Thursday, August 26, 2010

Required Suffering?

An offhand comment in an e-mail from a colleague contained the sentiment that it would be uncool to appear to enjoy the tenure-track and that nowadays it would be "suspicious" if someone made it obvious that they were not suffering before getting tenure.

Does anyone agree with that?

To agree with that opinion, you first have to believe that it is possible to enjoy being an Assistant Professor on the tenure track. Just based on my own experience, I know that it is possible to enjoy work and life before getting tenure. Enjoying your pre-tenure existence doesn't mean you aren't stressed out -- i.e., it doesn't mean you are totally confident and think you are a Gift to Science (or whatever) -- it just means that you aren't miserable most/all of the time, perhaps even questioning why you have devoted so many years to this stressful job that you might lose.

I was somewhat stressed out about getting tenure, especially since I changed institutions (to one with a higher standard for tenure), had a baby, had a series of dysfunctional graduate students and postdocs, and knew that at least one of my tenure letter-writers did not think much of my work. Overall, though, I enjoyed my work and life, and cannot say that I suffered unduly.

Of course I had to publish and get grants and have an international reputation and juggle live flaming iguanas while doing cartwheels, so I don't think the standards or general experience of attaining tenure have changed in the last ~10 years. Nevertheless, I found much to enjoy about my research and teaching, and most of my pre-tenure fellow travelers also seemed to share my mostly-positive attitude.

Have things changed? Would this semi-enjoyment of the pre-tenure life be totally uncool these days?

That is, does anyone agree with my colleague? When I was thinking about this, I wondered if our impressions are colored by the blogosphere. The prevalence of my-tenure-track-life blogs gives us all a much broader exposure to the varied experiences of tenure-track faculty in various fields and at various institutions, and blogs are a good place to rant, vent, complain, express outrage, share the stress etc. (and this blog is obviously no exception).

So, do blogs like this give us a more accurate impression of the tenure-track life or do they amplify the negative, leading some people to conclude that pre-tenure suffering is de rigueur?

There are several questions embedded in this discussion:

(1) Can one enjoy the tenure-track life? I say yes.

(2) Is it uncool or suspicious if you are not visibly suffering? I don't know, but sometimes it seems that way from reading various blogs.

(3) Is the blog-view of the tenure-track life a good representation of the typical experience (especially if you read a lot of blogs) or is the view skewed toward the negative owing to the nature of blogs and the people who write them? I don't know, but can anyone suggest a few mostly-uplifting, I-am-having-fun pre-tenure blogs -- and perhaps also their opposite? That is, which pre-tenure academic bloggers are having the most fun and which are the most miserable? Feel free to nominate your choices of blogs that characterize the ends of the pre-tenure blog spectrum.


Anonymous said...

In my institute, there is a strange stereotyping. If you don't complain verbally to everyone around you about how much work you have these days (how many deadlines you have upcoming, the sleepless nights you had that week, the many hours you spent in the lab/office, how you don't have any time for other life activities than academia), then people (including the department head) gets the impression that you are not busy enough, you are not working hard enough, that you are not successful! It is a weird stereotype/culture that is difficult to change. So I learned that it will be better if I go along and start complaining verbally about how much work I have.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Is it uncool or suspicious if you are not visibly suffering?

No, and this is the stupidest fucken thing I've ever heard. External people want to write good tenure letters for, and internal people want to vote for tenure for, faculty who are enjoyable to be around and to have as colleagues. Grumping around like a fucken martyr doesn't help this at all.

My guess is that the people saying this fucken garbaggio were, themselves, miserable as junior faculty--and probably still are as tenured faculty--and they are they kind of cramped bitter assholes who can't stand to see anyone else experiencing pleasure in their job.

Nicole said...


I like to think that in the back of their minds they think, "She's not suffering... I sure hope she doesn't leave us for a better school!"

