Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What I learnt about samsara through getting tenure

The good news is: I got tenure at the University of Groningen (for those not in academia: this means I got a permanent job). The bad news is: I don't feel that happy about it. Why? I got a permanent job, but not the promotion to associate professor, and it feels like failure. Let me tell you what happened.

The tenure evaluation process took almost half a year and was a beautiful insight into what Buddhists call "samsara." Samsara is the cycle of existence, birth and death, characterized by suffering, continuing until one reaches nirvana. It is mostly driven by our habitual hopes and fears, which are the things that generate suffering. And surely that was what the process of tenure evaluation was like. I felt myself continuously oscillating between hoping I would "make the cut" and fearing I was not good enough. Hope to have job security, fearing for the loss of my job. Hope generated by a job offer from another university, but still... It made me aware how much I take a stable situation for granted, and how I become uncomfortable in the prospect of change. Only the thought of losing my job really filled me with fear. To console myself, I have often thought of a saying of my Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche: you have to give up your job when you die. So there is life after a job. Nevertheless, it's easier to logically recognize this truth than to live it.

After the meeting with the tenure committee that would make the decision about my fate cames months of waiting--not being sure what the future would bring, checking my mailbox every day for a letter. Then finally, about a month ago came the meeting with the dean, who told me that while the tenure committee had judged positively about my case, he could not give the tenure because basically I had not brought in enough grant money and not supervised enough PhD students. The PhD student supervision is also related to money, because every graduated PhD student gives the university a promotion bonus of tens of thousands of euros. I was devastated. It felt like all the hard work of the last 5 years had been sort of meaningless, and I was just ditched by the organization. And that too, is samsara: we work all we want, but things just don't work out. Very often when we work, we think that if we just work hard enough, then things will work out. But in fact, there are many things beyond our control. And of course grant money is a particularly strong case of being outside our control.

The next episode in this journey was that after this quite depressing meeting I received a message from the dean asking for more information about some things I said, and eventually (after also several of my supervisors sent letters to the dean and university board) I ended up sitting in front of him once again. This time I was told that I would receive tenure, but without promotion to associate professor (and the chance to try again after 5 years). And that was it: five years of blood, sweat, and tears, and I got a permanent position, but somehow I could not feel happy. That is yet another aspect of samsara: you can never really be happy, because it is never good enough, and things never work out the way you want it. Because seen from another perspective, I have been able to get a permanent position at a university where I have the freedom to do the research I want, get to meet wonderful people, and get to shape new generations of students. And I even have a choice, because I could also take up another position at a wonderful university where people really care about my research. And more importantly: I am more than my job. While it generates lots of hopes and fears, I can also choose to respond differently to the situation. I can choose to see the hopes and fears are just hopes and fears, and there are always lots of possibilities beyond that.
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