or two. I left feeling terrible, and fought back tears until I got out of the building. Hadn't he heard all this already? I was so tired of begging for my job.

I went to Ireland and then to Maine, where it rained every day. We came home on a Friday, and I became very, very sure that this was not going to work out. Why would he change his mind? He wanted me to have money and I didn't have any. Over the weekend, I started to make a job search spreadsheet and update my research and teaching statements (although I was not optimistic that I'd be competitive - who would want to hire a "damaged goods" candidate?). On Monday, the letter from the provost was waiting in my mailbox. I didn't open it right away, visiting first with my department BFF to catch up after a few weeks of on and off traveling. While still in her office, I waved the envelope and was like, "Ugh, here's my stupid letter from the Provost telling me that I'm fired." I decided to just rip off the band-aid and at first glance, the brief letter looked identical to the first one, using expressions like "My evaluation of your tenure case is now complete" and "My decision is based on a thorough evaluation of your dossier," and I concluded that I'd been right about the way things had gone. But then I noticed some different language.

"I am pleased to inform you that I am recommending to the President that you be awarded tenure and be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor."

HE CHANGED HIS MIND. He just changed his mind! People can change their minds about things like this, it is honestly so strange to me. I think my colleague and I set new decibel records for our hallway with the shrieking that ensued.

What was even stranger was understanding how to feel in the aftermath. After almost 6 months of consuming depression and hopelessness, all of a sudden the source of those emotions was just...gone. What was this new brain-space I was in? Do I just go back to normal or do I get some time to acclimate?

My PhD student utterly slayed her thesis defense and moved to Los Angeles. I went back to Botswana and then to Zimbabwe. When I returned, I received an NoA for an R56 - a full year of R01-level bridge funding to kickstart a promising project. Although I was technically on sabbatical this fall, I had no senior full-time personnel, and so did my best to be present in the lab for my undergrads and regroup both mentally and physically. I would say that only in the last month or so has it really felt like the fog has begun to clear. I'm hiring people, I have concrete plans for grants and collaborations, I am ready to be a strong leader again.

Although this is obviously a happy ending in which (IMNSHO) justice prevailed, I would not wish going through what I did on anyone. It SUCKED. And I know it would have sucked a thousand times more if it weren't for the emotional and professional support of dozens to hundreds of colleagues and friends, many of whom I know through this blog and/or twitter. Thank you to everyone who reached out along the way with advice, letters, gourmet chocolate, a spa day, or a shoulder to cry on--I never would have made it through without you.

Finally, here is my favorite photo from my safari in Zimbabwe.

It is a juvenile black rhino, and I love it not just because the lighting happened to be incredible and it is an adorable creature, but because this rhino is the success of conservationists who did not want to give up. There were no rhinos in this game reserve, and a few years ago they did a Noah's Ark and put two in. Now there are twelve!



*The reason for his decision was that despite having a healthy independent publication record, great reputation in my field, stellar teaching evaluations, and one small and one medium sized grant, I still hadn't received R01-level funding.

37 responses so far

  • shrew says:

    YOUR lighting is incredible and YOU'RE an adorable creature

  • Arseny says:

    I am very happy for you, and thank you so much for putting this scary journey in writing! It is inspiring and encouraging.

  • I’d like to advocate changing the elephant’s bum to a juvenile rhinoceros’ face. You are amazing, always have been, and I’m so happy for you, my friend.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I agree that you were, and are, the very opposite of risk.

  • Anon says:

    I am happy that this has all worked out for you. I am also VERY glad that you persevered and did what *you* thought was right, instead of listening to well-meaning and reasonable advice such as, “why appeal?”

    I find that some people, the longer they are in Academia, the more passive and accepting they tend to become. I had a situation a couple of years ago where I was being bullied by someone who was supposed to be my mentor. When I went to another trusted mentor for advice, instead of being my champion, this man basically suggested that I cave, because although he thought it was all very unfair, “why fight it?” In the end, I stood up to the bully, and I emerged no worse – perhaps even better – than I would have had I just caved, but with my self-respect intact.

