The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?"

June 3, 2012

by Robin Wilson

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Seven years after earning tenure at the College of Wooster, Judith C. Amburgey-Peters is still working a "nonstop, crazy schedule on 6,000 different things." But she is not sure whether the 80 hours a week she spends leading the chemistry department, advising students, and trying to squeeze in time for research will ultimately qualify her for promotion to full professor.

"When I asked a few years back who could help me with my five-year professional plan, the looks I got back were: What planet are you from?" she says.

Life as an associate professor with tenure can be even more isolating and overwhelming, she says, than being an assistant professor on the tenure track. The path to achieving what amounts to higher education's golden ring is well marked and includes guidance from more-experienced peers. But once a professor earns tenure, that guidance disappears, the amount of committee work piles on, and associate professors are often left to figure out how to manage the varying demands of the job—and fit in time for their research—on their own.

So while Ms. Amburgey-Peters was on sabbatical leave this year, she put together the "post-tenure action group"—a support system for her and two other female associate professors at Wooster. All three were successful enough to earn tenure, but, like many associate professors across the country, they are now struggling through the long years of midcareer, which can be marked by exhaustion, doubt, and even depression.

New national data show that associate professors are some of the unhappiest people in academe. They are significantly less satisfied with their work than either assistant or full professors, according to the data, which were collected this year from 13,510 professors at 69 colleges and universities by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, at Harvard University. Adjunct professors have also made their unhappiness with their work conditions well known, but the Harvard survey focused on faculty members within the tenured and tenure-track ranks.

"A lot of professors, when they get tenure, think they have arrived, but what they soon realize is that life is not that much better," says Robert A. Rhoads, a professor and director of the Globalization and Higher Education Research Center, at the University of California at Los Angeles. "After tenure lots of faculty go through a crisis of meaning, where they think: 'There has to be something more than writing research grants, publishing, and teaching.' An associate professor starts to think: 'Why am I doing what I'm doing?'"

Dissatisfied and Underappreciated

Beginning professors typically spend six years on the tenure track, during which time they are often protected from work outside their own research and writing. But once those scholars are promoted to associate professor, all of that changes. "As soon as you make tenure, you go from being one of the rising young stars of the department to being one of the workhorses," says David Harvey, a professor of history at the New College of Florida.

Cathy A. Trower, research director of the collaborative at Harvard that surveyed professors, says that, in one sense, the findings aren't that surprising. American workers in general are happier at the start and toward the end of their careers than they are in the middle, studies show. Part of that may have to do with the difficulty of balancing the responsibilities of home and work at midlife. And in academe, the run-up to tenure can be so demanding that there is bound to be a letdown in the associate-professor years that follow, says Ms. Trower.

Even so, Ms. Trower says she was shocked at the level of dissatisfaction the survey uncovered. The survey shows that on most key measures, professors are actually happier while working toward tenure than they are once they've earned it.

Close to 150,000 professors, or about one-third of all tenured and tenure-track faculty, are associate professors. In the Harvard survey, they reported being significantly less satisfied than either assistant or full professors on nine of 11 questions related to research, including the portion of their time they get to spend on research and the amount of course release they receive to focus on it.

Associate professors also were substantially less satisfied than those at either lower or higher ranks on five of the seven measures related to service, including the amount of time they must spend on service and what their institutions do to help professors who take on leadership roles to sustain other aspects of their work. Associate professors also are less satisfied with the accolades they receive for their work and are less likely than either assistant or full professors to say that if they had it to do over again, they would choose to work at the same institution.

Ms. Trower attributes a large part of the dissatisfaction among midcareer faculty members to the gap between expectations and the cold reality of the job. People who enter academe were frequently the highest-performing students all the way through school. Their top grades and test scores earned them places in prestigious graduate programs, which eventually put them among an elite group of people with doctoral degrees. Beating the odds and landing a tenure-track job in an increasingly competitive academic job market sets professors up to feel even more special. But the work that scholars end up doing once they join academe is not always quite as special as they imagined, says Ms. Trower. And by extension, she notes, neither are they.

"A lot of people who get doctorates are idealistic, they want to change the world or study something where they think they can make a true difference," says Ms. Trower. "Most of us teach at places, though, where students are after a credential, and where your colleagues—who you thought would be really smart—are people you don't even like all that much. Plus, you feel underappreciated. The president of the college doesn't even know your name."

Brent Chesley, a professor of English at Aquinas College, understands the phenomenon. "We were all accepted into a grad program, completed degrees, got a position, and got tenure," he says. "Then there is this point at which one realizes: Oh, I won't ever earn a huge salary. I won't ever get to live in New York City. But worst of all, I'll never be interviewed by Terry Gross."

Midcareer Malaise

Kathyrn D. Blanchard, an associate professor of religious studies at Alma College, in Michigan, wrote an article for The Chronicle this year about the malaise of midcareer called "I've Got Tenure. How Depressing."

"I went into the nonprofit sector because I thought that would be worth something," Ms. Blanchard said in an interview. "But I've looked behind the curtain, and Oz just isn't all that great. Everybody is asked to do a whole bunch of stuff we didn't sign on for, like sitting on an admissions committee debating whether someone with a 15 ACT score should be admitted. It all feels so much more plebeian and mundane."

Karen L. Kelsky, formerly an associate professor of anthropology and head of the department of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, left her job in 2010. She now runs an online business called the Professor Is In, which gives career advice to graduate students and those on the tenure track. Ms. Kelsky says she gave up her job at Illinois because her colleagues were so busy that they barely had time to chat with her in the hallways, much less have lunch or socialize on the weekends. She found the campus culture stifling and indicative of broader problems within the academic workplace.