It helps that a few of my slightly more senior untenured colleagues have gotten "better school" offers and have turned them down because the environment here is so friendly. I cannot believe how much I lucked out by doing what folks thought was striking out on the job market.

Nicole said...

Adding on... I didn't read very many (any) academic blogs until I started my own blog with another academic friend. I always thought the extreme negativity among the untenured was due to the high preponderance of humanities faculty, for whom not getting tenured is a much worse outcome than for a social scientist. Our job markets are a bit tighter.

Our blog is entitled grumpy rumblings, but we're only grumpy, not terrified. The worst possible outcome for both of us is that we move to the bay area and get higher paying jobs living near many of our friends. One of us would be reunited with her significant other, and the other's spouse would become the breadwinner rather than the trailing spouse.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I think it depends on how clear you are about what you are getting into and how at peace you are with your choices.

I'm not choosing the tenure race, because I don't like what it's turned into (and yes, I do think it has escalated in the last decade by a substantial amount). I have made and am now making some choices in my life to focus on a work project to a degree people find shocking because of the deprivation and suffering they think it entails, but from my perspective, I've assessed my options and picked the one I liked best. It's not perfect, but the world isn't here to give us everything we want all at once in a neat bundle. No matter how you slice it, I still have better options than most people either alive today or who have ever lived, so while my problems are real and sometimes terrible, it's not like I didn't have better choices than most.

It makes a big difference if you aren't doing what everyone tells you you're supposed to do and expecting a good outcome because you did things "right". I've seen people do that a lot regarding career decisions, marriage decisions, childrearing decisions. If you've always been told that everything will be okay if you follow the correct roadmap to professorhood and tick off all the correct steps, so you follow that road believing that's what you're owed if you do what you've been told, you're in for a lot of weary resentment whether you attain the goal or not. Nothing that complicated ever works as it's "supposed" to, except for a few of the most privileged who happen to have powerful people paving the road for them the whole way. Odds are you won't be one.

I'm in the end run of my doctorate, and got myself into a quite pathetic financial corner a few weeks ago, which I dealt with by going to my bank and cheerfully explaining my sorry financial state and asking for advice. The tellers felt horribly sorry for me at first, but when I explained what I could reasonably expect in the not-too-distant future, they said they were starting to feel jealous, not pitying. I told them in this economic climate, they really don't need to feel bad for anyone fortunate enough to obtain an engineering doctorate. No matter how you slice it, I'm still better off than most.

Anonymous said...

(1) I say yes. I enjoy my tenure-track life. I don't think it's that unusual in my area of science.

(2) Most of the people in my department enjoy assistant professor life (except, perhaps, those who are not writing papers, getting grants, etc). How much does life change after tenure? It looks like the associate professors are doing similar things to what I'm doing now (teaching, publishing, getting grants, and serving the University) -- so it doesn't seem like life changes that much (if you hate it now, won't you hate it later?).

(3) I only read three blogs. Two of these are academic (one is this blog). I don't think either of the academic blogs paint academia in a negative light.

Anonymous said...

1. I agree with you that it is possible to enjoy tenure track life. Like most of real, complicated life, I enjoyed parts of it, and did not enjoy other parts. After tenure is better for me, so far.

2. In my experience and at my institution the opposite is true: It is better to outwardly appear confident and look like you're enjoying your job. [but without being puffed-up and arrogant]. Who wants a miserable wet rag around? I got the following advice from my dept. chair: "Fake it 'till you make it"

3. I try not to read too many blogs--one of the reasons is the personal journal style, with a lot of writing-based self therapy. It's useful for the individuals writing the blogs, but doesn't make for a good read from my point of view. I prefer to read the few more literary blogs, and I prefer to hang out with my real friends and colleagues, who are usually having an interesting combination of a lot of fun, and not-so-much-fun.

Anonymous said...

Not on the TT (yet), but I wonder if this is similar to hearing/reading about others' postdoc experiences. So many people gripe about awful theirs is, while I've really enjoyed my postdoc, for the most part.

