In Which I Supposedly Exceed Expectations

Every N years, where N is a small prime number, each department in my college does a post-tenure review of faculty members (1/N of tenured folks get reviewed per annum). I just received my own review, in which the evaluators (a small committee composed of some of my full-professor colleagues) wrote a couple of paragraphs on my research, teaching, and service. The conclusion is that I exceeded department expectations. I was surprised by the conclusion, to be honest. I think I am doing OK, but nothing special.

But when I read their summary paragraph, it really sounded awesome. Money, papers, graduated students, high-level service at the university and in the professional community, teaching evaluations far above average even in low-level required courses with large enrollments of grumpy undergrads. So, on paper, I might indeed look awesome. I might look like I exceed expectations.

I don’t feel awesome.

I think something broke last year. Maybe this is just burnout, but burnout (at least to me) has a cyclic nature. Instead, this feels irreversible. I think my job, or some parts of my job, might have actually broken my heart. I fell out of love with my job—my vocation—and, if my romantic past is any indication, once I am out of love, there is no going back.

I had a lot of very labor-intensive and emotionally draining service at the department and university levels. At a university-level committee I was chairing, a person from another department, who had previously been my friend, made my life hell. This committee is very important and handles sensitive work, and would have been challenging during the best of times. Unfortunately, this person on one side and a higher-up admin whose agenda did not align with the mission of the committee on the other side acted the double whammy of additional stressors. Their aggression affected me profoundly.

I graduated several students.  In case you’re wondering, they all landed good industrial or national-lab jobs. One of the students was very good technically, but challenging to work with and I am overall glad he’s gone.  However, I was put in a position by another couple of students to accommodate their personal choices, as well as the whims and/or funding woes of their significant others’ advisors, to the extent that made me quite uncomfortable, but where I felt I couldn’t say no; my husband says I am nuts to give them so much leeway and I think he has a point. I try to be flexible and help my advisees  navigate the various transitional periods to the best of my ability, but in my experience students often take me for granted and are entirely self-serving in what they ask for, so I end up angry and resentful because I feel pushed far beyond what I am comfortable with because I had vowed to be helpful and flexible. They want more and more and more and somehow they always ask me, a stupid soft helpful woman, while the other important tough male advisors just dish out immutable decrees. I apologize to all future crops of graduate students, but going forward I will be far less accommodating. I will ask that what we had agreed upon be delivered in the manner and within the timeframe that we had agreed upon and I will be much stricter in enforcing how much time can be taken off for interviewing, moving, etc. I can and will be as inflexible as any man. Future students can thank those who graduated in 2017-18 for this. (This goes back to my oft-shared complaint: I wish people wouldn’t ask for so much. People say “What’s the harm in asking? You can just say no.” But the act of asking is already an imposition; it places the ball in my court and the burden on me to be the bad guy to say no, where in reality they wouldn’t have asked anything of the sort in any job or of most other advisors.)

This past year has also been a year of extreme annoyance at everyone who demands that I justify my work as worthwhile because, being that I do theory, it is a priori not worthwhile. This theory—experiment chasm has been growing in recent decades, with groups who do large-scale calculations becoming a world unto themselves with usually limited relationships with experiment, while experimentalists now think everyone just runs the codes written by someone else (We do not! Or at least my group does not.) and generally tend to neither bother to understand the work nor deem it important. This baseline disrespect and constant questioning of the core of my professional existence at the hand of my experimental peers seems to have become worse with time, instead of better with my increasing seniority. When coupled with standard parts of the job, such as the need to perpetually write grants only to have very few of them funded, or having to battle reviews to get papers published, this all makes me want to ask, “Why the hell do I care? This is all so stupid and pointless.”

A related annoying aspect is that I thought, at some point in my career, there would be respect. At some point, the mansplaining would stop or at least abate. I was wrong. I am now in a mansplaining sandwich, with both older and younger colleagues rushing to interrupt, correct, and generally talk all over me. I am so fuckin’ done talking with my colleagues. Every interaction is like having a 15-min run on a treadmill; I end up winded, with my heart racing, just from trying to finish a goddamn sentence.

There is a junior colleague whom I see often and who is particularly exhausting. I admire his energy, but he is a know-it-all who drives me bananas. He also comments on how I don’t work 24/7 like he does (he is single, comes to work at noon, meets with students at 8 pm, all that jazz). He says he can’t understand how people spend so much time getting this job and are then satisfied with just being mediocre. (I don’t know if he’s talking about me, but it sure feels that way.) When I was on the tenure track and I worked non-stop, senior colleagues were scolding me for not taking the time to go out in the sun and enjoy life. As a woman, I am some sort of mansplaining magnet. Honestly, how do people become so insufferable? To so not give a shit about those around them? It’s a complete lack of awareness and empathy. And what recourse do I have? To start telling people that they are getting on my nerves and to please stop talking? That’s a shortcut to Bitchville. Maybe I should purchase some property there.

