Tenure Funk

Jan 14 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

So much academic advice and energy is focused on tenure. How do you get tenure? How do you survive pretenure? What are the tenure requirements at your institution? On and on and on. It's an important milestone, since it is a rare opportunity for your university to tell you to leave, but for 90% of institutions there is far more bark than bite.

I never focused on tenure. It was never my goal. I focused on staying relevant in my field and getting good science out. I focused on keeping the lights on by getting grants. I focused on training my students so I would be proud of them when they left. I reasoned that doing those things would put me in a position to get tenure and stressing about the milestone itself did no good. We also have annual reviews here, so I knew I was on the right track.

And it worked. I jumped the bar and have the official letter to prove it. And then something unexpected happened*.

That summer and well into the next year I fell into a funk that I hadn't experienced before. I wasn't depressed, I wasn't sad, but I felt like I needed some time away. I let deadlines go unmet. I ignored things I shouldn't have ignored. I went to conferences and barley attended talks. I pretty much stopped blogging or reading blogs. Once I got tenure I looked back and realized that I had spent years either writing grants to pay someone else to do cool science or writing papers about cool science someone else had done. I had an office job and now all the benefits and protections of being pretenure were torn away like a badly stuck band-aid.

In retrospect, the drive to tenure was taking a toll on me, whether I realized it or not. I never felt anxious about getting tenure, but clearly the looming deadline had been weighing on me. While I was great to get that behind me, it felt a little like bursting through the curtain to an empty auditorium. "Congrats, now which of these committees would you like to be on!"

I took a semester sabbatical, which did little to change things. I wrote a pile of new grants and some got funded. It was fine, but really not until this last summer (a year post-tenure) did I start to re-engage. I honestly don't know why I stepped away or what brought me back, but things are rolling again. We have new stuff going in the lab. We have some new opportunities and some old ones have starting bearing fruit. Things are good, but it took a bit to be at peace with where I was at, professionally.

*And yes, I know this is basically the top of the First World Problems mountain.

14 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    I never understood the need for sabbatical in a primarily-research arc......until I did. About 10 y in. Sabbatical is a good thing.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I guess I'm "lucky". My biggest funding scare occurred almost immediately post-tenure, so I had no time for the usual sense of anticlimax.

  • sel says:

    Post-tenure burnout is definitely a thing.

  • Anony says:

    What about pre-tenure burnout?

  • You don't have time to be burned out pretenure!

  • Dave says:

    So what if you never chased tenure in the first place? What if that goal wasn't there with a very defined timeline? Do you think you would have stayed engaged indefinitely? Just curious if you have thought about that at all.

  • banditokat says:

    I think Od posted something - maybe on the twits - where a colleague pulled him into a new area telling him that he was going to have his bone marrow sucked out if he just kept making the same widgets. I can't imagine a sabbatical though. who has time? I see people do sabbatical at home Unis too. Eww.

  • gmp says:

    I have heard it referred to as "the post-tenure slump" and it's so common it's practically a rule. I really only got out of it about 3 years post tenure, after I got promoted to full prof. The tenure track is a very stressful time, even if one is not acutely aware of it; there's quite a letdown after you pass that bar, even if you fly a mile higher than where it is. Sage colleagues have told me that the enthusiasm about work goes in cycles, so there are a few highs and a few lows in one's career; the post-tenure slump is simply the first one and the biggest one (sort of like the first heartbreak). The other ones are not quite so long or quite so slumpy. But yeah, every so often you have to re-evaluate what you are doing, if it's still what you want to keep doing and if not then what else to do, where you fit with the department's and university's mission (e.g., if they want from you what you are able but no longer willing to give), etc. In most other industries, it's not uncommon to change jobs every few years. With tenure, I guess we get into and out of funk instead.

  • Anonymous says:

    Is there such a thing as a "post-PhD slump"? I may be in it right now. And I see several similarities between my situation and yours, PLS. I always knew that I would graduate; for me it was just a question of how many papers and when to say "enough." So it came as a surprise to me to look back and realize that I *was* stressed about getting the PhD after all -- I have the extra pounds to prove it! It also feels very anti-climactic. I've been thinking of myself as a junior colleague/postdoc for quite some time, so now that I am one, it's just ... odd.

    Maybe I should've had a big graduation bash ... to really mark the occasion.

  • @Dave - I don't know the answer, but I would guess that no one can keep going indefinitely. I may not have pushed as hard in years 4 and 5, which would have left more gas in the tank. Dunno, hard to figure out what you would do differently with different pressures.

    @Anon, I found the change of venue and topic between phd and postdoc went a long way towards getting me instantly engaged in a new world. If you stay in the same place, I can see how that would produce a lull.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    @Anon, Like any prize that you chase after for so long you become convinced that your life will somehow be profoundly changed when you finally achieve it, getting your PhD usually feels like a bit of an anti-climax. As proflikesubstance says, moving to a new lab/new research area as a postdoc tends to take care of that.

  • psyc girl says:

    I think a slump after major milestones is SO normal. I'm glad to see you write about this - I think we need more academic blog voices about life after tenure. I hope you find your way out of your funk soon and it proves to make your career even better for having gone through it 🙂

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    I am in my first year post-tenure and am in a full blown slump. I feel like my slump is the result of not being as scared about failure, which has allowed me the time to think about how I should best use my time. I'm still searching for this answer.

    Oh and it does seem like bursting through a curtain to the empty auditorium with a sign up sheet for committee work.

  • The Stranger says:

    This is a great post.

    I was pondering this recently- the incentive structure just isn't there post tenure- at least in relationship to the extreme incentives that exist during PhD (finishing) post-doc (get a job) and pre-tenure (make the job stick!). There are a lot of responsibilities that get piled on, and doing them well has no real benefit.

    Post-tenure I am finding myself feeling a little bit like Camus' Stranger- whatever I do amounts to the same- absolutely nothing.

    In academia in the US, it seems to really "advance" means leaving science behind and becoming an administrator... which sounds like a nightmare to me.

    In the meantime, I also feel a little trapped by my own program. I can basically allocate 100% of my "research time" to responding to student/collaborator manuscript/grant drafts. If I allocate any time to other things, then I fall behind.

    And, though I feel luck and generally love my job, I feel myself drifting further and further away from the inspiration that started me on this path. My job seems to be accounting, personnel, management/administration, and (mainly) editing, with a dash of public speaking. Is that the Endgame for a "mature" Scientist?

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