Friday, February 27, 2015

Groundhog Day: mid-career academic choices

This post is on a parallel but slightly different track from Notorious's post about "Choosing to Change Direction."
It's about the three stages of an academic life.

1. When you start out as an academic, your whole life is spent in applying for things.  Your mentors may have told you never to turn down an opportunity, and it's good advice. Think about it:
  • Applying for jobs (and applying and applying and applying). 
  • Submitting abstracts and papers for conferences.  
  • Pouncing on every call for papers.  
  • Applying for travel funding and grants. 
  • Volunteering to be on committees. 
  • Waving your hand high in the air when someone wants you to help with a conference. 
  • Hearing yourself say things like "Sure, I can write a draft of the report."
  • Getting rejections and applying all over again.
2. Then, once you have done some of these things, people may start asking you to do them.
  • You get asked to contribute to a collection.
  • A journal editor hears you give a paper at a conference and asks you to submit it.
  • You talk with someone in your field at a conference and put together a panel. Maybe you even get to know enough distinguished people to ask one of them to be a commenter at a conference that more or less requires a famous commenter to get on the program.
  • Someone asks you to write a report, or run a search, if you are fortunate enough to have a fulltime job, or be on a committee.  This is the "just say no" phase that so many bloggers have written about. 
You say yes to a lot, maybe almost everything, because you realize this means they like your work, your work ethic, or maybe "they really like you!"

3. In the third stage, the one Notorious is talking about, you realize that you can't do everything.  The time after tenure may feel at first as if you're in the movie Groundhog Day. Now, you're not a jerk like Phil Connors, so you don't have his lessons to learn. But you're doing the same things you did before, except that you can't see the next goal ahead.

Every path you take--and they can be all good choices--means that there's a path you can't take.  It's not infinite any more, and it's not directed toward a single goal (tenure). You have to choose the goal, and, in choosing, decide that some paths are ones you're not going to follow, maybe forever.
  • Do you go into administration? That can be a new challenge, but it may mean you have to spend less time on scholarship.  
  • Do you focus on scholarship? If you do that and turn down opportunities in administration, you might not be asked again. 
  • Do you like where you are or decide to leave? Do you apply for new jobs? I mention this because Notorious does, but it's a drastic step.
  • Maybe you decide on more work-life balance and take a few steps back from the job, either emotionally or actually, by resigning from some commitments and scaling back on others. You decide you don't need to go to as many conferences and that you will put that money toward your and your family's well-being.  Are you prepared for, and can you accept, how that might affect your job in practical ways? For example, what if your department see you as less committed to it and to scholarly pursuits, which may be reflected in your performance reviews? 
 I think that part of the post-tenure slump, or post-tenure more generally, might be in this third stage of choices. You now know how much time things take--to write an article, mentor a student, teach a brand-new class--and so you know that you have to choose, in a way that you didn't know in stage 2. In Groundhog Day terms, you can try to save the homeless man or rob the bank, but probably not both.

You wonder if your choices are good ones, and you know you have to make the most of them. Part of coming out of the slump may be the growing conviction that yes, this is a good choice for me, and yes, this is a good path to follow. Eventually you get there, and you hope that it's February 3.


Janice said...

I have to admit, the Groundhog Day comparison works really well. But it's a good reminder that you can make informed decisions about what you want to do.

Anonymous said...

The lesson of Groundhog Day is to keep trying until you get it right. That's a good lesson for mid-career academics. Keep trying different things: teaching approaches, research ideas, administrative duties, etc. It's never too late.

profacero said...

Interested that you think applying for jobs is a drastic step. I have done it regularly and many people I know are always on the market, as a matter of course.

undine said...

Janice--informed decisions if you figure out the lessons!

Anonymous--I like that "keep trying until you get it right." If we stop trying, then what are we doing except taking up space?

profacero--That's admirable about applying for jobs. I'm very risk-averse, so that's why it seems drastic to me; also, the sheer amount of time it takes is staggering. But if someone's at a place that isn't a good fit, it would be a necessary rather than a drastic step.

Being on the market as a matter of course: wouldn't that make them pretty unhappy all the time about where there are? Or is it that they're on the market all the time because they're at a place that doesn't value them?

Z said...

Being on market as matter of course -- I don't see that that would make anyone unhappy. If you are in a good place with your work and feeling like a good job candidate, going on the market is like any other professional activity. If you submit things for publication, wouldn't that make you pretty unhappy about your publication record so far? People go on the market for all sorts of reasons. For example, if you have kids to send to college, you need a job that will make it easier to afford it. It would be nice to be in a state that paid into Social Security. It would be nice to have a research library. It would be nice to have a PhD program in your field, or not be the only person in your field. There are all sorts of reasons to go on the market.