Breaking It to Your Family

Even after gaining tenure, Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra warn, you may well face a relentless and often invisible set of career demands that can confuse and frustrate family members.

December 4, 2015

“The idea of being trapped in a cage of overwork even past the enormous milestone of tenure weighs heavily on my partner and me …. As our parents become elderly and the kids grow up, there is a sinking feeling that life is passing us by and we can't enjoy our kids while we have them with us nor our parents while they are alive.” -- A colleague’s reaction to the theme of this essay.

We often discuss the effects of the tenure track on faculty lives. Much like the military, family members are also “drafted” into the academic lifestyle.

Last month, we discussed how to break it to yourself that tenure does not mean less work. Here, we address this hard fact as it relates to families. The reality is that, even after gaining tenure, you may well face a relentless and often invisible set of career demands that can confuse and frustrate family members. With the right approach, however, you can structure the posttenure period to lead to far less stress and to finally take advantage of the much-vaunted flexibility that so often eluded you before tenure.

The Tenure Mirage

It is common for pretenured academics to fall into the “until” game with their family members: “You’ll only need to take care of the kids until I get tenure.” “We can look for a tenure-track job for you, too, once I can leverage my tenured position.” “All this traveling around the country giving presentations will only last until I get tenure.” And so on.

In truth, both faculty member and family member desperately want to believe all this. We talked to a number of nonacademic partners of faculty, via email and social media, to understand their experiences. One person said, “We both just had some naive assumptions about the value that her autonomy as a [tenured] professor would bring to our household ….” This person, married to an academic, concluded, “I think it is overcelebrated, and at least in some ways it's a trap.”

Is tenure indeed a trap rather than a door?

Of course, tenure does bring important protections that many faculty members -- including most contingent faculty -- would like and deserve to have. Yet promotion to associate professor brings new work expectations that are often unanticipated. Particularly in research university settings, faculty members lose the protection from service roles that some enjoy pretenure. Now they must identify ways to maintain research and teaching productivity while also taking on more service leadership.

That means becoming less sheltered from other aspects of work as well, such as involvement in larger university politics. One spouse of a faculty member said, “It is no longer your own individual career problems but a stress over departmental and campus community concerns. I thought we both would feel a sense of relief, at least briefly. But it seems that the weight of added responsibility and expectations just flooded in even before the tenure decision came.”

And, poignantly, a tenured professor describes the difficulty in managing the increased workload and the transition from being a protected junior faculty member. “I'm working harder and longer and more than before tenure (and with fewer resources, less power and more responsibility, that's for damn sure) and feeling less hopeful, more anxious.”

Toward a Solution

Although many midcareer tenured faculty members feel unhappy -- and you may be one of them -- it doesn’t have to be this way. If you have weathered the emotion and anxiety that goes into making tenure, you must next determine and execute steps that will enable you to take advantage of your secure new career status. You can, in fact, take control of your life through strategic choices and negotiation. Here are some recommendations for making tenure work for both you and your family.

Strategically consider service and teaching responsibilities. Associate professors are best served when they consider midcareer service and teaching responsibilities thoughtfully, taking care not to sabotage their schedules unnecessarily. If asked to take on a major service leadership role, such as department chair or center director, discuss with your chair how this role might either impede or promote your progress. If service leadership is not a common pathway to promotion at your institution, either wait to take on this service role until after promotion or advocate for resources, such as course reductions or research-assistant support, that will help maintain your scholarly productivity.

Service assignments that help to promote disciplinary networks are one way to use such roles to strategically support your research. Chairing your department’s speaker series or getting involved in your national association, for example, exposes you to scholars in your field who may later serve as references for your promotion. Designing a class around a new research area is another approach to making your research and teaching efforts more symbiotic.

Harness flex time; don’t let it harness you. Consciously protecting your research time during the workweek will empower you to draw reasonable limits around your teaching preparation and service time. This practice will ultimately preserve your family and leisure time. The flexibility of academic work is a rare privilege, but for many faculty members and their families, it can be more curse than boon. They described to us a “gnawing senses of never doneness” -- a sentiment that is particularly acute among junior professors.

