Avoiding PTDS: Post-Tenure Depression Syndrome

Why are the years after academics have ‘made it’ so gloomy for so many?

Marc Worrell / Creative Commons

February 02, 2015

I know about two dozen academics who were tenured and promoted to associate professor last year. They traverse the spectrum of the academy, from engineers to language scholars to sociologists. They work at community colleges, research universities, and small liberal-arts colleges. They range in personality type from the quiet and studious to the brash and outspoken.

None of them are visibly happy.

I mean the kind of career-related elation that we’re familiar with in popular culture and in the lives of nonacademics: the giddy joy of football players doing back flips and high fives after winning a big game or, more equivalently, the champagne-popping business professional who has just gotten a major promotion. In contrast, most of the new associate professors I know were so low-key about their promotions that I found out only via a title change on their email or a Facebook status update (as in, "Hey Guys, got tenure, so now you are stuck with me. Haha.")

The phenomenon of post-tenure dissatisfaction is not just an anecdotal observation. A few years ago, The Chronicle reported on a survey of college teachers showing that academics were "most upbeat at the beginning and at the end of their careers" ("A Midlife Crisis Hits College Campuses"). Another article, written by two historians, drew on different survey data to conclude that "associate professors were the most disaffected group in the history profession." I don’t think the situation has changed much.

Why are the years just after we have "made it"—that is, achieved the often decades-long dream of getting tenure—so gloomy? And should, or can, anything be done about it?

Two quick answers for the first question come to mind.

First, joyless tenure is just an extension of the joyless tenure track. I have written before that the quest for tenure is particularly (and publicly) without mirth. Indeed, the workload expected of junior faculty members, especially at research institutions, has shot up drastically in the past few decades. As the competition for tenure-track positions has grown more and more fierce in some fields, the stakes have gotten higher than ever. And the pressure does not relent just because you have grabbed the brass ring. With tenure, the departmental and professional demands on your time will be greater than before.

There is a cultural component as well. Coming off as burdened and tense is almost a de rigueur part of modern tenure-track culture. There seems to be an "if you look happy, people might think you’re not working hard enough" assumption—which has more than a grain of truth.

Another major reason we don’t run down the Quad doing cartwheels after tenure was articulated by the lead character in the pilot episode of The Sopranos. The New Jersey mob boss sits with a psychiatrist and laments, "I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over. … I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?"

Academe is not quite as rough as the mob, but some part of that analogy is useful. I think a meta- reason for associate-professor doldrums is that we all realize that academe is radically changing, and few of those changes seem to be for the better in terms of the status, prestige, job security, and autonomy of the professoriate. In some ways, the best of times are behind us.

So associate-professor lows are, I think, in part based on an accurate forecast: Yes, I am a "winner," but what exactly have I won, and will it prove to decline in value?

Still, perpetual despondency is not where anyone in our trade should be or should want to be. As we all know, the relative situation of the tenured is truly much better than that of the growing ranks of career adjuncts. But telling people to just "get over it" never works to treat depression (however sympathetic or unsympathetic the plight). Over the years I have collected several observations that I think helped me and others through our associate-professor years.

Plan ahead for your posttenure life. Sometimes the track to tenure is so all-consuming that, after your goal is achieved, you feel like Robert Redford in The Candidate, unsure what to do after victory. As the deadline for your tenure bid looms, take a little time to ponder what your goals will be for the next phase of your career.

Find out how other academics proceeded in your situation. Presumably you know some stable, satisfied, productive tenured professors. Talk with them, explore what they did, chart out options, select those that seem plausible, reasonable, and attractive. The scenarios possible at one college may not be realistic at another. But at least come up with a menu of options. Then let it sit for a while and keep tinkering until you see projects you want to pursue.

Negotiate positively. Endless advice is available on negotiating your first tenure-track job. But after getting tenure, your relationship with your department needs a new set of agreements.

As a dean, I admit to a certain amount of bias on this front: Every administrator dreads the Dr. Jekyll who drops in right after earning tenure and becomes a Mr. Hyde, making all sorts of demands—as in, "I never want to teach undergraduates again. Also, all my classes must be held on Wednesday morning."

Don’t be that prof. Rather, after you have thought about what you want, have a long lunch with your chair or dean and mutually—and amicably—define your relationship for the five or so years to come.

Celebrate. Seriously. Congratulate yourself and those who have helped you to achieve this great prize. Have a memorable party. Do not immediately plunge into the next big project. Take that special summer vacation you have been putting off. Buy yourself a long-postponed toy. Clear your mind. Relax. Enjoy. Discover the world that exists outside your office and off your laptop. Stop obsessing, at least for a while, over the trivialities that consume you.

Form a support group. Assistant professors and graduate students naturally gravitate to cohorts and encourage one another to slog forward against the many obstacles in the way of dissertation completion, job hunting, and tenure. Maybe because associate professors are more likely to have families that reduce the hours for collegial socialization, they are less likely to be found in mutually encouraging groups. Also, too many tenured professors don’t think they need (or should need) "help."

But post-tenure is a good time to think about whom you want to hang out with—who will give you the intellectual stimulation and the personal encouragement to keep moving forward.

Look for colleagues who are "planners," people who seem to be thinking through what comes next and not just drifting into it. Bond, meet regularly, and pledge mutual encouragement.

Plan for five years, but think ahead for 50. Back in 2007, I wrote an essay called "Your 50-Year Career Plan." I passed along some of my father’s advice at the close of his long academic career. Looking back on his 50 post-tenure years, he wished he had looked ahead more often. Long-term thinking, he said, might have helped him to complete certain projects with more efficiency and to dump ones that weren’t really significant. He also wished he could have been less anxious along the way, accepting that so long a journey would always have bumps and detours.

I think the associate years can be both productive and fulfilling. Don’t view them as little more than years in which your time will be imposed upon with too many committee assignments and teaching obligations. Use these years to take charge of your worklife and get involved—not only in your own career but also in the direction of our profession.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.