The Burden of Associate Professors

Posted by Lawrence Bowdish, community karma 347

The other day I happened across an article in the Chronicle, "Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?"

While none of the article was "groundbreaking," except for a quote from one of my old undergrad advisors-David Harvey, it did make me think about that strange time in many an academic's life that I think is largely glossed over when one of us plans a career.

After tenure, I think undoubtedly some professors fade into the background.  They teach what is absolutely necessary, publish at their leisure, if at all, and live the next 25 years or so on autopilot.   At the other end, are those who are very driven, talented, and well-supported (either inside or outside their institutions), for whom their academic career is a blazing trail towards stardom in their fields.

The remaining 90% (of course, this number includes people who get to tenure at all) in the middle are the people most represented by this article.  They are overworked, especially in an environment where universities depend more on part time adjunct and visiting professors to teach classes, leaving a much bigger share of the administrative and advising tasks up to Associates.  They are *usually* at a time in their lives where their home-lives need attention (younger children, spouses).  Often, they are at the start of a brand new project. 

What can be done to support the "workhorses" of our academic departments?

about 12 years ago


Will Hauser, community karma 227

Gee thanks Lawrence, posting something depressing like this just as I'm finishing up my Ph.D.  : P


This passage caught my eye and I tend to agree with it, I know I'm a perfectionist and while I don't think I'm a "climber" I will admit that climbing the ranks is a natural byproduct of an obsession with doing everything to the absolute fullest and best extent possible.


Ms. Soltan recognizes, however, that higher education attracts people who are "neurotic, ever unhappy, and ever restless," which, she says, is partly a good thing. "You don't want your tenured professors to just sit back, take their money, and teach a few classes. The profession wants people who have enormously high standards and who always think of ways they could do more and how they fall short."


I suspect that some of the dissatisfaction of associate professors relative to assistant and full-tenured counterparts stems from the expectation that tenure would be some sort of catharsis.  It sounds like it isn't but I bet every professor working towards tenure thinks it is and has all their hopes and dreams pinned on achieving it.

I bet, unfortunately, it's just like receiving the Ph.D.  I've worked so hard on this for so many years that I can't help but feel like somehow I'll be better and my life will be miraculously improved when I can put that Dr. in front of my name.  The truth is probably that my life will be better in some ways, and worse in others, and about the same overall.  So reaching that goal will be a let down; all this build up and effort just forces a good amount of optimism on even the coldest pessimist and when the reality doesn't meet the unrealistic expectations people are unhappy.  Nevermind how great the reality is, people only see how their hopes and expectations were not met.

As to what we can do to improve the situation, I have not a clue but I hope someone figures it out before I get there.

almost 12 years ago
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Gordon Douglas, community karma 549

I have an idea, a part of answer, about this. Basically, I guess it's about expanding notions of what one "does" and how one defines oneself around and beyond the title of associate professor.

I grew up in a university town, so it's been clear to me for a pretty long time that "being a professor" is a great gig. Even as I've sunk into the long haul of a phd program and even as I've confronted painful realities about the academic job market and the future of the academy as a profession, while it has made clearer to me that this job ain't for everyone, I've never stopped wanting to do it myself. But in confronting the daunting career prospects, I've also began to see (coincidentally really, but perhaps also as a strategy) that there are many other compatible things one can do (and do well) along the way to, on top of, and (if need be) instead of being a professor.

What does this mean? Well, to me it means that I've realized I like writing about interesting things enough to write about them much more often (and in much more simple terms) than most academic publishing careers allow, so I've embraced the idea of blogging, twitter, and writing for more 'popular' publications, not just as a distraction, but as something I enjoy and identify with. The same can be said for photography, which I've incorporated into my academic work but is also something I can really identify with 'doing'. I don't expect either of these passions/identities/jobs to disappear just because I get tenure or something, in fact I hope I'll have even more time for them.

Another example, even more directly related to my academic work, is the connections I've started to make in the world of art, architecture and design in terms of writing, speaking, acting, and event curating. Having been invited this year to join a team putting on an international architecture and design exhibition as a result of my research in sociology makes me confident that these sorts of unexpected, exciting, and extremely fulfilling non-academic opportunities are out there and can still be totally tied to academic work.

These things are specific to my own experience, but anyone can chase such opportunities, and indeed I think they should. Perhaps the most obvious general activity to spice up an academic's life and identity is activism! We think of people like Francis Fox Piven or Norman Finkelstein who are defined by their activism, but many academics (and not just social scientists!) are fulfilled by fighting for the causes they believe in.

Again, this is not the answer for everyone, and I concede it's a pretty roundabout, off the rim attempt at a solution to improving the lives of dismal associate professors in general or broadly. But for me it offers a great deal of hope in the face of articles like this that there are many fulfilling ways to put one's interests, passions, knowledge and academic training to work beyond "just" researching and teaching.

almost 12 years ago
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