The Long Game

Just another professor asks, and is seconded by lyra211

JAP: What is the long game or, alternatively, the ultimate point, of an academic career? The opportunities to go upward or across are very few and far in between, you either succeed (and get bored), or you always struggle (not bored but not fun either). What would one do after becoming a full professor in a mid-rank R1? Thank you for openly sharing your thoughts on this topic.

lyra211: I’m going to second “Just Another Professor,” and expand to ask about thoughts for dealing with life after tenure — the “post-tenure slump,” the sudden crushing service load, but more positively, the opportunity to reinvent yourself career-wise once you’ve secured a long-term position. Have you ever thought about changing fields, moving into more administrative roles (I’d never want to be at the dean/provost level, but I’m kind of intrigued by running our pre-matriculation program for underrepresented STEM students…), starting a side gig within academia (mine would probably be science education research) or even outside of academia (like your writing)?

I think this is one of those questions that every individual has to answer for themselves, and answers differ widely; I can say what is crystalizing for me. Warning: Meandering, stream-of-consciousness post ahead.  

My personality is such that I like to dabble and try new things. I enjoy learning and gaining competence;  traveling the road from novice to expert feels exhilarating. In my work, this means I would, in an ideal world, change fields pretty dramatically every few years. This would presumably be much easier for me  than for people who are experimentalists, but I am in a discipline where I am expected to work with students and postdocs and raise grants to support them, and raising grants in a field with no track record is very hard. Yes, if you are flush and have an army of underlings and discretionary funds, you can do work first for a few years and publish some papers in a completely new field before you start applying for related grants.  But how many of us are that flush? Basically, to keep people funded, I have to make small plausible changes to my research focus, rather than the big exciting ones I would love to make. Why don’t I just do the work myself? I try, but there just isn’t time. I am only one person, teaching, doing a mountain of service, advising, writing papers and grants in a field I’m established in or adjacent fields. This is already a full-time job.

And, to be honest, sometimes you need a break from your full-time job. I don’t have the energy or motivation to take on a pet technical project that I would do all on my own on top of my actual job. A new technical project in a really remote area is simultaneously too much and not enough. I know how to do research, I know what the endgame would be — write papers, write grants, teach students. Even though the topics would be brand new and challenging, the endgame is something I am perhaps too familiar with. 

Instead, I write fiction. This is a path along which I don’t need to teach anyone anything except myself. I rise and fall on my own, and my own skill is the only one I need to worry about. I enjoy meeting writers; they are a different breed than my colleagues. My worlds has become kinder, more colorful, and more joyous after I’ve let more arts and artists into my life. 

But that’s me, and those who read this blog already know plenty about me. 

In midcareer, most people in academia face a reckoning. They ask, “What now?” They feel exhaustion and boredom with what they have been doing, yet see limited options to do something else. Even former superstars  with massive groups might find the funds have dried up, their groups have shrunk, and they’re scraping to get by. I know some people who’ve been well-funded for years only to start getting slapped around with declinations, facing a mixture of anger and bewilderment that the rules of the game seem to have changed (they haven’t; it’s just that their new-faculty sheen has worn off). I can totally understand the impetus to go to administration, especially for folks who have good people skills. You feel you’re doing something important and are doing it well. For certain individuals, feeling successful, competent, and externally validated is very important. A scientific career, sadly, offers very little of that. In the long run, most people feel overworked, overlooked, underappreciated, and often completely hopeless and helpless when it comes to the grant race. It can get really bleak out there. 

Some people need external recognition, and getting awards or fellowships in various societies is their imperative. I used to think that was important, but cannot really give a toss at this point. 

I really enjoy teaching. I also enjoy working with my graduate students, and I want to be able to do some exciting work with them, and write papers that I find interesting. Hopefully others find them interesting, too, but that’s ultimately not something you can control. You can only follow your own instincts, passions, and scientific taste. Follow the love, as they say. 

Opening my world to arts and artists also has the benefit of reminding me that an academic job is objectively a very good job. Much better than most other jobs. It has security, good pay and benefits, and the ability to work flexible hours with no direct oversight. I don’t really know if there are other jobs out there quite like it, but I can tell you that many would kill for a job like it. 

I think much of our midcareer academic angst comes from our belief that we need to be in love with the job to do it well — where well means well enough to be worthy of it. This issue may not plague just academia, but it gets amplified by the lifelong job commitment typical of academia . I am here to tell you that you don’t have to love your job. Your job is not your child nor spouse nor friend. If you like and enjoy your job for the most part, that is more than most people — not in academia, in the society at large — can say. That is enough and you are worthy. I objectively work just as hard right now, probably harder, than when I was junior. I am better at it, but there is also so much more work. I love it all less, in part because having been beaten down by grant rejections has taken its toll, in part because the job and I have been at it for almost two decades and some of the spark has gone out, but I do it well, and I do it hard, and I am worthy of it even when (or perhaps especially when) my heart isn’t in it. Because it is a job. It only loves you back to the extent to which the people who are in your life because of it love you back. 

If working with your students fills you with joy, if chatting with your colleagues makes you laugh, if brainstorming with your collaborators fires you up — that is it; that is the love your job gives to you, and you are worth it because you make those relationships thrive. So do not feel bad that you do not love your job because I guarantee you do love the parts (the people) who do love you back. The rest — the rejections, the grading, the unnecessary paperwork — of course you don’t love it, as well you shouldn’t. 

At the end of the day, it’s the stuff that nurtures our inner selves (our creativity and curiosity) and the relationships that we have built that make our time here worthwhile. 

So strike that new collaboration, give one talk and hear dozens at your favorite conference, have fun with undergrads in your classes, and proudly send a newly minted PhD into the world. The people who are better off for knowing you and working with you and learning from you are your real legacy. 

Academic blogosphere, what do you say? What is the long game/the point of an academic career? 

3 comments

  1. This is just what I needed to hear. I am experiencing severe COVID-fueled malaise at the moment and it helps to be reminded that academics have a pretty good deal despite all the bureaucracy.

  2. Just want to say thanks for doing NaBlogWriMo – the daily posts were a highlight of my day! Always enjoy your opinions, musings, and happenings in academia and life.

  3. Hi AsstProfLyfe, thank you! Glad you enjoyed them. It was really challenging this round, more challenging than I remember it in the past; I had to reuse posts or post links, and still ended up missing days. I am busier than I was in the past, which is a bit disconcerting as I hoped the busyness would plateau by now, and this semester in particular is kicking my a$$.
    Still, please keep reading, and I will try to post more regularly, at least a couple of times a week. It was fun to connect with people on the blog again.

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