In the spirit of continuing to question the tired and dysfunctional myths about mentoring that are pervasive in the academy (the meaning of mentoring, sink or swim, the limit of anecdotes, and mentoring underrepresented faculty) let me move to one that is both organizationally ineffective and individually debilitating: once professors receive tenure, they no longer need mentoring.
Even though my specialty is working with early-career faculty, I’m increasingly asked to work with "mid-career" faculty. I'm never exactly sure what that means, but I typically end up with a room full of exhausted women who range from recently tenured to long-term associate professors. In other words, they are people who: a) are afraid of getting stuck, b) feel seriously stuck right now, or c) have been stuck too long in the middle of the academic ladder. I love doing these workshops because the invitation is typically a hesitant and vague combination of "we know there’s a problem but we don’t know what to do about it" and could I provide some appropriate "mentoring."
The difference in mentoring for mid-career versus early career faculty is not unlike the difference between mentoring graduate students versus tenure-track faculty. To me, getting people un-stuck requires a combination of foundational skill training plus addressing rank-specific needs. So the types of core skills that faculty need across rank and discipline are things like: aligning your time with your priorities and evaluation criteria, conflict resolution, project management, planning and implementation of a clear agenda, saying "no," efficient teaching, stress management and the development of a healthy, consistent, and sustainable writing practice.
However, the rank-specific issues for mid-career faculty are fundamentally different than they are for pre-tenure faculty. The latter are primarily concerned with winning tenure, and that is the linear focus of their energy, attention and behavior during the probationary years. Once faculty obtain tenure, a different set of issues set in that are about deeper questions of meaning, identity, leadership, power and legacy. Because of this, they do need as much (if not more) mentoring than early career faculty, but in completely different ways. When I have a short period of time to work with mid-career faculty, I cut to the chase by focusing on two core questions: 1) Where do you want to be in five years? and 2) Where are you on the mid-career emotional spectrum today? The first question is aimed toward opening up the context of the post-tenure funk by asking faculty to consciously choose a post-tenure pathway. In other words, many mid-career faculty get stuck in the move from the pre-tenure organizational position of intense external constraint (meeting promotion and tenure expectations) to the post-tenure organizational position of freedom and choice. Why? Because post-tenure, faculty can suddenly choose to expend their energy in a variety of different directions: moving directly toward full professor, becoming a public intellectual, focusing on institutional change, developing the skills and experience for higher-level administrative positions, investing in more ambitious intellectual projects, applying their research to consulting or product development, becoming a master teacher, etc….
The problem is that most post-tenure faculty don't chose a path based on a clear long-range goals. Instead they get stuck in ambivalence, and by not choosing a clear direction, they get pulled into many different directions that keep them busy doing a lot of work, but without significant achievement in any area. And for female faculty at mid-career, not choosing a path and moving decisively in that direction can result in a crushing level of invisible, unrewarded, and career-stunting service. This is why so many faculty talk about the time immediately post-tenure as the "lost years," a "blur of service with zero productivity" and feeling like they "blinked and five years flew by" without any identifiable accomplishments, clarity, or direction.
While the first question provides a direction, the second question helps to identify a place for movement forward. I call this the mid-career emotional spectrum because when I ask faculty how they feel, I hear some combination of the following emotions:
- Exhausted from a crushing level of service and institutional maintenance.
- Confused about where their career is going (or not going).
- Numb from daily disrespect, devaluation and being taken for granted.
- Stuck at their current institution because it’s difficult to move post-tenure and/or it’s difficult to leave the academy once obtaining the job security of tenure.
- Mad about how little time they have to for their intellectual projects and the constant expectations to produce more and serve more with fewer resources and rewards.
- Unmotivated to pursue broader projects because of a lack of institutional resources and support and the idea that moving to the next level may bring even greater service expectations.
- Disappointed by how little changes with tenure (“Is this it?”).
- Bored by teaching the same courses year after year.
- Free to pursue more ambitious intellectual projects than were possible while on the pre-tenure timeline.
- Relieved to no longer be on under the constant pressure of whether or not they will win tenure.
I believe that pinpointing one’s location on this spectrum is deeply empowering. It doesn’t feel like it at first because many of the emotions are negative. However, identifying your location enables the realization that the causes of so many of these negative emotions are structural factors that are: a) unlikely to improve any time in the near future, b) outside of any individual faculty member’s control, and c) frequently irrelevant to the pathway most mid-career faculty want to pursue (with the notable expectation of those whose goal is institutional change). It also becomes clear that people make different choices in the midst of that reality and despite choices that have been made in the past, we’re all capable of making different decisions moving forward.
Finding Your Mid-Career Mojo
Clarifying your post-tenure pathway and identifying your emotional location, and clarifying the difference between what you do (and do not) control makes it possible to get unstuck by asking: What do you really want? What’s the most effective way to get it? What’s holding you back? And what support do you need for a jump-start? For example, if you want to move toward full professor but you’re not writing because you’re exhausted from service, then it’s time for some analysis of what’s holding you back from writing and the willingness to sharpen your skill training around time management, saying "no," and finding accountability for a day writing practice. If you want to move toward a senior administrative position, but you feel confused about how it all works, then it’s time for some new mentors who can help connect you to the kinds of skill training and networking that can move you in that direction (such as the HERS Institutes). Or if you want to be doing something completely different in 5 years because you feel numb, disappointed, unmotivated and bored, then why not start planning an exit strategy? It will involve sharpening some different skills and finding a supportive community and network that will move you towards that change, but it also may get you reconnected to your true passion.
For the mentor-less mid-career faculty reading this article, the formula is straightforward. Just fill in the blanks:
- In five years I want to be _______________________,
- However, I currently feel ____________________.
- In order to close the gap between where I am today to where I want to be, I need to focus on ___________________ and let go of ___________________.
- To move in that direction I need to sharpen my skills in ___________________.
- The community, support and accountability I need to move in a new direction is ___________________________.
- The mentoring map for this new pathway looks like _____________________.
I’m not saying it’s easy to get this honest about your future. It’s not! And there are usually lots of intense emotions that come up. But that intensity enables a different conversation and a new plan forward. And I believe that’s some of the most powerful, cost-effective, and productive mid-career mentoring.
Peace and Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore