No one is entirely sure what happens to academics at midcareer, but most would agree they don’t like it.
Jeffrey J. Selingo describes it as academe’s “mid-life crisis.” Anastasia Salter compares it to the “let down” that comes after training for a marathon. She calls the many recent testimonials about midcareer dissatisfaction a new genre of academic writing. Their authors depict careers that have stalled while others are advancing, which provokes jealousy and “productivity anxiety” (McPhail; Szetela). Midcareer faculty members report feeling irrelevant, isolated, bored with academic work, and frustrated with the monotony of administrative tasks. When combined together, these conditions are a potent contributor to burnout.
Changing demographics and fluctuating job security have aggravated but not fundamentally changed the discontent of midcareer academics. Surveys of faculty members from the 1970s discovered that thirty-one percent of those surveyed wanted an entirely new career; those who rated themselves less successful than their colleagues seem most acutely interested in leaving academe (Palmer and Patton 389)—having a sense of accomplishment at midcareer was crucial. A 1989 study exposed a general perception that midcareer faculty members were a liability, solidifying a sense that “older is not better” among academics because younger faculty members cost less and produce more than older ones (Caffarella et al. 404).
Changing demographics and fluctuating job security have aggravated but not fundamentally changed the discontent of midcareer academics.
The situation has only intensified in the twenty-first century. The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), an institute at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education dedicated to the postsecondary faculty experience, found that associate professors had the lowest level of job satisfaction among all tenure and tenure-track ranks (Jaschik).1 Kiernan Mathews, director of COACHE, concludes that faculty members hit a “brick wall” after tenure, as research productivity begins to sink and administrative burdens increase, which leaves them feeling discouraged (qtd. in Jaschik). Another study determined that there was widespread dissatisfaction about salary and facilities among associate professors (Trower 5, 8).
Women faculty members and those from other underrepresented groups are especially vulnerable to midcareer pressures. Although more women than men have received doctoral degrees every year since 2006, fewer women are full professors, and women spend a disproportionately long time at the rank of associate professor (Johnson 4, 20; Snyder et al. 493). The MLA’s 2009 report on associate professors, Standing Still, found that difficulties with advancement after tenure affected women more than men: on average, women waited one to three and a half years longer than men to move beyond the associate professor rank (MLA Committee 1, 5). Women experience a “cultural taxation” that makes their careers “leakier” than those of men, meaning more women either stagnate in the middle of their careers or leave academe entirely (Htun et al.).
Why the midcareer experiences of women and men are different should be fairly obvious. Women encounter larger service and childcare demands than men, and those “microdifferences” of time commitments add up over the years (Guarino and Borden 680; MLA Committee 2, 21). Gender and ethnic diversity have increased across nearly all academic fields, but black faculty members in STEM fields remain chronically underrepresented, and wage gaps, for women and faculty members of color, remain pronounced, leading to a sense of stasis (Li and Koedel 344; Johnson 1). Parental leave and childcare options may have improved for all parents, but family-friendly policies can still be subtly discriminatory against women. Isolation within a department can inhibit people of color, who often carry the burden of representing specific ethnic groups to students and community members. Informal or nonexistent professional mentoring lead to the slower midcareer advancement of these vulnerable faculty members (Assendelft et al. 10).
Burnout is a common feeling among midcareer faculty members. Many of my friends and colleagues who had achieved tenure suffered from its effects. They were disoriented, unsure of what to do next, and stopped working on the books and articles that had felt so urgent before they had gotten tenure. Jonathan Flatley, a professor of English at Wayne State University, felt “desperately overworked” after receiving tenure: he was juggling all the new opportunities that came with a new professional visibility. Susan Nakley, an associate professor at St. Joseph’s College New York, worried that institutional demands might prevent her from building on the momentum of her recently published book. When it came to their next research projects, others reported feeling something akin to what Jonathan Kramnick, a professor at Yale University, described as “second-act anxiety.” Some faculty members, like Joseph Drury, an associate professor at Villanova University, wanted more resources to get started on their second projects. Finding time for writing was a common concern as institutional work pushed these midcareer faculty members into other tasks that shortened writing sessions and made sustained thought more difficult.
Yet for others institutional tasks felt rewarding, even if such work crowded out research that had once been the focus of their career. Manu Samriti Chander, a recently tenured English professor at Rutgers University, devoted his attention to graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs). Chander was eager to mitigate the funding reductions and tenure erosions that had upset the careers of younger faculty members who came after him (@profchander).
