Career Strategies for Librarians
Staying on Track: Balancing the Tenure Track and Family Life
by Amy Harris
Juggling a career and a family is difficult, but throw in the demands of being on the tenure track and the
balancing act can seem nearly impossible. Luckily, it can and has been done by many librarians and
professors alike, including me. I am currently one year away from submitting my dossier for tenure, and
almost two years removed from submitting my reappointment dossier, which I handed in with my three-
week-old daughter sleeping on my shoulder. This process has had its ups and downs, but I have found
both parenthood and the tenure track to be extremely rewarding. This article will provide some tips for
maintaining the balance between scholarly productivity and real life, some of which I actually did and
others I wish I had. I will share some advice for continued productivity in writing, presenting, and service.
I am not by any means an expert on this subject, just someone who has been through it and lived to tell
The most important tip is to be flexible and give yourself a break. Even if you plan exceptionally well for a
change in your family situation, be it having a child or taking care of a loved one, you will run into
unforeseen complications. Even if you have a child who sleeps through the night and takes long naps at
two weeks old, you will still not be as productive as you typically are when you are sitting at work eight
hours a day. The dishes and laundry (and maybe even daytime television) will beckon. If you remain
flexible, and don’t focus on what you are not accomplishing, you may experience only a slight drop-off in
your scholarly productivity.
The tenure process at my university (the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) is fairly typical.
Librarians are appointed on an initial three-year contract. They submit a reappointment dossier, which is
reviewed by the tenured librarians, during their second year and receive a decision toward the end of that
year, which results in a second three-year contract. In the fifth year, the librarian submits a tenure dossier
and is informed of a decision at the end of the year. The dossier is divided into professional
responsibility/teaching effectiveness, research and creative activities, and service activities. Because of
the wide variety of professional duties taken on by librarians, this article will focus on tips for maintaining
productivity relating to research and creative activities and service.
Research and Creative Activities: Writing
Writing can be done anywhere, so it is a fairly easy activity to maintain regardless of family situation.
However, there are still some things you can do to make a chaotic time in your personal life a productive
time in your professional life.
Do your research ahead of time. Luckily, having a child comes with some lead time. This can allow you
to do some research before taking a maternity or paternity leave. You’ll usually have at least a semester
in which you can devise a research question, obtain the institutional review board’s approval (if
necessary), collect data, gather articles and books for a literature review, and collaborate with any co-
authors while you are still in the same building. Then, while you are away or sleep-deprived, the writing
will be the only thing left to do.
Create a writing agenda. Since you have time to prepare, you have a great opportunity to set some goals
to maximize your productivity. It’s important to realize that you may be missing out on presenting at
conferences for a year (but I’ll give some tips on that later) and plan accordingly. Set large realistic goals
and smaller, perhaps monthly, goals that will help you reach your large ones. If you find yourself falling
behind, redo your goals after you better understand how a typical day will go. I co-wrote an article shortly
after my daughter was born, but if I had planned ahead better, I might have been even more productive.
There were certainly days when I accomplished nothing, but I tried again the next day.
Work with a co-author. If you are out of the office for an extended period of time, working with a co-author
can be extremely beneficial. For me, being accountable to another person encouraged me to write when
I would have preferred sleeping (though sleep is also vital). We passed drafts back and forth by email,
which we renamed each time it was sent (draft1, draft2, etc.) to avoid confusion. Google Documents
could be used similarly, since it has the option to revert to earlier versions, though it is not without
problems. Working with a co-author can make the writing process seem less overwhelming while still
forcing you to stay accountable to another person. For me, working under pressure is a powerful
Presentations and Conference Attendance
Most institutions consider conference attendance and presentations essential for earning tenure. In my
university it is part of the “Scholarly and Creative Activities” requirement. Traveling when you have small
children can be difficult, but it is still possible to be productive in this area as well. I chose not to leave
my child until she was one year old. During that time, I got creative and found ways to present and still be
home at night.
Get off to a good start. Traveling with young children can be challenging, but if you believe a family may
be in your future, it’s a good idea to do some presentations early in your career. These presentations
can help you establish yourself in the library world and can lead to opportunities to lead local workshops
or publish. Presenting and networking at conferences can also lead to co-authorship opportunities.
