Midcareer Melancholy

Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist consider job (dis)satisfaction among associate professors.

May 29, 2015

Is there an academic midlife crisis? Although associate professors have successfully navigated challenging straits to find a permanent faculty position, the irony is that many are even more dissatisfied than they were pretenure. It is true that job satisfaction is lower at midcareer outside of academe as well; however, the midcareer gully is particularly deep for faculty.

Associate professors have invested years of their lives in their careers -- and their colleges and universities have also invested heavily in them. Yet some midcareer faculty will never advance further, and many see themselves at a standstill. Some might dismiss this as the self-indulgent fretting of the tenured elite. But this phenomenon reflects another pernicious side effect of the distressing adjunctification of academia. It is also indicative of inequality among tenured faculty, with job satisfaction particularly low for midcareer women. What explains midcareer malaise?

For some, it results from moving into leadership roles in university cultures that do not reward academic leadership and service. The flowering of programs aimed at junior faculty, including research supports, teaching reductions and mentoring, can make associate professors feel like they are working without a net. Associates at our institution noted that earning tenure was a rude awakening, as they had not anticipated how much greater their workload would become posttenure.

In one focus group, an associate argued, “Because departments try to shield junior faculty from service, and full professors are usually in a better position to say no when asked, associate professors often carry disproportionately heavy service loads compared to their junior and senior colleagues.” Another responded, “Some departments have lost a lot of faculty, so their full professor ranks are thin. Even if these departments are hiring assistant professors, the associates are doing most of the service to protect the junior faculty.”

Increased service loads among tenured faculty members reflect the dramatic decrease in the number of tenured professors on most campuses, as colleges and universities increasingly rely on graduate student instructors as well as non-tenure-line faculty (creating wasted potential, as John Warner notes). On our campus, this has been combined with increased numbers of undergraduate students. Under such conditions, the devaluation of service work leads to perverse incentives.

As one associate remarked, “Having good judgment, being thorough and conscientious means more work, i.e., misdistribution of service hours -- the reward for good work is more work.” Another argued, “There are faculty that earn twice as much as I do, but they are making more work for everyone, since they don’t share in the work that needs to be done.” Faculty members are irritated when their colleagues do not pitch in, and incensed when these faculty members are promoted quickly and feted with honors.

One central challenge reflects a misalignment between workload and evaluation. Many associate professors find themselves increasingly pulled into mentoring and service work, which, while crucial to institutional functioning, does not always build their careers. 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.”

To be clear, these faculty members did not opt out of research because they had grown weary of scholarship. In fact, they often felt bitter that they had “to fit research into ‘spare time’ that isn't consumed by committee meetings, teaching undergrads and mentoring grad students.” One associate noted that the high service workload is “actually very counterproductive for the university. Tenured faculty are seasoned researchers; if they are putting all their time into admin rather than research, it is really terrible for the university.”

While faculty expressed surprise by the sheer volume of new service responsibilities, they also puzzled over their lack of preparation in how to conduct that work efficiently. One faculty member noted, “Academia is a whole series of bait and switch. You go to grad school because you are good in college classes and then have to switch and write a dissertation… when you get good [at research], you are asked to do service -- something else I have never been trained to do.”

How can we remedy this malaise at midcareer?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Greater departmental transparency in service assignments and teaching loads to reduce inequalities in how less-valued activities are distributed.
  5. Professional development for midcareer faculty on how to run meetings and complete committee work without reinventing the wheel.
  6. Standardized policies that regularly assess promotion timing rather than forcing candidates to self-nominate or wait to be nominated by a superior.

We know from experience that it is possible to survive the malaise that creeps in at midcareer. But colleges and universities can and should anticipate the burdens faced by associate professors and address them directly. There doesn’t have to be a midlife crisis in academia. Investing in midcareer faculty leads to happier faculty members and stronger institutions.


Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research of faculty development at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Back to Top