Dear Kerry Ann,
We often read and hear about how much new Ph.D.s long to step into tenure-track faculty positions. I am honored to be in this role, but I find that many days I question if this is the best place for me. At the end of my first year, I am wondering: How do you know when it's time to cut your losses and seek positions outside of the academy?
New and Confused
Dear New and Confused,
Yours is an extremely common question among tenure-track faculty, especially at the end of the first year. On one hand, the state of the academic job market means that anyone landing a tenure-track position knows that they are fortunate and therefore, tends to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. On the other hand, that gratitude often keeps us from asking the larger, far more important question: Do I really want to do this? As always, there’s no one-size-fits-all advice, but I do want to suggest some guiding questions to help you navigate your own answer to this important question.
What Are Your Expectations?
Any time new faculty members ask me about leaving academe, my first response is to clarify expectations. What did you expect to do, be and feel in your tenure-track position? And what specifically is not meeting your expectations? Sometimes the gap between our expectations and reality is grounded in unrealistic expectations, while other times it stems from specific problems in an environment. It’s important to know the difference.
For example, I often work with people who imagine that a tenure-track position will solve many of their problems: their finances will improve, they will be treated with respect and prestige, they will have increased free time and autonomy, and/or they will finally be able to settle down in a community and start creating a life off campus.
In reality, the first year on the tenure track involves a steep learning curve that includes how to teach a new set of students, new course preparations, new colleagues, a new political landscape to navigate, a new bureaucracy to master, a new office/lab/team to get up and running, and a new community to explore. That means that many new faculty members end the first year exhausted and disappointed.
If this sounds familiar, then I want to encourage you to consider that you’re still in transition, so let’s either adjust the expectations or put a longer timeline on when the positive outcomes will be realized. It’s normal for the first year in a new city with a new job to be a transitional year. The transitional challenges are more about the shift from graduate student to professor than they are about the fit between you and the job “professor.”
Do You Love the Core Activities of the Job?
If you’re beyond the initial transition (or if the transition took a shorter time because it’s not your first tenure-track position), then let’s ask another question: Do you love research and teaching? You do need to love one or the other. I love teaching and like research. For many years I happily engaged in research as the tax I paid for teaching. Many people feel the opposite way (they love research and they like teaching). Because I loved one and liked the other, being a professor was a great job for me.
However, at a certain point in my career, I realized an important distinction: I only love teaching when students are eager to learn. So when I hit the tipping point where the majority of my students wanted to be elsewhere, I no longer enjoyed my teaching, and it was time to move on to work where I could exclusively teach people who want to learn.
This is a big question, and you don’t have to rush into answering it. In your first year, you may be learning new skills and honing recently acquired ones. For example, you may still be refining your teaching skills. Or you may be learning for the first time how to manage a lab, advise students or acquire external funding (without your dissertation adviser's guidance). Because the learning and refining part can be time and labor intensive, you don’t want to jump to evaluative conclusions about research and teaching while you are still at an early stage. In other words, I would encourage you to wait until at least your second year to develop an answer to this question.
Are You (Unconsciously) Over-Functioning?
Another question to ask yourself is if you are over-functioning in certain aspects of your work. It is not uncommon for new tenure-track faculty to over-function in the areas that have a high degree of built-in accountability: teaching and service. In other words, these two areas often have daily demands that can fill up many hours per day to the exclusion of research and writing. If -- like many scholars -- you became a professor to pursue your passion in research, then spending 90 percent of your time on activities not related to your passion is likely to leave you feeling drained.
Over-functioning tends be particularly acute for underrepresented faculty. Let’s face it, whether you’re a woman in a STEM field or a scholar of color, if you are the diversity in your department or college, then you are going to receive a disproportionately high number of service requests. This is just the reality of being the only (or one of few) ___________ on your campus. This disproportionately high number of requests can quickly start taking up large amounts of time.
And even though these activities are valuable, if the time you are spending on them isn’t proportionally aligned with your tenure and promotion criteria, then you can end up working all the time, getting exhausted and feeling burned out. Sometimes we need to shift how we manage our time, as opposed to finding another occupation.
Do You Have a Life?
Often the most important thing to ask yourself is: What’s missing? For many first-year faculty members, work can take up so many hours per week that there’s no time or space for anything or anyone else. So why not take stock of how you are spending your time: How many hours per week are you working on average? Do you take days off? Do you sleep eight hours per night? Do you exercise? Are you able to be fully present with people you love? Do you have friends outside of work? Are you able to have fun without feeling guilty?
If the answer to the majority of these questions is no and work is your whole existence, then it may be time to start shifting your energy. We were not designed to work all the time, and working excessive hours often has a negative impact on productivity. Even more important, when people work all the time they start to develop a grossly exaggerated perspective about departmental politics. A decision in a faculty meeting feels life altering (as opposed to a shift in policy or operations). Conflicts become declarations of war (instead of interpersonal disagreements). And you replay awkward conversations over and over in your mind instead of just letting them go and moving on with your life.
If work is no longer a job but has become your life, then why not consider branching out a bit this summer. Try putting some healthy boundaries on your work time, scheduling some fun and developing relationships outside of your campus.
Many people end their first year on the tenure track exhausted, confused and wondering whether they really want to be a professor. The summer is an ideal time to step back, take stock, ask yourself some powerful questions and get into conversation with others. I’m sure that readers will have plenty of advice and experience on how to resolve the common question “Should I stay or should I go?” Please share it in the comment section and keep your great questions coming via my Facebook page (or private message).
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.