This is the promised post on different stages of academic life.
Graduate student. The main big thing that differentiates a graduate student from an undergrad is that nobody babies and praises you all the time any more. As a talented undergrad, it’s easy to stand out but in grad school you need to rely on internal motivation a lot more. And it’s hard to relinquish the addiction to praise and to being celebrated like an uncommonly amazing creature. Plus, the time is a lot less structured and it’s a lot lonelier. So you have to become inward-oriented, and if what’s inside isn’t capable of giving much joy, misery begins. That’s why many grad students are depressed. They’ve been left alone with what’s inside, and it’s not that amazing.
Tenure-track. The difficult thing about tenure-track is the sudden autonomy. Now if you didn’t bother to study the operational papers before your third year on the TT, it’s your problem. If you banked on a book and forgot to publish articles, ditto. When I first created my own syllabi as a professor, I brought them to the chair so that she could tell me if they were ok. She refused to look at them and said, “If I hired you, it means I trust you to do your own teaching as you see fit.” That was a great professional lesson for me.
Tenured. I discovered that the way to be happy as a tenured professor is to stop seeing everything as being about you. During the tenure-track, you had to prove yourself, demonstrate that you are a worthy colleague, a great teacher, a productive scholar, etc. After tenure, it’s time to get more outward-oriented again but in an adult way. You have to start mentoring, running scholarly organizations or projects, looking at what’s good for the field or the profession, helping others, etc. It’s time to become a figure of authority and not just somebody who is still trying to prove themselves like a confused, underappreciated kid.
Every stage brings a different degree and kind of autonomy, and that can be a great thing if you are ready for it.