I read Dan's (who BTW I am a big fan of - you can see his works here) article first, then Joel's take.
Joel makes some solid observations about "up & out" - as for me, I was struck more about the emotional side of things. This should ring true to any officer who decides to make a full run at it; except for the very few who make 4-stars and wind up as CNO or CJCS; everyone eventually receives an "F" - or makes the decision to punch out.
I've been asked the same questions repeatedly over the past half-decade: What happened? If I could go into the wayback machine, what would I do differently? Do I still think about it? What lessons would I impart to others? Am I still bitter?There are many people who go into a selection board with everyone two echelons above them telling them how great they are - how much a "sure thing" it is - talking to them about what the next step is for them - but in the 10 seconds it takes to read the results - they go from Superstar to never-was-has-been.
Tenure denials come with a multiplicity of stresses. The emotional pain of rejection is married to the material anxiety of trying to find gainful employment elsewhere, the anxiety of reassuring friends and family, and the existential anxiety of questioning if academe is the right career. In my case, however, only the emotional pain was an issue.
So what have I learned? The most important thing is that I now know that many of the mysteries that come with tenure denial will never be satisfactorily solved. I was inundated with "What happened?" questions the moment my news went public. In retrospect, the very fact of my denial suggested that my sources of information were not reliable. Even though I was at the center of the storm, my understanding was partial at best. People who earn tenure tend to have strong allies who lobby fiercely on their behalf. I didn't have any of those. I received the formal description from my department chair, and a few colleagues who were inside my academic star chamber told me their versions of events. Each of those people told me what they believed to be true—but their interpretations were incomplete. The result was a true Rashomon-style set of narratives.
Some of my friends started spinning fantastical explanations, including my political views and simple jealousy. Indulging in "What happened?" musings is inevitable—indeed, most social scientists are trained to search for underlying causes. But a good social scientist must also be wary of overdetermined outcomes. There is always the element of chance to any outcome.
Having to talk about it at every conference I attended for the next few years meant reliving the experience in a Groundhog Day manner. As interconnected as academics might be online, news of this kind spreads slowly. Even if colleagues know, some of them will play dumb in a face-to-face encounter, in the hope that my account will reveal some insidery detail.
With each successive explanation, everything becomes more rote. I soon had my humorous but reasonably forthcoming script at the ready, and it made these interactions increasingly anodyne. The only time I went off-script was when I was approached by a friend or acquaintance who had just been denied tenure—this happened on a surprisingly frequent basis. Over the next few years, junior international-relations professors sought me out to tell their tales and ask for advice and support. I had unwittingly become a patron saint of tenure denial.
In retrospect, these conversations were the most rewarding part of the entire experience. Academics are not a terribly empathetic lot, and those who have never been denied tenure lack the tacit knowledge necessary to understand the stages of grief that one endures after an outright rejection. Talking to my fellow rejectees permitted a candor that was not possible in other professional conversations. Discussing the many emotional roadblocks with those in a similar predicament allowed me to get a better handle on my own journey.
When does that journey end? I have mixed news to report: The pain of rejection is like a scar that never completely heals. Those who aspire to join the academy have spent their lives doing really, really well at school—and being denied tenure is about the loudest F one can earn. The sense of failure never goes away.
On the other hand, experiencing the ultimate rejection made the prospect of failure in other ventures less scary. I've taken greater risks in my research in the past half-decade than I ever did before—and the rewards have been very good. I've published four books, written or co-written 10 peer-reviewed articles and about 30 book chapters, essays, and book reviews. One of those books was about international relations and ... zombies. I'm a full professor at the oldest school of international affairs in the country.
Some take it very hard, some take it with a shrug. One thing that is true though, it all works out for the better in the end. Only for those who fall into bitterness is there no recovery.
Dan, like most, wind up in a very good place in the end - perhaps with a little more character for the experience.
Finally, if you want the background on Dan's tenure loss, I posted on it in the update to this post in 2005.