I am often contacted by faculty members after a catastrophic professional event has occurred and they realize that their productivity isn’t going to meet their department’s expectations for promotion. The most common scenario is a professor who has received a negative third-year review because she fell into the typical tenure-track trap: spending all her time on teaching and service, promising herself she would write on the semester breaks, and then making little progress because she’s exhausted from over-functioning in other aspects of her job. As a result, she uses her breaks to physically and mentally recover, doesn’t write, and experiences guilt and stress over her lack of productivity.
These are always difficult conversations, but I typically start with the basic organizational tips and tricks  to get faculty members writing and re-connected to their research. To support this intervention, I recommend two weeks of daily writing with structured support and accountability (either the Academic Ladder’s Writing Club , or a Daily Nag ). At the end of that time, we assess their progress. Some people get right down to business, quickly establish a writing plan, and settle into their daily writing routine. But others are so deeply blocked that they just can’t do it, so we start to work our way through the common fears underlying resistance that I’ve discussed in previous columns. Working through unrealistic expectations , disempowerment around writing , and a hyperactive inner critic  helps get the vast majority of faculty moving through their writing funk. However, there’s one qualitatively different type of energy that blocks writing and that can be the most difficult to identify and resolve: unclear goals.
Get Real About Your Goals
At the most basic level, unclear goals can be problematic for academic writers who simply have no overarching research plan. For example, you may be having difficulty establishing your own research agenda independent of your dissertation adviser or post-doctoral mentor. Or it may be the case that you just keep reactively responding to opportunities that come to you instead of evaluating whether or not they make sense for your career. In other words, you react to other people’s agendas instead of proactively crafting an agenda that addresses your own substantive interests and research questions. But at a deeper and far more problematic level, resistance to writing that is driven by unclear goals is often rooted in a lack of clarity about your long-term professional goals. When I have tried everything I know to break through resistance, I typically end by asking: Do you REALLY want to be a professor?
I imagine this as a direct and easy question for a tenure-track faculty member. By that time, an individual has gone through a decade or so of graduate education and training AND survived a horrible job market. But this question is often met with nervous laughter, long pauses, and surprising hesitation. I believe this is grounded in the way that top students get steered into the academy: professors meet bright students and encourage them to consider an academic path. Once committed to a Ph.D. program, the path to the professoriate is fairly narrow and the socialization messages (you are only successful if you get a tenure-track job at a research intensive university) are both restrictive and insular. Then, in well-intentioned efforts to help graduate students become marketable, many are encouraged to apply for programs, awards, and fellowships that further commit them to the academic path without corresponding opportunities to reflect on whether (or not) academe is the right fit.
People often tell me that they became a professor because they took a course that opened their eyes and inspired them to change the world! Their professors (naturally) suggested that they consider graduate school as a way to pursue their passion. Because people often conflate a person (the inspiring professor) with their passion (change the world), it seems reasonable to pursue the same path as their role model. A decade later, when that formerly inspired student is struggling to complete the Ph.D., get a job, secure external funding, publish research, engage ambivalent undergraduates and/or just manage life on the tenure track, the realization sets in that the production of knowledge is an incredibly slow way of making social change!
Wondering whether or not you really want to be a professor is a natural thought when you’re under the stress and strain of the tenure track, when you experience moments of seemingly insurmountable conflict, or when you’re in an intractably toxic environment. The trick is to determine the difference between escape fantasies that result from feeling overwhelmed and the genuine, gut-level resistance that occurs when you REALLY know you’re on the wrong path. Below I’m going to suggest a few things you might try as ways to differentiate between momentary frustration and the need to create an exit strategy.
Write Your Story
Try taking 15-30 minutes to write about how and why you became a professor. I know this suggestion elicits eye-rolling and dismissal among busy and serious academics; however, the results never cease to amaze. Retelling your story in writing unearths the core elements that drew you to the ivory tower. The writing may reconnect you to your passion or reveal alternative paths.
