Last week I started this column series with a discussion of how and why people get stuck at mid-career. Consistent with my experience on campuses, talking about mid-career faculty who are "stuck" in a normative way elicits three types of intense responses. The first is from people who are not stuck and who feel compelled to shame and belittle their colleagues who are stuck (with particular venom aimed at those who have been stuck over a long period of time). The second type of responses comes from people who are stuck and thankful that someone is giving voice to the experience. And finally, there are faculty members who are high-functioning on the surface, but withering underneath. For them, the mere idea of getting un-stuck feels like a life preserver.
In fact, anytime we start talking about a pervasive reality that is not openly discussed, it’s common for intense emotional responses to arise. Each of these responses reify my belief that it’s perfectly normal to get stuck at mid-career and that we need to differentiate between people and processes of professional development. Some people know how to get unstuck quickly, while others struggle to adjust their approach, learn new skills, and develop the networks that will lead to the post-tenure pathway they truly desire. And most importantly, judging, shaming, and attempts at characterizing people as irreparably damaged "dead wood" are completely ineffective in getting anyone unstuck and work instead towards diminishing the conversations.
Where Are You on the Mid-Career Emotional Spectrum?
If you’re currently in the feeling "stuck" category, you made some great strides last week by clarifying where you want to be in five years and identifying the corresponding post-tenure pathway. The next step is to move a little deeper into the emotional undercurrent of why you are stuck. I describe this as the mid-career emotional spectrum because most post-tenure faculty can locate their feelings within this range. I’m going to describe each position on the spectrum briefly to help you pinpoint your location so that you can identify what emotional work you may need to do to move forward.
1) Exhausted: Post-tenure faculty members often describe feeling physically, emotionally and relationally bone-weary. They have been stretched so thin by service and institutional maintenance that their work-life feels like a constant sprint from one mind-numbing meeting to another.
2) Confused: Choosing a path for the next chapter of your career can elicit feelings of confusion about what to put on the front burner and what to leave on the back burner. This confusion can stem from a sense of wanting to do lots of different things or it can stem from a lack of interest in much of anything.
3) Disappointed: I often hear people describe moments of looking around and thinking, "Is this it?" Having worked so hard to win tenure, some faculty experience intense disappointment when faced with the reality that they are now committed to colleagues they find unstimulating, living in a geographic location that is suboptimal, and/or feeling they have few meaningful relationships outside of work because of how much they have sacrificed to win tenure.
4) Numb: On the tenure track, many faculty mask their emotions so as to be professional and to be sure they don’t make enemies among those who will be voting on their case. However, masking one’s emotions over a period of time and stuffing down intense emotional responses can result in feeling numb, perpetually flat affect, and an inability to connect to emotions.
5) Trapped: This feeling comes from the market reality that it’s harder to move from one institution to another post-tenure than it is pre-tenure. Even beyond the academic labor market, some faculty describe themselves as feeling “trapped” when they are no longer interested in research but don’t believe they have any marketable skills outside of the academy. In this context, the perception of a limited marketability combined with the security of a guaranteed salary and benefits for the duration of their professional career binds some faculty to a space and position they feel unable to leave.
6) Mad: During the tenure-track years, some faculty members endure a variety of hazing-like experiences. For those who have been beaten down over a period of six years, some issues and incidents remain unresolved or unexpressed and result in a constant simmering rage that is carried around on a daily basis and can erupt with the slightest provocation. For others, anger stems from structural pressures like budget cuts that result in constantly increasing workloads and fewer resources. Anger can also be related to devaluation. It’s only after being promoted with tenure that some professors realize the disconnect between their own personal values and the values of their college or university. Because post-tenure faculty members engage in different types of service, they are often brought into close contact with the stark distinction between the story of what is valued by their institution and the reality of what is valued (evidenced by resource distribution). When faculty members sense that work in a particular area is neither rewarded, nor recognized as valuable by the institution, a certain level of inertia and disengagement can set in.
7) Unmotivated: During the pre-tenure years, fear of failure (not getting promoted with tenure) is a powerful motivator. For some faculty members, once the absence of fear, as well as intense, time-limited pressures to perform are gone, their motivation is significantly diminished and a new source of motivation must be located.
8) Bored: This feeling is primarily voiced around teaching and repetitive service responsibilities. For example, teaching introductory-level courses may be stimulating the first few times, but the 30th time around feels significantly less so.
9) Relieved: Winning tenure is an enormous accomplishment and one that has taken six years of hard work. The sense of relief stems from an alleviation of the pressures generated by the tenure track (not knowing if you can put down roots in a location, not knowing if you will be successful, etc.). This emotion is frequently asserted by those who have recently been awarded tenure and promotion and often short-lived.