My own answer to midcareer burnout and posttenure anxiety was to move into administrative positions in my department. Though I am now employed at a large, research-intensive land-grant university in the American south, I started my teaching career at a liberal arts college in New England. Because the faculty size was small, I was involved in high-level collegiate decisions even though I had only recently been hired. All faculty members interested in the issues were listened to closely; seniority was not important.
Ever since that first teaching position, I have been a firm believer that if faculty members don’t want MBAs to run higher education, then we have to volunteer to run it ourselves. Early in my career I participated in committee work and encouraged coworkers to do the same. In 2019 I became my department’s director of graduate programs. A combination of enthusiasm and anxiety propelled me to take the position.
Higher education has been changing rapidly, often without frontline faculty members’ noticing. Public-private partnerships, revolutions in credentialing, and the erosion of trust in higher education were colossal forces that, because of their size, could seem perplexing to faculty members who need to focus on the day-to-day rhythms of teaching. Persistent financial austerity and budget cuts, when combined with unexpected disruptions, like school shootings or worldwide pandemics, felt overwhelming, like a “grief cycle that never ends,” in the evocative words of Rebecca Pope-Ruark (qtd. in McMurtrie). I was convinced that if I wanted to maintain the sense of autonomy, inquiry, and intellectual community that drew me to academe in the first place, I needed to help maintain it for future generations.
It’s too early to tell how naive I am
My choice to take on an administrative position as a cure for midcareer burnout was considered. I consulted with my family extensively and asked almost everyone I knew about their experiences as administrators. In some ways my decision has only exacerbated the elements that most faculty members point to as the source of midcareer malaise—additional administrative burdens, decreased time for research, and a proliferation of meetings. Maybe it would have been smarter instead to follow up on posttenure resolutions to exercise more or to learn Italian.
But I also believed that programmatic change might be one of the most meaningful and enduring contributions any faculty member can make during their career. We might be experts on the Anthropocene or on border crossing, but, as humanities faculty members, we rarely have an impact on larger policy proposals or political discussions in the way professors of economics or the law can. Instead, we are at the apex of our power when we involve ourselves in the operation of our academic institutions. There are real constraints in these domains, of course, but this is where we can make a difference.
In the twenty-first century, the star system has given way to the academic capitalism of the corporate university . . .
In the twentieth-century star system, subfield omnipresence was the indicator of academic success. Fame was what happened when everyone at the conference could effortlessly recite a passage from your book or wanted a word with you at the cash bar. In the twenty-first century, the star system has given way to the academic capitalism of the corporate university, which encourages public engagement as a “market imperative” that provides an “empirical measure of a university’s reputational currency” (McMillan Cottom).
It might be better for us to abandon ambitions of subfield omnipresence or microcelebrity in favor of institution building and maintenance. A friend of mine who recently left her position as a tenured professor to become an administrator at a humanities institute had that impulse in the middle of her career. Her decision was informed by a fundamental shift in her sentiments. Early in her career she had wanted to be happy; now, she said, she wanted to feel fulfilled. At first the difference seemed like a maddening riddle, until she explained that fulfillment would come from running an organization that helped sustain others’ careers rather than from the happiness of having her own research agenda. Working as an administrator for the organization gave her a sense of purpose.
Midcareer or Middle Age?
My friend’s sentiments about seeking fulfillment reflect much of what we know about human beings in middle age, a period of life that has been associated with change, uncertainty, and self-discovery ever since the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques described the sags and stumbles of the “mid-life crisis” in 1965. David G. Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald have suggested there is some basis to the idea of the midlife lull. They have shown that psychological well-being is “U-shaped” across life, with the strongest dissatisfaction appearing in the midforties (1745, 1746).2 Perhaps the midcareer malaise experienced by academics simply repeats the same dissatisfaction that is found in middle-aged people around much of the world, whatever their profession.3
There are limitations to the comparison between the situation of middle age and that of midcareer academics, however, because not everyone in the middle of their career is middle aged. Many middle-aged faculty members think of themselves as just getting started, especially if they have transitioned into academia from previous professions or imagine themselves teaching into their seventies or eighties. As Megan Peiser notes, because the time necessary to land a tenure-track position is lengthier than ever for graduate students, many scholars might age out of early career and into midcareer before they have the chance to get tenure (@MeganPeiser). More than seventy percent of instructors, who teach half of higher education courses in the United States, occupy nontenurable positions, making it hard to see a continued link between being in the middle of one’s career and having tenure (United States Government Accountability Office).4
Despite these differences, there is plenty of advice about how to manage midcareer burnout, most of which sounds like advice about how to thrive in middle age. Faculty members may be encouraged to stay engaged with their research, retain a sense of control over their career, or think of midcareer as a “second call” (Karpiak), a “process of discovery,” a time for “re-evaluation” (Maddox-Daines 45, 53), “self-assessment” (Strage and Merdinger 42), and goal realignment. Also recommended is saying no to uninspiring work (De Cruz; Rockquemore, “Art”) and focusing instead on the multiple “post-tenure pathways” that exist (Rockquemore, “Post-tenure Pathways”). Organizations with broad mandates, like the MLA, have advocated for more professional development; more time for research “in the form of release time, institutional paid leaves, and fellowships”; and more training on mentoring and networking (MLA Committee 9–10).
