Getting Out of the Post-Tenure Slump

I’ve had tenure for awhile now (maybe four years? I dunno. I was too lazy to go look it up). Prior to going up for tenure I worked like a mad, rabid dog for a solid five years. What this means is that while I am only paid to work 9-months out of the year, I worked year-round. So yeah – I worked three months a year for a good five years for free which adds up to something like one year and three months that I donated my time. I donated it primarily to writing articles in case anyone was wondering. I doubt I am an unusual case.

When I got tenure it took me an entire year to calm down. I kept working as though I didn’t have tenure at all. I had developed a horrible, horrible habit of working too much (and did I mention working for free???!!!) that it took me a year to recognize what I was doing and break that habit.

breakinghabitsAnd break that habit is exactly what I did.

For me, post-tenure means that if you pay me to work 9-months, then I will work 9-months. Yes, I might do some work in the summer. I might do some writing. I might do some tinkering of my courses, but this is all my choice, and it’s because I want to and not because I feel like I am a slave to my job. And that’s all well and good (and necessary!), but I noticed something else after I got tenure and calmed my ass down.

I noticed it was really hard to give a damn about anything work related. Anything at all.

At first, I thought it was just a phase that I would get over sooner rather than later. But, as time went on, I noticed I continued to regularly not give a damn. I started to grow concerned. How long was this not giving a damn going to go on for? Forever? I only mildly cared.

I had dinner with a friend one day who’d had tenure a few more years than I did. She assured me this was a normal thing that most people go through. She assured me I would come out the other end of it. I followed up that conversation by interviewing recently tenured people at a conference. By interviewing, I mean I randomly asked people questions about their attitude post-tenure while we were drinking. Hey, each interview has its own set of protocols that are appropriate for the context you are conducting the interview in.

Everyone was in the midst of their own post-tenure slump. No one wanted to do anything. Getting work done was painful. We didn’t care that we didn’t care. And of course, we are not alone. Many people have written about the post-tenure slump (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C).

And then, just like that, the slump broke.

Well, I say just like that but I think it lasted three-fours years. But one day it felt like I had just woken up out of a fog. I had energy again. I had motivation again. Doing work wasn’t painful. It was exciting, and I was excited to do it. What happened?slump

I don’t know exactly what caused the shift in my attitude. Looking back on it, I think it’s because I have been inspired by a research project that is currently in the design phase and that I hope to launch next fall. I think I got tired of the same old formula. The typical formula of how to conduct and publish research in my field had worked very well for me in terms of getting tenure. I played the game well. But now it was boring. Now I had tenure, and I needed to do something different. I needed to push myself to rethink how I was doing research and how I was talking about it.

When I look back on it, I needed to change two things:

  1.  how I worked and
  2. how I engaged in my work

I definitely needed to scale down in terms of number of hours that I worked, and I was able to do that within the first year post-tenure. But what I didn’t know is that I needed to evaluate and break the pattern of how I engaged in my work. I needed to change up my engagement in order to push myself intellectually, increase my personal motivation, and also improve what and how I contributed to my field. I couldn’t continue to engage in the mindless formula I had used up to the point of tenure. Don’t get my wrong, the approach I took on the path to tenure used to be very engaging for me – but that’s because it was relatively new to me and provided me with a challenge.

But post-tenure? I felt like I had completed my marathon and needed a new and different way of doing things. Plus, what’s the point of having tenure if I can’t stick my neck out there and take a few risks, right?

So…my take away from this whole experience is as follows:

  1. post-tenure slump seems to be normal and experienced by most people who drink with me at conferences regardless of institution
  2. you may not be able to control falling in/out of the slump
  3. embrace your slump. use it as an opportunity to figure out what is working and what you need to change

A post-tenure slump can be a good thing. It can signal a time for you to evaluate who you are, who you want to be, and what direction you want to head in. Take some time to evaluate your career , what you want to keep, and what changes you want to make.