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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

Losing (Escaping?) Academic Tenure at the Age of 53

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

For most of my professional life, I have been a salaried employee. After leaving graduate school in 1999, I landed my first teaching and research job at Johns Hopins University, and then never left academia for 21 years. McGill University in Montreal, Carleton University in Ottawa, CIDE in Mexico City, and then the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. The salaries got a bit better, the benefits improved slightly, and I never worried about health insurance for my family.

To be sure, I knew of friends and family who made a lot more money than I did. One friend from high school became a successful tech entrepreneur, and another from my undergraduate days became a lawyer for a major corporation. The spouse of a cousin works for a large international consulting firm. These and others have made more money than I could ever dream of.

For the most part, however, my close friends and role models are reasonably successful, tenured North American, Mexican, or Israeli academics. Most professors today are untenured adjuncts with no job security, many of whom live hand-to-mouth. That was not my fate, however, and most of my friends were also lucky enough to earn tenure after 6-7 years of grueling publishing and teaching. In the US (and Canada, Israel, and even Mexico, to a lesser extent), tenured professors earn a reasonable living. Enough to pay our bills and buy decent homes in good neighborhoods. We take vacations, but usually not to the nicest of places. We earn too much to get financial aid when our kids go to college, but most of us still send our kids to decent public or even private universities. Most people in my professional and social group live on two incomes, and get by just fine. Few are wealthy, but most are comfortable. The salary, the tenure, and the benefits all provide a cushion that helps one sleep at night.

For a long time, I loved academia. I did research I was proud of and collaborated with some wonderful people. I had fantastic students and found it a joy to help them learn. At some point, however, I grew disenchanted with the job for reasons I can’t fully explain. I was teaching about human rights, but hadn’t done much human rights fieldwork for years. When I was young, I had been a firebrand activist in Israel and elsewhere, traveling for Human Rights Watch and others to all kinds of places where I felt that my work made a real difference. Interviewing Kosovar refugees in 1999 as they poured over the Albanian border, for example, had made me feel useful in a way that I have rarely experienced since. For a long time, it was rewarding to teach about those kinds of experiences, but as I grew increasingly distant from the actual work, teaching no longer felt quite right. I kept up with my research and the literature, but lost my emotional connection to the work itself.

In 2017, my personal life fell apart as I went through a wrenching divorce. Things became increasingly difficult at the University as I struggled to maintain my equilibrium. My personal and professional life were destabilized more than anything I’d ever experienced.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the mistakes I’ve made in my personal and professional life, and have identified many areas where I can do better. Everyone makes mistakes; if we’re lucky, we get a second chance. One product of those difficult times was a decision to find a more satisfying professional path. In summer 2020, I took the plunge and resigned my tenured job. Suddenly, I had no salary, no pension, and no office to go to. More importantly, perhaps, I had no clear path forward.

I am now free to try all kinds of things, in theory, and that is both terrifying and exhilarating. I realize that I love research and being entrepreneurial, and am now trying to bring the two together in a business venture, Azimuth Social Research. Together with partners, I hope to build a research service that will appeal to private, public and non-profit entities alike. Our first effort is the concept of a subscription-based service that will supply information on public opinion towards Chinese investment worldwide. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is putting billions of dollars into railways, roads, and telecommunications in the developing world, generating strong pro-and-con sentiment. I am excited to try and figure what those feelings are, precisely, and why. China is likely the next global superpower, and it’s wildly interesting to learn how people around the world respond to the country’s transformation. For years, I studied the impact of American and European involvement in the developing world; now, I get a chance to study the impact of a major non-Western power. What an intellectual transformation! In the process, my partners and I are creating something new, and it will stand or fall based on our own efforts. Part of me wonders why it took until the age of 53 to get here, while the other part says it is only now, in the last third of my career, that I can finally roll the dice.

My father was a successful entrepreneur, a lawyer-turned-businessman who did well at a young age, and then turned to writing historical novels. He never made much money as a writer, but has done what he loves for fifty years. I have always chosen a path opposed to his, thinking that the salaried route was best, given all the ups and downs I’d seen him endure. When I left the University a few months ago, my father – always encouraging – remarked that I was going to learn what life was like on the other side, for people who did not work in salaried, secure jobs.

I am beginning to understand what my dad meant. Being on your own professionally – really on your own –  is in a category apart. The self employed are a different breed than the salaried, as it’s an entirely different life experience. I may be heading for a spectacular fall, but I’m at least grateful to have the chance to see what life is like for all those people, including my father, who have tried to make it on their own.

We only get one life, and it’s too short to do the same thing throughout.

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