Reconnect With What You LOVE About Your Work
I’m trained as a sociologist and it’s not uncommon to meet other sociologists who were drawn to the discipline by their passion for social justice and social change. That said, it’s easy in the hustle and bustle of daily work to become disconnected from the very communities that we belong to and/or our work seeks to represent. For individuals in this scenario, reconnecting with project participants, sharing work with the community, meeting with people on the ground to discuss research collaborations, ideas, and connections, can remind you why it’s so important for you to complete your writing projects and publish your work.
Get Some of What’s Missing Into Your Life ASAP
Escape fantasies are frequently fueled by frustration over the seemingly non-stop rejections that are a natural part of academic life. Maybe the grant proposal you poured your heart and soul into was rejected, or the article you were excited about when you wrote it two years ago has been rejected from yet another journal after being under review for nine months. All of these are normal parts of academic life, but they can make you feel like you’re stuck on a very slow-moving ship when the rest of the world’s information and innovation is zipping by at the speed of light. If this is the case, then ask yourself what’s missing and how you can get a piece of it immediately. For example, if you want to share your work more quickly, start a blog, write an article for a mainstream magazine, or join an organization that links researchers to the media as resources (such as the Council on Contemporary Families).
If what’s missing is a sense of comfort and home (because your constant work has left your living space bland and anonymous), then buy a bucket of paint, hang something on the walls, or take an evening to cook a special dinner that will fill your home with comforting smells. Or, if there’s a piece of you that has died as a result of your singular professional focus, resuscitate it by showing some of your paintings in a local gallery, taking a salsa dancing class, writing a Fulbright application to take your family out of the country, or training for a marathon. Each of these examples are drawn from faculty I know who have decided that while they are committed to the academic path, they are going to create some detours along the way.
Explore Other Options
I used to teach a leadership course, and one of the most powerful exercises in the class was identifying five role models (people who are doing exactly what you think you want to do) and interviewing them. This has a way of taking dreams from the abstract into reality. Sometimes students would find that the job they thought was ideal wasn’t what they imagined. Others quickly realize that every occupation comes with moments of fulfillment and lots of daily frustration. And sometimes, the interviews confirmed their deepest desire and they ended up making important connections, developing relationships with future mentors, and consciously moving in a different direction.
Create an Exit Strategy
It’s OK if you decide to leave a tenure-track job (if for no other reason than there are thousands of people who would love to take your place). It’s even OK if you decide to leave a tenured position to pursue other work. Everyone will tell you you’re crazy, but a lifetime guarantee of employment doesn’t feel like a privilege when you’re miserable and you really want to do something else.
These exercises are aimed at helping you to discern whether the kind of resistance to writing that you’re experiencing is fueled by unclear goals. And if so, is it a momentary paralysis in response to the stressors of your environment or is it your true self begging you to use your tremendous gifts and talents in another professional capacity? I find that people who leave the academy because they are pushed by toxicity, frustration, institutional politics, or daily aggression quickly discover that such dynamics occur in all workplaces. But those who leave because they are pulled toward something are often delighted by their choice and wonder why they stayed for so long.
This week I challenge you to:
- Write every day for 30-60 minutes.
- If you are unable to write, ask yourself: Why?
- If your resistance is fueled by unclear goals, start by reviewing (or identifying) your research agenda and asking whether the projects you’re currently engaged in are aligned with that agenda or not. If they’re not, consider gracefully removing yourself from energy-sucking projects that are not moving you in a clear direction of your choosing.
- If the mere question “Do you REALLY want to be an academic?” resonates with you, spend some time reflecting on the answer.
- Depending on why it resonates with you, try writing your academic story, reconnecting with your passion, identifying what’s missing and pulling a piece of it back into your life, interviewing role models, or creating an exit strategy.
I hope that asking whether you really want to be a professor clarifies your own purpose by either helping to confirm your commitment OR redirect your amazing talent and energy. Either way, just putting conscious thought towards answering this question will energize you and get you reconnected to your writing.
Peace and Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore