Burned Out = Not Cut Out

A couple of weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed ran a report called “Why Academics Suffer Burnout,” which concluded that many academics experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and work-related dissatisfaction.  To which I say: if you can’t take the heat, get your ass out of the kitchen.  Sub-arguments in support of thesis:

1) Yes, we academics do a lot of things: we read a shit-ton of books, we write hundreds of words even if our brains don’t want to cooperate, we teach students who would rather be sleeping/screwing/eating/playing video games, we serve on committees with other crazy, narcissistic whack-jobs like ourselves, blah, blah, blah.  It’s still not digging for coal, driving a truck, running a farm on the edge of bankruptcy, or, hell, living in the Third World trying to find a path out of poverty instead of a path toward tenure.  Cowboy/girl up, nerds.

2) Let’s move beyond relative comparisons to other jobs — I’m aware of the pitfalls of that way of thinking (“just be grateful for what you have, peon!”).  I’ve long believed that every person has a particular level of maximum stress, which s/he will fulfill no matter what the conditions.  So the professors freaking out about having too many theses to advise are the same ones who pissed themselves for sixth grade spelling tests.  I’m not sure when this particular neurosis develops — nature? nurture? alien abduction? — but I notice it in myself and everyone else I see.  So I would speculate that the people suffering burnout in the academy would also suffer burnout if they were flipping burgers at McDonald’s.  The only difference is the consequence: stressy-professy ruins part of a student’s education, while freaked-out-Mc-D’d-out gives Comic Book Guy salmonella.  I think society should be willing to accept the latter over the former.

3) Make way for those who can hack it.  From the outside looking in, your 4/4 load with research support, health care, retirement, and awesome-sauce job security looks mighty nice.  I — an many of the other graduate students out there — would be happy to take that off your hands.  And we’ll do a damned good job.

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4 thoughts on “Burned Out = Not Cut Out

  1. You say that we’ll do a damned good job. The study, though, seems to suggest otherwise. Those most likely to experience burnout? Young, engaged teachers. And, given that there is no real dearth of applicants can’t we assume that those young and engaged teachers are also highly qualified teachers and researchers?

    Might there be another place to look for potential solutions? Say, working to maintain reasonable class size, changing the stigmas against women in academia, and dispelling the myth that academia is a “give all or don’t succeed” endeavor. You claim that burnout suggests a problem with the individual. Might significant numbers of burnout suggest a problem with the system?

    • Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful reply, Nate! I’d quibble with your argument that young, engaged teachers are also highly qualified, which assumes that hiring committees actually choose candidates well, which is not always the case. But your broader argument — that there is a systemic, structural problem — is absolutely sound. And by suggesting some other solutions, you take a more constructive approach to action that I did in my post. My suggestion for proactivity: out of the faculty pool, losers. Your suggestion: make things better, faculty. That’s a much better way to go: working together to address the small and big problems that can put unnecessary pressure on academics. Perhaps one of the reasons that I didn’t key in on that — besides being a much angrier and dumber human than you — stems from some recent poor experiences I’ve had with faculty unity and the lack thereof. It’s hard to think about faculty sticking together to resist constant pressures on their demands when tenure-track faculty so quickly and easily throw their non-TT colleagues under the bus, all while the non-TT faculty lay on the pavement waiting to get squashed.

  2. Ok, agreed on hiring committees. Disagreed on dumber.

    All I meant to point out was this: There are probably a lot of people that look like you—smart, engaged, ready to shake things up and do good work—that you would want as colleagues. Some of those people, though, are getting burned out probably in part because of some of the people we have all had experiences with. You don’t want only those people that can stand the heat to stay in—because standing the heat might in fact simply mean not replying to student emails, shirking class prep, and dumping committee work on their colleagues (“I sleep just fine, thank you very much”). Not the people you want on your team. Its doubly a problem because not only would you do good work but the good folks who are getting burned out need people like you in their support network.

    It is a faculty, admin, and individual problem. It might also point to something else (perhaps another post)—the disconnect between graduate school work and what really happens on the other side.

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