Rethinking work after tenure
July 15, 2022 9:04 AM   Subscribe

I just got tenure in the humanities, but instead of feeling energized and free, I feel anxious and unproductive. How do I rethink my attitude to work for the coming years?

First of all, I know this is in some ways the epitome of a "what other problems will my big penis and I encounter?" sort of question. I am incredibly privileged and lucky to be in this situation, and I know tons of people who would kill to be in it (in fact, I have friends who have literally died as an indirect result of the horrific academic job market). I am by no means taking any of this for granted, but this still feels like a real problem to me.

The overall issue here is that I've spent the last 20 years of my life--high school, college, grad school, pre-tenure--busting my ass to get to where I am now, a tenured professor (well, tenured as of this fall) at an R1 school. Whenever I've had problems staying motivated in the past, the pressure to perform and the fear that if I stopped performing I'd lose everything kept me going. Now, even if I literally did not write a single word for the rest of my life, I would be completely fine and have total job security (aside from missing out on some merit raises and promotion to full professor). Without the terror of failure hanging over my head, I have no idea how to motivate myself or get myself to write or do research. Also, my values have changed, and I no longer care as much about being an academic superstar or whatever, so the mostly symbolic rewards of mid- to late-career academia don't have as much significance for me as they used to. And ultimately I feel like my work is at best irrelevant to the actual problems facing the world, while academia and tenure itself is an ethically and politically bankrupt enterprise that's doomed to collapse in the coming decades.

More specifically, ever since I submitted the final manuscript of my first book three years ago, I have been trying to move on to my second project. All kinds of things have happened since then--COVID, geopolitical disruptions, personal crises of various kinds--and I have made minimal progress on it. This spring I did finally complete and submit an article manuscript related to it, but the book project is at a standstill. Friends and colleagues I talk to tell me not to put so much pressure on myself, but I can't help comparing myself to other people (especially "hotshots") in my field. I have this weird anxiety ritual where I will look at people's CVs and try to gauge their productivity in relation to mine at the stage in their career that corresponds to mine. I know I shouldn't do this since it doesn't assuage my anxiety at all, but I feel a compulsion to do it. (I am working with my therapist on this part.) The thing is, all these comparisons don't actually work to motivate me, they just make me more anxious, to the point where I try to avoid talking to my colleagues (who are mostly wonderful) about work because when I hear them say that they spent the morning taking notes on sources or whatever I feel a deep sense of inadequacy. Mostly what I do with my non-teaching time is fuck around, shave the yak, or work on essays for nonacademic publications that have nothing to do with my field of expertise.

Part of it is that I am no longer as excited about or as interested in this project as I used to be, but I haven't thought of anything better and I'm reluctant to abandon it. There's a chicken and egg thing here where I haven't felt like putting in enough effort to actually make me intellectually interested in it, and the lack of intellectual spark keeps me from putting in more effort. Also, my first book was way more successful than I expected and I'm afraid of the "sophomore slump," so I end up preemptively shutting down a lot of lines of inquiry because I'm worried they'll be too boring or unoriginal or whatever.

I am quite young and I have decades left in this career if I choose to stay in it. But if things don't change I can see myself becoming burned-out deadwood pretty quickly. Whenever I ask myself what I actually want to do with my time, what do I want to work on, what would I rather be doing, I draw a blank, or I come up with a bunch of fiddly little creative projects I never quite end up following through on (I will work on it for a day or two and then lose motivation and then the thought of starting back up fills me with dread). There has to be a better way, right?
posted by derrinyet to Work & Money (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Ten years ago you were thinking about quitting academia after getting your PhD. And here you are, having reached what is arguably the most important rung on the academic ladder and you’re thinking of getting out again.

I say do it. You’re young and driven by achievement, and there’s nothing further you’re interested in achieving here. You’ve won the game.

