About eight years into my job as a professor, I realized that although I hadn’t yet done everything there is to do at a university, I’d done enough that I could more or less figure out whatever came my way. I called that stage “inevitable competence.” I realize that sounds at once grandiose and pitiful, but at the time it gave me an enormous sense of relief.
I’m reminded of that because the last few posts and comments here at Hook & Eye, particularly Aimee’s Friday missive, emphasize how hard this job can be, particularly with a young family.
This job is hard.
But it gets easier.
The getting-easier is what this post is about. One of the worst parts of being in a difficult place is not recognizing your experience as part of a specific and temporary phenomenon, and so I want to lay out here some of the things that made the job easier for me, over time. The transition from grad school to tenure is a kind of J-curve. You graduate elated with your success (I’m finished!!) and then each year gets a little harder and a little worse until, little by little, it turns around, and you find yourself on an upward trajectory. Everybody’s different, of course, but here are some of the good things I’ve noticed, and that you might experience or anticipate, too.
- You get a job. It may not be the job of your dreams. It may not be in the city you always fancied. It may not be in the same place as your partner’s job, which really bites, and maybe it’s not an academic job at all. The job comes through or you move on (even if “moving on” = “settling”). The holding pattern Erin described does not last forever, I promise.
- You learn how to teach. You figure out who you really are as a teacher – not just when you’re TAing or teaching that one class while you tidy up your dissertation, but who you are as a person who heads into the classroom three or six or nine or twelve times a week, addressing students at different levels and on different topics. You become more comfortable in your teacherly persona. You develop course materials and teaching strategies you can reuse. You tolerate less bullshit, or maybe more, but you spend less energy setting boundaries and more time existing within them. Best of all, grading gets easier (not “easy,” but “easier”!).
- Research comes to you. When you first start out, everything is a cold call. You submit abstracts to conferences, some of which turn you down. You submit articles to journals, some of which turn you down. But some things come through. And as you start putting your work out there in the world, opportunities approach you. People invite you to participate in symposia, on roundtables, in working groups. Colleagues seek out your opinion (is there anything sweeter than the first time you’re asked to review a paper for publication?). You get asked to give keynotes, essays are solicited. I think you’re never free of the courage-screwing obligation to send your vulnerable ideas out into the chill academic air, but after a while that’s not all you do.
- Administrative service gives you knowledge. As Jo-Ann blogged last fall, “you know stuff.” By working on committees, you learn the acronyms, the unofficial rules, the loopholes, the perils and the benefits that not even the most well-meaning institutions ever spell out. You figure out how your institution really works. You meet people who model the kind of academic you want to be; as importantly, you figure out who you don’t want to be! And by building your reputation in administrative service, you set yourself up for recognition and opportunities down the road.
- Your family grows up. Admittedly, I’m treading on thin (i.e., non-experiential) ice here, but everybody I know says that taking care of pre-school kids is the hardest. Once your kids are sleeping through the night and spending days in school, family life is easier. For one thing, you don’t have to pay (as much) for daycare. For another, you and your partner, if you have one, will have worked out how to co-parent, and you will have established some network or support system. As with grading, I’m not sure family life ever gets “easy” – isn’t that the joy of it? – but it does get easier. At least until they’re teenagers.
- You make more money. Buy more space, hire a housecleaner, get a(nother) vehicle, eat out more often – some problems really can be solved by throwing money at them.
- You start saying no by saying yes. What I mean by this puzzling turn of phrase is that by accumulating things you want to do, you have a legitimate way of turning down the things you don’t so much want to do. This is an important variation on the “just say no” theme, advice that I find suspect for many reasons (see future post?). For now, suffice it to say that work is easier when you like what you’re doing. Do more of that.
- The “firsts” get fewer and farther between. First graduate seminar? First university-level meeting? First semester juggling multiple expectations? First supervisory obligation? First kid? Check, check, check and check. With each tick of the box, you acquire experience. And with more experience, things take less time and – this is key, especially for women, I believe – carry fewer emotional vicissitudes. You’re more confident, less subject to doubt. Bad weeks come around, and you never actually cure yourself of anxiety (or at least I never have): there is always more work to do than the time available to do it and the inbox will never be empty. But living in a state of perpetual behindness becomes a fact of life rather than an acutely perilous condition.
Welcome to the glorious plateau of inevitable competence!