Career unhappiness

I’ve been reading a lot of “Quit Lit” recently and I am seriously contemplating quitting my own academic job.  This (hopefully still) anonymous blog is the only place I have written this down, or even admitted it beyond my immediate family members.

One piece of academic “quit lit” included this PhD comics cartoon:

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My life so far looks an awful lot like that top “Life plan”.  I met my husband in college, and we got married 1 year after I started grad school, when I was 22.  I finished my PhD at age 27, and had my first child at that same age (the only thing significantly off the timeline, it that I did it earlier).  I started my “academic dream job” (tenure track, R1 university) at age 29, and also bought a house at that time.  I haven’t published any books but I do have a few high-impact papers under my belt, and I could plausibly win a prestigious career award in my mid-to-late 30s.  Im well on my way to tenure, I have graduate students, and I’ve been fairly successful with grants and funding.  So why do I think about quitting nearly every day?

The reasons are many and varied, and it’s hard to point to just one thing.  I guess the best summation is a combination of exhaustion and loss of passion for my research and teaching.  When I sit down at my desk, I am not eager to begin working.  It’s hard to remember when I was last really interested in a research problem.  I think I’ve just been faking it for a number of years, at least since the end of my Ph.D.  I teach because I have to, not because I want to.  I am nervous in front of a classroom (though I hide it well – too well, because people don’t believe me when I say I am nervous) and I struggle with anxiety about all things large and small.  I worry constantly that students are judging my appearance and competence, and I am mortified when I make mistakes in front of the class (as I inevitably occasionally do).

The pressure of the job is high.  I am not publishing enough papers, and I feel constant pressure to publish more.  But I hate everything about the publishing processes.  I recently had a paper rejected, a paper that it took me over a year to write because I hated the work and could hardly bare to look at it.  It was rejected with an invitation to resubmit – essentially, I was told to start over on something I barely finished because I hated it so much.  I have another project that is ready to be written up – a task I hate doing – but I don’t have the time to do it even if I wanted to.  That’s because first I need to find and fix an issue with some code my graduate student needs to use, something I’ve already spent weeks trying to do and getting nowhere.  I also need to read and review over 20 proposals because I agreed to serve on a proposal review panel for a government agency, something that every other professor tells me I “should” do.  This fall, I’m scheduled to teach two very difficult courses simultaneously, while keeping up with research, publishing, and advising.  It’s just gotten to a point where the pressure and stress levels are quite high, the to-do list very long and never ending, and I no longer really enjoy any of it.  The exception is advising, which I actually do enjoy, but less and less with time.  I’m starting to feel like my advising might actually be harming students, because I am of course leading them down the same path I have followed that has made me so unhappy.

I still believe in the power of science to help society in a general sense.  I even still believe in the usefulness of my own research, and I love talking about the topic because it is pretty cool stuff.  But science is incremental, and I know that my entire branch of research (which is rather new) may turn out to be mostly useless.  It also might turn out to be a huge breakthrough, but scientists in my field are unlikely to know which is true for decades.  This is not a criticism of my field, or of science, because the reality is that promising research avenues often turn out to be duds, and it’s often impossible to know that without decades of research.  To stick with something that might be a bust, and is really really difficult to do, for decades requires a fierce love that I fear I just don’t have.

For now I am staying for a few reasons.  Yes, I am unhappy, but I know nothing else.  Will I be happier outside of academia?  Will I even find a job?  I have no idea.  My family relies in my income, and for now, my job is secure.  If I leave, I’ll be letting down a lot of people.  My colleagues will be rather upset, because in the current university climate, they know they will not be approved to do another search, so the faculty line will die with me (this is academic lingo which essentially means if I quit they won’t be allowed to replace me, and will have to get along with one less faculty member).  The person I feel the worst about letting down is my Ph.D. advisor.  I see him as a 3rd parent of sorts (he is about the age of my parents) and I know he’s proud and happy that I became a professor, which is what he wanted for me.  A handful of other students of his have also gone on to become professors, but I was the first in over a decade and still the most recent.