Time to find a new one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:15 AM on July 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What if you looked at tenure as permission to fail? Like, say you wrote a mediocre second book—what are they going to do, fire you? What if you need to coast for a while, even a long while, to wrap your head around achieving The Big Goal and feeling like the dog that caught the car? Is there any reason not to, besides the embarrassment of not being 100% impressive all the time? (Which, granted, is a deeply uncomfortable thing for people who have built academic careers—but it won’t actually harm you to have embarrassing or humbling experiences.)

At the same time, you can be looking for opportunities to make things better, fairer, and more humane for junior faculty and grad students. Don’t fall into the toxic academic norm of “I had to suffer, so should you.” It’s ugly and cruel.

Signed, the spouse of an academic
posted by theotherdurassister at 9:20 AM on July 15, 2022 [33 favorites]

You sound very burnt out.

Could you manage to take three or four weeks completely off? Or even longer than that, if feasible. By which I mean giving yourself permission to do zero work, stepping back from academic communications, doing other things in your life that interest and excite you. Maybe even going completely offline if that's feasible.

The problems you mention with academia are very real, deep, systemic issues. That doesn't mean it's impossible to do good work within the system. But in order to do that, you need to have a thread of inspiration and motivation carrying you through, and to do THAT, you need to find something about your work that brings you joy.

Being under intense, long-term stress has a way of snuffing out that joy. Which is why I suggest taking off as much time as possible, disconnecting as much as possible, and trying to gain some distance so you can allow your body and mind to rest a bit.
posted by mekily at 9:28 AM on July 15, 2022 [4 favorites]

There are other exciting parts of being a scholar than publishing brilliant research, and with much more immediate human results. Did you have helpful mentors that got you to where you are? Pay it forward by devoting more of your energy to mentoring students and/or junior colleagues. Did you have terrible mentors? Be the senior mentor/colleague you wish you had had.

And/or, maybe it's time to change up the teaching routine (I'm assuming that even at an R1 you're in a teaching position). You might not have THE new project yet, but how about develop a new seminar in a topic you find interesting but don't know deeply yet? A new project might arise out of that, and the bar is a lot lower to have enough exciting, fresh, useful ideas about a body of work to teach effectively about it than to publish major work. Or think about shaking up your approach to teaching a course you know well. Spend some time in the classrooms of colleagues whose teaching you respect, and see if you can recapture some of the beginner's mind enthusiasm for your field.

Also don't do what I did, and get talked into being department chair right after tenure. God I wish I had the time for some good ol' research ennui instead of all these stupid meetings and e-mails.
posted by dr. boludo at 9:33 AM on July 15, 2022 [6 favorites]

"or work on essays for nonacademic publications that have nothing to do with my field of expertise."

I'm not an academic, but isn't the purpose of tenure to give you the freedom to work on projects that are productive but might be frowned upon, such as pursuing controversial topics, research avenues that are "too risky," or areas that are not in your immediate area of expertise? On a related note, would and could you expand to write for nonacademic publications about your field?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:46 AM on July 15, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: What if you looked at tenure as permission to fail? Like, say you wrote a mediocre second book

This, only not limited to a mediocre second book. Maybe you scrap the book you’re writing and write something entirely different? And by “entirely different”, I don’t just mean “on a different topic in your field”. I mean like, completely unrelated. I had an international relations professor in college who was pretty successful (he crossed over enough that he appeared on the Daily Show), but he liked to write about Fred Astaire and did so enough that he eventually secured himself an adjunct appointment in the Department of Dance in addition to his tenured position in Political Science.

Or just don’t write anything. Take a couple semesters and just teach. I had several professors who did this - some who were semi-retired, others who just protested the publish-or-perish model. These were invariably my favorite classes because the professors wanted to be there. We, as undergraduate students who probably weren’t going to even be subject-adjacent in our careers, let alone go to grad school in the subject, didn’t have much to offer them professionally, and it was obvious that some just saw us as taking away from their research interests, but not the teach-first ones. To them, it didn’t matter if we were going into IT or sakes; they were going to make us really think about Hegelian dialectic or the reforms of Kleisthenes. And a lot of us did. Undergraduates who are just being introduced to a topic also have a way of asking obtuse questions that could potentially spark your research curiosity in a way you couldn’t yourself.