I think some people just enjoy being miserable. Others shouldn't be in this job and really are miserable. And then there are (plenty of) those that enjoy their job, but don't say it out loud since they're surrounded by miserable people.

Anonymous said...

I am on tenure track, and having the time of my life. Money is easy to come by (easier than after tenure). Students are great. I have no idea where things are going, which makes every day fun. I'm mostly spared service work. Life's great.

Ianqui said...

I totally agree with your colleague's sentiment. I certainly worked hard during my pre-tenure years, but (1) I wasn't suffering and (2) I enjoyed a reasonable amount of time to devote to non-work activities. Yet, reading tenure-track blogs often made me feel bad about myself, like I wasn't doing enough work and like I should always be doing more.

Facebook isn't much help either--I HATE it when my colleagues constantly have status updates about the work their doing.

But you know what? I got tenure. I'm not the most famous (young) person in my field, but lots of people know me. I saw a talk at a conference recently that was a direct extension of my research. I didn't suffer to get where I am, and if people are more or less efficient workers, they won't have to either (unless their university's tenure requirements are way more strenuous than mine were).

Anonymous said...

Great question!

I remember one conversation I had on a train platform near the end of the first year of a TT position. An acquaintance asked how my semester was going and I replied by noting that I was probably completely going against the grain but that I had cleared out most of my work and was enjoying the last week or two of the semester before summer. He laughed and agreed that saying how I don't have much work to do is not the typical response...

Anyhow, I'm now starting year 4 and still not suffering, but I'm at a SLAC and don't have the same pressures of an R1 (I do publish quite a bit however).

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed life pre-tenure (though it did take me 11 years as an assistant prof to get tenure). I don't think that tenure requirements at the public R1 institutions have changed much in the 24 years I've been a prof.

Those who hate being grad students often end up hating being postdocs, then hating being assistant professors, then hating being professors. I don't know why they torture themselves (often very publicly). Perhaps, as some have suggested here, they chose to narrow their options down so much that they now feel trapped.

I did grad school in math and computer science, which are fields allowing a wide range of interests and the option of moving to industry if academia does not appeal.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

I think it is possible to enjoy the pre-tenure period. In my experience with two institutions while pre-tenure, I find that the more highly ranked one (where I eventually got tenure) has more of a culture of stress, complaint and general busyness among all faculty--but particularly among assistant and associate professors.

It took me several years post-tenure to understand how much this is a product of cultural ideologies (so to speak) rather than a product of the actual demands of the job (and contributed to by the fact that 90% of the faculty are highly driven overachievers).

I don't read a lot of academic blogs, but it does seem to me that the medium lends itself to the more general discussion of unhappiness in part because blogs that highlight what's great about an academic career are probably less likely to get lots of comments and be linked to via various social media.

There also seems to be a growing number of blogs from folks who have left academia for different reasons, but usually because of the job market, and these paint a fairly dismal portrait of academia (from the perspective of someone who haven't really seen it from any side beyond that of a graduate student).

Not to say it isn't stressful at all levels from graduate training through retirement--it surely is, but there are also many benefits and delights and these are not publicly aired very often (perhaps for fear of retribution from state legislatures???)

siz said...

Whenever I read about how much tenure track assistant professors should be suffering it stresses me out because I don't feel like I'm as stressed out or as suffering as I should be. I LOVE my job. I heart it so much I can't imagine doing anything else. I work my 12 hour days, I work my weekends. It's what I expected. I love teaching, I love working with my students. I'm learning not to detest writing grants so much because it feels so good to submit something I'm proud of.

Is there something wrong with me? Should I be more stressed out?

GMP said...

I think it's a combination of "if you don't complain, you must not work hard enough" mentality at many universitites, with the fact that blogging really lends itself to venting (people are much more likely to write about the things that bother them, in search of support, than about the things that make them happy).

