Because I spend lots of time on different college campuses, I get a chance to meet many mid-career faculty members. A few months ago I met an associate professor whom I’ll call Joan. After a little chit-chat, she told me that she felt "stuck" in a very particular way. Not having a clear post-tenure pathway meant that she found herself responding to other people's needs, accepting a disproportionate amount of departmental and institutional service (with the best of intentions), becoming chair of her department (because nobody else would do it), and every year getting further off the track to promotion to full professor.
Despite all of the service she’s provided at her university, Joan feels devalued and disrespected by her colleagues because she hasn’t published anything in years, she’s grossly underpaid relative to her colleagues, and she feels unable to leave. She described herself as being "typecast" as the person in the department who takes care of everyone else's needs, picks up the balls other people drop, and does the invisible and unrewarded labor that keeps everything running. While it was clear that Joan would benefit from clarifying her post-tenure pathway, resolving where she’s located on the mid-career emotional spectrum, and jump-starting her research productivity, she also needed to find a way to create a new professional identity.
There are a lot of Joans out there who feel stuck in this particular way. They’ve been cast in a role that’s led to an institutional story about them that doesn’t feel like it fits. But they’ve been doing the same thing (in her case, various types of institutional service) for so long that their scholarly and professional networks have shrunk down to those on their own campus. And while that network may be highly functional for getting bureaucratic tasks completed, it’s not helpful for moving into new and different types of activities. So when a shift is desired, it can leave people like Joan feeling as if they don’t know where to begin because everyone in their social environment knows (and responds to) them in a habituated ways.
Whenever you’re feeling stuck in a way that is tied to your professional self (i.e., people in your organization have cast you in a particular role that no longer fits), you have to recognize that changing perceptions is a process that starts with you reimagining yourself, engaging in new relationships and behavior, connecting to new networks, and taking courageous steps in new directions. What Joan really wanted was to reinvent her professional self. She no longer wanted to be the person whom people go to when they need time-consuming and unrewarded labor done. In fact, the servant role was starting to feel like a prison and she was becoming increasingly angry and resentful because she fell into it, instead of consciously and intentionally choosing it. Joan was clear that in five years she wanted to be a productive researcher (albeit in a different way than in her pre-tenure years), promoted to full professor and receiving equitable pay. In short, she was ready to step out of the servant role and step into the scholar role. And while it it’s clear that this type of change doesn’t happen overnight, it is possible.
I believe reimagining our professional self requires a sense of internal clarity and it requires us to cultivate a whole new set of networks, mentors, sponsors, and collaborators. And it often requires that we reach outside of our campus environment and begin constructing those new relationships in ways that support the emerging professional self that we want to create. This may involve some experimentation at first, but we’re far more likely to have that new self supported outside of our institutional context than within it where the story about us can feel locked into place. Let me suggest a few steps you can take toward building the kinds of relationships that will support you as you step toward a new professional identity:
Step 1: Map Your Mentoring Network
Start by taking five minutes to map out your current mentoring network. I have argued in a previous column that what we generally refer to as mentoring can be broken down into nine specific components: professional development, emotional support, intellectual community (people who can read and comment on work in progress), role models, safe space, accountability, access to opportunities, sponsorship, and substantive feedback. The key for mid-career faculty is to differentiate between the mentoring network that has supported the role you are trying to shed and the kind of mentoring network that would support the role you want to step into. While it’s effective to think about this in your head, it’s even better to actually write it out (feel free to download a Mentoring Map to help you do so).
2. Identify your current needs
When you take a look at the mentoring network that would support the professional identity you want to grow into, what does it look like? Is it full or is it empty? Are there lots of different people, fulfilling lots of different needs? Or do you have a handful of names that appear over and over again? Circle anywhere you find holes on the map. Those are the areas where you want to increase capacity and they are a place to start building a network to support the new you.
3. Ask: How can I get my needs met?
This is the fun part. Pick one of the areas where your mentoring network is thin and spend five minutes brainstorming all the possible ways that you can get your needs met. For example, Joan could only name one person with whom she felt comfortable sharing drafts of her writing. But after a few minutes of brainstorming she came up with five different ways to increase the pool of readers for her writing.
4. Plan to maximize your opportunities
Once you’ve got your brain generating possibilities, try expanding it a bit further by focusing on the opportunities that are right in front of you. What could you do at your next conference to get your needs met? Who do you know who already has what you want (and may be able to give you excellent advice on how to get it)? Who has expressed an interest in your work or your career who could be helpful in moving you forward? Even more important, what are specific actions you could take to start those relationships? Joan has a conference coming up in her research field so she decided to contact several people to set up coffee meetings, ask her professional organization’s mentoring program for a mid-career mentor, and become newly assertive when meeting people who are interested in her work by asking if they would like to read a draft.
5. Identify your limiting beliefs
People are often quite good at brainstorming ideas to get their needs met and maximize their opportunities. But at some point in the process, they realize that they actually could take some of these steps. And as soon as that happens, their limiting beliefs start to surface. Here’s a few examples:
Who am I to contact _________?
My work isn’t ready to show anyone/good enough.
I may be rejected/embarrassed/humiliated.
Nobody has ever helped me in the past, so why would anyone help me now?
I’m deadwood and everyone know it. Nobody is going to take me seriously.
I’m afraid of ____________.
I’m referring to these as “limiting beliefs” because they limit behavior and the ability to build a new mentoring network. The great news is that they are just beliefs so they can be replaced by more helpful and productive ways of thinking.
6. Commit to ACTION
No matter what, commit to taking three concrete actions that will help you move toward expanding your network today. For Joan it involved sending three e-mails to set up those conference dates, making a call to inquire about a mid-career mentor, and downloading an iPhone app that captures business cards and puts them in her contacts. Three simple steps that set new energy and momentum into action.
The Weekly Challenge:
1. Ask yourself: Do I feel locked into an institutional role that no longer fits?
2. If the answer is yes, try spending a few minutes mapping your network, identifying your needs, brainstorming ways to fill the holes, planning to maximize your existing opportunities, identifying your limiting beliefs and committing to a three new actions.
3. If it’s difficult to do this alone, try asking a friend to brainstorm with you.
4. If you find yourself wanting a change, but resistant to taking action, gently ask yourself, why?
5. If nothing else, try writing every day for 30-60 minutes each day this week. The mere act of changing your behavior and the daily practice may just unearth some unexpected surprises.
I hope this week brings you the strength to face any role you no longer want to play, the courage to begin reimagining your professional self, and the clarity to take the first few steps in that new direction.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
- Essay on the need for mid-career faculty members to turn down service requests
- Essay on how mid-career academics can find their place on emotional spectrum
- Essay on mid-career productivity issues
- Mothering at Mid-Career: Parenting and Professing Parallels, part two
- Mothering at Mid-Career: Planning
- Teaching Like a Motherf@#%er: Finding My Mid-Career Mojo
- Mothering at Mid-Career: Mentoring and Mothering
- Mothering at Mid-Career: February Blues
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Assistant Professor, English (Pre-1900 American Literature, with specialization in African American literature)