Everyone has been warned about (or experienced) burnout in their academic career. When you’re overworked, overstressed, or just tired of reading hundreds of articles about what it’s like to be a bat…
I’m lucky enough (or haven’t been in academia long enough) to not have experienced this yet. I have experienced the other kind of burnout though–the kind that I call political burnout.
Political burnout may be a bit of a misnomer. Although the political state of affairs all over the world right now are exhausting, I’m not talking about that. I mean I’m so tired of the politics of academia–of the department, of the school, of the field… I love the work that I do. I don’t love navigating the academic landscape as if every email I send could end my career.
Here’s an example of what I mean. My favorite professor in my department is great; he answers my emails quickly, always provides me with valuable feedback on my papers in a timely fashion, helped me create a handout for my first presentation, and his area of specialization overlaps with my thesis topic. He would have been the perfect person to have on my thesis committee, but he isn’t tenure-track (TT). Since I am an MA student hoping to get into a competitive PhD program, I was advised to not have him on my committee. Even if I did decide to have him on my committee, it would be academic suicide to have him write my letter of recommendation. Did it matter that I had excelled in his class, TAed for him, and worked with him closely on the first drafts of my thesis, that he knew me as a student and as a member of the program more so than any other professor in the program? No. It would be much more valuable to attempt to build comparable relationships with tenured/TT professors and have them be on my committee and write my letters.
I have solid relationships with many TT professors. I have taught under them, taught for them, and they know me quite well. I am not frustrated that I was advised to work with them. I am frustrated that I was advised to not work with the other professor. I am not even that frustrated with the tenure system; those that work hard and are successful deserve to be recognized and move up the ladder as you would in any other field. What I am most frustrated with is that I have to be so cognizant of the status of those I work with because the wrong move could hinder my chances of getting into a good program. Of course the quality of my work should matter. Of course the content of my letters of recommendation should matter. Should it really matter if the person who supervised my work or wrote my letter is tenured or not? I’m not convinced.
I don’t like that I have to be so worried about stepping on the wrong toes. There are problems in my department–one of my supervisors is hella passive aggressive, there isn’t a lot of faculty support for our Minorities and Philosophy chapter, our course selections focus almost exclusively on western philosophy… As a member of an underrepresented group, I have often felt silenced, offended, ignored, and hurt by many of these things. I know others in the department have as well. I want to fix it, and I have so many ideas on how our department could improve. I want to make my voice heard. But, if I do so, there is a good chance that I may rub an important person the wrong way, push a little too hard, be a little too annoying, and professors talk. I don’t want to imperil my chances at being successful by making a name for myself as the problematic one.
I know that in other careers you have to deal with some sort of politics. If you rub your boss the wrong way, you can get fired without a good recommendation. But at least in other fields you don’t risk your success entirely by going to HR to complain about your sexist coworkers. If I only have the option of getting letters from a small handful of professors from a small handful of chosen “ranked” schools (more on this to come later), then I need to be in their good graces. You legally can’t be fired for reporting your racist boss to HR; there is no law saying that a professor who you reported for sexist comments has to write you a good letter of recommendation. So you deal with it, complain to others who have dealt with it, and say it’ll be better when we get into a PhD program, when we are hired, when we have tenure.
And that is what is burning me out. Not my research, but the politics within my department and my field. I wish my success could be determined solely (or at least mostly) on the quality of my work as a student, not on the rank of my undergrad university or whether or not my letter writers have tenure.
Am I naive? Does anyone else feel the same?