Per Annum

I’ve been working on my annual report for 2018. It was not a bad year; I got a lot of new money, an award, but paperwise it was lower than my usual annual output and I know why — senior students graduated in the two years prior and the group is full of newbie folks who are still ramping up. I also didn’t travel as much as I usually do, as I just felt deflated: Eldest going away to college slayed me and the rest is just general midlife angst; it was hard to get motivated to do things that at best helped in the second or third order but were draining in the zeroth order. (Do I need to serve on one more panel of a program director unlikely to ever fund me? I think not. Do I have to go give that talk abroad? I think not, because I have tenure dammit and I hate traveling overseas.)

Objectively, everything is fine. Still, I feel a bit like a failure, in part because I had several really good years just before. It looks like 2019 and 2020 will be great in terms of papers, so this mini slump (again, objectively not a slump, but I feel like it is) isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Except that I fear it might be. I fear it signals some sort of irreversible change about me, and maybe it does. That doesn’t mean I will stop doing my job, just that priorities shift and maybe I need to be doing things differently altogether and that’s OK.

Because it is really hard to get pumped about the things I  was pumped about 15 years ago. The science is still exciting, but the mechanics of doing the job isn’t. Writing proposals, getting pummeled, occasionally funded. Writing papers, getting desk-rejected because we don’t make sexy gadgets, sending to reputable but nonflashy journals, battling reviews, getting published. Teaching graduate students from scratch, suffering through their insufferably bad first drafts of first papers, teaching them the genre, having them graduate when they’ve finally grasped it.

I have a full life and it’s a good, enjoyable life. I need to preface everything with this because I am aware of my enormous privilege in every way imaginable (except for the privilege of a very high metabolism that would enable me to eat whatever I want and still remain thin as a noodle). When we go to a school in a bit poorer neighborhood and my kid plays basketball against these kids who just run and hustle and live for basketball, while he’s semi-bored and protesting in advance the lameness of the summer vacation plans, it takes all I’ve got not to yell at him for being an ungrateful brat because he is; he doesn’t realize how good he’s got it and he doesn’t appreciate what went into him having all that he’s having. So I try to remind myself of my many privileges, too, one on them being well paid and tenured, being able to whine and opine and explore what interests me from the standpoint of financial security.

Perhaps my relationship with my job need not be the infatuation of my youth but a friendship with a full recognition of both our flaws and limitations. Perhaps I need to be committed to doing a good job teaching and serving, doing a good job thinking about science and advising PhD students and writing papers. Maybe it’s OK for my job and me to have other friends and hobbies and not be everything to each other.

Then I think about my junior colleagues, so many of them so unencumbered, even if they have families (but quite a few electing not to). I remember never having been able to give my 100% to my work because I was always spread too thinly. I don’t expect people to make accommodations for my choices, but maybe I should allow myself to acknowledge that life is good, that I have done well, that I don’t have to constantly compare myself with the people who can sprint without anything slowing them down, and who are also 10+ years my junior.

I don’t want to cut myself slack or make allowances for my choices; no one else will. But I could cut myself a little slack inside my head, sometimes. The inside of my head sometimes feels like the cruelest, least slack-giving place I will ever find myself in.


(I crave to write fiction again; I haven’t in months, as this semester has been kicking my butt. Maybe starting in September I will go to a coffee shop to write, to maintain some structure but not go to work. But this is all a topic for another post…)



  1. “I need to preface everything with this because I am aware of my enormous privilege in every way imaginable (except for the privilege of a very high metabolism that would enable me to eat whatever I want and still remain thin as a noodle).”

    That is so emblematic of the internet in this decade. You’re imitating what Clarissa calls the “privilege scratchers.” Nobody can say anything without first laying all of their privilege cards on the table. It feels like a religious ritual, only without nice stained glass windows.

  2. Alex, I don’t know why others scratch their privilege. I scratch mine because there’s a side of me that sees the families of the team opposing Middle Boy’s and feels really guilty for ever wanting our team to win because these folks want and need the win more. This side of me tells me to shut up whenever something bothers me, that there are others doing much worse, that I have a family and health and a good job, that I have no real problems and am a lazy spoiled brat making shit up out of boredom, and that I should just shut-up-shut-up-shut-the-fuck-up.

    Then there’s the side of me that won’t be quiet when something bothers me, the side that doesn’t care if what bothers me is considered legitimate by anyone else. This is (usually) the side of me that is compelled to blog.

  3. I really appreciate your candid description of this stage of your life. I often suspect that I’ll feel the same when kids are out of the house and I’m still proposal-ing and paper-writing and teaching students how to do research for the first time. I think my goal is to find a good groove, and always make sure to have something that stretches me in a new direction to keep things interesting. And I don’t see it as privilege-scratching. I think it’s psychologically important to appreciate all of the wonderful and comfortable things about your life — doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to a funk now and then, but appreciating what you have can help keep the funk from turning into a mire.

  4. Though I’m on the opposite end of things career-wise, it seems like perhaps you’ve got a bit of imposter syndrome going (or maybe just the not-so-latent guilt/anxiety that seems to motivate all of us academics) on top of the burnout. The writing fiction again sounds like an excellent idea. I take dressage lessons. We all need a non-academic outlet.

    (not very coherent at the end of a workday where I attempted to persuade Rstats to behave for me for over an hour before realizing it was a capitalization issue…)

  5. Great reflection on things-as-they-are and the tradeoffs. This especially made me think: “Do I need to serve on one more panel of a program director unlikely to ever fund me? I think not. Do I have to go give that talk abroad? I think not.” Turning things down, especially when there’s no likelihood of reward, shouldn’t be hard, but it is. Years of that turning that “yes, I can!” switch to “No, thanks” is, as you say, something that makes you (or me) feel that somehow we’re slacking off or letting someone down. We’re not.

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