Who Is At The Controls In Your Career?

July 9, 2012, 4:32 pm

About ten days ago, Dr. Crazy asked the question: “What do I wish people would have advised me not to do?” Four years post-tenure and about to stand for full professor, she is trying to evaluate a period in her career that has been vexing, stressful and ill-rewarded. Go over there and join the conversation.

Many of us will identify with Dr. Crazy’s self-criticism that she has “let things overtake me that haven’t necessarily been the most positive for me, professionally or personally.” The partial list of what she regrets speaks to many of the ways in which nice people, people who try to identify and meet institutional expectations, can put their own needs last. Worse, engaging in institutional policy-making and hiring can make a good colleague into a target for other people’s resentment in ways that s/he never imagined. As university business swallows time and energy, a tenured prof who thought that the work would make her feel effective and powerful feels adrift and vulnerable instead.

Dr. Crazy raises some good questions about how she ended up in such a bad place: Who should have been paying attention when her life took this turn? When should she have stood up for herself? Which colleagues should have encouraged her to rethink her priorities?

Some academics plan their careers very shrewdly, but I suspect the vast majority of us don’t. We proceed by trial and error, and sometimes several years of error can pass before we straighten ourselves out. Sometimes what seem like bad decisions turn out alright: I, for example, found when I went on the job market that while I probably wasn’t a candidate for a named chair at Harvard, I was a great candidate for a great many interesting jobs because I had serious administrative experience within a faculty governance system.

However, it is also the case that, for faculty, administrative experience is acquired at some cost. We end up in conflict with others when we fight for what we think is right, we end up making decisions that not everyone can live with, and when we become agents of change we generate resentment from people who liked things as they were. While her post poses more questions than answers about this phenomenon, Dr. Crazy is trying to understand how we can identify our own best interests as individual workers within a labor system that doesn’t necessarily prioritize or value us for who we are and what we want to be.

It’s a difficult task. As new faculty, we are expected to suss out the social and intellectual context around us and behave appropriately within it. As in most social settings, there are few rules that anyone can articulate. This means that we must synthesize informal “research” about what constitutes success or failure within a specific institutional setting, and what opportunities will offer us the life we want. By the time we are reviewed for tenure, we want to be perceived as the kind of colleague that people want to keep — even if that perception requires that we hide what we really want, who we really want to be and what we really think.

Therefore, the successful associate professor emerges from the tenure process as someone who is known and unknown, sometimes even to him or herself.  Key questions are still unanswered: Did I do those things because I wanted to or because I had to? Who am I really — and what do I want to be? Now that I am tenured, what kind of career do I want to have and what am I willing to risk to get it?

These are important questions that we have no time to resolve before we are launched into a new, and more high-profile, set of responsibilities as tenured faculty members. Dr. Crazy has clearly been an active university citizen, the kind of colleague I am familiar with and like to have. And yet, her engagement with institutional work has clearly also created a lot of pain and regret. As one example of something that appears to have not turned out well, she wishes “that people would have advised me not to serve on a dean’s office position search committee where I was the one newly tenured person, and where I was the one woman on the tenure-track. But when the dean asks for you, how do you say no?”

Well, of course the answer is: you just say it: ”I have to say no, but I appreciate your confidence in me….g’bye.” (click of telephone hanging up.) As author and professional hostess Elsa Maxwell used to say, never apologize, never explain. But just because the committee ended up mired in controversy doesn’t mean you should have said no, or that anyone could have predicted it would be a disaster.

However, I don’t wish to dismiss the issues about power and agency that are embedded in Dr. Crazy’s reflection on this, and other, events over the last four years. Embedded in her desire to have been better advised are  a set of larger questions that many of us have asked ourselves: Why did people who should have known fail to tell me that this committee was a bad idea? Why did I end up carrying the weight for others? And worst of all: Am I responsible for my own unhappiness?

It’s hard to know what kind of advice might have helped Dr. Crazy, since advice is a tricky thing. Different colleagues give different advice: some tell you to say no to everything, while others will urge you to have an impact on policy issues and appointments that you care about. Few people give advice in a disinterested way, or with much regard for interests that you yourself have not articulated and prioritized.

Better advice does not necessarily guarantee better outcomes. However, having been a person who spent a lot of time doing institutional work, some of which got me in hot water, I am all too familiar with the regret that Dr. Crazy seems to be sifting in this post, and her suspicion that there was a road not taken that would have profited her more.  ”I wish that I had not been lured into super-political university-wide service,” she writes, “which would make people in my department hate me and which would me make me hate my university as well as myself (at least sometimes).”

And yet, what was the lure? The hope that one’s talents could be recognized on a larger stage? The silly idea that you had something to offer to the community? We can’t always know ahead of time which projects will suck us into terrible conflict and which will not. We can’t know which forms of ambition, if any,  can be realized without incurring the resentment of others. Sometimes doing really good work, or standing up for what you believe, pi$$es people off and you should probably do it anyway.

The problem with Dr. Crazy’s dilemma is probably not that she hasn’t been effective or done good work. The problem is, as a person in her position is coping with the fallout from institutional conflicts, s/he looks at the colleague three offices over who is everyone’s sweetheart, finishing a second book and planning the department’s annual named lecture as this year’s “colleagueship,” and thinks:

I’ve been jobbed!!! What was I thinking!!!

It’s a nasty moment. As Dr. Crazy concludes,

I am so angry that I’ve been doing all this work for four years while other people have been sitting idly by and letting me do it and then criticizing me for what I’ve accomplished. And what I wish, most of all, is that I hadn’t let this happen. I wish that I’d stood up for myself, and I wish that I’d taken care of myself rather than putting my career and my life in my institution’s hands. I wish that I had been supported in doing those things that I really am best and most suited to doing, like teaching and designing rigorous classes, doing strong service in the community and in the profession, and doing research that might not be setting the world on fire but that is making a really important contribution. Here’s the thing: nobody prohibited me from doing those things after tenure, but it’s also true that nobody – NOBODY – supported them.

Distance may temper this harsh evaluation of self and others, or it may not. Dr. Crazy is vowing change, which I think is probably a good thing, given how she feels.  But I suspect that there is some profit to be made yet of years which, in the heat of the moment, may seem now to have been ill-spent. In fact, I will put money on it that her experience, even in its unpleasantness, may have pushed her more decisively towards making the most of her talents.

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