In 2 weeks, I’m traveling to serve on this proposal review panel.  The location happens to be just a few miles from where I did my Ph.D., and I plan to visit with my old advisor.  I will likely discuss my career issues with him at that time.  I hope that gives me more clarity.  For now I feel stressed out, confused, scared, and most of all, increasingly unhappy where I am.

How did I end up here?

I am a young female science professor in a tenure track job at a major research university.  That in itself is both a major accomplishment, and a very rare thing.  I look my age, or maybe a bit younger, and people who don’t know me usually assume I am a student.  New students who enter my office usually cannot hide their surprise upon meeting me, and some people have even asked me where the professor is.  When I first moved into the office, the department asked someone to come clean it after the recently retired prof who used to have the office moved out.  I happened to be there when the cleaning person came by, and she helpfully informed me that “a new professor is moving in” clearly thinking I could not possibly be that person despite being in that office.

Moving around the wider world, I don’t often mention my profession, but it sometimes happens that I meet a new person or strike up a conversation with a stranger, and my profession comes up.  People react with surprise, every time.  Sometimes, with extreme surprise and disbelief, even thinking I am joking.  I am now purposefully vague unless asked specifically about what I do.

All I did was follow what seemed to be the most obvious path at just about every decision point in my life.  I was smart and did well in high school, so I went to college and majored in my favorite subject (a science).  I did well there and liked it, so I went on to grad school.  I did well there and still enjoyed it, so I went off to an academic postdoc, then a faculty job.  I never skipped any grades, spent 4 years in college, 5.5 years getting my Ph.D., and 2 years as a postdoc.  Not so weird for someone who always wanted to be a scientist.

And yet, it’s very lonely where I am now.  My colleagues in my department, while nice people, are almost all men much older than I am.  There is only one other woman besides me in the department, and we are decades apart in age.  The professor closest to me in age in 8 years my senior, and while friendly, we aren’t particularly close.  How did I become such an anomaly, when all I did was follow what seemed like a straight-forward path?

Keeping it all going

No one expects that being a professor and a mom to an autistic toddler is easy.  It really isn’t, but not always in the ways people might expect.

Caring for the autistic kid is actually probably easier than most people think, at least in our case.  Our daughter is very high functioning, and other than some sensory related meltdowns, is a fairly happy kid.  She gets frustrated when she can’t communicate something she wants, but so does every toddler.  In fact, every weekday evening from 5:30-7:00 PM we have our ABA implementers around to help out.  Lately kiddo has wanted to do her ABA therapy in her basement playroom – which is wonderful.  She and the implementer stay down there and husband and I can make dinner and eat together in peace.  This is a recent development, it used to be that kiddo was constantly running away from therapy to me and demanding to be picked up.  So things on that front have gotten easier.

On the work front, it’s summer, so that means no teaching at the moment.  But stress levels are still very high.  As my mother keeps reminding me, I have a proposal deadline coming up. Seriously, when do parents stop nagging you about homework?  Apparently not when you become a professor, at least in my case.  Note to other profs: Do not tell your parents about impending proposal deadlines.  I don’t know why I ever did.

Of course I also have to prep my fall class, get a paper out, advise a student, and a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve recently had my own health scare that is most likely nothing, but has resulted in me having a TON of doctor’s appointments and tests.  Last week I had a cardiologist appointment, a kidney ultrasound, and a cardiac MRI, all of which showed me to be perfectly healthy.  But it’s an extra drain on my time and stress levels, and the docs want me to do more tests, ugh.

So with all this, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some things slip through the cracks occasionally.  This week, I managed to annoy the front office staff of my department because I was supposed to sign a form by a specific date and I went to sign it the day after the deadline.  The deadline was pretty much the same day we got the forms because of the end of the fiscal year.  Apparently they were looking for me on Tuesday to get this signature, but I had some other stuff to take care of on Tuesday and wasn’t around.  So when I talked to them on Wednesday I got comments like “No one ever knows where you are, you’re not around.”  And other annoyed comments.  At first I was embarrassed but then I realized a few things: 1) I’m a professor.  I don’t work for or report to the office staff.  and 2) It’s summer, which means the university isn’t paying me for my time.  Many people may not know this, but professors actually aren’t paid for the summer months unless we find our own money through grants.  So I feel like they can’t really fault me for not being around for a day, after all, I’m still working for the university over the summer without pay from them.  (I did have 1 month of pay from a grant, but 2 months are completely unpaid for me).