I might also suggest trying to reconnect with why you started working in the humanities. It’s not a default career path, and especially in the humanities there’s usually some written work that you feel in love with. Take a vacation and re-read it on the beach, or during a hike, or whatever. Your own little ascent of Mont Ventoux.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:48 AM on July 15, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I highly recommend the life-altering force that is Brooke Kiener. She and Renée Ann Cramer run a course for just-post-tenure academics called Re-Ignite that is designed to help you reframe your relationship to work in exactly the way you're looking for.

Brooke also runs a course called The Inner Compass and does one-on-one coaching. She's a humanities academic herself, and her understanding of that very particular context was key to how helpful I found her to be as I faced a similar post-tenure crisis of identity and direction.
posted by Hellgirl at 10:02 AM on July 15, 2022 [5 favorites]

Well if you're an intense competitive fear driven person you might benefit from some structured unplugging. Perhaps set a new goal for before your job starts, like getting into long distance biking or running. Learn how to fish or sail a boat. Something.

Let your mind move focusedly to other topics and your creativity will recover. If you are fear based you can use the deadline of starting the job to help you. Oh no, I won't be able to fish for a whole year once my job starts!
posted by jello at 10:03 AM on July 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Many academics have a change of focus after tenure. Their original topics of research seem uninteresting or played out. This is not at all unusual. Sit in your tenured position and look around with beginners mind. What is something totally new that interests you? Explore that. Don't worry about how it will fit in with your previous research, speciality, or even field. Explore what interests you. For many, this can bring exciting new prespectives and produce something truly unique.
posted by hworth at 10:38 AM on July 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Without the terror of failure hanging over my head, I have no idea how to motivate myself or get myself to write or do research. Also, my values have changed, and I no longer care as much about being an academic superstar or whatever, so the mostly symbolic rewards of mid- to late-career academia don't have as much significance for me as they used to. And ultimately I feel like my work is at best irrelevant to the actual problems facing the world, while academia and tenure itself is an ethically and politically bankrupt enterprise that's doomed to collapse in the coming decades.

I relate hard to your general sentiment here, and I'm just a lowly postdoc, trying to get onto that tenure track.

Anyway, some thoughts:

-Maybe your research feels irrelevant to the problems of the world (a common feeling), but your teaching can be different. I chose to teach a class this coming fall that's thematically totally disconnected to my research, the only connection is geographical. I decided to teach it because it's a topic that I know students care deeply about, and I'm seeing this as a chance for myself to learn something new. I'm sure there must be a class like that you could develop.

-I agree you sound very burned out, and I'd give yourself at least a year to not work on your research, unless you really want to - and even then, I'd work on research in a fun, exploratory way. I mean, pick whatever potential sources you find the most exciting, and start there without worrying about where it goes.

-When was the last time you took a vacation? And I mean a proper vacation, not a trip to archives/conference. Give yourself permission to enjoy the novelty of a new place (even if it's just a few hours drive away).

-I agree with those suggesting that the main problem seems rooted in your mental health and not your career. It sounds like you do have ideas of what you want to do - you note non-academic writing and creative projects. The problem is you're having a hard time motivating yourself to finish, because you keep comparing yourself to academic "hotshots" and you're worried about what colleagues might think. But those pesky voices can be silenced. And support/motivation can be found outside of academia. Maybe sign up for a creative non-fiction class or see what types of MeetUps exist in your area. I know of some academics post-tenure that have found community/encouragement by something as simple as blogging.