    I understand that your strategy may not work for everyone, but I think it’s important to share stories like yours, so that less experienced folks understand that ultimately, it’s *their* lives, so they need to do what feels right to them. Talking to more experienced folks is useful to help one understand how the community at large may perceive our actions, but as an adult, one should never substitute another’s judgment for one’s own.

  • DJMH says:

    This was beautiful and inspiring, and a lot of what I like about it is that it isn't beautiful and inspiring by dint of being "Wow I did such great stuff" but by dint of being more like "I hung on with my fingernails and gritted my teeth and did not allow this helicopter ride to fling me to my doom" which is perfectly representative of your Bond-level skills.

  • Kitsch says:

    I'm sorry to hear that I wasn't the only one riding the roller coaster but glad that it's a happy ending. Congratulations!

    Here is my journey:
    Sep 2016: P&T dossier submitted
    Dec 2016: Unanimous approval at the Dept & School levels
    Jan 2017: university went though financial crisis, new dean arrived
    Feb 2017: received fundable R01 score
    March 2017: 5% campus wide layoff
    April 2017: Provost denied P&T (80% of applications were denied presumably associated with red balance sheet). Congressional budget gymnastics delayed NIH fund release
    May 2017: Meet with the Provost
    June 2017: Provost provided reasons of P&T denial in formal letter- I didn't have 12-15 senior or first authored research articles in 5 years (only 7 instead, although half of them in fancy journals) and my 2 external grants were coming to an end in Dec 2018. None of these criteria were stated in the Faculty Manual.
    July 2017: Appeal to the Provost and the new Dean- still a "no", instead asked me to reapply since the new cycle is 2 months apart in September. A week later Ro1 NoA arrived
    August-September 2017: Gave up on P&T. Sent out 15+ job applications. Went though the agony again and decided to make a final appeal.
    Oct 2017: Appealed to the President. 2 wks later, President reversed negative decisions, P&T granted retroactively effective Summer, 2017.

    • Dr Becca says:

      OMG this might be a more insane journey than mine! Congrats on coming out on top (and with an R01 to boot)!! I asked if my tenure could be retroactive but it was not granted. I'm not happy, but I figure I'll save it for a more consequential fight.

      • DJMH says:

        What's the goal in making it retroactive? Is it the pay package or is there another reason besides that?

        • Dr Becca says:

          There is the money, but it's just the principle, feeling like I'm being viewed equally to everyone else who went up at the same time as me and became associate in July. Because of the delay in my case, I had to wait for the next Board of Trustees meeting and did not become associate until Dec.

          • Anon says:

            Sorry to hear about that, but your story is very inspiring. I was just recently promoted to tenure track Assistant Professor, retroactive to July 1 of this year. However, the promised pay increase that was supposed to go with the promotion will not happen, allegedly due to department/college budgetary issues. In fact, I was told that I *may* get the pay adjustment in April (with no back pay), but they're not sure about it. And, the school still hasn't issued me a formal letter about the promotion in title - I only found out about my promotion via a newsletter sent out about faculty promotions in September. I think I'm the lowest-paid tenure track Assistant Professor here. Hard to know if the same line about pay is being given to other people, or just to me because my division chief picks favorites to support (or not). He's not a fan of me. Or maybe it's because I'm a pregnant female, and my division chief thinks I'm not going to be productive this year. I hope to get an R01 just so I can market myself elsewhere.

          • Dr Becca says:

            Ugh, I'm sorry to hear about your situation, Anon. I also hope you get an R01 and take your $$$ to somewhere that appreciates you!

