Different Stages

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.

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7 thoughts on “Different Stages”

  1. Thank you, this is very interesting! I just realized that what happened when I got tenure (and faced a bunch of new responsibilities) is that I realized that I am accepted, and stopped trying to prove myself.

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  2. Those of us at research schools and in the fields where external grants are the norm (and the grad student advisees and postdocs are paid with those funds) are forced to remain in the tenure-track-like state, constantly hunting for money. This is a likely reason for my disillusionment with the job. I want to do different things, focus on longer-term and more ‘blue sky’ projects, change fields, get more engaged in the professional societies, enjoy teaching… But we cannot, because the only metric is money money money money, and in order to keep getting money you need to a) stay close to the fields you’ve been in; b) look at the topics that are doable and not too out there; c) keep writing grants, at a rate of 10 grant proposals to get 1 awarded, which is a major time sink and really depressing. All of these are antithetical to what a senior faculty member would naturally be inclined to do. As a result, I am very much out of love with my work. Ironically, this year has been ridiculously successful in terms of grants. It’s like funding is playing hard to get, and once you keep ignoring it, all of a sudden it’s interested in you.

    I would also like to be able to take a real and complete break from work, which I cannot because I have graduate students (and yes grants always looming). Not even a sabbatical feels restful.

    This is a long-winded way of saying I would totally embrace the tenured-prof life, but external forces apparently want us to keep grabbing and hustling all the way to retirement like we’re newly hired assistant professors.

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    1. This is why I resist the attempts to bring funding games into the Humanities. We don’t actually need money for our research, so there is no real need to get into the grant chasing mania. The pressure exists, though.

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  3. Out of curiosity, are there negative consequences to trying to act as if one is further along in one’s academic career that is preemptively moving ahead to another academic stage? That still leads to being out of sync with one’s stage in their academic life I hear professors tell their grad students that they should stop acting like grad students or new professors that they should talk about their research and conduct their research as if they have tenure. Does the push for professionalization also lead to unhappiness and frustration or does that make a grad student/freshly minted PhD better prepared for the job market and better prepared for their next stage?


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    1. It can be very counterproductive if you are starting your TT and at the same time getting into leadership roles in scholarly organizations or committees. There are tenure requirements, and you have to complete them. That should be the number 1 priority. You can lose valuable time if you act like you are tenured when you are not. Plus, nobody will react very well if you start getting all bossy before tenure.

      So no, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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