Posttenure Depression?

Some people struggle with disappointment and disengagement when they move from one rank to another. Kerry Ann Rockquemore gives advice on how to avoid that.

September 23, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

The president of our college recently told someone who got tenure to try not to fall into “posttenure depression.” Within the same week, another colleague said the same thing to him. He passed that same recommendation on to me. I had never heard of such a thing and thought it'd be important to know what that was about and how to combat it, as I just got tenure. Do you have any thoughts on what posttenure depression is and how to survive it?



Dear Confused,

Congratulations on winning tenure! That is a huge professional accomplishment, and I want to acknowledge all the time, energy and work that went into your promotion. (Please note, this is the appropriate response to someone has recently earned tenure, as opposed to instilling them with fear that they may fall into “posttenure depression.”)

Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to attach a serious clinical diagnosis (like depression) to describe the transition period that faculty members move through once they are tenured. It erroneously creates a negative expectation, and it trivializes a serious mental health diagnosis. To be blunt, you will not find “posttenure depression” listed in the DSM 5.

That said, anytime we move from one rank to another, there will be a period of transition in our status, identity, expectations and workload. You already experienced this when you transitioned from graduate student to professor, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the transition from pretenure to posttenure will also involve a shift in how others see you, how you see yourself (in relation to your campus and colleagues), what’s possible for you professionally and how you will manage an increased workload.

It’s true that there’s a  wide continuum of how people adapt to the tenure transition. Some faculty members adapt quickly and happily, others have a lengthier transition that is marked with confusion and uncertainty, and some struggle with disappointment and disengagement. The idea of posttenure depression is grounded in the negative end of this adaptive spectrum. I assume by your question that you aspire to the positive end of it.

The good news is that you get to choose how you transition and respond to your new status and role on campus. What your president doesn’t seem to realize is that it’s possible to create an environment where newly tenured faculty can make conscious and intentional transitions that are empowering -- as opposed to hoping faculty don’t fall into posttenure depression.

Here are several questions that you can ask yourself to start the process:

What’s Your Agenda?

The mistake that many newly tenured professors make is that they fail to choose a posttenure pathway. You are stepping into a new stage of your career where you have unprecedented levels of choice about the direction of your next five years. You can move in many different directions, but you must choose what will be your top priority. Do you want to invest your best energy into becoming an institutional change agent, a public intellectual, an administrator, a star in your discipline, a master teacher, a community activist or something else entirely?

What you choose as your top priority is up to you, but what I know from working with thousands of tenured professors is that trying to do all of these things at once means you will not achieve excellence in any one area. In other words, if you don’t clarify your own agenda, you will quickly be pulled in lots of different directions and become part of other people’s agendas.

Who Are Your New Mentors?

Whenever you transition into a new rung on the academic ladder, it’s a whole new ball game! A new set of (written and unwritten) rules, skills and strategies is necessary for success, and you need a whole new group of mentors. I’ve argued elsewhere that posttenure mentoring is even more crucial than pretenure mentoring because you’ll be carving out what it means to be a permanent member of the faculty during this transition, and it’s an important moment for leadership development.

What’s tricky is that things appear unchanged (you still have the same office, parking spot and colleagues), but the power relationships and responsibilities are radically different. You can expect more service work, more demands on your time and greater expectations for you to take on leadership roles. So I want you to seriously consider who can help you to navigate this new terrain.

As always, I encourage you to fill your mentoring network with people who already have what you want. (This is why it’s so important to first clarify your posttenure pathway.) They may not be your current mentors, and they may not even be on your campus, but it will be well worth your time to repopulate your mentoring network with people who have already done what you want to do. The sooner you can start cultivating this new mentoring network, the better.

How Will You Take Care of Yourself?

We often treat self-care as an indulgent luxury, but as you transition into this new stage of your career, it is no longer something you can push off to breaks and when you have spare time. Self-care is nonnegotiable as you move into what is often a surprisingly more stressful and exhausting stage of your career. Self-care rarely just happens -- it requires clarity, planning and accountability. So ask yourself what you need (exercise, sleep, therapy, leisure time, whatever ….), put it into your calendar and set up whatever accountability structures will actually help you to make it happen.

How Will You Decide When to Say Yes or No?

Whether you realized it or not, as a pretenure faculty member, you were shielded from service. Now that you’re a tenured faculty member, you will find that you not only receive a greater number of requests, but they also tend to be both time intensive and labor intensive because they involve institutional maintenance. It’s also the case that it’s now your responsibility to shield the pretenure faculty from this type of service so that they can devote time to their research and teaching.

That doesn’t mean that you can never say no. It means that saying no posttenure is significantly more complicated and difficult, and it has qualitatively different consequences. It’s going to require that you have a clearly defined filter for decision making so that you are serving your community in a way that is appropriate to your new rank and serving in ways that are aligned with your posttenure pathway.

You’re Married -- Now What?

One of the biggest shifts from being pretenure to posttenure is the shift from an “I” mentality to a “we” mentality. Pretenure, I felt like my university and I were dating. We were in a relationship, but we didn’t have exclusivity or a long-term commitment, so I put my own professional needs first.

When I was awarded tenure, it was more like being married in that we had a long-term commitment that necessitated me to start thinking in a more communal way. That didn’t mean that I gave up my agenda; it meant that I understood my agenda in the context of my community, with a higher level of rights and responsibilities than I had at previous stages of our relationship.

This isn’t a perfect analogy (and I encourage you to come up with one that works for you). But it illustrates the deeper shift that is most likely to happen if you get into conversation with other faculty members. Instead of simply listening to people on your campus who tell newly tenured faculty to “beware of posttenure depression,” what if you started a group for newly tenured faculty where you collectively gathered to discuss this transition? What if this group were in thoughtful conversation with respected leaders on your campus about their successful transitions? What if this group received training in posttenure planning, decision making and leadership?

Do you see the difference? The former creates an expectation of negativity. The latter creates the opportunity for new possibilities, explicit conversation and mature professional relationships among the newly tenured faculty members on your campus.

You can experience the transition to tenure in many different ways. I hope that I’ve outlined questions and ideas that will help you step into this exciting new stage of your career with all the support, community and accountability you need to thrive. I’m sure that readers will share their stories about posttenure transitions below, and I look forward to the conversation.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. Keep the great questions coming on my Facebook page!


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