Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Crying in My Office (Mid-Career Malaise part II)

NB: this post is meant as a forum to discuss something that doesn't get talked about often: the depression or anger that often accompanies the year or so post-tenure. As I noted in my previous post, I write this well aware that many out there would be incredibly grateful to be in this position. Yet, like Betty Friedan's discontented suburban housewives, we do need to talk about this. So here goes:


So, here's how it is.

You work through grad school. You beat the odds and get a Tenure-Track job. Then you bust ass for six years. You teach. You develop classes. Maybe you write a book. And then: you have tenure.

Whoo-hoo! Set for life!!!

So why do so many of us spend a year or two post-tenure chronically pissed off, depressed, or both?

The commenters on my previous post (especially Curt) kind of said a lot of what I wanted to say, but it's worth bringing up a few points, and then just opening up the discussion.

The first, and most important thing to say is this: You are not alone.

It might seem like that. The reason is that we haven't been talking about it. Because frankly, it's embarrassing, right? "Oh, boo-hoo; I have a career and tenure and job security and a book and everything. My life is soooo saaaad..." I mean, who wants to be that person, right? So we bite our tongues and figure that there's just something wrong with us, some inability to be happy.

I'm basically here to advance the thesis that you're totally normal. Here's the thing: you spent half a dozen years in grad school, and another half a dozen more on the tenure track. That's most of your adult life, all pursuing one thing. You had a purpose. You knew where you were heading. There was a Big Goal.

And now you've achieved that goal. And here's the thing: Nothing is different. Well, you may have a slight bump in your paycheck. And you've certainly got more committee work. But other than that, after a few people stopping by to say "congrats!", it just all stays the same. Or maybe a little harder. And for some, this might be the first time in five to ten years when you've looked up and taken stock of your life and wondered where all the parts of your life that are Not-Work went. Remember when I had a hobby that I loved? Remember when I went out on dates or with friends? We invested so much of that for so long in The Job. And now we realize that some days would be better or worse than others, but The Job was never going to be anything more than The Job.

I know that I never thought any of this consciously, but I do recall spending a lot of time in tears, or planning to leave my job -- not to go job-hunting; just to put in my notice and pack it in. I was more impatient with students. I was easily upset by colleagues. I couldn't bear to think about my next book project. In short, I was a wreck. And yet, nothing was really wrong. Nothing. I couldn't name a single reason why I should be miserable and wanting to pack it all in when I was arguably at my most successful by any external measures. But there it was.

God, that's a grim note to end a post on. I promise that the next post will be more hopeful. After all: I'm still in my job (which is still pretty much the same as it was then -- including the exact same salary, sad to say), but I'm actually pretty content. But I did go through a very dark period, and I've seen a lot of other mid-career people go through the same thing, so what I'd like to do now is open up the comments for people to just share their own experience -- that stuff you were embarrassed to admit because intellectually you knew just how fortunate you actually were. Were you depressed post-tenure? Angry? Did you contemplate a career change? Did you check out for a while? Did you double down on the work?  Feel free to post anonymously if you want. And if you're not in this situation (and especially if you're rolling your eyes at a bunch of privileged folk talking about their high-class problems), I'm going to ask you to remember that YMMV.

And next post (Friday, I think), we'll talk about Things That Helped.

23 comments:

clio's disciple said...

Hm, this is interesting. I'm only a few months post-tenure, and feeling pretty good, but maybe it just hasn't hit yet? And my sabbatical is still ahead of me, so that's something to look forward to. I have been somewhat careful of my time and devoting effort to hobbies and friendships that give me energy, though, so maybe that helps, too?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

CD, this doesn't happen to everyone. People with supportive partners and better-rounded lives tend to have an easier time of it. So I don't mean to be alarmist. If you're feeling good, then feel good! You totally deserve it.

And: Congrats on tenure! Maybe we'll see each other in May?

Psycgirl said...

Thank you for these posts! I am just starting to hit this point now - and it feels terrible. Reading other points of view is really helpful, and I rarely have seen this discussed on academic blogs! Looking forward to the rest of the posts!

