Andrea Morris *99 (MOL) interviewed by Max Horder (GS, ANT).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I’m currently the Assistant Dean and Director of Career and Professional Development at the Rockefeller University in New York. I completed my PhD in Molecular Biology from Princeton in 1999. Previously, I was a tenured Associate Professor at Haverford College – a position I left in 2014 so I could make a career change and move into Higher Education Administration.
Laying the groundwork
I was at Haverford College for a total of about twelve years. And five of those were leading up to tenure: pre-tenure, tenure and then beyond. And I left Haverford to go to Columbia University, to the Graduate School there, and was there for a bit before I came to Rockefeller, then for about the last seven years or so now.
The moment that changed everything
I’ll start by saying that the whole tenure process gets you thinking about what else you love to do and what you would be happy doing. And for me, it was the leadership end of academia. And I also thought that, if I were going in that direction, would I want to be at a small college in administrative roles, or was it a chance to move to a different type of institution? So, the decision about whether to switch gears had a lot to do with that, as well as wanting to work with graduate students and postdocs. Before, I had worked exclusively with undergraduates, so it seemed like a time to change my perspective a lot.
It sounds like a bit of a gamble. But it was certainly, it was a huge gamble. And I still look back and say: wow, what was I thinking? But it worked out very well! I think the part that I should also add is that I had an active research lab, with undergraduates, in addition to teaching and mentoring and all of the service at the college. And I realized that to continue to juggle all of those things, the biggest thing that I would be giving up was actually the research lab. So, once I thought about the time commitments to doing that, it actually seemed like the risk I was willing to take. And in a lot of instances, when you switch from one institution or another, you can sort of negotiate about tenure, and faculty positions and so forth. So, I knew that it was about weighing what I was giving up versus what I was gaining. And that helped to make that decision. But it was definitely a big gamble.
Life beyond academia
One part of it is that it is a lot more collaborative. Obviously, there a lot of meetings and the way you do your business is very, very different. Lots of committees work with many different things. Being on a committee is not necessarily the most exciting thing for a lot of faculty, but being the person chairing a lot of committees working on a lot of policy is fascinating. It can be anything from curriculum to how faculty are evaluated or what the expectations of students are. So the type of work and the way you did it changed a little bit. But otherwise, like I mentioned, the biggest change was moving from being in a research lab the majority of the time to now being in an office. I actually missed teaching quite a bit. So I found opportunities to teach on the side. And that's been something that has helped to soften that transition to administration.
I also felt that I could actually turn off at nights, which was significant given that I had had a young child at the time. So, that factored into the decision - having more control over your time and managing it better. It was much closer to a nine-to-five. And that was really important for me personally.
Best advice for graduate students
The advice for those graduate students would be to really think about what the goals for a postdoc might be, and why you might continue on into a postdoc, which could be an additional five years. I would advise to really think about why you're doing that, and why you're making that choice rather than something else. Because if you are moving away from academia and the tenure track, you could be using your skills and that time very differently. And whilst you are at Princeton, look to develop those so-called transferable skills. You know, communication, leadership and management and try and figure out, you know, where your interests lie professionally, and get some experience in that. Make the time to do that and you’ll be much more competitive for the job market and using your PhD right away.
I would also like to add that for those who were similar to my case, that even when you decide to pursue an academic career or tenure track, just know that your trajectory can take lots of twists and turns and that even tenure doesn’t mean that you are destined to continue in a particular direction. You can always pivot and look for ways to reinvigorate and reinvent your career. And I think that's been the biggest lesson I thought about post-tenure. Thirty more years of this and it actually wasn't all that good, as exciting as maybe going into it I thought it would be. And then I took a brand-new direction. So, don't limit yourself in that sense, even if you are secure on the tenure track.
This interview has been edited for clarity.