Being a prof is the job what I have always wanted to do. It's a wonderful job in many ways: you are your own boss, you get to work on exciting problems of your own choosing, you get to interact with brilliant people of all ages (students, postdocs, collaborators). But it's also a competitive enterprise, and as such carries a lot of anxiety. And it involves interacting with people, which is never entirely without friction.

My tenure track years have been stressful but I have also really and thoroughly enjoyed them. And I enjoy my job now that I am tenured, even if I bitch about the day-to-day challenges. Pressure and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive -- as any adrenalin junkie will tell you!

Lastly, talk is cheap: people may complain, but it's what they do about it that

Anonymous said...

As someone who is up for tenure this year, I will say that I have been enjoying my job but this year is extremely stressful so far. The tenure process seems akin to hazing and I'm very much looking forward to it being over. Plus my service load just jumped tremendously.

There isn't a culture of complaining here but I am certainly feeling overworked and underpaid lately. No raises for multiple years in a row will do that to a person.

Principle Investigator said...

I agree with CPP that it is better not to be seen as a big whiner/grumpasaurus. However, it is still better to be seen doing a lot of work but not complaining about it! ;)

The academic blogs that I choose to read regularly tend to provide a balance - in general, the authors are glad to be where they are, although there are funny, annoying, stressful, and sometimes even deeply disturbing aspects to their jobs.

a physicist said...

I think some places have clear expectations for tenure. After a few years, it becomes clear to you if you are meeting them or not. If you're meeting those expectations then you can be pretty calm.

Many people blog about places with unclear tenure expectations, or very political tenure processes. The assistant professors at those places will obviously be more stressed out.

I was fortunate to be an assistant professor at a school with clear expectations and also I was fortunate that I met those expectations!

MathTT said...

I enjoy TT life a lot. Partly, I overachieved on the job market, got an R1 TT job right out of grad school, and probably won't get tenure.

But my job is in paradise... I get to live in an amazing place and have a 6-year adventure. Maybe it'll be for longer. I hope so. But I'm OK if it's not.

Also, I really really like my work a lot. I have awesome collaborators, more problems to attack than I know what to do with, an amazing advisor who keeps throwing opportunities my way, and terrific colleagues who seem to like having me around.

I think I appear happy and like I'm having fun. (They see me with surfboards at the dept on occasion, so yeah.) Also people know I work hard. They see me there at night and on weekends, and they see what's getting done.

But seriously, if I didn't like this job and this place, why would I want tenure so bad?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mom seems to be doing well (at least right now):

Anonymous said...

I've been on the tenure track for a couple of years and have noticed a clear pattern. If I start looking too happy, my chair or other senior faculty comes to my office and gives me a stern lecture about writing more papers and proposals. Of course this stresses me out and makes me look appropriately miserable for awhile. Although I like my department, it seems to be against the rules to be too happy before tenure.

Anonymous said...

Tenure stressed me out (I was an Associate Professor before, and some of the stress came from trying to understand how to reconcile tenure and the career of an Associate). Having said that, I'm more creative and productive as a researcher when I'm happy, so the idea that someone has to be miserable seems completely counterproductive.

Female Computer Scientist said...

There is likely a selection bias in the blogosphere. On the non-suffering end of the curve, happy people probably don't blog often because they don't feel they need the support. And I imagine the majority in the middle can't be bothered to blog.

In graduate school people are expected to be miserable about dissertation writing. You are also expected to express doubts about your ability to graduate / finish. I think it's ridiculous. I can't even pretend to feel that way. Heck, I can hardly stand to read PhD comic anymore - the jokes are based on things I've never felt as a graduate student. (Maybe due to being "mature"?)

Anonymous said...

I am on the tenure track and generally really enjoy my job. It's definitely the culture at my college, though, that you are supposed to appear as if you are sacrificing your life and happiness in order to get tenure. Junior faculty are treated as "young and naive" for being positive or optimistic or wanting to try new things.