-I'd also reach out to people who were in your grad school cohort, who you've been friends with from the start. I'm sure some of them will relate to what you're going through, without judgement.
posted by coffeecat at 10:46 AM on July 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity has a program for academics who are rethinking their careers after tenure. IANATenuredProfessor, but I've found their other content helpful. Check to see if your institution has a membership that gives you free access.

Lots of people chill out after tenure and don't work so hard or get interested in other projects, this is expected.

Do you have a sabbatical coming up? Would it be useful/fun to plan an exciting sabbatical project to give you something to think about that isn't your languishing project?
posted by momus_window at 10:46 AM on July 15, 2022 [1 favorite]


No, seriously, can you go work for a non-profit, or think tank or company or something for a year? Or just a school that has people you really admire and want to work with? Or if you need to stay put, even just another department in your own school that sounded cool? From your post it sounds like you need to address burn out and also give yourself time to acclimate to the new normal. I'm not saying you should not leave academia, I'm just saying that giving yourself a year of breathing room with the safety net of a job that is now 100% secure and paid with health benefits (presumably) is not a bad investment.

(As I was typing this, coffeecat and momus_window appear to have said nearly the same thing.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:48 AM on July 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

I am not in the educational field, but:

1. EVERYONE feels bummed out and useless right now. Unless you are literally the leader of March for Life and who knows, that person is probably mad about something too.

2. Do you still enjoy teaching? So what if you don't feel like doing cutting edge research right now, you have the chance to transmit knowledge for a generation to come. Even if your next book is somehow the stupidest book ever written, you still have a role to play. That's good! Or bad, if you're also burnt out on teaching.
posted by kingdead at 11:23 AM on July 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sabbatical, as the others have said, is the answer. You should be about due. Don't stay at your university for it, get away from a while.
posted by procrastination at 11:33 AM on July 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

And ultimately I feel like my work is at best irrelevant to the actual problems facing the world

Why not change this and get some motivation that way? Your work doesn't have to be "your work." It can matter!

Also yes take a break first. Not a self-guilting break, an actual break where you forbid yourself to work, think about working, or talk about working, etc.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:32 PM on July 15, 2022

I'm in the same boat as you and my plan for now is to really focus on mentoring my doctoral advisees and not do much else in way of my own research. I have a sabbatical coming up and I am going to take at least a month where I don't look at work email, although that is a bit challenging because my students are at various points in their phds and I do need to be available to them during my sabbatical. I've been trying to set expectations early with them about how available I will be during sabbatical (no more regularly scheduled meetings!)

I'm watching this thread for more thoughts, because I am so burned out that I didn't even know how to begin asking this question. I'm glad you asked it. You aren't alone. Solidarity.
posted by twelve cent archie at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2022

I don't necessarily have great concrete advice on what to do next with your career, but speaking as someone who spent years in postdoc purgatory before finally realizing I was never going to work off my sins, and therefore has lost at the standard-academic-track game: don't feel guilty in the slightest for having this problem. It's a real problem, and you've earned the right to have it. Yes, lots of us spend our lives trying and failing to get where you are, but academia has its negatives at every career stage, and they don't become less real just because you've worked enough and been lucky enough to get to the point of having them.

I do think it's worth trying to recontextualize some of the intellectual labor you do, such as "work on essays for nonacademic publications that have nothing to do with my field of expertise," as meaningful work. There is, in my opinion, a failure mode here: there are plenty of academics that become dilettantes on topics outside their area of expertise without doing due diligence to educate themselves and/or make sure they're representing the work of the best experts in the field, and I think this can be pretty harmful. But if you're getting opportunities to work on such essays, and take the work seriously and derive satisfaction from it, great! There's no "right" way to be a tenured professor, so just make sure you're meeting your obligations to your department and students, and then use your time to do intellectual labor you find meaningful.