Associate professors, she says, are like canaries in a coal mine. "Departments and faculties are being downsized across the board, which means there are now only three tenured people, for example, when there used to be six," she says. "For those who are left it means an increase in the number of committees and the amount of work. The voices of associate professors are a window on what is really going on within the academy."

For most associate professors who find themselves unhappy, there are few alternatives. Because the academic labor market is so tight, the prospect of moving to another university is slim, particularly for those with tenure, who are more expensive than junior scholars. And, as associate professors spend more of their time on service work, and less on their own research and writing, their ability to be competitive on the job market and move to another institution is diminished.

That leads some associate professors to feel trapped at the realization that they may be on the same campus with the same colleagues for the rest of their careers. "You don't have relationships with your colleagues that are fully trusting," says one associate professor of English who asked not to be identified. "There are resentments over privileges, personality conflicts, and struggles over space in the curriculum. By midcareer you've had plenty of battles over things, and they never go away."

Certainly not all associate professors are disgruntled. In fact, the prospect that people with lifetime job security are unhappy can seem ridiculous, especially at a time when universities are increasingly staffing courses with adjunct instructors who have low pay and no job security. Only one-third of all instructional employees at four-year colleges are tenured or on the tenure track.

"To be an American professor is a happy thing, and to be tenured at any level is to be an extraordinarily happy, fortunate, and lucky thing," says Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English at George Washington University. "I don't accept the description that this is one tormenting, anxiety-ridden life chapter after another."

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."

But that also breeds a general level of dissatisfaction, says Ms. Soltan. "It doesn't matter by the time you die if you are John Kenneth Galbraith," she says, referring to the widely read economist. "You are still an enormously dissatisfied person who is always thinking of ways you could do more."

Some associate professors say they have reconciled their earlier goals and dreams, and even the expectations of their universities, with the reality of the job and with their own sensibilities. "People come out of grad school and think, 'I want to be a mover and a shaker,'" says Lynn S. Neal, an associate professor of religious studies at Wake Forest University who earned tenure two years ago. She also knows her university "wants nationally recognized scholars."

"They'd love it if I was Stephen Prothero, who appears on The Colbert Report," she says of the religion professor at Boston University. But a few years into the job as an associate professor, she says, she realized that wasn't her. "After a while, you begin to think, I actually just want to teach my classes, be a good steward of the university, and go home and have my life," she says. "I decided I didn't want to give up sleep, hobbies, movies, or TV anymore."

Help From Universities

Some scholars, like Ms. Amburgey-Peters and her two colleagues at Wooster, are designing self-help groups to give them guideposts during the associate-professor years. The three female scientists gather over lunch about once a month to talk about their own research dilemmas and to share their frustrations with their jobs.

For example, Amy Jo Stavnezer, an associate professor of psychology at Wooster, has collected data from experiments on sex differences in rodents that don't support her hypothesis or the general thinking in the field. "I thought, OK, I have tenure now, I don't have to publish this," she says. "But do I want to publish it? Do I want to collect more data?" Those are the kinds of questions she talks about with the post-tenure group.

The women at Wooster might be reluctant to voice concerns about their work more broadly for fear of being seen as whiny. But the group is a perfect sounding board, says Ms. Amburgey-Peters. "It's a safe place to vet ideas," she says.

A few universities are beginning to recognize the pitfalls of the associate-professor years and do something about it. Ohio State University is creating alternative paths for associate professors to be promoted to full professor, giving scholars credit for directing research centers that get grants, for example, rather than strictly for landing individual research grants and producing publications. "Many of our academic units are beginning to write criteria that would reward things that are not the traditional two grants, 20 articles," says Susan S. Williams, vice provost for academic policy and faculty resources at Ohio State.

Michigan State University has instituted a faculty orientation to midcareer and started workshops to help associate professors develop leadership and managerial skills since so much of the job is about directing and serving on committees.

Deborah DeZure, assistant provost for faculty and organizational development at Michigan State, helped develop the program after the university had interviews with 20 midcareer professors and 20 department heads. The department heads said things like "Midcareer faculty are off the radar screen" and "I think midcareer faculty are feeling unloved and unwanted."

What many midcareer professors are feeling most, however, is exhaustion. The run-up to tenure is so stressful that it can take years as an associate professor to shake off the fatigue and get going again.

For Vanessa U. Druskat, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire, becoming a tenured professor had been a goal nearly all her life. "I decided I wanted to be a professor when I was an undergrad," says Ms. Druskat, who is now 52.

"I was aiming at this, aiming at this, and then you get it and you wonder, What's the point anymore?" she says. "You're not prepared. There was only ever one goal: tenure."

Shortly before Ms. Druskat went up for tenure at Case Western Reserve University, in 2003, she realized, she says, that she would be unhappy if she stayed because of the demanding research workload. "For the first four years there, I never took a day off, even during the summer," she says.

So she moved to New Hampshire, closer to the mountains and the ocean, where she earned tenure and thought the pace would be slower. But her frenetic work life followed her. "I got here, and I found out it's the same story," she says, adding that she still found herself working 80-hour weeks, mostly on things other than her own research. "I no longer have doctoral students to help me grade here, and I'm in meetings all of the time because I'm on a ton of committees."

For a while, the fatigue leveled her. "I couldn't get out of bed," she recalls. "I was literally depressed."

But now that the academic year has ended once again, she is making time for her own work, including a less scholarly book on the role of emotional awareness in building effective work teams that she hopes will have broad public appeal.

"When it is good, it is great," she says of the job. "There is nothing like a summer day, writing in your office, looking at data with your shorts and a T-shirt on with the breeze in the window."

Correction (5/1/2017, 2:23 p.m.): This article and an accompanying sidebar originally stated that Harvard University's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education collected data from 13,510 professors at 56 colleges and universities. The correct number of institutions was 69. Both articles have been corrected.