That's one of the main things I don't like about the place - everyone has been trained to be really negative all the time and so there seems to be little room for positive, productive conversations. It's definitely a shame since the students are fantastic and I generally really enjoy my work.

It's good to hear from other people that there are some better places out there where it's okay to be cheerful. = )

Female Science Professor said...

I am happy to hear from the happy tenure-trackers!

Anonymous said...

Well.....obviously tenure track isn't easy at all. I think anyone should enjoy what little bit of life they have while on tenure track. I'm just much more bothered by people who try to hide their most difficult periods by pretending it's easy. By the same token, it is hard to work with colleagues who complain 24/7.

Ann said...

I found the idea that assistant professors are "supposed" to be miserable to be perverse. Sometimes they are, but I would have hoped that everyone would recognize that this is a bad thing, indicating that they are not at an institution that is a good fit for them. I don't see how constant complaining could possibly help your tenure case, or how seeming happy could hurt it, unless you are in such a sick place that you should not want to stay there. Also tenure is nice, but its not like things magically change after. If you are unhappy at your institution before tenure you probably should make some changes now and not expect tenure to fix it!

Sorry, i dont read any other academic blogs, since yours is the only interesting one.

plam said...

No, I'm not miserable as an assistant professor. People often observe that I have a lot of balance, e.g. that I do things other than work pretty often. While there are a couple of areas in which I'd like to improve my CV, I think that it'll most likely be OK (but you never really know until you go up for tenure).

No one picked up on the (to me) somewhat roller-coaster like ride before tenure. You get a paper into a good journal, you think you're all set for tenure. Then the next grant application comes back rejected. "Oh no! I'm sunk now!" Iterate... Objectively I know that no individual item is really going to either sink or make the case, but I do hope that this Early Researcher Award comes through.!

Susan B. Anthony said...

@siz: I'm right there with you, TT and enjoying it more than I ever expected. That's not to say it isn't stressful or that nothing dumb or annoying ever happens or that I never complain about my job. But on the whole I'm having a blast. My department seems to have a healthy attitude towards stress/workload. We are all busy and occasionally sleep-deprived; we rant to each other about grant proposals and bureaucratic idiocies and lab frustrations; but we also share our success stories, talk about our families and our lives outside work, and smile at each other a lot. This makes up for a lot of TT frustration, and I think makes it a really nice environment for the grad students as well.

Adam said...

I enjoyed tenure track life. It was stressful thinking about tenure sometimes but I was greatly helped by good mentors, senior faculty who told me I was doing the right things and that I was going to get tenure no problem. Of course one never completely believes them, but it does help.

At my University one doesn't see people relax much when they get tenure - they may even work harder because more things to do fall on your lap as you get more established. I find myself taking on more admin responsibilities because before I had tenure I thought "no thanks, I'm not going to volunteer for stuff like that til I get tenure". And my mentors shielded me some too. Now I feel I have no more excuses and it's my turn to shield the junior people.

James Annan said...

Well the system in (basically public-sector) labs in the UK is not as cut-throat as the USA is reputed to be, but we had some sort of tenure review. I complained loudly and repeatedly about how shit the system was in various ways, but never felt any personal misery from it. In fact my willingness to speak out was bolstered by the fact that I believed (correctly as it transpired) that I was comfortably above the required threshold. But being theoretically tenured isn't worth that much when there are redundancies all over the place anyway. On the very same day I got made permanent, I got an offer of a short contract in Japan which I took and which has been repeatedly renewed for a decade now. Still a shit system but at least I'm paid a decent salary and have far better facilities.

Anonymous said...

