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Overcoming Post-Tenure Depression (PTD)

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

During my somewhat haphazard workouts, I often cross ways with a full professor, who’s been working for the university for more than 20 years. I enjoy these encounters, as my more experienced colleague never fails to impart useful advice on me regarding both my lifting technique and academic matters. When I mentioned to my colleague that I was going through my tenure evaluation, his reaction was “Oh, I am so sorry–I hope you’ll be able to overcome your post-tenure depression quickly.” According to my colleague, the tenure evaluation process is almost always followed by bouts of depression. It is understandable why people get upset when they fail to get tenure, but the prevalence of post-tenure depression (PTD) seems counter-intuitive.

To make the long story short, I had a mild case of PTD, and even though I am not completely out of the woods yet, I believe I am steady on my way to recovery. This blog post, after a semester-long hiatus, is a testament to the veracity of this claim. The purpose of this post is to share some of the strategies I have followed to overcome PTD, with the hope that someone in the same situation may find them useful.

Much has been written about the causes of PTD, so I won’t bore you with repeating what others have stated so eloquently. In summary, PTD is a direct outcome of realizing that earning tenure does not automatically change anything in a faculty’s life. Overcoming PTD requires both realizing the new opportunities that tenure affords and following through on at least some of them.

In the following discussion, I list some of the opportunities and benefits of tenure I have discovered and how I am trying to leverage them.

  • Rejection is easier to take philosophically. While on the tenure track, every rejected paper or proposal would increase my doubts whether I’d be able to build a strong enough tenure case. Now rejections no longer automatically conjure up images of receiving the message of “Tenure Denied!” As a result, I am better able to leverage rejection as a learning and growth opportunity. An additional benefit is that now rejected papers affect my graduate students more than they do me (I already earned my Ph.D. and tenure, while they still haven’t reached even the first milestone). This is really a win-win situation, as it causes my students to get ownership of and be responsible for their work.
  • I can pursue my educational interests more freely. While on the tenure track, I single-mindedly focused on research as all pre-tenure faculty in a research university. With respect to teaching my biggest concern was how I could do a decent job as a teacher without taking too much of time away from my research activities. As I am realizing now, some of these concerns were purely psychological: at times, I was mentally restraining myself from pursuing my educational interests too far. Now, I am looking forward to trying educational innovation in my classes, an investment of time and efforts I can make without agonizing about jeopardizing my research productivity.
  • I feel like I can pursue my other interests without feeling guilty. In my previous life, I was pursuing a career as a professional classical clarinetist. While on the tenure track, I had no time to practice. I felt that working toward tenure required a single-minded devotion, and pursing any other interest would detract from reaching my main goal. Ever since my successful tenure decision was announced, I brought my clarinet to my office and started practicing on a regular basis at the end of my workday. Even though I usually do not get to playing my clarinet until the very late hours of the day, engaging in an activity that once used to be my primary occupation provides me with a certain balance to my life. To keep myself motivated, I am now planning a solo recital some time in the near future.

Leveraging these opportunities have helped me feel better about my job as a faculty. Even though tenure has not changed my work habits (the same number hours with unchanged intensity), having reached this milestone has positively affected my perception of my job.

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