Handling the Stress of the Tenure Process

It was just over a year ago that I received the final, official letter telling me that I had earned tenure.  In that year, I’ve happily answered a lot of questions about the process, questions people ask in hopes that the answers will relieve some of their own anxieties about the process.  The years between obtaining a job and earning tenure are stressful.  No one denies that, but in talking with people about the process, I’ve realized how little discussion there is about the deeper effects of such stress on our lives, bodies, relationships, and careers.

In the summer of 2005, the summer after my second year on the job, I started seeing a therapist to help me handle the stresses of the tenure process.  Before then, I was literally making myself sick every few months.  My stomach would tighten and turn to stone.  Soon after, I’d start vomiting.  Anyone who was reading my blog at the time will remember random entries where I described getting sick.  For awhile, I thought I was just getting food poisoning, but can anyone eat that much bad food so consistently?  I soon realized that I was making myself sick, and I had to do something about it.

I met my partner in my second year of graduate school, and he’s been there for me from the stress of my MA exams through the dissertation and into the job.  I could and can talk to him about anything, but whenever I’d start to talk about everything swirling in my head about my fears and anxieties, he would worry just as much as I would.  That’s when I realized that I needed professional help.  With the benefits of the health insurance that came with my job, I found a therapist easily.  He had a PhD, which was important to me not because I believed someone with a different degree could not help me but because I wanted to work with someone who had been through the same educational process I had.

And we talked.  About everything.  I voiced every concern that ever entered my head about my job and career.  I raised every question.  Whether it seemed major or minor, I threw it at him so we could process it together.  We meet weekly for a year and then biweekly after that.  We stopped our sessions a couple of months after I received that official letter granting me tenure.  Throughout that entire time and since, I never vomited once.  I might have earned tenure without having gone to therapy, but the process would have been much, much more intense for me (and my partner).

I should be clear that my anxiety had nothing to do with the specifics of my particular job at my particular institution.  I am sure I would have felt similar stresses wherever I had chosen to move.  In the end, I still think I ended up in the best job for me, but that does not mean I have always had an easy time handling job demands and expectations.

Amidst the questions I’ve been getting over the past year about the tenure process, I’ve sometimes heard comments like, “you make it look so easy.”  That is when I realized I should now be more upfront about how it was not so easy and what exactly I did to handle the difficulties I was facing.  I never talked about being in therapy on my blog.  I was afraid that word would get out to those who would be judging me when I applied for tenure, and they would think I could not handle the basic demands of my job.  Whether that fear was realistic or not, I felt it and kept quiet.  Now that I am past that judgment stage, I want to speak about it so that others living it right now might have an easier time doing what they need to do to take care of themselves.

In some ways, the subtle message I received throughout the pre-tenure years was that I just had to do it.  If I just kept writing and stayed on course, I would be fine. That might be true for many people, but it was not true for me, and I know it’s not true for everyone.  Don’t be ashamed if the stress is getting to you.  If you need help, get it.  Maybe a therapist will help.  Maybe you need the assistance of anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants.  Seeing a professional for guidance is an option that just might help.

Of course, therapy won’t work for everyone like it worked for me, and there are lots of other things people can do to better handle the difficulties of the tenure process.  Let us know in the comments what has worked for you or those you know.  After all, very few of us can do it alone.

(Photo by Flickr user bark and licensed through creative commons)

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