Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Post-tenure fraying

Posted by Melissa on February 20, 2013

At the beginning of this month, GMP had a post struck a nerve. It began:

Lately I have been feeling… defeated.
For quite a while now, I have been fighting increasingly overwhelming helplessness, an absence of control over my time and my work.This will likely not be a revelation to long-time blog readers. But, this time I feel like I have really lost the game. I am completely torn up by the demands on my time, pulled in every direction, things are constantly needed from me. I thought I could do it: I have stamina, I have determination, I have ambition, I can do it all.

I cannot.

Granted, she’s in a different place than I am (at an R1, with 3 kids), but her post captured elements of what I have been hearing over and over again in conversations with close colleagues across the country who are in the same stage in their career as I am — 2-7 years past getting tenure. We started out on the tenure track enjoying teaching and excited about working with students on research. We thought the post-tenure years would allow us to explore interests more deeply, to take advantage of our experience to be wiser in our classrooms and our research labs, to feel stable enough to take some new risks. We expected to feel in control of our careers and to see our CVs expand as we continued to grow professionally. Instead, we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off. What’s the problem? As one friend noted, “I’m watching 100s of hours time be summarized by a line on the CV that says ‘program coordinator for X’ or ‘chair of strategic initiative Y’, but that counts for nothing professionally.”

This term has featured a lot of unbloggable happenings, and I’ve had some weeks where the ratio of time spent on the administrative/service components of my job to time spent on teaching and research activities combined was 1.5 to 1. Unlike some, I don’t inherently dislike administrative work/service — I am happy to participate in conversations and activities that contribute to the campus community. But I’m a faculty member first, not an administrator, yet the demands on my time are often otherwise. As a faculty member with much more of my career ahead of me than behind me, I am still primarily judged by the individual accomplishments on my CV: the publications, grants, and conference presentations. Administrative tasks don’t “count” in that individual accounting, so it’s no wonder that I, and others at this career stage, begin to feel torn and frayed.

Despite the general gloominess of this post, the one bright spot this term is that I am thoroughly enjoying the class that I am teaching. Hopefully, I will have a chance to write some reflections on the course soon, because it is one of the things that has kept me going.

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