Attend and present at non-library conferences. Librarians love conferences. We have conferences for
just about every possible niche relating to libraries. But academia loves conferences too, so there may
be opportunities in your area to present at non-library academic conferences. In February 2010, I
presented with some colleagues at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching. The
conference took place in my city (there are several Lilly conferences across the country), so I had the
opportunity to learn about trends in college teaching and network with teaching faculty from my
institution. Being able to return home after a long day of conferencing is a significant advantage for new
parents and caregivers.
Look for opportunities to lead workshops. Many libraries are on the lookout for low- or no-cost
opportunities to train their staff. If there is a particular web tool or database that you use proficiently, offer
to train librarians at other libraries (or your own, for that matter) on their use. A colleague and I once
taught the staff of a local community college library how to use a variety of free Web 2.0 tools, including
Google Docs, blog readers, and Facebook. The director approached us because we had done a similar
workshop for the state library association. We actually got a delicious free lunch out of this, but even
without the lunch, it would have been worth it to travel 20 minutes to deliver this workshop.
Attend webinars to stay current. Webinars have become a great way to stay current on library and higher
education trends without leaving your office. The divisions and roundtables of ALA and ACRL have
webinars throughout the year, as does the TLT Group. Unfortunately, there is often a registration fee, but
at least there are no hotel or travel costs.
When all else fails, rely on your support system. I mentioned earlier that I decided not to leave my infant
until after she turned one. But our biennial state library association conference took place when she was
eight months old, and my memberships on various round table boards and an invitation to present
beckoned. So I did something I don’t normally do: I asked for help. My mother was happy to come with us
to the conference (which was not in an exotic location) and spend hours with my daughter, playing in the
hotel room and rolling her up and down the halls in the stroller. I was able to see my daughter several
times a day while attending meetings and presentations. While not an ideal solution, it worked for us. So
don’t be afraid to ask for help. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family may be willing to do
something similar, if you ask.
At my institution, service is divided into three parts: service to the library and university, service to the
profession, and service to the community. The first and third parts are local and can be done without
traveling, but service to the profession can be more difficult to do at a distance. Luckily, the virtual world
makes this easier.
Get involved in your state’s library association. Each of the fifty states has a library association, and there
are several regional library associations. These associations provide a great opportunity for
professional service. If you find these organizations too large to find a niche, you might also try your state’
s chapter of the Special Library Association; while not typically a group for academic librarians, I know
several who are heavily involved and find it a rewarding experience. I serve on several boards within my
state’s library association, and my daughter has attended several meetings with me.
Explore virtual committee membership. Improvements in technology have made it possible to conduct
much of the business of committees online. ALA’s New Members Round Table does an excellent job of
providing opportunities to serve on committees without having to attend the Midwinter and Annual
conferences. This involvement creates valuable networking opportunities and the chance to provide
service to the profession without attending conferences. Other divisions of ALA have followed NMRT’s
lead with virtual committee membership, so if you are a member of ACRL or another section, you should
investigate whether it has committees with virtual membership.
Think outside the committee. Besides virtual committee membership, countless other opportunities
exist to serve the profession. I am on the editorial board of MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource
for Learning and Online Teaching), a peer-reviewed depository for online learning objects. Networking or
detective work can provide opportunities to serve on editorial boards for journals. Talk to people on
campus about your interests. My involvement with MERLOT came as the result of a conversation with the
director of the University Teaching and Learning Center about ways to serve the wider campus
Promotion and tenure can be overwhelming for anyone, but the additional stress of having young
children can make the process seem impossible. Thanks to technology, it’s possible to do many things
virtually that once had to be done face-to-face. Whether you are using maternity or paternity leave, taking
care of a family member, or just trying to avoid travel, attaining tenure or promotion is possible with some
planning and help from family and colleagues.
About the Author
Amy Harris is the Information Literacy Program Coordinator and Reference Librarian at the University of
North Carolina at Greensboro and the mother of a very active toddler. Her research interests include
mentoring programs for tenure-track librarians and assessment of one-shot library instruction sessions.
Article published September 2010
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