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Post-tenure job stress, part 1/N

I'm feeling a little down job-wise, and perhaps looking for some advice.

I got into this job for several reasons, and I can't shake the feeling that I'm set up never to be excellent at any of them. Some are below, not in order.

Super-brief context: I'm likely teaching a 3-3 load (none of these are likely to be research classes) and chairing my department for the foreseeable future. This is in addition to broader campus service, which becomes more relevant the more senior I become.

Research: I'm actively re-examining my research goals. I'm probably working on way too many projects, but still. I honestly thought that, at this point in my career as a professor at a small college, I'd be spending at least 20% of my time on research. I'm lucky if I get 4 hours two out of every three weeks, and that's in a good semester.

I have good ideas, but I end up with a raft of unpublished work, and the feeling that spending more time on publishing would leave less time for mentoring undergrads in research. The unpublished work probably damages my reputation in the field at this point, as I'm increasingly likely to get known as someone who doesn't get papers out in a timely fashion. I've recently (far too late in the game) decided to make some hard choices in terms of making sure I get things published and making sure I can run with the pack at the top of my field ... but I'm not 100% convinced I can actually do so. To be clear, by "run with the pack at the top of my field" I don't mean that I expect either the research output or the grant output of colleagues at R1s. I mean that I want to be recognized as a high-level contributing member in my subfield, recognizing that I'll be slow-and-steady in my output, rather than firehose of productivity. Friends at small colleges, any advice? Friends from research institutions, any reality checks for me in terms of whether this is something you think I can actually do?

Activism: One of the reasons I came to Earlham, in particular, was because the college envisions itself as an active force for social good. It is a constant source of frustration to me that essentially zero hours out of my week are allocated to social justice issues. This isn't because I don't care; it's because the rest of my job (which seems more actively required by my institution) takes up all available time. Colleagues and friends: how have you found success in this area, or have you found it at all?

I mean, some part of me thinks I have a ton of skills that could be extremely useful working for social justice or political campaigns. I've done some of that work before. Would that make a bigger impact on the world?

Teaching: I've definitely gotten more efficient at teaching, and better at teaching. I'm a really good teacher. I probably do the best here out of anything. That said, I rarely get the chance to feel like I'm ahead of the game with respect to teaching. I'm usually prepping for class the day before it happens. I though that, this far in, I'd be spending all of my time designing new activities way in advance, with most of my efforts focused on broader issues. It seems like the rest of my career has encroached on teaching time to make this harder. And I would (might) be a better teacher if I dropped everything else and just focused on being a teacher.

What does tenure have to do with it? Like I said above, I thought I'd be in a different spot now. On a related note, I do a lot of mentoring for visiting folks and non-tenured folks. Especially for the visitors, I feel quite comfortable giving them very aggressive advice to protect their time. As a tenure-track person, and now as someone with tenure, I feel much more of a responsibility towards shared governance. It's why I chose Earlham, rather than a more generic institution. I also felt a bit abused by the system when, as an untenured professor, I was "asked" to do work that tenured folks weren't doing. So, I'll definitely feel a bit hypocritical if my response is to back way off on service once receiving tenure.

It's possible that this is just the "post-tenure slump" I've heard about (people like me tend to be very goal-oriented, and I pushed very hard for many years to get tenure, and there's not an obvious next goal), and that's likely part of it, but I don't think it's the whole thing. If these are personal issues, I'd love to fix them. If these are structural issues ... well ... I'd love to know if it's possible to change structures. Meanwhile, if these are all structural issues, and if I'm not in a good position to change the structures, I'll feel less hypocritical about changing my priorities.

My institution is fond of saying "it's OK to say no" but that's not always so easy. Does anyone have concrete advice for things they've successfully said "no" to? Things, or types of things, I should say no to? I often advise other folks to say no to things, and I say no to some thing myself, but I'm obviously not saying no to enough things, since I don't feel like I have any real space for actively-chosen growth.

A few notes:

  • For Earlham folks reading along, I used "chair" instead of "convener" as a shorthand because most of my friends aren't familiar with Earlham's structure, and it seemed like the clearest way to communicate the point. For non-Earlham folks, there's a difference, and an important one, but the main point is that there's some non-negligible responsibility in either case
  • I posted a version of this on Facebook, and got some great advice. Some gems included
    • A suggestion that I make "seasonal" goals, where I take all of my energy in a season and devote it to a particular research project, or a particular course, etc., but just one thing.
    • A couple of comments from R1 folks on the research part telling me not to be an idiot about expectations, and that R1 folks are barely making it. Noted.
    • Therapists and life coaches are professionally excellent at helping with this stuff; maybe I should get one of those.
    • "any job that asks people to do an impossible amount of worthy work and puts the burden on the individual to say 'no' to keep their load reasonable is not a job with an effective management structure."
    • A reminder that I have a really good book, The Peak Performing Professor ... time to go back to reading it, since I only read snippets originally.
  • This post is mostly about job-related concerns. I have a family (wife is in academia, twin 6yos, plus a 9yo). I absolutely could spend more time with my family, as one always could, but I don't feel like I'm failing in that regard. I draw a pretty hard line in terms of making sure that time is walled off and reserved. This is more in response to people who are going to say "don't forget to spend time with your family" but it's probably also relevant for people who think I might be able to work consistent 80-hour weeks ... nope. Uninterested in that option.


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