In reading about the private sector job market, it’s notable how much has changed. In the 20th century, it was common for a young person to enter a work organization after completing their education, to enter a relatively low-level job, to receive formal training from the company over time, to advance through the ranks, and eventually to end one’s career at the highest level of their careers. In contrast to that culture, many organizations today assume that employees will spend relatively short amounts of time before leaving for another organization. Indeed, with the rise of the “gig” economy, many workers are not really employees of any organization. They are contractors exchanging their labor for money, with no legal obligations to work on any particular schedule and, in return, little ongoing commitment of the organization toward them.
In contrast, many of the joys of being an academic in a university come from the longevity of tenure as a faculty member.
Faculty members can gain immense satisfaction from interaction with students. There are few experiences more pleasurable than seeing an individual student finally understanding some threshold concept in a course. Once a key concept is understood, the student is then able to achieve a more integrated knowledge of a field. Before that, all was blurry to them. The “aha” moment in a student’s eyes is priceless. Accumulating these moments takes time.
So too are the pleasures of following the news of successful former students, providing a quiet sense of being a little part of their success. Indeed, it is the student who had to work hard, and struggled in classes, whose success is most rewarding for faculty. These pleasures do not arise quickly; they require time.
Similarly, faculty tell us over and over again that their colleagues in the same field are a source of great satisfaction to them. The ties that grow among colleagues are really unlike many. Colleagues read drafts of papers and chapters written by each other. They proffer critical ideas for improvement; they provide key stimulus to new projects; they buck us up when we hit dry patches. Nurturing such bonds among colleagues takes time.
Finally, academics have the freedom to pursue long-run research activities. For example, the history of scientific discoveries is clear in showing that the perseverance of basic science yields over time many of the discoveries that yield new technological breakthroughs (sometimes decades later). Much curiosity-driven research requires building up an infrastructure (in some humanities, images of key documents; in the lab sciences, equipment, specimens, research teams). This requires time.
There is another benefit, about which I was reminded today. Today, Vice Provost Aggarwal and I shared lunch with members of the Georgetown University Association of Retired Faculty and Staff. The atmosphere was joyous, with colleagues renewing friendships and updating one another on their activities. Some mentioned to me research activities they continue post-retirement. Others described their participation in the GU Learning Community Courses (retirees.georgetown.edu), where retired faculty teach noncredit courses on a wide variety of topics, open to the community. In short, they were engaged. They were animated.
What struck me was another attribute that comes with longevity – a commitment to an institution, a sense of shared purpose, and an interest about the future of the organization. The questions the retirees posed to me were almost all future-oriented. They cared about the future of Georgetown, to which they gave so much of their lives. While it was fun for me to communicate all the exciting initiatives Georgetown is launching, I benefited most from the reminder from them that an academic career offers another gift – a long-lasting sense of belonging in a university community.