Monday, April 30, 2007

To stay or go, Part 1: Framing the issues

One of the things I was hoping for as part of my sabbatical was to gain a clearer perspective on whether I wanted to stay here and try to get tenure, or cut my losses and leave for another academic position. It's hard to think when you're completely frazzled, as I have been pre-sabbatical, so I was hoping that the less-frenzied time of sabbatical would bring some clarity and focus.

Sadly, I find myself more confused than ever, and less sure what to do.

The "problem", if you can call it that, is that I don't overwhelmingly hate my job. If I did, the decision would be easy. There are certainly days that I hate my job and fantasize about resigning, where the despair is so deep that I can't see my way out of it. But there are things that I love about my job, too, and days where I do literally pinch myself and dance around my office (with my door closed, of course) because I love my job so much.

There are a few central questions that I find myself coming back to again and again:

1. Do the bad days outweigh the good days, and by how much?
2. How much of the love/hate has to do with the institution/department, and how much with the general parameters of a job as "assistant professor"?
3. Would things really be better somewhere else, or would I feel this way pretty much anywhere? (In other words, do the majority of the problems come from individual institutions or the culture of the field?)

It turns out that these are hard questions to answer.

When I started this post, I thought that it would be a self-contained post. But as I'm writing this, I'm beginning to see that this is definitely a larger topic than a one-shot post warrants. So over the next several days, I'll be addressing my thought process, framed by the questions above, around this issue (for my personal circumstance). Partly to help put my own thoughts into perspective, and partly because I think this is something that women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields deal with frequently. You know, the whole "fit" thing. So I do hope that those of you who have thought about this, recently or otherwise, will chime in in the comments with your stories and how you gained clarity or acceptance or whatever---how you made peace with your own choices on whether to stay or go.

One last thought: I keep coming back to the analogy of a bad relationship when thinking about my current circumstance. Sometimes when you find yourself in a bad relationship, you go into denial, thinking that things really aren't that bad and that if you just do X, Y, or Z then things will improve. You focus on the good and gloss over the bad. Part of my struggle to think about my situation clearly is that I really still can't tell if I'm in a bad relationship here or not, or if this is par for the course. (And this is where this whole blogging community really helps: the whole sharing of stories is one way to help us figure out whether our circumstances are normal or outliers.)


Jenny F. Scientist said...

You have all my sympathy. My lab is, definitively, an abusive relationship- and I stay for a large number of complicated reasons. I find the last question the hardest, because it involves so many unknown variables: how can one know if it'll be better?

I'm interested to read the rest.

Professoress said...

Though I'm far from clarity, I can offer the perspective of someone who has made the leap to a new academic position. I spent several years mulling over the same questions you pose, along with the question of whether I would be happier in a different geographic location (largely because of my two-body problem). I was pretty convinced that my first position was not helping my career as a whole; most of my colleagues were less than ( intellectually stimulating, I was often frustrated by the neediness of my students, I was very frustrated by the lack of resources given to my department, I was scared by the level of service (for example, becoming department chair pre-tenure) that was expected, and I was exceptionally frustrated by the degree of pandering to students that was expected and the lack of support for faculty who refused to participate.

I took a term position that has turned into a tenure-track position. I miss two things from my previous life: my students and my yoga teacher. The students at the new institution are remarkably different. In some ways, they are better. But, despite the "cherish or parish" attitude of my previous institution, I really do miss the interactions that I had with the students. I really enjoyed the opportunities I had to be a mentor, and I find less of that at the new institution.

Everything else is 100% better at my new institution. I am continuously amazed at the level of support I receive -- across the board. If I need equipment, I can get it. If a student complains about me, my department is behind me 100%. I have an immense amount of freedom in terms of balancing teaching, research, and service (it is a teaching-oriented institution). And, I absolutely love my new geographic location.

Nevertheless, I still find myself questioning whether I want to stay here. At this point, I'm convinced that it would be impossible to find another academic job that would be a better fit. But, I haven't yet identified what it is about this job that still makes me question whether it is right for me. I'm hoping that part of the problem is simply that I'm finishing the most challenging teaching semester of my career. I hope that the summer will afford me the opportunity to spend some time trying to identify why I'm not satisfied with the job of "assistant professor". We'll see.

C said...

Those are really good questions.

