I am very excited to announce that I will be publishing a series of interviews with senior scholars from different fields about how they navigate their careers post tenure and their advice for mid-career scholars.
Tenured Associate Professors are a pretty unhappy lot. It makes no sense. You have a secure job, academic freedom to pursue the kind of research that you want to do, a great deal of autonomy in how you do your job, a reasonably flexible schedule. Colleagues who like you, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten tenure. That is more than what most people have as far as jobs go. Why do people who have every reason to be elated and ecstatic sink into depression?
Job satisfaction and happiness curve for careers mimics the happiness curve for life. It starts off great, you endure decades of blah and then you get very wise and happy. Like mid-life, mid-career is riddled with doubts, questions and regrets. Is this what I am supposed to be doing for the rest of my life? Well past the promise of fresh potential and hope that go with a freshly minted PhD degree, this stage is about coming to terms with the reality that this may be it! Higher education draws idealists who value the life of the mind and want to change the world. Most people go through the long and arduous process and getting a doctorate because they are looking for something meaningful, to pursue something interesting, and make a difference in the world. You realize that you may never write a New York Times op-ed that will be shared a million times. That you will never be the youngest Surgeon General. That you may never make it to top tier schools. When that idealism gets shaken, it becomes difficult to stay motivated. Even Presidents get depressed in the second term because I think they come to realize the limits of their power. Moreover, you are not even as mobile as the untenured, tenure-track faculty because everyone knows getting a job with tenure is harder than even getting tenure at your school. Yes, it is a great job with a lot of perks but until one figures out how to craft a unique niche to continue building a useful career as a scholar-teacher, institutional member/leader, and change agent, this stage is a reminder that you failed at what you sought to do.
So just like midlife blues, post tenure blues are a real phenomenon. Feeling low after a big accomplishment is not uncommon among the commoners. But in an idealized field like the academy, feeling or acknowledging those blues is interpreted as a sign of lack of discipline and dedication to your purpose than accepting that it is important to build infrastructure to support people through this stage. Even runners get post-marathon blues. And their industry acknowledges it and deals with it. And they only prepare for a few weeks to a few months to run a race. Whereas the tenure track marathon takes decades for most academics. It is not surprising that after four to six years of doctoral studies followed by at least six years of tenure track and in some cases an additional few years in post doctoral positions, some tenured Associate Professors feel the anticlimactic midlife blues.
One of the reasons is that fuzzy though it may be, there is a reasonably clear path to getting tenure and some institutional support in terms of career planning. As a tenure track faculty, as stressful as it is, you get a lot more attention, protection, and support from the system than as a tenured Associate Professor. Most universities do not have any sort of career planning for tenured, mid-career scholars. Tenured faculty who feel less stuck and more supported are the more vital and productive scholars. It is my hope the stories of these vital scholars and their advice will inspire and guide tenured, mid-career scholars. And perhaps learn that there are different ways of creating a meaningful work life in the academy and reconnect with our calling. It is also my desire that this material will add to the existing very scant resources on this topic.