          • Anon says:

            Thanks for your sympathy! My division chief doesn't have any NIH funding or lab or clinical obligations and is in his late 70's. His entire job is administrative. He's managed to upset so many people underneath him (by playing favorites and denying tenure to almost everyone in his division - he promotes them to research track Associate Professor, instead) that most of us in the division want him to retire. He must be good at playing politics, b/c he is pretty sure that he will never retire. He actually told me and some others at our performance evaluations that he never plans to retire (even though none of us asked him about it - guess he can sense things). As a colleague pointed out to me: I guess when you have an important job and great salary w/ no expectations except "managing" people, it would be a stupid decision to retire? There's no feedback mechanism here for faculty to rate their supervisors, either. I mean, we get an annual online survey for the school to use to cover its ass, but the upper level administrators don't do anything about the data/comments.

            I also learned that my institution is not promoting 3 research-track Assistant Profs I happen to know to tenure track, even though each of these individuals has received an R01 in the last year. So, each of these individuals is looking to move elsewhere for a tenure-track appointment. It's so weird. What else does the school want for *tenure-track* appointments? Again, the decision boils down to a senior (80 year-old), very well-funded investigator who is their Department Chair. He says he doesn't have funds from the school to promote them. Politics trumps everything here. It's insane, b/c the institution loses scholars w/ decent NIH funding. This is probably the most toxic workplace I've ever experienced. There is no transparency with regard to tenure and promotions, no genuine avenue for faculty to make suggestions for improvement.

      • Kitsch says:

        Thanks for cheering. I stumbled on your twitter thread late summer but didn't follow it through because of my own battle. I am very happy that you pulled it off with a victory and getting additional $$ to move your project forward.

    • Heather E says:

      To Kitsch and Anon: Congratulations for what you have wrested out of the system to date! The scars of the process, and its unfairness in both "failure" and success , will heal and become less inflamed. But they do remain. Forgive possibly (you now have rosier prospects) but don't forget, or lose your sense of empathy when you will inevitably see younger colleagues encounter the same and not necessarily prevail.

      I hope that elder chair decides 2018 is his year to move on, Anon. We have a guy like that in our department, taking up dearly needed space in both office and animal facility terms, but at least not a chair. It's awful to hope his back problems will finally convince him to retire at 80+ but I'm not the only one who does. Still, aside from being a sexist jerk, his days of influence are mostly past.

      • Anon says:

        Hi Heather,
        Thanks for your kind words and support! I just read your story below. I wish you the best in the future! My understanding is that it is extremely difficult for foreign-born PI's to make it in France. I have a good friend/colleague who is a French national who just moved back to France a couple of years ago, and even she can't find a job there, in spite of an excellent funding and publication record in a solid lab at a highly ranked medical research institution here in the States. This, in spite of having connections to French research institutions through her father, a retired professor. You've persisted with much less than she has, which is just amazing.

        One question: isn't there a mandatory retirement age in France?

        • Heather E says:

          Yes, but certain folks who pull strings can obtain emeritus status and appear to be able to renew at will. I'm not very concerned - when I can retire, I will leave the spot for someone new. Best for all concerned. I hope your friend also has the means to persist! So much of that has to do with keeping reapplying and your life has to let you be able to do that (and not be irreversibly discouraged). Even then, from one who made it in, still feels a bit like a crap shoot. You're not better qualified than a lot of people who were ultimately turned away.

      • Kitsch says:

        Heather: Thanks for cheering for us and thanks for the kind reminders. I hope your resilience pays off eventually.

  • TheGrinch says:

    Very happy for you, have silently cheered you during your struggle. Yours is an inspirational story for everyone that treads this path.

  • ccziv says:

    I'm so glad this worked out in your favor. I have far more experience than I want seeing people play by the rules, bust their asses, and have the rug pulled out from under you.

  • ccziv says:

    I guess I should have ended with "them," but you know what I'm talking about.

  • Lax says:

    who would you cast to play you when they make a movie about this ? There is enough material here for a blockbuster.
    Congrats and a very happy new year!

  • Arnold kahn says:

    Wow, Bethany. What hell you had to go through. 2018 should be a lot better than 2017. Mazel Tov

  • Leo says:

    Congratulations! And know that it was good to have something to fight for from the beginning. In the UK we don't have tenure, even with your own grant money Universities can decide they don't want you anymore at any stage of your career. No reason needed.