JaneB said...

I got what will almost certainly be my final promotion recently, and (coupled with other changes at work) am definitely having days of 'just walk away' feelings. Very interested to see where this set of posts goes...

heu mihi said...

I'm 1.5 years post-tenure and 1/3 of the way through my sabbatical (quite possibly the only one I'll ever get here) and I'm feeling bitter--does the parenthetical make it obvious? Quite a bit of this may have to do with some very specific issues at my college, but I think that I also just don't...want to spend the rest of my career/life *right here*, in this place, with *this* job.

Sometimes I love my job; I always like most of the *parts* of my job. But lately I'm really antsy and want to go live somewhere else with a different teaching load and more adequate pay (I probably won't break 50k until I'm promoted to full--not that this is about money, but certainly my salary woes don't help my overall job satisfaction, especially when we just got a little PPT emailed to us that makes it look like the college is *over*-paying its faculty).

Thanks for having this discussion! It's hard not to feel like I'm just a whiner, all things considered.

Earnest English said...

I am so glad for this blog series right now. I was just given the thumbs-up by the provost, which means it's still not official for months, but I'm already asking: is that all there is? I'm not even that happy about it, though maybe that's because it's still not official. Already I have little motivation to do anything but the things I want to do; of course, having the freedom to focus on those things is what tenure should bring me. But I definitely have that feeling of: I've been on this track for a long time (over 10 years); why? So thanks for this.

Janice said...

I achieved tenure just a blurry few months ahead of getting the alert: "I think we may have a kid with autism." My experience of this transition was a trough of absolute despair as I jettisoned my research program in desperate hopes of getting all the interventions and earning enough money to pay for all the same.

Five years later, when my mother died, then I got to the point I could feel the tiredness, the anger, the despair and overwhelming sense of failure because, here I was with tenure giving me so many great opportunities and what had I done with them? Watched my life sail by as I tried to cope and failed.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This is why I think the teleologically driven career path that we have as academics is so crazy. It's all about "once I have tenure, I will..." But instead, getting tenure leads to an existential crisis that makes you question everything you've been working toward. Does all that hard work and all those years mean nothing?

I'm not saying there's a better system necessarily. I like the idea of job security, which is certainly not a part of the corporate sector. But that said, I'm not waiting until tenure to be who I am and say what I think. I don't expect anything to change post-tenure, except perhaps I'll have more work to do, which at this point seems impossible, but that's all I hear about -- more work post-tenure. I think that I will be bored with teaching the same stuff over and over again by the time I get tenure, and that is why I'm focusing more of my efforts on my research. But even then -- what, I write a book... then what? Another book? Maybe?

Constantly evolving goals must replace those big milestones, or else I will feel like I'm getting nowhere. But then again, do we always have to be reaching for something? Can we be content just treading water? Can it be meaningful to settle in to associate professor life forever? I don't know. I'm not there. But I'm not really looking forward to tenure, per se, because I already act like I'm tenured.

Historiann said...

Yeah: I hope "Anonymous said" is still reading, including Janice's last excellent comment. ("AS" wrote on the previous post, "This-- this is precisely why they hate us.") Because apparently tenure or secure employment of any kind under any condition at any North American or European university means that we're never permitted to be anything less than thrilled with our lives ever again! Plus the magic protection against illness, infirmity, disease, dirt, and disgrace for us & for our family members. Who knew?

No wonder "they" hate "us." Our lives are officially perfect, full stop.

I've written about this on my blog occasionally. I think it's all about the high stakes and accordingly outrageous expectations we have of tenure. Tenure just means they can't fire us without cause. It also means our colleagues and administrators can extract more uncompensated work from us. It's not a magical fix-it spray for the rest of our lives, or even for our jobs.

I have a job as well as a career, and sometimes my job feels like work. But you can hate me because I'm beautiful, too.

ej said...