What is funny is that I do my job and apparently do it quite well, as evidenced by my CV. You cannot tell from it (or at least the colleagues who evaluated me can’t) that I am no longer in love with my work—with my research, or my workplace, or the concept of academic science. Perhaps that’s how it needs to be, but it feels wrong. If feels like I should love it, and I used to. I used to invest all of my personal worth in it, but now it’s whatever. (In case someone wants to come and say “Move over and let someone who’s still fired up take your job,” to this I say fuck off—I don’t owe anything to anyone.)

So much of my ego used to be in my job, but I have now moved it elsewhere, probably temporarily. I am really into fiction writing and it’s going well. I get plenty of rejections, too, but at least the online community is supportive (as opposed to densely populated by egotistical mansplainers who couldn’t say a nice or even neutral thing to save a life), and I feel like I am learning and growing. There are different genres to explore and I am excited about honing my craft and  learning about the lay of the marketing land beyond the literary genre. I had my first story accepted by a zine that specializes in horror! I have a really nice SF story that I want to place into a really good market; it got several close-but-no-cigar personal rejections with feedback. I know that I am getting better because I can already see a difference between the stuff written six months ago versus today, and the journals that accept my work keep getting better and better. Even the encouraging personalized rejections (versus the form ones) get more numerous and have started coming from higher-tier places.

Someone on another blog said that, after a couple of major setbacks, he threw himself into a new hobby with passion and purpose, and got better really fast to the point that everyone was surprised and he even contemplated making this hobby a new career. But the hobby served the purpose of fortifying a wobbly ego, showing him that he could do something well when he didn’t believe he could do anything. After a while, the hobby had apparently served its purpose and was abandoned, with very little lingering interest. I wonder if fiction writing is doing the same thing for me, but my creative hobbies tend to stick around (e.g., eight years of academic blogging, and counting *gasp*!)

Anyway, we’ll see. So far I’m really enjoying fiction writing (have had a couple of dozen total literary, humor, lab lit, now horror, and hopefully soon sci-fi pieces published). I enjoy the language, learning to wield it, learning to carry a narrative and draw people in and manage the pacing, and generally letting my freak flag fly.

As for my work—well, maybe it will have to be just a job for now. We’ll see.

How’s your April 1st weekend going? 

15 comments

  1. Argh! That is frustrating! I hate hate hate when people dish around their opinion about my life/work if I did not ask for it. I avoid interacting with them more than a hello on the corridor. I guess that is the luxury of being an assist prof…I get to interact less because of less service.

    I am going up for tenure next year and I am already seeing that I will be happy for the next few years. But I am reaching a plateau. I love new challenges, and after 12 years in between EU and USA in academia…I am starting to feel a bit restless as the challenge is wearing off. It seems I like the process of learning new things, but not staying in the process once I’ve mastered it. I tend to make a radical change that will keep me on my toes, like I did by moving to the US. There may be a 180 change in the mid future.

    On supportive advisors, my PhD and post doc advisors were massively supportive, and I had a big life event while working for both. I will be for ever appreciative of their behaviour during those times. They are my favorite people after my family. But I do know one is getting burnt from students taking advantage of his good will.

  2. I am in the social sciences and am currently chair of my department. With just a few alterations (primarily replacing students with faculty always asking for things), I think I couldn’t have written the exact same piece. A couple of years ago I took up painting. I’m not very good but I am getting better and getting better rather quickly.

    I’m not sure I buy the wobbly ego hypothesis. It could be that not all careers are meant to last a lifetime but in academia we commit for life. Administration is one path upwards that offers new challenges but I’m finding it is an even bigger burn-out (with just as much mansplaining). I think we got into academia due to a love of learning. Fiction-writing, painting, or any other hobby you know nothing about brings you back to that place of being a beginner, which is a place of passion. Maybe it burns out quickly or maybe it gets you to a level of proficiency and positive feedback before it burns out.

    As full professors, as academics who have achieved a degree of success in their discipline, it can be difficult to find that beginner passion in your work. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. Trying my hand at administration has made me excited to get back to teaching and research. I don’t think I can muster up the same passion I’m currently displaying in my studio, but I definitely have ideas for new avenues I want to explore.

  3. I am sorry you are going through this, xyk. It’s great, though, that the post-tenure review committee can see past the bullshit and give you the evaluation that you so clearly deserve. Presumably, they have access to all/most of your colleagues files and have a much better idea of the norms in your department.

  4. Is it possible that world events are impacting the relative value of success in science compared to what matters in the world? Maybe your job didn’t break your heart–maybe your perspective on what is important has shifted, because there are such big things to worry about outside of work. For me, when compared to the prospect of economic or cultural doom, an exciting new science discovery or lab tragedy seems substantially less important than they would have a couple of years ago.

  5. sounds pretty exciting to me. You found a new field you love and still have the prof gig to pay the bills and can always return to putting your heart in that if things turn around.

    definitely leave the “too many mouths at the science trough” guilt to your colleagues who aren’t “exceeding expectations”.

