Friday, October 06, 2006

Stress for success?

The assistant professor gig is not known for being a particularly leisurely, relaxing, or calm job. Rather, it is known for being kind of stressful and frantic. There's a lot of uncertainty to the job, and when the pool of people in the job are self-selected for their general risk-aversion - well, you can see how it makes people edgy and nervous.

Some time ago I mentioned that I seemed to have crossed some line, and now I am not really that nervous anymore, despite the fact that I am still not confident that I will be successful at this particular pursuit.

Several people have subsequently remarked that I seem awfully relaxed for an assistant professor . . . now it has me wondering if I should seem LESS relaxed so that people don't get the impression that I am not appropriately freaked out by the tenure monkey.


Matthew Jones said...

Well, all things considered, I hope this line of thought leaves you no more than moderately stressed... I'm enjoying your blog! - The S. Hemisphere Bell Pepper guy.

P.S. my latest crop of bell peppers has failed. Will investigate the transplant option... failing that, I'm going with decorative plastic ones.

Anonymous said...

I am a first year professor, and frankly, I need an outlet. I am feeling so stressed that I don't even know what to do. I found your post, and your blog, by Googling "professor stress." Perhaps someone who reads this post may have arrived here by a similar route.

I hope two things: (i) that posting here will help me (either because I will feel better after writing this, or because I will get helpful responses to this post, hopefully both) and (ii) that posting here will help someone else who is feeling or has felt the same thing.

First, let me try and explain what I am stressed about. My preferred answer to this question (the answer I most often tell my therapist, significant other and family members) is "everything," but I think I can add value to this post by cashing out my stress. I suppose all 3 of the "elements" of my job are stressing me out (and I find it's always easier to begin an essay by introducing a list of 3 somethings, so it seems like a good place to begin): (1) scholarship, (2) teaching, and (3) service. I suppose at any given moment one of them stresses me out more than does another, but it's accurate for me to report that each of them has had a profound effect on my anxiety level since I began my job. I have read a plethora of essays and even books that try and explain how professors deal with the various and, at times, conflicting demands on their time. I can understand - as an intellectual matter - that these essays might be helpful, but their utility is, at least right now, almost entirely if not entirely lost on me.

Let me explain. What these essays and books (e.g., Robert Boice's books, this essay (among many others like it): ) offer is a perspective that is addressed to someone who is not completely overwhelmed by her/his demands. When I read this literature, I can relate. I can understand that I have a problem saying "no" to committee assignments and to doing things that would (hopefully) cause my colleagues to think of me as a cooperative colleague. I can understand, too, that it is possible for me to become consumed with either teaching or scholarship, and that I won't have a successful academic career if I don't learn to balance those elements of my job. I can even appreciate the value of the exercises that some of this literature offers to help manage the elements of the job better (and I've tried them).

For the avoidance of doubt, my intention in writing here is not to critique the authors of this literature. I mention the literature only to draw in readers who may now or one day feel what I am feeling right now. I have sought out the literature, have read it, and have implemented its tips, because I need help. I have found, however, that the particular nature of my stress is not addressed in this literature.

Let me explain, too, that my first year has been, in the words of my Dean, "the best one could ask for." My colleagues all think I am doing a super job, my students have offered rave reviews of my teaching, and I have been invited to numerous conferences and things of that nature. My stress is private, and perhaps that is one of the reasons that it is so stressful. I feel like I cannot talk to anyone about my stress who really understands it.

I feel like I spend most of my time not on teaching (as the many articles and books on being a junior faculty member suggest junior faculty members tend to do), but on WORRYING. I worry at any given moment that I am not devoting my attention to the appropriate element of my job. I focus on that worry instead of on any of the 3 elements of my job.

And I am not exactly sure how to fix it.

Average Professor said...

Anonymous, I don't know if you will see this, but, in case you or somebody else does, I want to respond.

First, I feel like the stress you are describing is completely normal for a first year professor. This is a really weird job, where you have seemingly disconnected and vague job responsibilities, you're expected to be promising and excellent at all of them, and there are not really any metrics to gauge your success.

I, too, was told in my first (and second, etc.) year by my department chair that my performance was "beyond our expectations" but because it's in my nature to be plagued with self-doubt, I took this to mean, "we were a little bit nervous that you were going to be a dismal failure, but you're not yet." And in my case, my chair is so, so supportive that you can never really be sure if he really means what he's saying, or if he's just trying to bolster your confidence to try to get good work out of you.

My very first post in this blog included my bewilderment about trying to figure out how to spend my time when I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to be doing (I think that's one of the reasons, spin-up aside, that new asst profs spend so much time on teaching - the responsibilities are soothingly obvious).

You know, it sucks. It really does. But you do, eventually, figure it out. And if you don't, what you DO figure out is that there is a better situation for you someplace else.

The thing about the books, and about advice from senior colleagues or other people that have "been there" is that . . . the stress we place on ourselves in this kind of situation is, as you point out, entirely private. Likewise the strategies for overcoming the anxiety are very personal.

The real trick is, when you're in the midst of these feelings, is to find some way to channel the stress into forward motion rather than letting it paralyze you.

I readily admit I spent maybe a year or more in some degree of paralysis from the anxiety, and it lightened up when I finally figured out that insofar as the stress was largely self-imposed, I also had the power to unimpose it. I can't tell you how I accomplished it, because I'm not sure - a friend at the same stage in his academic career said that he eventually just reached a point of just saying "fuck it." And maybe that's what happens for a lot of people. You realize you can't live with the stress any more, so you just let it go.

Unknown said...

You're right on the mark when you say that you have to find a way to channel the stress and make it work for you.

A while ago I wrote an article called "Stress Busters for Teachers: Keeping Your Cool in the Classroom" It might have a few other tips that could come in handy!

Ronnie Nijmeh
Author of Stress Busters - A Stress Management Book with Coaching

Anonymous said...

I've never thought that this job is stressful, that's bad. Everyone should try to make his life more stress free. It's very important for our health.

Anonymous said...

A new study of 1,000 workers in Europe found that stressful jobs accounted for 45 per cent of new cases of depression. The factors which the scientists isolated as being especially important were excessive demands on the job and extreme time pressures. Not only did they find that these workers, with an average age of 32, were experiencing a high percentage of job-related stress-induced depression, but there appeared to be a 40 percent increase in reports from workers of job stress.

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