Unless faculty members scrupulously regulate and manage their flexible hours, “flexibility” too often results in service and teaching during the workweek with research and writing seeping into all the time that remains. Many faculty members told us they find themselves doing research “on their own time” -- during evenings, weekends and vacations. As one family member put it of their academic spouse, “For her, there's no off, there's just ‘distracted from work.’”

A siren song of academe is that it is one of the few career paths where you have no direct boss or manager. Yet academics are notoriously terrible self-managers. To avoid the seepage trap, you must actively block off time slots on your calendar for research and writing.

Engaging in open mentoring discussions in and across departments is an important way to learn the best time-management practices. In one of our focus groups, a junior faculty member was shocked to learn how much more time he takes to prepare for classes than his colleagues. Public dialogue around how peers set limits and structure their work -- for example, “I try to review no more than five articles a semester, and I limit myself to three hours each” -- is vital when so much of faculty members’ work occurs in isolation.

Consider that less can be more. Use your newly gained tenure status to absorb new scholarship on how working less, paradoxically, can make you more productive. Studies show that shorter workweeks and frequent breaks increase creativity, work efficiency and overall well-being. Just as we advise scheduling blocks of time for research, we also urge you to make a commitment to yourself and others in your life by blocking off substantial nonwork time.

In our focus groups, a number of respondents credited “having someone pulling on you” -- be it family members, friends or pets -- as a welcome excuse to tear themselves away from work. Making time to engage with friends, family members and your own self-care is crucial to maintaining a fulfilling personal life and a successful career.

Communicate with family members and understand their perspective. Every faculty member has a story about explaining yet again at a family holiday event why he or she is still working even when not teaching. It is this lack of structure that led one person to characterize academic work this way: “The invisible nature of what we do means no one knows what I do or when I do it.” This can manifest itself into mutual misunderstanding between academic and nonacademic family members.

For faculty members who are partnered to nonacademics with highly structured, intensive occupations, academe’s flexibility may mean also being the primary caregiver. One academic who is married to a doctor told us: “I have the ‘easy’ or ‘light’ career in the house … my family doesn't even really have my workload on their radar. It is his. He commutes, works long hours, has call and brings tons of work home. My daughter complains that she knows the sitters better than him.” Women academics are more often partnered to individuals who work at least as much, if not more, than they do. One study finds that men in academe are more likely to be in partnerships where their career takes priority compared to female academic partnerships.

Faculty members sometimes feel that nonacademic family members underestimate how demanding academic work really is, forcing a justification of how they spend their work time. For example, one described his family’s complaints that he is always leaving them for “cool” vacations when he attends research conferences. From another perspective, however, a spouse expressed concerns over the degree to which their faculty partner values family time: “When you live with someone who has so much freedom to manage their time according to their priorities, you learn a lot about their priorities.”

While it is important for academics to build structure into their work lives in order to protect their free time, educating family and friends about the distinct nature of academic work goes a long way toward alleviating negative family reactions. Explain to them that the day-to-day visible work shows up mainly in teaching assignments and committee work, while research production is largely invisible by conventional standards. For that reason, those hours of work done from home and over the summer truly are part of a long-term, cumulative investment in research. It is not always the choice that it may appear to be.

It’s also important for academics to acknowledge the sacrifices that family members often make. The limited academic market creates challenging geographical pressures. Many partners find themselves in the forced role of a trailing spouse, isolated from their family of origin and friends and unable to maximize their own careers in small, rural college towns. The emotional cost of giving up a job and social ties is high, and partners must negotiate this fragile balance along the way.

One spouse described some of the lifestyle adjustments that he had made in his life: “I worked hard for [her] tenure. Initially I followed it, uprooting for it …. I chose to become the primary caregiver of two children hoping that would speed the tour of the tenure track …. And then tenure came. And not much has changed …. Regular full-time jobs for me remain risky lest they disrupt her career.”

A widely circulated tweet reads, “Academic life is less like a box of chocolates and more like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.” While we wryly acknowledge the truth of this sentiment, we recognize that certain choices can greatly ameliorate the stress and relentless workload. By taking a purposeful rather than a reactive approach to work time, accepting that a high-quality personal life is conducive to a productive work life and checking in with your family members on these issues, you can successfully pursue a meaningful and balanced posttenure life.


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. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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