Coping With a Career Crisis

John W. Tomac for The Chronicle

January 27, 2014

Back in graduate school, I remember thinking that successful academics seemed to lead consistently pleasant if somewhat uneventful lives. Now, by some measures, I’m one of those successful academics. After receiving a Ph.D. from Stanford, I spent 30 years as a professor at Yale and eight years as a dean, provost, and president at three different institutions. I have my share of honorary doctorates and memberships in prestigious national academies. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that over the course of 39 (gulp) years in academe, I have experienced countless career challenges and three serious crises. This essay is about how to cope with such crises, whatever your level of success. But before I dispense my advice, I suppose readers want the inside dirt.

I was 28 at the time of Crisis No. 1. I had been an assistant professor for three years and, like all assistant professors, I was worried about getting tenure. I received a call from a professor at another institution that I took to be a tenured job offer. I told the chair of my department about my good fortune, and my university started considering me early for tenure.

Oops. Turns out that it wasn’t a job offer after all. I learned that job offers have to come from a department chair, not a random professor, and that they have to be in writing before you take them seriously. Upon informing my own chair that the tenure offer not only had disappeared, but was nonexistent in the first place, he asked me to write a letter withdrawing from tenure consideration. I was so humiliated that I felt like disappearing down a rabbit hole, if only I could have found a convenient one. I’d made a fool of myself in front of the entire department and who knows where else.

Crisis No. 2, which transpired at age 54, occurred when my colleagues and I finished a highly successful research project designing a new test that could be used for college admissions. I had always wanted to change the way colleges admit students to take into account a broader range of knowledge and skills, and now I had the hard data to support my views.

Our report was published as the lead article in the top journal in my field, and some of the media reported on it as well. My future in research was assured, I thought, because now I could follow up on this research to produce instruments that colleges actually could use in admissions.

Oops. The company paying for our research refused to renew our grant, stating that what we had done could not be scaled up. So much for that research. I was ready once again to jump down a rabbit hole. Where are those rabbit holes when you need them?

Crisis No. 3, occurring at age 63, was just a few months ago. I accepted a job as president of a large university. I had loved my job as a provost and senior vice president of another university and believed that the new institution was a good match for my values and beliefs about higher education.

Oops. After four months, I found that my values and beliefs were not as much shared at the new university as I had hoped, and that I was a terrible fit. So I resigned. Once again, where was the rabbit hole when I needed to jump down it?

In all three instances, I recovered—eventually. I did not get tenure at the early point of Crisis No. 1, but I did get it a couple of years later. In Crisis No. 2, I found private grant money for my research and, with collaborators, instituted the admissions program at two universities. And now, after Crisis No. 3, I have found a faculty position that feels like a good fit.

But in reflecting on what happened, I realized that there were 10 things I did, or at least tried to do, in each crisis that helped get me through, and that might help you, too. (Another source I highly recommend is Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Andrew J. Ward’s Firing Back, published by Harvard Business Review Press.)

1. Realize you are not alone. No matter how bad the crisis, someone else has experienced almost the same thing, and probably worse than you have. But you are unlikely to know about it, because they are not experiencing it at the same time and in the same place as you. Moreover, they are probably not eager to advertise what happened to them. I couldn’t talk about the tenure fiasco of Crisis No. 1 for years after it happened.

If you can find people who have had a similar crisis to your own, talk with them. Part of the recovery process after a career setback is the realization that these crises are not some irregular part of life that happens only to you. Rather, they are experiences that virtually everyone shares, although the particulars vary.

2. You have to be resilient, not just smart. The main characteristic that makes people successful is not their IQ, emotional
intelligence, or even creativity. It is their resilience in the face of what seem to be insurmountable obstacles. Those obstacles may be personal (divorce, illness, a debilitating accident) or professional (tenure denial, loss of grant money, a string of rejected articles).

I have seen many promising classmates from my graduate-school years fall by the wayside. No one back then could have reliably predicted that their careers would derail. But each of them encountered huge obstacles on the road to success, and many simply gave up after the first major obstacle, or the second, or the third.

