emotional labour · job notes · saving my sanity · time crunch

The J Curve

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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”!).
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!

9 thoughts on “The J Curve

  1. Heather, I LOVE THIS. You've totally scooped me: I've been planning a post called “I am not a noob,” for when the tenure letter from the prez actually comes, and it's about this same curve: I don't feel so lost, confused, and blindingly inept anymore, and I used to feel that way all the time.

    My favourite phrase: “less time setting boundaries and more time existing within them.” So true, but what a great way to say it. In fact, that same quality is part of what makes family life easier too.

    I had never considered the idea of 'research coming to me,' but lo an behold, it's true. People ask me to do stuff, because they already know I do it, and I like it.

    There's so much here that I want to comment on it all, but I'll refrain and keep checking back to see what others have to say.

    Okay, one more thing: husband and I have a mantra these last couple of years, and it's “more money than time, more money than time” which we use to forgive ourselves for wantonly throwing money at our problems (mostly cooking and cleaning, and of course, daytime child care).

    Just brilliant. Thank you for writing this!


  2. I’m reading this post thinking, yup, that’s me, and then, yup, I’m there already… okay, not at that point yet. There is something just a little bit sad about the notion of getting a job in a city that you may not have fancied, or in a different city than your partner (both of which apply to me), and there is something just a little bit sad about the “firsts” getting fewer and farther between. (We all get older, after all—is that not what this post is, at least in part, about?) But I really like the sense of optimism and also acceptance in this post. Strangely, I’m more run off of my feet than I ever have been in my life, pulled, as Aimee says, in twelve different directions. And there are bad weeks and work and family issues. But at the same time, I’ve never felt more fulfilled. I also feel that I’ve somehow entered a strange but possibly, hopefully, intensely productive part of my life.

    I’m currently on a research trip looking at some amazing unpublished letters and materials. What an incredible opportunity and experience. Yesterday, after six hours at the archives, I came back to my hotel, had a quick swim, and then opened my computer and proceeded to write two grant applications. At midnight I finally closed the computer. I woke up early to mark seven essays and now I’m about to head off to the archives again. Crazy? Yes. But I can’t help also thinking of the days in graduate school when I did this on a shoe string budget and with a lot more anxiety, and I’m glad I’m not doing that or feeling that now. It’s also a really nice “rest” not to have that long drive to work and not to have to deal with things like students crying in my office about their grade—at least for one week. I miss reading stories to my kids at night, and their giggles and smiles and hugs, but I have to admit that it’s nice, just for a few days, to be able to eat my breakfast without getting up to help someone else with theirs.

    While the notion of “inevitable competence” might sound, well, kind of unexciting, I like the idea of settling into that, the daily routine… trying to get away a little bit from our perfectionism. For me, when I accept and settle into the idea of a few mistakes, competence rather than brilliance, productive and enjoyable work happens.


  3. Heather! To chime right in with A and Laura Davis yes, thank you for this wonderful and optimistic quote. Like LD I looked at a few (very few for me) of your benchmarks and though yep, I feel that way sort of, or yep, I can see that coming. I also looked at the myriad of things I can't wrap my head around (a job, then end of holding pattern, being approached for research, money) and though wow, I *so* look forward to this.

    I see myself in some of what LD has said: I don't see the schedule changing, but I do foresee (or can imagine) working as hard with more stability. And that doesn't sound unexciting at all, in fact it sounds downright thrilling!


  4. Thanks, all. For me this post is about about having a job that doesn't have to be your whole life, a job that can actually be figured out and handled competently. There is still a lot we could do at the institutional level to make this easier for people (for women), but every now and then it's nice to lift my head up and realize it's not always as hard as it is right now.


  5. This is a terrific articulation of how I think it really is, once one settles for/down into a position–it does get easier, as you get that repertoire of teaching and other professional activities under your belt. Beautifully put, Heather.

    I think the life/job separation thing just is really hard to achieve, and probably impossible (except for those semesters or nano-seconds that Aimée described) when kids are quite young (at least I fantasize so), but despite the lunches it does get easier in lots of ways as they get older (they are able to help make their own lunches at a certain point!) while still staying fun.

    I think too that a bit part of that balancing thing is about coming to terms with competence as enough in a lot of cases.


  6. May I just add another thing that gets better as you settle into this job? You get asked to do things IN OTHER COUNTRIES. I love, love, love the opportunities that conferences and other academic events give us to travel. Those who know me might have noted that I don't often turn up at Congress, but I can be counted on to say “yes” to conferences in Hawaii (thanks IABA) or Spain (Thanks Canlit colleagues). And right now I'm fulfilling a long-held dream to be a visiting professor overseas. I'm in Zagreb, Croatia about to teach a course on Canadian literature to Croatian students. How cool is that!


  7. And here's a shout-out to MaryChap, who first told me about the J Curve. Thanks, MC. @LadyProfessor: sounds fantastic. @Amanda: was thinking of you about the “tolerating less/more bullshit.” Seriously, that stuff from students bothers you less over time. Promise.


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