  6. For what it’s worth you’re an inspiration to me. Thanks for always providing perspective.

  7. Delayed post-tenure slump? I’m not trying to trivialize what you’re going through… it’s just that I see so many of my n-year post-tenure colleagues going through something similar, and I can feel it coming for me too. It’s hard to sustain the interest and intensity of an academic career over the long term, and I’m not even sure that doing so is the right answer for everyone. One of my favorite chemists here (at/post-retirement age) swears he’s going to drop dead in his lab, and I believe him, and he’s happy that way — there’s nowhere else he’d rather be, and he still does a good job of mentoring students and postdocs, so more power to him. But I’m not sure I’m that person. I think it’s something fundamental to what makes good academics, actually: a lot of good academics are people who thrive on the challenge of the unknown and the new. They’re really good at figuring out how to write papers and grants and get through the tenure process. But at some point, it ceases to be a challenge, or at least a meaningful challenge, and then the question is, is the fundamental scientific question an interesting enough challenge on its own? Interesting enough to put up with all the crap that comes with academia, working with unmotivated students, dealing with funding nonsense, doing soul-crushing service, getting out of teaching ruts… in exchange for self-determination, a well-paying secure job, and the opportunity to occasionally make progress on probing the mysteries of the universe and/or change the life course of the occasional student. Anyone who’s been in academia for a while knows the list of personal up- and downsides. But I imagine that the relative weight changes a lot over the course of a career, probably more as the rule rather than the exception.

    One thing I do know is that I come up to the tenure transition, I actually find it quite reassuring to think of all the different, interesting things I could do if I didn’t get tenure. It’s a useful thought experiment that I think everyone should engage in every 5-7 years. So far it’s not enough to make me bid farewell to academia, but I’m also not in the post-tenure slump yet.

  8. My semester has been hell. In my case, I am hoping that it just a collision of several unfortunate circumstances, but I’m not entirely sure. I sure liked my job before this semester.

    “There is a junior colleague whom I see often and who is particularly exhausting. I admire his energy, but he drives me bananas. He knows everything and won’t let me finish a sentence.”

    I have started interrupting back with a “please let me finish” and then diving back into what I’m saying. I’m done with people interrupting me, and this seems to be a generally successful tactic (in part because of the shock factor…no one expects you to interrupt them back). If I need to, however, I have decided I will physically walk away from someone if they continue to talk over me. If they won’t let me finish, I won’t let them, either. (I know that sounds vindictive, but I have come to the conclusion that they apparently don’t care, so it’s not worth my time to care, either.)

  9. Sorry to hear your love to research/advising students is fading… I’m sure it is only temporarily. You set too high standards for yourself. You have been doing really superior work – you should be very proud of yourself!

    Just curious, how much was the lost passion on research due to difficulty in getting funding? I work in a traditional field in engineering, funding for basic research from federal agencies such as DoD, DoE and NSASA have decreased a lot over the years. Many people in my field have switched to applied research, lots of which are really just testing, not much science. I also see the trend that it is harder for young assistant professors in my field to get tenure, because basic research in the field is too competitive. Anyway, I myself is struggling… There are only two options: either going to a new field (most likely multidisciplinary and have some relevance to my old field), or doing applied research by collaborating with industry, which requires a unique facility that very few universities/labs have. I’m also very annoyed by our administrators who only value “money” , nothing else. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from, and the quality of the work doesn’t matter either. Sadly, in many universities, $ has become the only measure of performance.

    Sara

  10. I went through this a few years ago. We moved and I was the trailing spouse (for the first time) going into a soft money position. It took me a couple of years to get back up to full funding and in the meantime, there was a definite break in my tolerance in some of the BS of academia: the lack of positive feedback, the elevation of TT faculty as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement in a field that depends heavily on skilled engineers and scientists outside the rostered faculty track, the instability and randomness of funding (and the concomitant assumption that work should be done for free or painfully underfunded), and the constant tightrope a professional woman has to walk. I almost left the field. I am much happier now but I definitely have permanently lost some degree of tolerance for the particularities of academia. As long as I am doing work I love, I’ll keep at it, but on my own terms. If it doesn’t work out, there is a whole world out there.

  11. “This past year has also been a year of extreme annoyance at everyone who demands that I justify my work as worthwhile because, being that I do theory, it is a priori not worthwhile.”

    I hear you! The experimentalists in my subsubfield are like lemmings off a cliff, but I swear they don’t see it yet, and the NIH keeps throwing money at them. Relentlessly reductionist, empirical work will only get you so far sometimes. The bitter theorist in me is almost looking forward to the perspective pieces that will be written in a decade.

    Sorry you’re going through a tough time. I remain ever grateful for your blog and honesty.

  12. Great post. I’m glad that the fiction writing is a more rewarding outlet. This had me nodding (and laughing) so hard, especially this: “(In case someone wants to come and say “Move over and let someone who’s still fired up take your job,” to this I say fuck off—I don’t owe anything to anyone.).” And the high-energy colleague who’s exhausting to deal with.

    I still love most of what I do but am very nearly ready to quit one part of it.

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