3. Most of the time, it’s nothing personal. After a string of rejections from grant agencies, I began to think that they had something
personal against me, until I talked to the most successful grant writer I knew and found that his rejection rate was about the same as mine—he just kept submitting proposals. When my university presidency was on the verge of catastrophe, I felt like a failure until I realized that I just did not see the world in the same way as some of my constituents did. They were entitled to their worldview, but I was also entitled to mine.

Much of success in an academic career is about fit—whether to the values of a university, to a popular paradigm in your field, or to the needs of students. In life, when you enter a new environment, first you try to adapt, and change yourself to fit it. Then you may try to shape the environment to better suit you. But if neither adaptation nor shaping works, a valid response is to accept that it’s nothing personal and select an escape route.

4. Learn from the experience. No matter how bad it is or how much you think it was someone else’s fault, you can almost always learn something from the crisis. In my case, I learned that offers not in writing are not really offers, that if one organization does not support my research perhaps someone else will, and that if I don’t fit in a place it is better for everyone if I move on. People interviewing you for a job will be at least as interested in how you responded to a crisis, and what you learned from it, as they are in the actual details.

5. Seek out a support network to help you move on. In academe, it truly takes a village to get anything done, whether it's finding a job, securing a grant, or getting your teaching in order. I’ve made ample use of my own support network.

In the case of a job hunt, you will find some openings in the job ads, but you can learn a lot more just by contacting people you know who might be in a position to help. Thinking about who might serve in your support network is one of the most valuable things you can do to get back on track; and then contact those people. You may think you can move on by yourself, but you can do so much more effectively if you have other people working with, or even for, you.

6. Use any downtime you have to do something you really enjoy. That may not occur to you in the midst of a crisis. You may think you don’t deserve to indulge yourself. You may think you don’t have the time or you may not have the patience. But there may be no time when it is more important to maintain your spirits. For instance, I always wanted to learn German, since everyone in my family speaks it except me. My most recent career crisis proved a good time to start.

You will need energy to renew yourself professionally, and that energy has to come from somewhere. It might as well come from doing something you love.

7. Think twice before striking back. When we feel wronged, as we often do in a crisis, we may become living examples of the notion that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. I have seen people in a crisis spend huge amounts of time and money trying to exact their revenge. Lawsuits, in particular, are extremely time-consuming and expensive.

Your cause may be just. But the more relevant question is whether plotting your revenge is the best use of your time, energy, reputation, and likely, money. Wouldn’t it be wiser to focus on plotting a new future for yourself?

8. Don’t hide. After every career crisis, I have wanted, at least for a while, to disappear. The more humiliating the situation—and many crises are humiliating in some way—the more you may want to hide.

Don’t. You need to reaffirm for people, and perhaps for yourself, who you are and what you stand for. And you need to show people that the crisis has not destroyed you—that you are ready and able to move forward and to surmount the obstacles that have found their way into your path.

9. View the crisis as an opportunity. This, I believe, is the most important step. Because the crisis almost certainly is an opportunity.

In my own case, I did not get tenure in my third year, but I decided at that point to burnish my credentials so that the next time I applied, my case would be more likely to go through. It did. In Crisis No. 2, I used the loss of grant money as an opportunity to decide to go into administration, so that I could put my ideas about admissions into practice without depending on any particular company or agency. And in the case of my resignation as university president, I used the crisis as an opportunity to return full time to the teaching and research I love to do.

In the end, as the saying goes, you should never waste a good crisis.

10. Move on. In a career crisis, it is hard not to dwell on it, and even obsess over it. Why did it happen? How could it have happened to me? How will I ever be able to show my face again? Why would I want to?

The more you are immersed in the past, the less able you will be to move on to the future, as anyone knows who has ever been in a failed romantic relationship. The more time you spend obsessing over what didn’t work, the less time you will have to figure out what will.

So put the crisis behind you. The future awaits.

Robert J. Sternberg will be a professor of human development at Cornell University, starting on February 1. He served briefly as president of the University of Wyoming and resigned last November.