For me (with a work-life-balance-stress problem), there's no dilemma, I am staying at this job. My answers are:

1. Bad days have been more numerous recently, but I have reason to believe that the good days will return. I have had plenty of good days in the past.

2. The problems I have are institutionalised, rather than the job parameters, but...

3. ... I'd have the same problems anywhere else, I think. In fact this is the fire I landed in when I tried jumped out of the previous frying pan.

I love the contents of the job, it's the way the whole thing runs that is causing problems. And there are things I can do to try and address the issue here. Not many, but I can at least try.

Jane said...

Jenny, that's exactly it: the current situation may be bad, but how does one know that the next situation won't be even worse??

Professoress, thanks for sharing your story. Strong institutional and department support are definitely strong plusses (and I'll be talking about the roles those two factors play in my own circumstance), and I'm glad you're happier in your current position! But, as you said, I do worry that if I do change jobs, will I have the same feeling that "this isn't right either"? Will I always wonder if the grass is greener elsewhere? It's a hard question. (maybe just human nature?)

C, thanks for sharing your answers! I really like your answer to #1, and I do somehow think that is the most important question to answer when deciding to stay or go. I also struggle with the "is it worth staying to address the issues as they exist, and can I do enough to make the situation if not better, at least tolerable?" Sounds like you have found a way to answer that question for your own situation.

JaneB said...

I'll be following this thread with interest as I'm wrestling with many of the same issues though from slightly further along the career track... very hard to assess, especially coming to the end of a long semester!

Chaser said...

I hope blogging helps you think through the issues for you.

BrightStar said...

I am looking forward to reading your reflections on this topic. I know that I fear the "grass may not be as green as it appears" phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I am not working in an academic environment but similar questions popped up for me some time ago. And as well in a time where our family status was about to change. Though my "professional me" seems to be rather unchanged, I found that my perception of my work situation changed slightly but significantly. So Baby Jane might give your considerations as well just another turn...

Kathi Fisler said...

I'm also a female CS prof, on my first sabbatical post-tenure. Having
gone through similar questions pre-tenure, I suggest you initially
focus less on the implementation details (where to work) and more on
the specification of what you want from your career. Articulate what
you find rewarding across teaching and research, what sort of
interactions and problems energize you, what you would love to
accomplish if you were in the ideal department, etc. Without a clear
sense of these answers, it's easy to make a move for the wrong

It took me over a year to answer these questions to my satisfaction,
but they've helped immensely as I decide what to do as I return from
sabbatical. In particular, it helps me decide which annoyances from
my institution actually matter to me, and which are just easy to get
worked up about to no long-term gain.

In general, I think the tenure process leads many faculty to frame
their work lives relative to their institutions, rather than to
encourage us to think about the career we want and how to make our
institutions and careers work together. If you see tenure as an end
onto itself, it's easier to focus on the flaws of your institution.
If you can reframe your thinking around your career in general, you
might be able to view tenure and your institution more objectively. I
realized this 3-4 years into tenure, and it knocked much of the stress
out of the whole process.

Good luck,

Jane said...

Kathi, that is great advice! I guess on one level I have been trying to think like that, but as you point out it's so easy to get caught up in the limits of one's institution when trying to picture what tenure "looks" like. I will definitely try to think more along the lines you suggest.

anon, good point about Baby Jane changing my perspective as well...I imagine that this thought process will continue well into my maternity leave.

Emily said...

I know I'm behind the times in commenting on this, but the questions you're asking yourself do remind me a lot of the questions my roommate (and best friend) wrestled with for several months before finally ending what, in retrospect, was clearly a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship.

My perspective (from a pretty good relationship with my husband) was that, while no relationship is perfect, if you find yourself even asking whether the bad days outweight the good, then there's probably something better out there for you.

I don't know how well that translates to career decisions, but based on your past posts about the third-year review process and the general sexism of your department, it does seem like there must be healthier environments out there. And those hopefully will still allow you to pursue the research and teaching that you love.

Anyway, good luck sorting it all out.

Anonymous said...

Same field, different job for me, and I wrestle with many of the same questions.

I wonder sometimes if things would be easier if we lived in the time our parents did, when they were *expected* to stay in the same job for 20-30 years in & out of academia.

One thing that is helping me is that I deliberately went out & got a hobby. Sounds kind of silly (at least to me), but it has helped my attitude. I expect Baby Jane will do that for you, at least for a little while ...

Off to read the 2d part of your post.