10) Free: This particular emotion can take a few different forms. One is from a sense of intellectual freedom where scholars who may have taken a strategic approach to their work in the pre-tenure years feel the freedom to engage in more ambitious projects post-tenure. Additionally, some mid-career faculty members describe feeling free in terms of their voice and feeling that they no longer need to filter or modulate their opinions (as they did when they were on probation). And finally, some describe a deep sense of freedom based on not having to worry about their financial and professional future in ways that will allow them to focus entirely on their scholarship and teaching.
11) Happy: This emotion is experienced by people who feel they are doing exactly what they want to do and who have organized their post-tenure life to maximize the time they spend on activities that energize them and minimize the activities that are energy draining.
12) Powerful: I hear this from faculty who describe knowing how to work the systems, opportunities, and networks on their campus to get things done. They feel clear in their agenda, know how to move it forward, feel comfortable saying no, and skilled in blocking competing agendas from advancing.
Can you locate yourself on the mid-career emotional spectrum? I hope so, because understanding where you currently reside on this spectrum is useful in moving forward. To state the obvious, if you’re primarily located in any of the positive emotions (powerful, free, happy) then you’re probably not stuck and/or reading this column for advice. You may want to sharpen your skills in time management and saying "no," but moving toward where you want to be in five years is mostly about gaining skills, trying new strategies, and expanding your network.
Letting Go and Moving Forward
What’s interesting is that the majority of positions on the mid-career emotional spectrum are negative and debilitating. If you locate yourself in any of these negative states, I want to suggest a few ideas to free yourself up in order to move forward.
1. Differentiate between the things that are (and are not) under your control.
I’m describing the causes of so many of these negative emotions in detail because most of them: a) are outside of your control and b) have nothing to do with where you want to be in five years. People get angry with me when I say this, but it’s true. The structural pressures aren’t likely to change in the short term (and may actually get worse). If you’re committed to the path of being an institutional change agent as your primary activity, then organize on! But if you want to work toward becoming a full professor, breaking new ground in your discipline, or launching a new research area, working to change things beyond your control and/or staying in a state of perpetual anger and frustration over them, is not going to move you toward your goals. Focusing on your writing and becoming more productive (both of which are under your control) will move you closer to where you want to be in five years.
2. Think about what you need to do to release the negative emotions that are tied to individuals.
I know it’s hard, but moving out of these negative emotions involves resolving your feelings, conflicts, and relationships with others in your environment. In most cases, this is going to involve some combination of a literal release of the negative emotions from your body and some form of forgiveness. Let’s face it, negative feelings (particularly when stuffed down over a period of time) get embedded in your body and won’t just go away. The more we try to push them down, the more they take root, grow, deepen and expand until you are walking around so bitter that you snap at every perceived slight, become known for disproportionate responses to conflict, and/or are perceived as "checked out" because you’re so emotionally locked down that you can’t engage. Whatever you need to do (kickboxing, hot yoga, a good cry, short-term therapy, journaling, etc.) to get that hurt out of your body so you’re no longer carrying it around is well worth the investment.
3. Get clear about what success means to you.
One of my mentors once told me: "The only real tenure in the world is to do what you love. Everything else is an illusion." What I think he meant was that job security in a position where you experience negative emotions most of the time is not particularly desirable. So instead of internalizing what your institution defines as successful, measuring yourself by that standard, and/or being angry about how opportunities and resources are distributed, try considering what success means to you? What does it look like (by your definition) to live a successful life? And once you’ve imagined your own standard, see how that cognitive reframing changes how you perceive your current situation.
The Weekly Challenge
This week I challenge you to:
1. Locate yourself on the mid-career emotional spectrum.
2. Ask yourself whether your current location on that spectrum is likely to move you forward on your mid-career path or if it’s keeping you stuck where you are.
3. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and ask yourself: What would it take for me to release myself from this emotion and move forward?
4. Try some form of emotional release to move whatever negative energy that you’re carrying in your body out of you and make the space for some healing. This will be most effective if you try something you’ve never done before.
5. Take 15 minutes to journal about what it means to you to live a successful life. If your version of success is perfectly aligned with your institution, great! If it’s not, take some additional time to consider what it means to thrive in a context where your values differ from institutional values and what type of support would be necessary to support you.
I hope this week brings you clarity about what emotions may be underneath your sense of being stuck, the willingness to do the work that’s necessary to release yourself from them, and the empowerment that comes from living out of your own version of success.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore