I had a boyfriend in graduate school who would periodically work himself into the ground. When we talked about it, he would say that he only had to work this hard until he got a tenure-track job, and then he could relax.
Even then, years before I left, a cynical voice in my head would say, yeah right. And then it’ll be until you get tenure. And then it’ll be until you make full. And then you’ll have no idea what to do with yourself.
He wasn’t working himself into the ground because it really was necessary in order for him to get a tenure track job, although I’m sure he believed this. He was working himself into the ground because he was profoundly anxious about the process.
Moving the goalposts
I pick on my ex only because it was such a blatant example of what I’m talking about. We all do this all the time.
I’ll be happy when X happens. I’ll take time off when Y happens. I can’t do Z until Q.
We conditionalize a lot of our behavior on things that may or may not be within our control. And that means we give over our happiness and our choices to a capricious world.
This is not an argument against working hard
There are times, sometimes sort and sometimes long, when there really is a meaningful relationship between behavior we don’t want to have long-term and a goal.
When you’ve got six weeks until the deadline to turn in the dissertation, maybe you are working 18 hours days. But as soon as that diss is turned in, you’re not going to keep working 18 hours days, because it was about a concrete goal.
But there’s a difference between a concrete goal and a moving target.
Success in sheep’s clothing
A tenure-track job may seem to be just like the dissertation deadline – something concrete you can point to. But there are two fundamental differences.
First, the dissertation deadline is (for the most part) within your control. You can work more or less, you can ask for more or less help, you can plan or not plan. It’s not easy, but meeting it, barring serious and unforeseen circumstances, is something you can actually accomplish.
The tenure-track job, on the other hand, is subject to dozens of difference institutional, generational, and locational forces that have nothing whatsoever to do with you. There are thousands of bright, capable, utterly qualified people out there who do not have tenure-track jobs because there weren’t enough to go around.
Second, the dissertation deadline is clear-cut and tied to an end in itself. You finish the diss, and you graduate with a PhD. You may want to deploy the PhD into other things, but it is, itself, an end point.
The tenure-track job, or tenure, or the promotion to full – these are all usually markers of academic success rather than being ends in themselves. And that’s why the post moves every time we achieve one of these markers.
What’s your definition of success?
I’m going to generalize for a second: Academics, as a group, are deeply uncomfortable with success. Every time we achieve something that might count as success, we decide it doesn’t really count until we achieve the next thing that might count as success, which doesn’t really count until we achieve the next thing that might count as success. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s damn hard to feel good about the work you’re doing when success gets infinitely deferred into something still farther away.
So let me ask you this: What is your definition of success? How will you know when you’ve succeeded? What will deserve a celebration?
How much is that within your control?
This is the heart of the struggle
We didn’t just make this up out of whole cloth, every one of us. This deferral of success is built in to the fabric of the academic world.
This is a large part of why we feel like failures when we don’t move neatly through the milestones of success. This is a large part of why we feel like grad school was a waste of time unless we achieve full professor somewhere (we think of as) prestigious. This is a large part of why we can’t give ourselves credit for all of the amazing things we’ve already done, whether or not we go forward.
Look carefully at what counts as success. Be wary of being Charlie Brown to the academic football. It ends messy.