    • Anon says:

      At a lot of U.S. research-intensive institutions, tenure has lost its meaning, unfortunately. At my institution, tenure only guarantees your position, not your salary. What this means is that, say you lose grant funding, the school will only pay 20% of your salary, nothing more. There are very limited opportunities for teaching here, and you're basically at your department's mercy when it comes to pay for any teaching that you do. So, even if you're tenured, if you lose your grant funding, effectively, they're telling you to look for another job, because who wants to subsist on 20% salary w/ no lab? I've heard the same about some other research-intensive universities ranked similarly to mine.

      Also, at any university, even tenured faculty can be subject to post-tenure review if they aren't viewed as productive/bringing in $. It's a shitty time in Academia right now. You have to have outstanding support or switch to an administrative position to feel secure.

      • Anon says:

        This varies *a lot* by dept/school. Also, when you say "lost": did tenure ever mean anything else at your institution?

        But no, if tenure for me meant only 20% support, I would consider that tenure in name only.

        • Anon says:

          From what I understand, it was not always like this, here, with regard to tenure and salary support. I believe that there may have been a time when tenure at least offered full salary coverage, in the face of funding loss. But, then again, funding wasn't so difficult to come by, back in the "old days."

          It really is tenure in name only. I was told that the only other benefit of tenure (besides a guarantee of 20% salary coverage and your title) is an extremely meager college tuition coverage for dependents. In fact, my division chief uses the excuse that "tenure here means nothing" as an excuse not to support some folks' promotion to tenure (he seems to support promotions at his own discretion, though). I have one colleague here who, upon learning that our division chief wasn't going to support his promotion to tenure, went to a different division chief in the same department (he had some affiliation with that division), and was able to get tenure through that other division chief's support. Totally a political decision and, from what I've seen, not at all unusual for the school.

  • The worst of it is, the initial denial was because of lack of funding _even though_ you were doing important work. Inversion of ends and means

  • Courtney says:


  • D. Allan Drummond says:

    A beautiful and inspiring ending to a story you shared as it happened, and for that I and others are deeply grateful. Way to marshal the resources and allies you needed when it mattered most. And more than that, kudos for doing the years of quality work, and of building relationships, that gave you the track record and collegial support to draw on. Those things can't be manufactured on demand. Much respect.

  • Heather E says:

    I find it so encouraging to hear this outcome. Congratulations! As others have stated, telling the tale is important, because in a few years as a tenured professor general impressions of you will be "but of COURSE this talented person was recognized and promoted" and the respective parts of luck and persistence in your story will not leave their records otherwise.

    (Apologies, this has become long.)

    I have been working in France for my entire professional career, after coming during grad school. At age 47, I haven't successfully obtained my first R01 equivalent yet (means are at a much smaller scale here, overall, so we're looking at 300-500K for 3-5 years). I got "tenure", though, in 2004 and one of a couple dozen national start-up packages back then, of 150K over three years for salaries and supplies. I made the mistake of thinking this was a vote of professional confidence and the start of better things, and thought I was safe to do more for the community than my personal advancement or recognition. Grave mistake. So, it's possible to run a small group on fumes but the lost potential for lack of (luck/persistance/a taste for promoting my brand/popularity) has certainly taken its toll on my morale and sense of optimism.

    Imagine your six months of despair stretching to twelve years by intermittent bursts, as you see your prospects dwindle and you "wait your turn" patiently to then be passed by for limited resources, despite the seminars you give and committees you preside. Despair and demotivation particularly when I was refused promotion to director level (which happens in a national competition) first in 2013, after the oral defence - sounds like your Provost conversation except it's a committee in Paris rather than a person - and again in 2015, after the paper file was (justifiably, because I had succumbed to depression in the interim and production dropped accordingly) no longer deemed strong enough in publications. I hope to have material to try again this fall, but I increasingly ask myself, why? Except for questions of fairness. Mentorship for women scientists is very thin on the ground. I try to provide it, but I sorely feel its lack myself. The leaky pipeline needs an infrastructure overhaul in a major way, and not just for early careers. A "major" advancement is that newly tenured scientists like I had been 13 years ago, now get 15K euros startup money. Yay. Often wrested away by the department for infrastructure. I helped two new recruits recover their money last year for their own work. What kind of message is that? Everything is about useless band-aids for leaky, crumbling dikes.

