I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

Tenure

I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  — explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.

Impatience

A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review — then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

13 thoughts on “I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

  1. Eric, as a recently tenured faculty member and an immigrant woman of color and a single parent, I concur. After the second year of my tenure process, I had to switch my publication outlets so I could join the ‘mainstream’ because you know, critical and action research journals are not ‘accreditation friendly’. I was a closet homeschooling mother as well! I didn’t want my colleagues to think I was prioritizing my child over my profession. Equally importantly, I didn’t want them to think what was good for their children is not good enough for mine. Especially when I didn’t have religious reasons! For a few years there, my son and I would ‘just pass the salsa’ or ‘the mail’ when we ran into discussions about schooling.

    The expectation that one needs to be stressed is quite high regardless of who you are. In my case, I had and raised a baby as a single mother while being a graduate student. I had crossed all kinds of thresholds of stress during that phase: is that whopping cough? Can I pay the rent? Oh jeez, my friend who offered to babysit while I could do my TA job is out of town, How the hell am I going to find someone at this last minute?. A tenure track job that paid well and the said baby being no longer a baby was a walk in the park, compared to the years before. But there was a suspicion that I was not stressed enough.

    I manage stress by imagining the worst case scenario. If I can handle that, I am good to go:) And also don’t forget to enjoy the passion and the success. Even if it sound cliched, passion, organization, and a dose of humility is a good combination. As I am writing it seems like, I have a blog post in the making!

    Good luck.

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    • Wow, I admire your resiliency. And, congratulations on earning tenure! I find the stereotype, present even in academia, that mothers aren’t as committed to their work problematic. I’d say it exists broadly for any kind of family or personal life outside of your work — prioritizing self-care included. We’re still trying to prove ourselves against a metric that reflects the lives of privileged white men who, if they are fathers, see a bump in their status at work or no difference in how they’re treated. That’s got to change!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. And yes, much change is required.The trick is to arrest the leaky pipeline so we build a critical mass of marginal folks at the top/with power. We need to challenge fundamental assumptions and definitions about work, productivity etc.. Your website is a great space for fostering these conversations and hopefully, change.

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  2. Glad you are at least aware of SWS! But I will say that the winter meeeting in particular is the best remedy for ttstress around, including the systematic mentoring that everybody needs (going it alone or believing you should is the root of your stress reaction and it is totally unnecessary). No one makes it alone. That “individualism of the academy” is the biggest and most destructive myth of all.

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