I also wonder about the nature of academic employment. What is the stat? The average person will have at least 5 different jobs over the course of their lifetime or something like that? If I stay on the trajectory I'm on now, I will have had 1 job (not including my high school stint at Subway). While I did move institutions once, I've essentially been doing the same thing for the last 20 years. And I'm only 43, which means there are still 20 more to go. I can't help but wonder what it would be like to do something else. Something new. Something completely unrelated to medieval history (not that there's anything wrong with medieval history!) I think that in part explains my malaise.

undine said...

This is a great discussion and comments, Notorious (I linked to it over at my place). Part of it may be boredom, as Fie says, but also, it's not a "fix-it spray," as Historiann says, but a ticket that says, "You have just won the opportunity to do this, but with more service, forever." Yes, grateful for the opportunity, and yes, it is a win, but forever?

Servetus said...

I wasn't tenured, BUT I realized about six months into my first post-turndownee job that if I had gotten it, I'd have had to spend 18 months in (for me unaffordable) residential mental health care.

heu mihi said...

Also: Much harder to change jobs/institutions. Not that it was easy before. But jobs for associates are virtually non-existent.

Ianqui said...

For me, getting tenure was a gilded path to actually having to interact with and deal with my somewhat dysfunctional colleagues. Until then, I'd mostly been protected. But now that I'm among the "magical" class that gets to make more decisions and now that I have to hold a departmental leadership position, I have much more opportunity to realize what dicks they can be. This has been incredibly demoralizing for me. I just want to go back to not being bothered by service and departmental commitments.

Olaf Stapeldon said...

So, would these anecdotes about malaise not serve as the basis for further demands that we abolish tenure? It begins to seem that even those who benefit from tenure are decrying it as a psychological disaster-- and doing so in a way that seems to call for the "challenges" of casualization (constant evaluation, lack of job stability, perennial uncertainty) to step in and save the tenured from their own fate...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Olaf, that's an interesting thing to consider. I actually don't think tenure is the problem; rather, it's the expectations we attach to tenure. But more on that in the next post in the series...

Anonymous said...

I'm 45, and tenured, and suffering from some career malaise. But lately I've been wondering if this is really a tenure thing or an age thing. There appears to be some research suggesting that, in general, people's happiness often drops in their forties and then recovers later.

It also seems possible that if you feel crappy about your career before tenure, you blame it on pre-tenure stress. But if you still feel bad if and when you get tenure, you start looking around for an explanation.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-real-roots-of-midlife-crisis/382235/

Anonymous said...

I became department chair within weeks of being tenured, so I avoided this particular angst. However, I learned a decade later that I was bored with my job. I rally do have a 10 year attention span. I decided to look,for,other opportunities in my University. I succeeded and that really improved my outlook.

Belle said...

This is an echo of my life as well - and similar events/processes that preceded it. When I finished the dissertation, and got a job - I felt completely at sea. I'd had that Thing hanging over my head for so long, it had become My Goal. Same with tenure, then full. Tenure and full were, for me, 'dry' so there was really no change anywhere except in a file somewhere.

I think your comment to CD is right on target: those with outside interests can get through this better, perhaps. That's what helped me, but it was a hard thing, that shift of focus.

Susan said...

Anonymous at 2:31 talked about a 10 year attention span, and ej mentioned the 5 different careers most people have. I've known a few people who were really happy and absorbed by their work, but many others who "changed careers" by taking on new fields, or new responsibilities; sometimes even the opportunity to move to a new place allows you to stretch your brain. And administrative roles -- chair, directing an honors college, etc. are often the easiest ways to solve the difficulty of moving post-tenure.

Susan said...

(Of course, you have to be interested by the administrative work of chair or whatever, and not everyone is.)

Anonymous said...

nihil admirari

profacero said...

Actually I think tenure, and the tenure track, and the job market *are* psychological disasters, but that without them universities would have to pay a whole lot more to have any faculty ... not to mention the question of academic freedom, which is the point of tenure, and really and truly there would be none without it, based on what I have seen in life.