RE-posted from 2011. When this went up the first time, it got very little response. That surprised me. I think this is a real thing. Readers?
Today’s post is another Special Request post, this time coming from Kate, who wrote an eloquent email asking for advice on how to cope with what I will call “Job Market PTSD.”
By Job Market PTSD (hereafter JMPTSD), what I mean is the state of being so traumatized by the academic job search that even when it is successful, and you get the coveted tenure track position, you cannot stop feeling anxious, inadequate, panicked and insecure. This isn’t any kind of “official” diagnosis–it’s just something I’ve observed.
JMPTSD includes the survivor’s guilt that you feel toward the comrades-in-arms you left behind as you boarded what seems like the last helicopter out of The Search. It includes classic trauma symptoms in that the sustained terror of potential joblessness/insolvency, combined with the psychological warfare of hope offered and then snatched away (particularly in the new phenomenon of searches and offers canceled at the last minute), steals away your sense of security in the world. It includes a large component of Imposter Syndrome, in that you wonder “Why me? Why did I get this position?” And it includes an element of Stockholm Syndrome, in that your gratitude for the offer is so abject that your normal emotional boundaries evaporate in a frantic attempt to please your new employer.
I believe that JMPTSD is more widespread than commonly acknowledged. And in current market conditions, it is likely to get worse.
There is certainly a variety of JMPTSD that afflicts those who are ultimately unsuccessful on the job market. And that variety may be the more serious.
But for today I want to address the JMPTSD that afflicts those who DID get the tenure track job, but find themselves struggling to leave behind the trauma of the search.
Because what I’m hearing is, search trauma is having an impact on these assistant professors’ performance on the job. Instead of being a triumphant transition into professional security and financial solvency, the move to assistant professorhood provokes renewed fear and anxiety and self-doubt.
While all of us who have been through the assistant professor stage remember the struggle to cope and keep our heads above water, this seems to be qualitatively different.
This is a kind of sustained state of fear that saps your confidence and sense of well-being. Its primary symptom is a profound feeling of unworthiness that arises when the conditions for hiring are so chaotic and opaque and seemingly random, that it is impossible for you, the successful candidate, to feel that you actually deserved the job more than anyone else.
Given that the fundamental logic of assistant professorhood is based entirely on external approval to begin with, this effort can have toxic results. The main one seems to be an extreme susceptibility to exploitation.
Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, assistant professors are so abjectly grateful for the job that they find it impossible to say no.
Teach more? Sure! Take furlough days? Absolutely! Increase your class size? No problem! Give up your TAs? That’s ok—I can TA my own classes!
As one new assistant professor told me, “It made me less willing to negotiate, to speak up for myself, or to assert my wishes as to what I would teach.”
The marketplace has done to assistant professors what the eradication of tenure promises to do to their seniors: remove the possibility of resistance to disintegrating conditions of work.
What to do?
Well, at the risk of being cliché, I say: first, get therapy. This is legitimate trauma and should be treated as such.
Find other new assistant professors and start a regular lunch group. Don’t make this a writing group. Make it a support group. Share your experiences. Hold each other accountable for doing what it takes to stay mentally healthy.
Get outside and get in your body. Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep. Find a good doctor in your new town and schedule an appointment for the Fall term.
Find a trusted senior mentor if you can. Don’t expect this person to really “get it,” though. If they’re already tenured, then they won’t really get it. But they can help you navigate your department and set healthy boundaries and avoid over-exploitation from service expectations.
Forgive yourself for needing downtime that seems to be “unproductive.” It is ok to watch TV and play with your kids and hang out with your partner and sit on the sofa and stare at nothing.
Keep creative, right-brain activities in your life. Draw, journal, write poetry, throw pots, build a fence, plant a garden, restore an old car, make jewelry, sing, knit…. whatever speaks to you.
Remember that you deserve to be there and you are a full-fledged member of the department. You have the same rights as every other faculty member. You are not a graduate student and not a second class citizen. You do not need to apologize for existing. You are entitled to ask for what you want. If trauma prevented you from negotiating everything you wish you had at the time of the offer, let your department head and your trusted senior mentor know what you need now.
You were hired to be a scholar. Insist on the time you need to produce scholarship, both at the department and in your home life.
You deserve the job you have. You deserve to enjoy it. And you deserve to succeed at it. And you deserve the support to make that happen. Don’t let anyone (including your own insecurities) tell you otherwise.
~~Readers: Please let me know your experiences of Job Market PTSD. I’d really like to hear them~~