global politics, relationally

Apparently, I’m unhappy (as an associate professor)

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I know, I actually missed the time to engage this story by a span of several months, but I think it might be important enough to come back to. It suggests that “associate professors are some of the most unhappy people in the academe,” citing a ridiculous workload, letdown from the expectation that life would be better after tenure, feeling underappreciated, the “mid-career malaise” of having to pick directions, and other common challenges of the rank of Associate Professor. It quotes a tenured faculty member suggesting that “as soon as you get tenure, you go from being a rising star to a workhorse.”

To me, there’s a lot that rings true about this article. I’m an Associate Professor. There are a number of things about my life and about my job with which I’m unhappy.

But that’s where the association stops. None of what makes me unhappy about my life or my job is about being an Associate Professor (except to the extent that I’d prefer to be a full professor, of course …).

There are actually some pretty nice things about having tenure. While it isn’t (and can’t be) everything that it was built up in my mind to be as a junior faculty member, I think it is important not to discount (either professionally or in personal psychological terms) the benefits that come with it.

No, the workload doesn’t decrease in meaningful ways. Any ability to back off the rigors of one’s research program (if one even wanted to do that) is generally matched by an increase in one’s service loads at the department, college, university, and disciplinary levels. It is not necessarily that the job get harder or easier (though for many people one or the other happens) – it is that it changes.

There were some things about the transition that took some adjusting for me. For example, there are plenty of people telling you how to be a graduate student or an assistant professor, and many, many fewer people giving advice and mentoring about how to be an Associate Professor (though there is a group of people interested in full-career mentoring). Second, the freedom to research whatever you would like to absent the constraints of the metrics that got you tenure is both illusory (that is, ambitious people keep obeying those metrics to some extent) and as confusing as not (that is, having trouble figuring out what you really want).

On the other hand, there is a lot of freedom. While tenure does not create absolute job security, it provides a hell of a lot more job security than one had pre-tenure. It does allow one to think seriously about what one wants (both in terms of a research agenda and in terms of work-life balance issues). It provides the freedom to say ‘no’ to a whole group of things for which that freedom was not previously available. Its not only a job that is likely to be available to you for the rest of your life – it is a job that is likely to be available to you for the rest of your life that you have a fair amount of agency in shaping. My guess is that my non-academic friends would see that as an embarrassment of riches, no matter how hard I worked for those entitlements. A lot of academic friends who either chose not to engage in, could not find a way into, or are struggling at the tenure stage of, the tenure-track system might agree.

I’m not saying its not easy to get caught up in the grind – to say yes to a bunch of thankless administrative jobs that bog down your workload, to get into a rut with teaching, or to let your research agenda run you rather than you running it. Its possible to continue the self-loathing and job-loathing that many experience pre-tenure. But I guess I think that it is also possible and necessary to take a step back from that grind and realize the level of control that one has over the professional choices one is making, post-tenure – even within the relatively narrow constraints of the particular jobs at which we got tenure and the profession in which they are situated.

For me, remembering that has allowed me to take some time to prioritize my family and my life, to take scholarly risks I likely would not have taken five years ago (some successful, some less so), to teach in ways that I had not before, to assume leadership and administrative roles I want rather than fulfilling some expected mold, and to take charge of some of the trade-offs that are presented to me both personally and professionally. In other words, as an Associate Professor, I think I’m happy (not satisfied, but happy). And that actually feels like fuel to combat the other things that make me unhappy, instead of piling onto them – which feels, like much about tenure, freeing.