Dear Kerry Ann,
It’s the end of another year on the tenure rack, and I feel … done. I’m exhausted, I’m bitter, I’m angry, I’m sick and I’m out of shape. I’m tired of microaggressions, my colleagues’ hostility and the fact that no matter how hard I work, nothing changes on my campus.
More than anything, I’m tired of working 60-70 hours a week, pouring my blood, sweat and tears into teaching and organizing on the campus, only to be disrespected by my students and colleagues. It feels like I’m losing one battle after another and that nobody appreciates or respects the work I do. All the hours working have taken a toll on my dating and social life, leaving me with few off-campus relationships.
My friends on other campuses tell similar stories, and the only things keeping me afloat right now are my connections with those people on Facebook. (At least I’m not alone.) But if getting a different job and moving to another campus won’t make things better, what am I supposed to do -- stay miserable? Do I just need some self-care? What’s going to make this tolerable?
This is an important and common question this time of year. Many tenure-track faculty members skid into graduation with the mix of emotions you describe here and wonder if they are on the right path. I agree that self-care is important, but it seems like a deeper issue may lie under the surface.
I sense that a) you have a strong sense of how things should be, b) you want a variety of other people and policies to change quickly, and c) you want to be validated by your colleagues and students for the work you do. In short, you’re pouring all of your time, energy, heart and soul into your work life, and you’re upset that your investment isn’t paying off.
Let me say this with love: stop it. Your faculty position is your job, not your life. Your campus is your workplace, not the center of the universe. And as long as you need to be validated by others in order to feel good about yourself, I can guarantee that you’ll end every academic year feeling miserable.
You don’t control your colleagues, your campus climate or the pace of organizational change, but you do control three very important things: 1) how you respond to other people, 2) how much power you allow others to have over your self-worth and 3) how much of your energy you invest into your work relative to the rest of your life.
If I sound too harsh in my assessment, it’s only because I routinely see the telltale signs of overinvestment among new faculty members (particularly among underrepresented faculty). By overinvestment, I mean pouring so much of your time, energy and soul into your work that you don’t have any left for the rest of your life. You don’t have to take my word for it; just ask yourself the following questions to do a quick self-assessment:
- Do you feel perpetually exhausted, burned out, sick and/or tired from working long hours?
- Have your work hours deprived your family or hurt other relationships?
- Do you have friends in your current geographic location, or are your meaningful social relationships occurring exclusively via Facebook, Twitter, email and text?
- Do you work during breakfast, lunch and/or dinner?
- Has your physical health deteriorated because you are experiencing chronic work-related stress?
- Have you relegated your social, emotional, relational and personal development to breaks because you have no time for anything but work during the academic year?
- Are you unhappy, angry and resentful most of the day?
- Does work impact your sleep directly (taking work to bed or skimping on sleep so you can get more work done) or indirectly (you can’t sleep on Sunday nights because you dread the new week, you dream about your colleagues and/or you wake up during the night in a work-related panic)?
- Do you take breaks from work (e.g., weekends, vacations) or do you experience guilt, shame or anxiety when you’re not working?
- Do you have any hobbies, or do you think hobbies are for people who are not serious about their work?
- Do you get annoyed, frustrated or impatient with people who have a life outside of the campus?
- Do you understand social media as a tool, or is it where you live your life outside of work?
- Do you believe that getting _________ (e.g., published, funded or tenured) will solve the problems in your life?
If any of this sounds familiar, then guess what? You’re treating your job like it’s your whole life, instead of understanding that work is one piece of a much larger and more delicious pie. The great news is that you have an entire summer ahead of you when you can reset. Let me suggest a few ways to do so.
Take a Break From Social Media. If you want to create a life for yourself beyond work, the summer is a great time to experiment with making some important changes. Disconnecting -- or even limiting your screen time -- will enable you to get present to the world you actually live in: your body, your home, your family, your friends, your community and/or the beauty of nature. Just being present to who and what’s in front of you without distraction has a way of shifting the relative importance of varying aspects of your life and helping you to see areas that need tending. It also gives you the time and energy you need to invest in the non-work-related activities and relationships that really matter.
Get Back to Basics. When your priorities are out of whack, one of the easiest steps to take to get perspective is to return to the basics. Your health and well-being are deeply impacted by simple things like: 1) eating healthy foods, 2) moving your body regularly and 3) getting a good night’s sleep every night (whatever that means for you). If you’re not doing these simple things, ask yourself: Why not? What’s keeping you from caring for your most basic physical needs?
Find a Hobby and Make Some New Friends. Many overinvested academics claim they have no time for hobbies or to make new friends in their community. They then end up defaulting to passive leisure activities that serve as an escape but are solitary and unnourishing (e.g., television marathons, drinking alone, playing solitaire and so on).
Why not consider trying some non-work-related activities that you love? And if you’ve worked so hard for so long that you don’t remember what you used to do outside of work, make it a priority to explore that aspect of yourself this summer. Even better, experiment with some new activities that will allow you to make nonacademic friends. It’s amazing how adding people to your social network who know (and care) nothing about your campus politics can put things into perspective on a regular basis.
Create Boundaries Around Work. Summer is the perfect time to create healthy boundaries around your work, specifically by establishing a clear schedule. Developing a definitive start and stop time each day marks work time with a beginning and end. That can be greatly enhanced by rituals during the workday. Many summer writers start their work at the same time each day and establish simple rituals (lighting a candle, doing a short mindfulness meditation or checking in with a buddy) to kick off their writing. They end the day by cleaning off their desk, closing their laptop or shutting down their computer as closing rituals. These small repeated activities mark the boundaries and help you to keep work contained.
Find a Local Therapist. Given the professional socialization of graduate students, it’s not surprising that many new faculty members are hooked on external validation. Releasing yourself from needing other people’s appreciation and recognition to validate your self-worth is often done most effectively in the context of therapy. It may be time to experiment with this type of support, and it’s easy to find a professional in your local community.
Figure Out What Really Matters. Spend some reflective time this summer getting explicit about your expectations, asking if they are realistic, figuring out what really matters to you and creating a strategic plan for change. If you walked into this past academic year expecting to single-handedly eradicate every manifestation of racism and sexism on your campus, it’s not surprising that you’re disappointed by the intransigence of your colleagues and students. I would like to suggest that this is an unrealistically high expectation for one calendar year, and I’d encourage you instead to use this summer to get specific about one change you want to make on the campus next year. Then start figuring out what relationships, organizing and actions you will need to make it happen.
I want to affirm your desire for change and encourage you to divest some of your energy from your campus and pour it into building a full and healthy life this summer! I’m not suggesting that you do all of these things in one week. Instead, consider using some of the ideas that I’ve suggested when creating your summer plan. I think you’ll quickly find that investing in your physical, emotional and relational health will pay out the kinds of returns you are truly seeking.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.