I've Got Tenure. How Depressing.

Brian Taylor

January 31, 2012

Since my provost gave me the news about my promotion, I have been wallowing in "post-tenure depression." Apparently this is an actual thing, though no one told me about it on the tenure track.

The phenomenon seems akin to a midlife crisis. (Indeed, given my age, it may be a midlife crisis.) It is accompanied by the certainty that my life has been wasted, and a sudden inspiration to quit academe and pursue a career in business or improvisational comedy. On the worst days, it manifests as an almost tangible feeling of trying to slog through a pond of molasses. A friend gave me a New Yorker cartoon of a bearded, hairy-legged, bespectacled professor saying, "Today, class, I'm proud to announce my tenure," as he flings away his pants. I am pleased to report that I have not felt even the slightest need to show off my own hairy legs, even for the temporary thrill of shocking my unsuspecting students.

Having scoured the archives of The Chronicle for insight into this experience, I see that I am not unusual. I am, in fact, a laughable stereotype. The most ruthless article I found was Lawrence Douglas and Alexander George's satirical 2003 column, "The Academic Therapist: Treating Post-Tenure Depression," which rang so eerily true as to make me wonder whether they'd been eavesdropping on me.

To wit, they wrote: "Sadly, few seek medical attention for this serious disorder—largely out of shame. Many professors apparently consider their post-tenure feelings of emptiness unseemly, even narcissistic. Granted, whining about a position that provides absurd and often undeserved job security, a decent income, ridiculously long holidays, and no heavy lifting—a job, in short, the likes of which virtually no human beings in history have ever enjoyed or even dreamed of—might appear a tad self-indulgent."

What can account for the feelings of despair and apathy that follow this milestone, the pursuit of which causes us to invest not merely the years of teaching, scholarship, and—gods help us—committee work, but also years and years of postcollegiate education?

The thing about depression is that it feeds on truth. There's a certain sense of clarity that comes with tenure. Most obviously, there are less-savory synonyms for the pleasant-sounding euphemism of "job security," such as "stuck" or "trapped" or "you'll never get out of this godforsaken place!"

Besides that, it's as if you've suddenly woken up to all those things you usually let slide. Perhaps they annoyed you before, but now they present an existential problem.

The futility of your work suddenly slaps you hard in the face: Those students will never care about the issues you spend your days and nights caring about. You've probably written your last book—the one that only your indexer, your dad, and one other person actually read. It will be at least two decades, maybe more (you don't know, you're just a humanist who hasn't had math since high school), before your take-home pay reaches the $75,000 threshold that psychology experts say is the level up to which money actually can buy happiness. Some of your male colleagues will never get it through their heads that Title IX is not just about sports. All this and you're not getting any younger.

While careers in higher education do not, for the most part, earn themselves a spot on that Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs (I truly am grateful that the universe has made it possible for me not to pack scrapple for a living), the truth is that academe can be brutal. That might be tolerable if not for the self-delusional tales we tell ourselves about the mission of "higher" education. It's a little bit like going to work for a religious body that outwardly celebrates community and neighborly love, only to find out that religious people are just as rude, petty, and self-centered (or, put more charitably, tired, lonely, and mentally fragile) as anyone in the for-profit world.

But while greed tends to be the assumed motivating factor on Wall Street or K Street, higher education feeds on idealism. It draws in workers whose lives were changed by a great teacher, or who live to find out more about their favorite subject. (Yes, there are also those social misfits who couldn't possibly have survived anywhere else. Tenure exists primarily to keep that crowd off the streets.) We enter our careers believing that we are going to make a difference, and we are willing to make sacrifices to meet that goal.

"Money and power are not important," we tell ourselves; "I am changing the world!"

At some point, though, perhaps when we hear that little voice say, "You've got tenure," the less sanguine among us may hit a wall of disillusionment. We may decide that we've been foolish; that higher education is a sinking ship; that social progress is a myth that has outlived its usefulness; that real change comes not from our lesson plans but from Facebook and not from Ph.D.'s but from M.B.A.'s or J.D.'s or BG's (big guns).

When that happens, what is the best way to keep going? For some of us there may be a sabbatical on the horizon, when we can take a few months away from teaching and committee work to lick our wounds, regroup, and watch bad television. Others may employ cognitive therapy, SSRI's, and/or mindfulness meditation to do the trick. But few of us, especially in this market, will dare to drop out of the rat race because we are, in the end, rats who have been trained only for this particular race.

If nothing else, post-tenure depression is an appropriate occasion for a reality check. With a little luck and a little perseverance, the shock eventually wears off, and we remember: I have a position that provides absurd job security, a decent income, ridiculously long holidays, and no heavy lifting—a job, in short, the likes of which virtually no human beings in history have ever enjoyed or even dreamed of.

Kathryn D. Blanchard is an assistant professor of religious studies and director of women's and gender studies at Alma College.