I often write here about burnout and, whether that comes across or not, I admit that I usually feel it’s my own fault the fires of technical creation do not perennially warm my heart.
But this week I realized — belatedly, surprisingly — that it’s probably not all my fault. There are serious structural obstacles to faculty work at research institutions.
Over the years, the way the university handles research funding has been getting more and more unpleasant. We have a designated department-level person, then a hub of college-level admins with one specific liaison per department, and then there’s a sponsored programs office that works with the whole campus. I love most of our department staff; however, following the addition of a new department-level grants person, now every single grants person I interact with is an unremitting bureaucrat. The number of rules we need to follow (most of them internal, mind you) is proliferating, the paperwork mounting, the internal deadlines unneeded and ridiculous, and we as PIs now have all the responsibility for all levels of operation (all purchasing, every single penny, approval of everyone’s travel) without any of the help from the admins, only more rules, oversight, constraints tightening from all sides, and all pleas for flexibility are met with formal emails forwarding even more formal memos in which yet another instance of procedural ossification has been approved by some official body, somewhere.
I feel that the admins whose role is to help us get grants not only don’t care, but actively hate us faculty and do not in the least mind doing things that make our jobs harder. There is no interest in helping or supporting us. There is only the bureaucracy’s interest in easing its own life and dumping as much work and as much responsibility as possible elsewhere.
Things have slowly been getting worse over my time as faculty, but I’ve always thought it was just me getting worn down by age, face time, and other forces unknown. Now that I am on sabbatical and the stress associated with teaching large classes is lifted, I clearly see that my mood and motivation are generally fine, but that all interactions with the grants-processing staff send me into job-related despair. I feel like I work among people whom I cannot circumvent, but who obstruct my work to the point of near sabotage.
It’s not all me. A lot of it is the fuckin’ system.