A new study  by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University reaches the rather startling conclusion that associate professors are some of the most unhappy people in academia. As I read about the findings, I was glad to finally learn that I am not alone in my second thoughts about my life in academe. I had assumed that my stint in administration and a few years of dealing with family crises had left me a bit burned out and frustrated at my lack of enthusiasm. However, this study seems to show that I am only one of many associate professors who gets tenure and thinks, "Is that all there is?"
The COACHE survey results seem strange, given that tenure is the ultimate goal for those entering academe. You would think that life would become much easier after getting tenure. However, from my perspective I think there are a variety of reasons that associate professors still feel a great deal of pressure and find that life is still very stressful after getting tenure. I haven’t looked at the full study, so my comments here are mainly from my own perspective as an associate professor at a Research I university, but they may resonate for those in other types of institutions.
For me, getting tenure coincided with taking on major administrative duties and becoming an important player in the college of liberal arts and universitywide. At the time, I assumed that university administration would be my future – I quickly learned that it wasn’t quite my cup of tea. However, despite having had a year on leave, I have struggled over the last few years to fully get back into the type of research productivity that defined my pre-tenure years. I thought I was alone in my feelings of frustration and disaffection until I read the survey results.
I wonder if these results aren’t connected to the fact that most associate professors are in their late 30s to early 50s – a time when there is a great deal of change in life, such as becoming parents, dealing with aging parents, becoming homeowners, etc. There are a variety of life changes that often occur during the time after one gets tenure. I have many colleagues and friends who have struggled to get the next book done, while trying to manage their teaching, administrative duties, graduate students and family lives.
For those of us who are parents, finding balance between being a parent and an academic is a never-ending topic for discussion. Since I have a very engaged and supportive spouse, I have never felt guilty about the time and travel involved in being an academic and/or administrator. However, I do find that the challenges of being a parent evolve as my children get older. I think that many people at the associate level decide to devote more time to their families once they get tenure, which may impact their job satisfaction. As my children have gotten older, I have realized the demands on my time have increased in ways that I didn’t foresee before they started elementary school. Although we are many years past diapers and bottles, I feel like I spend more time on the road, ferrying my kids to soccer, gymnastics, tutoring, or some other activity at school. Although this hasn’t reduced the amount of time I work, it has definitely shifted my main work time from afternoons to evenings, when I’m not as productive in my writing.
In the end I’m feeling particularly blessed that I have a fellowship at the Wilson Center in Washington this summer. It’s only for two months, but for me it has been a major reset. It has helped me to put the past couple of years in perspective, and helped me to restart several projects that I had nearly given up on. Understanding that I’m not alone in my frustrations as an associate professor has helped me to gain perspective on my life in academe, as well. I’m hoping that I will get back to Austin with a fresh load of ideas to work on, and a better attitude.