When I was a graduate student, my supervisor, a full professor at a prestigious R1 school, came in to the lab one day and noted aloud that a colleague who was a couple of years younger than him, who he'd known in graduate school, had just been elected to the National Academy of Science, and he felt like he was wasting his career. That was the moment I realized that the treadmill of impostor syndrome and always unfavorably comparing yourself to your peers never actually ends in academia. Ironically it probably is the thing that motivates people to have successful careers post-tenure, but I think it's also incredibly psychologically damaging, and no way to live your life. I could tell stories about senior faculty I've observed chasing various post-tenure brass rings in order to keep up with what they feel like a successful career is supposed to look like, and how it's brought success to their C.V.s while bringing ruin to their own mental health and that of their families, but those people could probably be linked to my name here so I'll refrain.

My perspective is definitely coming more from the sciences than the humanities, but frankly I think working too hard at doing what you're "supposed" to do to have a "good" academic career often has the perverse effect of compromising the quality of your scholarship. You've played the game as required, and now you've won. I think taking a little time to rest on your laurels, not worry too much about "productivity" as you defined it earlier in your career, and re-evaluate your priorities, these are probably good things.

There's a Buddhist parable about a man who is on a journey, and needs to cross a great river. He spends a lot of time and effort to build a raft, and navigates the crossing. Once he's crossed, he leaves the raft behind and continues on his way, because it would be foolish to burden himself with the raft once he no longer needed it. The lesson of the parable is supposed to be that the teachings of the Buddha are like the raft: you need them to progress on your journey to enlightenment, but once you've gotten everything you need from them, they are only a burden and should be abandoned. It looks like I'll never achieve academic enlightenment myself, but perhaps the things we learn to do as academics in order to be "productive" and ultimately to achieve tenure are also a bit like the raft. Maybe it's okay to take some time to adjust your priorities for the next phase of your career, as you define it. Good luck.
posted by biogeo at 9:42 PM on July 15, 2022

Play the long game. That's what tenure is for: institutions hire folk with smart, diligent background taking the gamble that their past predicts their future. As Buddha/Biogeo says, you don't have to continue doing the stuff that got you there. All you need is one good idea in the next few years that will direct your next great leap forward - could be those essays for nonacademic publications. Successful senior academics [that's you] have well-trained crap detectors and the follow-thru to process data and ideas in and interesting ways. That toolkit is generalizable and an asset.

Richard "Nobel" Feynman got out of the post-tenure doldrums thus p100/205 PDF.
So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish
anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather
enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics,
whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate
in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion
of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went
around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate . . . The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

posted by BobTheScientist at 12:16 AM on July 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

One solution to feeling stuck is to spend some time giving back. As others have noted, focusing less on your own productivity and more on mentoring, either of students or junior faculty, can be immensely rewarding and a way to recognize the value of the mentors you have had in the past.

I'm ahead of you on the career track and eligible to go up for full professor this year. It is of course optional--I can just stay an associate forever. But one reason I'm planning to do it, besides the pay bump, is that it would make me eligible to serve on some of the committees that make the most important decisions for the university. In my 11 years here, I have benefited hugely from some decisions by these committees and also been hurt by poor decisions they have made. Universities are run (hopefully, ideally) by the faculty who step up to do so, and I want there to be good leadership on those committees, so I want to step up.

Are there places in your department, university, discipline, or professional society where you could make a difference? Not by being department chair (leave that to someone who is burned out in a different way), but by using the gifts you have and the benefits you have received to help others?
posted by hydropsyche at 6:30 AM on July 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for the answers. Though I've marked some as best, all were very helpful. I think you all are right that I should start thinking of myself as already burned out and addressing that. Unfortunately vacations and not-working don't seem to work—I have no problem disconnecting for weeks or months at a time but the feelings tend to return when I come back. My plan B has been to work intensively on my mental health with therapy, meditation, etc, and that seems promising but not a silver bullet clearly (hence the question). Anyway, much obliged.
posted by derrinyet at 6:25 PM on July 18, 2022

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