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Faculty burnout, and collaboration versus competition

Tenure-track faculty are more at risk of suffering burnout from their teaching duties than their tenured and non-tenure track counterparts, according to a study presented yesterday at the American Association of University Professors annual conference in Washington. Articles on the study appear in today’s Inside Higher Ed and yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

The research is based on a survey carried out in 2008 by then Ph.D. candidate Janie Crosmer of Texas Woman’s University. Crosmer analyzed self-reported burnout among 411 full-time U.S. professors, half of whom were tenured, a quarter non-tenured, and another quarter on the tenure track. Burnout levels were measured in terms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (defined as “An unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one’s service, care, treatment or instruction”) and perceptions of personal accomplishment.

Crosmer found that, overall, faculty members are not more burned out than the average working population. But a closer analysis of the data revealed differences depending on the career stage of the faculty respondents. The survey tool measured emotional exhaustion on a scale of 0-54; 14-23 was average burnout and 24 and higher was a high degree of burnout. Tenure-track faculty reported an average level of emotional exhaustion of 22.3, well above the tenured faculty’s 20.9 and non tenure-track faculty’s 16.4. Women seemed more at risk than men, scoring a 20.9 average compared to 18.5 for men.

And while no significant differences were detected in the level of professional satisfaction between the 3 different career stages, tenure-track faculty (including men and women) experienced the highest level of depersonalization, compared to tenured professors and non-tenure track faculty, Inside Higher Ed’s article reports. 

In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Crosmer mentions the “Lack of time, poorly prepared students, cumbersome bureaucratic rules, high self expectations, unclear institutional expectations, and low salary” as the key reasons for burnout. And she attributed the greater emotional exhaustion of women to “gender expectations: You have to be a wife, a mother, a caretaker, and a professor all at once.”

Still, The Chronicle reports, Crosmer offered one solution to help reduce burnout: “If departments would adopt collectivistic values. It’s sometimes hard for professors to feel like they’re in a community, a community where they can share the workload. If one faculty member is really busy working on getting a grant, for instance, maybe a colleague could step up and teach their classes. If faculty members didn’t feel like they had to do it all, that they had someone within their community to turn to, I think that would help.”

Some follow-up comments dismissed the idea as unrealistic. The commenter ‘Porcupine’ for example saw pre-tenure competition as an important factor to burnout and a very good reason for not asking for help: “If I were to ask an untenured colleague to teach my classes so that I can work on a grant, the colleague would rub their hands together in glee, because I would have given them great ammunition in the ongoing competition, not to mention endless opportunities for snarky remarks – clearly I am not up to the job if I need to ask for help. I simply wouldn’t mention it to a tenured colleague, because they might see my asking for help as a reason to vote against my tenure case.”

And even if you’re well-intentioned and want to help, often you simply can’t afford the luxury, also commented ‘northwest’. “Let’s get past this notion that somewhere in our schedules we have ‘extra’ time to share and start talking about hiring some of the unemployed and underemployed PhDs to help reduce our loads to manageable levels.”

Nonetheless, I think Crosmer’s suggestion is well worth exploring. How much flexibility you may have in juggling your duties probably depends a great deal on your particular situation, colleagues, and institution. Admittedly, she is at the tenured level, but when I recently talked to Begoña Vittoriano, a successful and appreciated scientist at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain who combines her mathematical research with development cooperation activities in poor countries, she mentioned to me that she sometimes swaps teaching duties with colleagues to make some of her traveling possible.