It's so good to hear so many TT or tenured profs saying they still enjoy their jobs. I'm a postdoc, and I grew up in a culture (though my parents weren't professors or event scientists) that if you were enjoying yourself, you probably weren't working hard enough. I'm trying to train myself not to think this way, but reading career articles online about the dearth of science jobs can undo it all in a minute. Blogs are usually worse. Thanks for the optimism. I might give myself a bit of a break this weekend. (I can add too that in my PhD department at a good R1, the assistant profs seemed wound really tight all the time.)

Average Professor said...

I wondered about this exact thing as an assistant professor. I reached a point where I was not that anxiety-ridden. When several (tenured) colleagues remarked on how relaxed I seemed, I started wondering if they thought that was some kind of red flag.

(I remarked about it here:

Well, if they did, too bad. It's stressful enough to be an assistant professor without stressing out over whether or not you seem stressed enough!

Anonymous said...

I'm in my 5th year TT at a top-5 ranked R1 department. All of the untenured profs in my department seem to be doing well - working hard, but liking their jobs. We tend to talk about everything: family and outside hobbies in addition to how much work travel we have to do, annoying grant paperwork, lab member difficulties, long class prep time, etc. The senior faculty expect us to seem super-busy but happy, like we're all still having an amazing after-glow for getting hired in the first place and we're in love with our jobs in spite of the long hours.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I definitely enjoy my life on the tenure track, although many days I find myself wondering why... usually because a colleague has just finished a long rant about why his/her workload is the worst.

I'm doing my best not to become, as CPP puts it, "a fucken martyr." It can be quite a challenge when everyone else is doin' it.

Anonymous said...

(1) Academic life is very difficult. I've survived my first year as an assistant professor, and I can say it is the hardest thing that I have ever tried. Not everyone who tries is in their 20's, and the lack of sleep, long hours, constant rejections etc. are sickening. I am starting my second year, and hoping things will be better. At the moment, I can say that I am greatly challenged by my job and starting to enjoy it (when I can work on my research).

I think part of the problem is calibrating ones expectations.
I was hoping to limit my hours to 65/week and secure funding after one year. Neither of those happen, and I am stuck with the 80 hour weeks and no funding as of yet. I am trying to solve the funding problem, and know that I just have to accept the hours as they are.

(2) It seems that most of the assistant professors in my department are also having a tough time. The more relaxed ones already have funding/continuation projects from earlier jobs.

(3) I don't read blogs other than yours. Life as an assistant professor is tough (unmanageable at times), and portraying it in a negative light is not unreasonable.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I think I'm enjoying the TT life. Certainly have my periods of misery - I agree with an earlier comment about it being a roller coaster, and overall in science the highs can be infrequent. Probably the biggest stress if funding - I do wonder if that has something to do with the increased stress. While I was a grad student, NIH went through its doubling.. and now we are paying the price as new investigators going up against people who got established in those times. And yes, there are more new investigator programs, but many in my area (cancer) fund at less than 10% (typically meaning 1-2 winners.. that's a tough sell). But perhaps I'm just unaware of how tight things were back then (I did my PhD for a new PI, who quickly got a CAREER, several small grants, and then a R01 before tenure).

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on the culture of your place. At the place where I did not get tenure, a lot of pre-tenure people (especially women) seemed to be miserable and stressed out, and it seems like just as you thought you were meeting expectations the bar would move -- even for the people who were exceeding previously communicated expectations. When I left, three other close buds in my cohort were also leaving for similar reasons and we were all like "hell to the yeah let's get out of here!"

The current place I am at is not as far up the status totem pole but it has a much more positive institutional culture, better resources, and clearer expectations.

Anonymous said...

I agree, it all depends on the culture of the place. If the culture is negative then getting tenure doesn't make you happier, because you're still there, still in the same environment.

There are also people who believe in bonding by complaining, and competing by depressing other people. I often get this, still: people seek me out for advice saying they've got a horrible problem, but really they don't want a solution, they want company in misery. I've met a lot of this in academia, but I don't enjoy it and I also don't think it's necessary / think it's counterproductive.