Such advice and advocacy are worthwhile, particularly when they focus attention on the prominent structural inequities faced by many midcareer academics. But much of this advice also perceives midcareer as a problem to be solved. What if we didn’t approach midcareer as a dilemma to be overcome with better planning or a more positive outlook? Instead of thinking our way out of midcareer slumps, maybe we should accept that they occur and talk openly about their effects. To do so might make it permissible for academics in the middle of their careers to feel bored, burned out, angry, and frustrated. If we accept that midcareer slumps will happen and we devote our energies to recognizing them, we might learn that we don’t necessarily need to make midcareer happier and more productive after all.
Research shows that feeling dissatisfied in middle age is normal. A closer consideration of this research might help us reconceive burnout and posttenure depression as crucial parts of a healthy career rather than as short circuits or glitches to be rewired out of existence. This, in turn, might lead us to admit that midcareer can be the right time for academics to slow down.
Drawing inspiration from the slow-food movement, the concept of slowness has been theorized extensively in twenty-first-century academe, in terms of slow reading (Miedema; Hofmeyr), slow thinking (Kahneman), and slow time (Sachs). Slowness might help us think differently about the qualities of midcareer and avoid trying to “pivot” our way out of it, in the words of Peggy O’Neill (178), or to thrive despite dissatisfaction.
In championing slowness, my intent is not to advocate for an orthodoxy that understands disappointment as the cocoon for some future success, as so many studies of failure now do. And I don’t think slowing down needs to be like the “slow violence” that Rob Nixon has identified with climate change (2), which defuses reaction because its incrementalism makes long-term consequences nearly invisible (4).
Instead, I think the practice of slowing down midway through one’s career should be inspired by Laura Micciche’s notion of “slow agency” in higher education administration. Micciche calls for an agency that is in touch with “productive stillness, resource preservation, and slowness” (73). For her, slowness requires rethinking agency as “action deferred,” as decisions not yet made (74). Deferral is not powerlessness, laziness, or “dereliction of duty,” she notes (74).
O’Neill has described how Micciche’s ideas have helped her function as a midcareer writing program administrator in an age of austerity. But ideas about slow agency might be more widely applicable. I would encourage midcareer academics to think about slowness and stillness as waiting for circumstances to dictate when actions need to be taken. It is less stressful to be reactive than to be proactive, which requires the exhausting vigilance of internally generated direction. Organizations often attempt to eliminate deliberation and deferral in favor of constant innovation and productivity (Micciche 84). This state of unrelenting alertness, reinforced by decades of competition within higher education’s star system, is now intensified by the demands of academic capitalism to individualize and brand oneself.
If we reject that sense of the academic arc and instead reconceive midcareer as a time to pause and see what happens, we might be content with nothing happening at all, at least for a little while.
Advocating for midcareer as a time to slow down recalls Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor, which seeks to undo the “beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed, and demoralized professor who is the product of the corporatization of higher education” (ix). But unlike Berg and Seeber, I don’t see midcareer slowness as a “counter-identity” to corporate higher education among those who might claim with pride, as they do, that “we are Slow Professors” (Berg and Seeber ix). And I don’t see it as an extension of the “counterproductivity” movement that seeks to determine how “time mastery” became the defining feature of modern professionals (Gregg 4).
I hope, like Micciche and O’Neill, that we can see slower midcareers as an integrated part of higher education. In particular, slowing down would benefit the administrative turn of many midcareer academics, easing the burdens that such a turn entails, with slow agency—instead of productivity or job satisfaction—as central to the ethic and method of administration. It would suppress the instinct among faculty members to avoid the tiring work of administration and thus help to increase the pool of faculty members who are “admin curious.” Slowness and stillness allow for sustainability and regeneration at the personal and the programmatic level. The corporate university, like academic capitalism, is likely to endure. Working slowly might be a good way to start navigating the corporatization of higher education while redefining midcareer to make it more survivable.
