From the Director: The Mid-Career Issue
About a year ago I ran across an article (see link below) asserting that mid-career faculty (defined in this article as associate professors) are “some of the unhappiest people in academe.” An expert offered the following: "After tenure lots of faculty go through a crisis of meaning, where they think:
'There has to be something more than writing research grants, publishing, and teaching’.”
I was intrigued, because I’d just had a handful of conversations with faculty here, some associates
and some full professors, sharing with me a similar sense of restless questioning. The faculty members I talked with expressed less angst and depression than those quoted in the article, but were definitely dissatisfied -- and surprised to find themselves in that state. For many of us, the quest for tenure, and then full professorship, provide a set of goals that ground and guide us – until those goals are reached. Like Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity, we may find ourselves set adrift and lost in space, suddenly untethered from the mother ship.
The anxiety of alternatives
In response to those early conversations, I initiated a Faculty Learning Community to explore mid-career questions. And in the process I learned something interesting: some people view the topic with suspicion; for them it implies a new-age-y indulgence. For others, it introduces panicky and unwelcome thoughts of major life overhaul; I suspect that, for these individuals, there’s an implicit connection to the “mid-life crisis” concept and its fabled dramatic resolutions: new job, new spouse, moving to a new part of the country.
Some feel the tug of dissatisfaction but are hesitant to inquire further – why rock the boat, existentially speaking? We have secure jobs and should be grateful for that. Yet, the little voice persists. Most of us entered academia in part because we appreciate job security. The specter of change, and of too many alternatives, may create anxiety.
After talking with more faculty about this, I learned something useful: those who study their mid-career ennui and subsequently build a new sense of career satisfaction do it by making changes that are (typically) not dramatic, but rather small, incremental, and multiple. There is no need to go on the job market, move to a new country, or take an administrative position (although some may choose these paths, and happily). Those who shared their stories with me found ways to locate new projects, passions; they learned to say “no” and also “yes” – strategically. As academic blogger Claire Potter points out, “We protect the untenured from institutional overwork — but who protects the tenured?” To get a clear sense of the path forward, it’s necessary to say “no” sometimes to requests for your service. Some, on the other hand, find renewed meaning by diving into a service role or faculty governance responsibility. Whatever the source of rejuvenation, getting there requires taking the time to listen to that inner voice. Last year’s Faculty Learning Community on this topic was designed to facilitate that listening process; read below about the experiences of the five members of that group.
The life-stage question
Finally, a conversation over coffee with Law prof Jennifer Wright helped focus my attention on a dimension I hadn’t considered: changes in the social dimension of work at mid-life. Younger faculty, especially those raising children, live in a whirl of busy-ness and often don’t feel the need to build up social connections. At the mid-career point, many faculty find themselves reaching out to form new relationships inside and outside the workplace – or re-invigorate the old ones. This may be why some pursue collaborative research projects after years of solitary scholarship. This shift can also inspire new perspective in the classroom; Wright describes her transition to focusing more closely on the unique features of individual students, what motivates them, what they can offer. This detailed form of mindful perception is hard to achieve during the warp-speed early years of teaching.
An ongoing conversation
This special issue of Synergia is not intended to be the final word on mid-career issues. I am interested in hearing from more of you to find out how Faculty Development can provide meaningful programs and resources for faculty at this stage of the career journey. What is your experience? What are the obstacles to mid-career growth you’ve noticed? I’d like to know: email@example.com.
Wilson, Robin (June 3, 2012). “Why are Associate Professors so Unhappy?” Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Are-Associate-Professors/132071