An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I’ve Got Tenure, How Depressing” (Kathryn D. Blanchard, 31 January 2012), highlights the fact that even getting a coveted tenure-track position doesn’t necessarily lead to the “happily ever after” ending.
Since my provost gave me the news about my promotion, I have been wallowing in “post-tenure depression.” Apparently this is an actual thing, though no one told me about it on the tenure track.
The phenomenon seems akin to a midlife crisis. (Indeed, given my age, it may be a midlife crisis.) It is accompanied by the certainty that my life has been wasted, and a sudden inspiration to quit academe and pursue a career in business or improvisational comedy. On the worst days, it manifests as an almost tangible feeling of trying to slog through a pond of molasses.
Who is setting your goals?
As I read that article, I had a strong feeling that the author was missing the most likely cause of her “condition”. Meaninglessness. In order to achieve the goal of getting tenure, she’d creating a set of interim goals around publishing, service, etc. Achieving those interim goals required a lot of time and energy and narrows your focus. It’s pretty easy to lose sight of why the goal was meaningful in the first place.
As a doctoral student and early career academic there are very clear institutional criteria for getting from one level to the next. You have much more autonomy than an undergraduate student but your academic freedom still feels constrained. It is not uncommon to act as if you have no freedom or autonomy at all and to work towards those externally set criteria.
Going from a situation in which performance goals are set externally, and there are real consequences to not meeting them, to one in which you get to set a lot of your own goals is bound to be disorienting. You may have lost sight of all of those things you entered this profession to do in the first place.
Where is your career going?
Have you ever noticed that the point in the fairy tale where “they all live happily ever after” is actually the beginning of the bigger part of the characters’ lives? Back when you were a doctoral student, getting tenure looked like the end of the story. Now you are here, you realize that there is a lot of story left.
In fact, the security provided by getting tenure (or the permanent contract, or local equivalent) may even make it possible to imagine possibilities you didn’t allow yourself to imagine before. It is more possible to define your priorities based on your own values and vision. The risks involved in doing the work you find meaningful are not as great.
You have choices. They are not unlimited. But they are considerable. Define academic freedom positively. Take responsibility for your own career direction.
When it comes down to it that kind of freedom is scary. It means taking responsibility when things don’t work out. Some of those things won’t work out. That’s okay, some of them will. Wasn’t the security of tenure (or whatever the local equivalent is) part of why you worked so hard to get it? Doesn’t that security give you some leeway to try things and have them not work out? What are the real risks of doing the work you find meaningful?
You might benefit from some help
Some of my clients are in exactly this position. They are at a point in their careers where they have options about what direction to take. They have secure jobs that they like.
I help work through what the choices are. I am on your side. I want you to thrive. Talking to me is safe. If you decide not to pursue one option, no one in your day-to-day life will ever know you even considered it
Originally published on 9 February 2012, and edited 14 July 2015. It has been substantially revised and republished.