Perhaps part of the problem is imposter syndrome, and I certainly have some of that.  It probably doesn’t help that I am female and younger than both of our front office employees, by a decent margin.  In fact I’m younger than some of the graduate students, which can make it a bit awkward if I try to exercise my professorial authority.  Also, I am someone who is very easily embarrassed and I suffer from a high level of anxiety, for which I take medication but it’s still a problem for me.  So for now, as silly as it is, I’m avoiding the front office completely.

 

Things they don’t tell you: Professor edition

My route into an academic career was fairly straightforward.  I got a bachelor’s degree (3.5 years).  I went to graduate school and got a PhD (5.25 years).  I did a postdoc (2 years).  Total years of post-high school training: 10.75.  And yet, almost all of that training focused on either learning new things, and/or performing research to discover new things.

It turns out of course that a professor’s job is a lot more than learning new things and doing research.  In fact, the large majority of a professor’s time is spent doing neither of these things.  So what are we doing?  The obvious answer is teaching, and during the academic year, teaching and preparing to teach does take up a lot of time.  Other duties include writing grant proposals to obtain research funds, advising graduate students, providing peer review services for journals and funding agencies, and lots of administrative and related duties (such as various types of committee service).  With the exception of a tiny amount of grant writing experience, and 2 quarters of TA experience (mainly grading), none of my training prepared me for all these job duties that actually comprise the majority of my job.  Certainly I have next to no training in managing all these competing duties.

Lots of people have written about how the transition into an assistant professorship is hard, and it is.  More than being difficult though, it’s bewildering.  I constantly have a million questions that people don’t realize I don’t know the answers to.  Like, how do I give my TA the ability to put grades into Blackboard?  How do I access the university’s online purchasing system?  What are the specific rules regarding how I can spend my start-up funds?  What’s a reasonable about of time to sacrifice to reviewing others’ work?  How do I use the department copier?  How do I order computers? How do I recruit decent graduate applicants?  What should I look for when reading graduate applications?  It’s not fun admitting ignorance about all things large and small to to all of your colleagues, so I have figured out a group of 3ish professors in the department I feel comfortable asking potentially stupid questions.  I try to rotate through them so that no one sees the complete scope of my ignorance or is annoyed with constant questions.  I’m probably overthinking this.

I recently got my first grant funded (woo hoo!).  While that’s great news, it gives me even more questions.  When and how will I get my grant money?  Will the money match what I asked for in my budget? What are the rules regarding reallocating funds from one line item to another?  What are the rules regarding when money must be spent by?

The main point I’m trying to make here is that if my experience is any guide, new professors are very confused people!  There is so much that was just taken care of for us when we were students and postdocs, but now we’re thrown head first into the machine that is a large university, and just trying to figure it all out.

Fake it ’til you make it

The phrase “fake it ’til you make it” has been popping up in my head a lot lately.  I am teaching my first college level course as a professor.  Not that I haven’t taught before, but this feels different.  No one is watching me, no one is checking that I am teaching the material well, or even the right material.  The class of about 50 students is all mine, to teach whatever I want to, for 3 hours a week.  Even though the material is fairly basic, and the course materials mostly recycled from a previous iteration of the course, and even though I have a PhD, I still feel like I have no business being at the front of that class.  So I’m just faking it, and I think it’s going well enough.

The funny thing is, I realized recently that no matter how much you “fake it” you never really “make it.”  At least, not in the sense of losing that feeling of faking your way through something.  A more senior colleague who is a full professor in my department confided that this semester she is teaching a new graduate level course, and it’s difficult and stressful for her.  In an academia, full professor is pretty much as high as you can go.  She has definitely “made it” career wise. So if she’s still faking confidence in teaching, then apparently this phase may never end.  At least I know I’m not alone!