    My Ph.D. student defended in November and got a good job, because I encouraged her all along to do what was needed for that. In 2018 I have no one left in my group, no institutional or major funding support, internal competition for a dwindling supply of undermotivated grad students (on the order of four candidates a year for all the groups in the department) and am looking forward in some ways to reduced self-inflicted responsibilities and time to write. Which I kind of hate as well as enjoy having done. I don't have to teach and stopped doing so for free when I learned just how invisible the investment of my time was. I feel too old and stuck in my community for the last 7 years, to move again to a more dynamic place and start again at even more of a disadvantage. I can easily think of six female peers within as many years of age who are similarly frustrated in their ambitions by attrition and tiny slights of various kinds, though most have been successful at getting better grants than I have to date (their Frenchness may have helped in part; my group has survived meanwhile on money from private non-profits and a crowdfunded project). To be fair, many male peers have their shares of grant/political machination/bureaucratic frustrations as well, but these aren't on top of some silent agreement to take them less seriously all along, so they remain optimistic that whatever the setback is, remains a fluke, that it's not due to their ultimate unsuitability, and that things could improve.

    We scientists are optimists in many ways. Certainly we have our large share of creative, sensitive types. I hate to think what would have happened if you had accepted the "experienced advice" of your chair not to appeal. Science is littered with the detritus of many of those alternate endings. Thanks for recording a story that documents the adversity as well as the way you have felt along the way: including the daze of finally obtaining what you sought and understanding the ultimate arbitrariness of it all. An understanding that further success might have helped you, like so many others, to ultimately forget, if you hadn't recorded it.

  • Grant Schwartzentruber says:


    Here is what I valued in your story.
    1. We all face grief and dashed hopes. They help us to grow.
    2. Adversity is not the main problem. It is whether we curl up and die or persevere.
    3. The bad things are not necessarily the bad things. Sometimes they teach what we are meant to learn.
    4. Adversity teaches that we have more support than we thought. I loved the notes re other colleagues and students providing stellar support.
    5. Challenging situations help us to find ourselves. You likely know much more about yourself after these lengthy challenges - which can provide a template for future growth.
    6. A good "holyday"and cute rhinos make a difference in our lives.

    In over 30 years of employment counselling, I have always admired resilience, the creativity and resolve of humans who overcome! Your story provided a model of ingenuity and integrity. Well done.

  • Anon says:

    "The bad things are not necessarily the bad things. Sometimes they teach what we are meant to learn."

    Sorry, but this is the kind of white-washing that I have no patience for. Dr Becca being denied tenure initially was a BAD THING. Full stop.

    In the end, it's good that the error was reversed. But whether we learn something from the bad things, whether we survive, persevere, crumble up, or whatever, does not change ONE BIT the fact that they are bad things that should happen to no one.

    You do realize that there are people who are every bit as resilient and resourceful as she was for whom the outcome is very different, no? Think about that! It's that lesson that shouldn't get lost in all of this.

    Let's be happy for Dr Becca, but let's not forget about how effed-up things are that this even happened in the first place. And let's also remember that her success was not just the product of her hard work, etc., but, as with all things in life, there was also that irreducible element of luck -- someone changed their mind. So it is not entirely up to us whether we "we curl up and die or persevere." Sometimes, despite our best intentions, persevering is not an option.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Wow, I just came across this because you shared it on Edge for Scholars. Congrats! I recall your journey back when I found your blog (which was originally from reading DM's blog).

    I will be in a similar situation really soon, but my only salvation must come in the form of a R01 . . .

Leave a Reply