Tuesday, February 12, 2013

PTSD (Post-Tenure Stress Disorder)

As I wrote in an earlier post, I keep thinking about the similarities between Stockholm Syndrome and the way academics turn over their lives to a punishing and often baffling system that infantalizes you, leaves you feeling like you're never good enough, takes away many of your options in how you lead your life, and leaves everyone so desperate for more that they rush off the cliff (aka PhD programs) like happy lemmings.

I make a point to read blogs and articles, looking for anyone saying how much they love being an academic, how great it is to have tenure, how amazing their life is, and so on and so forth. And yet what I keep finding is how disillusioned everyone seems to be. How the things they thought would make them happy (a tenure-track gig, tenure, promotion, etc.) do not actually make them happy, and quite often make them depressed.

Before the PhD, I kept telling myself, "if I can only get a tenure-track job I'll be set," and then after getting that job I'm sure I'll be telling myself, "if I can only get tenure I'll be set." Turns out that the crisis of faith I'm having after this major milestone (getting my PhD) sounds pretty similar to the crisis of faith that is de rigeur for academics who have just gotten tenure. They stop their frantic publishing and conference presenting, look up, notice the sky, the trees, the spring buds about to burst, and feel like they've been missing something really important. They stop running in the hamster wheel of their chosen profession and realize they are exactly where they were when they started.

I've come across several articles recently that document post-tenure depression of various sorts. A quick search of the keywords "tenure" and "depression" turns up the following on the Chronicle, among others:

And that's just on the first page of search results. So you mean to tell me that even if I could somehow magically skip the whole process of the job search, landing a tenure-track job, publishing, teaching, and working my ass off for the next five years and have tenure right now, that I would have to face (another) crushing depression, identity crisis, and sense of let-down? No thanks.

The one upside to it all, the silver lining that all of the professors tout is that they now have virtually total job security and lots of vacation time. I certainly hope to be able to say better things about the peak of my career than job security or how much time off I'm getting. 

I suppose if I were into challenge for challenge sake I could just take one of those jobs, get tenure, and then leave academia to go do something else challenging rather than sit on my laurels for the rest of my life. And apparently there are a good number of academics who do exactly that.

Yes, Sir Edmund Hillary may have climbed Mount Everest "because it was there," but I think I'd rather just hang out at the ski lodge, play cards with my friends, and not get frostbite.