This is not a call for quiet submission to the political forces that we need to resist. We should not abandon forms of activism that benefit academe’s most vulnerable students and employees. Slowdowns appeal to the tactics of twentieth-century labor activism that sought to balance corporate enthusiasm for increased productivity with a corresponding insistence on better working conditions (Silver 35, 56, 59). Such activism may be more necessary than ever as inexorable planetary transformations, such as climate change, and rapid crises, like COVID-19, reinforce how exposed we are to our alterations in our physical environment. But attempting to do away with midcareer burnout might reinforce the exact impulse toward productivity that creates burnout in the first place. Not everything should be made more productive. Maybe midcareer is the time to abandon the principles that make pretenure and contingent faculty members as engaged and overworked as surveys indicate they are (Ziker; Flaherty; Matthews).
Slowing down will not be an option for everyone. It will only be available to those in academe privileged enough to have time to reflect on what it means to be midcareer, in the same way that philosophizing about the midlife crisis can feel like a first world or middle-class luxury. Accepting rest, stasis, and lower productivity in the middle of one’s career will require us to challenge the prestige-based economy of higher education, which undoubtedly will have personal consequences for many faculty members. Research output, and judgements regarding the value of that research, certainly will remain the standard by which faculty members are measured, whatever academic positions they hold. As the 2019 undergraduate admissions scandal makes evident, higher education’s ranking system is only becoming more entrenched, incenting ever more desperate behavior.
To slow down midway through one’s career will be costly within many of the systems that determine faculty success. But there are advantages, too. Scholars in composition studies and writing program administration have begun to think about how to succeed within the corporate university while slowly resisting its dictums. The example set by these individuals might help the rest of us reimagine what it means to be successful in the middle of one’s career. Doing so will not eliminate the other structural problems that exist in higher education, but it will make our attempts to solve them more manageable and sustainable.
1 The survey was conducted between 2011 and 2012. It included 13,510 faculty members at sixty-nine four-year institutions. It found that associate professors scored the lowest on nearly every question about research, recognition, service, and overall job satisfaction. (Notably, COACHE did not survey contingent faculty members.) Summaries of COACHE’s quantitative data can be found in Jaschik.
2 More precisely, “well-being depends in a curvilinear way upon age” (Blanchflower and Oswald 1745). Blanchflower and Oswald note that they examined surveys of “500,000 randomly sampled Americans and western Europeans” (1733) and that these findings were unaffected by income, marital status, family life, nationality, and ethnicity (1746).
3 Blanchflower and Oswald claim that numerous studies, including their own analysis of survey data, demonstrate the same pattern of unhappiness in middle age among non-United States and non–western European populations, but they note that it would be “unwise to overstate this finding” for developing nations (1741).
4 The United States Government Accountability Office found that 71.6% of “postsecondary instructional positions” were contingent in 2011 (8). The American Association of University Professors claimed that 73% of “instructional positions” were contingent in 2016 (1). As both reports note, there are large differences among institutions in terms of the percentage and the employment conditions of contingent faculty. Women are also a disproportionately large part of contingent faculties: 57% according to data from 2016 (Snyder et al. 484).
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Jaques, Elliott. “Death and the Mid-life Crisis.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 46, no. 4, 1965, pp. 502–14.
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@MeganPeiser (Megan Peiser). “One that I hear a lot is that many funding/opportunity things support ECRs, which is usually defined by x-yrs since PhD. But bc so many are in Contingent jobs before landing w any stability, you may be shoved to ‘mid-career’/aged out of things before you have stability to apply.” Twitter, 23 Sept. 2019, twitter.com/MeganPeiser/status/1176249932573020166.
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@profchander (Manu Samriti Chander). “so far a big part of mid-career (i.e. post-tenure) life seems to center around figuring out how to support grad students and ECRs given the fact that their prospects look way different than mine did when i started on the tt.” Twitter, 23 Sept. 2019, twitter.com/profchander/status/1176174740853145600.
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Ziker, John. “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo Academicus.” The Blue Review: Popular Scholarship in the Public Interest, 31 Mar. 2014, wayback.archive-it.org/8092/20190724180003/https://thebluereview.org/faculty-time-allocation/.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
James Mulholland is associate professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Before the Raj: Writing Early Anglophone India (Johns Hopkins UP, 2020) and Sounding Imperial: Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, 1730–1820 (Johns Hopkins UP, 2013). He has also published on academe in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, and the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.