Tenure Doesn't Mean Working Less: Breaking It to Yourself

But it can mean emphasizing the work you love to do, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist.

November 6, 2015

The increasingly few faculty members lucky enough to land in tenure-stream jobs and successfully attain tenure are sometimes surprised to find tenure a letdown. One key to this disappointment is that work hours rarely change as faculty members move up in rank.

National studies show little to no change in work hours by rank, with average weekly work time hovering around 55 hours (varying by type of institution). Our own analysis of our colleagues’ work hours suggests little variation in total work hours between assistant professors and associate professors, although full professors actually work longer hours at our institution. Tenure simply does not mean working less, even if it does mean less anxiety.

Tenure can mean having more control over your time and the opportunity to focus on what you care most about -- which helps compensate for long hours. Yet we find that as faculty members move up in rank, they spend more time on administrative leadership and mentoring, and they have less time to spend on their research -- even when they are passionate about it. While these trends vary by gender and race/ethnicity (women and underrepresented minorities are particularly hard hit), many faculty members find themselves increasingly pulled away from their research interests.

Given the reality of the posttenure workload, faculty members must rethink the career goals they have held up to this point. They are now able to leave behind some of the concerns they had before gaining tenure. Pretenure years are usually an emotionally exhausting time. Faculty members face terrifying questions about their ability to complete their Ph.D., find a postdoc or job, find a tenure-line job, and earn tenure and promotion. Each stress is compounded by the previous stressors and often by a lack of resources and work-life balance. Throughout those uncertain years, tenure appears to be the Holy Grail -- promising happiness, autonomy, resources and security.

But although tenure does provide job security, it does not guarantee the rest. Many professors agree that the emotional stress associated with academic work shifts with tenure because they now have a protected job. Yet they also find themselves working without a net for the first time, having lost supports many colleges and universities put in place to help assistant professors succeed.

After being in the academic rat race for many years, it can also be difficult to change work styles. Many faculty members feel that their career choices reflect the requests of colleagues, supervisors and students more than their own interests. One of the most important steps midcareer faculty members can take is to gain control over their work lives and ensure that the new pressures they feel do not lead them away from the work about which they feel most passionate.

Work-work balance is one key concept that came out of the focus groups that we conducted with faculty at our institution. Faculty members are trying to achieve a balance between the different demands on their time -- research productivity, teaching excellence, mentoring and advising support, and academic leadership -- in ways that make them feel positive about work. While we believe that all faculty members deserve to achieve this balance, tenured faculty may be in the best position to succeed. Yet, to do so, they must be introspective and strategic.

Successfully achieving work-work balance requires listening to yourself and determining how to maximize the elements of your job that you find most satisfying in the posttenure pathway. If you enjoy mentoring students, find ways to increase that time -- perhaps by teaching courses that allow you to work closely with students. If you are excited about making institutional changes, service and academic leadership can be a boon. If research gives you the most enjoyment, block off time each week for research, and do not allow other forms of work to intrude. If you aim to see your research translated into real-world settings, getting involved in the community, writing op-eds or speaking to wider audiences may be crucial to posttenure happiness. The key is in finding what you love doing and identifying ways to make those passions central to your posttenure job.

There are two provisos to this advice. One is that you may, in fact, be enthusiastic about all of the work you might be doing. You may feel deeply committed to students, to research, to community engagement and to service to the institution -- yet frustrated because you cannot do it all. But it simply is not possible to do it all at the same time. Setting limits is crucial, and one way to do this is to conceptualize your career as a book with many chapters, as Kerry Ann Rockquemore, an expert in faculty development and leadership, suggests. That allows you to focus your energy on specific aspects of your job for a given period of your career without sacrificing what you care about. Reassessing (at least once a year) what you are enjoying most in your work, and how you can make that the main theme of the current chapter of your career, will help you achieve work-work balance and keep you from feeling overwhelmed and overcommitted.

The second proviso is that if you are most passionate about the elements of your job that your institution does not value, you may be focusing your energy rightly on the things that matter to you -- but feeling as if you are in a no-win situation with colleagues and supervisors. Some faculty members are not bothered by this and continue concentrating on what matters to them. Other faculty members are deeply upset by the sense that their merits are going unrecognized and that those around them are devaluing what they value. If you fall into the latter category, you need not shift your priorities, but you may want to consider changing jobs. Different institutions have different cultures, expectations and approaches to recognizing faculty work.

For example, if you love teaching and interacting with students but are tenured at an institution that gives you few opportunities to engage with them, it’s completely sensible to look for a job at another institution. While relocating is emotionally and physically tiring, moving to ensure that people around you value your priorities may be energizing over the long term.

All in all, tenure does not mean working less, but it can mean emphasizing the work you love to do. By setting your own priorities, and making sure that institutional values line up with your own, you can set yourself up for a happier and more productive career.


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

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