surviving academic affluenza/midlife-crisis
Academia is an iron person sport – the marathon to the dissertation, the quest for a tenure-track position, and the trek to tenure. What happens after tenure and promotion?
In this podcast, Elizabeth Matsui (a professor and practicing doctor), Roger Peng (professor of biostats), and Brian Caffo, a recently promoted full professor in biostats, discuss the timeline of an academic career, including those on soft money. Using a disease analogy (i.e., do you suffer from full professoritis?), they discuss various outlets where the tenured can channel efforts following the post-tenure malaise. They outline possible routes: “staying the course,” mastering a new field, or taking on additional, different roles as an administrator, empire-builder, public scholar, editor, teacher/mentor, and consultant. Around the 40: minute mark, Matsui raises the issue of familial responsibilities.
Elsewhere, in an article titled “Midcareer Melancholy,” sociologists Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist point out the structural conditions that make associate professorship feel especially soul-crushing to those who had imagined a euphoric, happily ever after post-tenure and promotion. As they describe the academic profession, assistant professors are protected from service work while some full professors shirk it. These generate overwork among associate professors, whose ranks have been decimated by the adjunctification of the academy and the depletion of tenure-track lines. Associate professors are acutely aware of how much of their daily work is neither valued nor counted towards their bid to advance to the next step of full:
Associate professors may be frustrated by the immediate demands of service work that materialize upon earning tenure when it is almost exclusively their scholarship that earns them promotion in the long run.
On our campus, we heard these sentiments repeatedly: “There’s a contradiction between the pressure for service at the associate level and the devaluing of service for promotion to full”; “In reality, only research matters when it comes to… promotion, but service and teaching require lots of time”; “The criteria for promotion is research. Associate professors have time for everything but research.” Another referred to associate professorship as “the midcareer service gully that we find ourselves taking an extended stay in.”
Misra and Lundquist offer the following adjustments to address the midcareer malaise:
- Clear guidelines for promotion that align with the institution’s mission. Tenure criteria are often less ambiguous than those for promotion to full professor. A few research institutions have identified alternative pathways to promotion in the form of exceptional service leadership or scholarly teaching.
- Mutual mentoring programs and supports such as those developed by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity that help faculty members focus their work time on the factors that will be evaluated, such as research productivity.
- Strategies aimed at lessening service burdens on faculty, such as: more tenure-line faculty hiring, recognizing that relying on adjuncts damages the university broadly, as well as adjunct faculty; course releases for intensive service positions to ensure that they do not derail research agendas; more staff hiring that supports faculty leadership.
- Greater departmental transparency in service assignments and teaching loads to reduce inequalities in how less-valued activities are distributed.
- Professional development for midcareer faculty on how to run meetings and complete committee work without reinventing the wheel.
- Standardized policies that regularly assess promotion timing rather than forcing candidates to self-nominate or wait to be nominated by a superior.