Post-Tenure Stress and Status

Thank you (I think) to Dan for this guest stint on Concurring Opinions and the generous introduction. My ambivalence (which might seem somewhat snarky) actually stems from stress, induced by the ambiguity of the task of guest-blogger on this particular blog if one is not a privacy or criminal law guru. What topics will be of interest? How does one generate reams of clever comments, inspire a vibrant cyberconversation? Should you keep writing even if you can’t find your copy of Thorstein Veblen or de Tocqueville to bolster your own petty musings? In other words, what are the rules for achieving some degree of success on Concurring Opinion?

These questions are related, in my view, to the particular nature of stress experienced by many already-tenured legal academics. This topic was raised in brief by a slightly tongue-in-cheek post on PrawfsBlawg last week, phrased as the guilt that, despite having “the best job in the world,” many law professors still consider themselves stressed. A few follow-up posts suggested that the only real stress in our job is achieving tenure – or perhaps those few rare occasions on which one looks like an idiot in front of 90 law students. I disagree – and in fact think that in some respects, this job becomes more stressful post-tenure. It all depends on how we define stress.

The kind of stress I am interested in is not the “I have too much to do” kind of stress – which we all know really makes us feel important and valuable. As Michael Marmot writes in The Status Syndrome, it isn’t the busy times that cause us stress, it is status insecurity and the lack of control over that which garners us status. Marmot (for those who aren’t so inordinately insecure that they read multiple books on status insecurity), is an epidemiologist who focuses on the link between status and health. So why would we be more status-focused and thus perhaps more stressed after tenure?

Because when we seek tenure, the rules of success and the particular type of status we are striving for are generally clear. At most law schools, we know that if we write the requisite number of articles, have them read and admired by the powerful members of the faculty, receive reasonable teaching evaluations, and participate adequately in faculty governance, we will very likely receive tenure. Don’t get me wrong, I had many moments of extraordinary pre-tenure stress – each time I sent an article out for publication, during outside review of my scholarship, and whenever I opened the yellow envelope containing teaching evaluations, I experienced classic stress reactions. And some law schools have ambiguous tenure guidelines or are well-known for denying tenure. Obviously, pre-tenure stress at such institutions is likely to be very high.

Post-tenure, however, the rules for increasing status are more nebulous. Legal academics often self-identify as “over-achievers.” I think what we often mean by “over-achievers” are inveterate hoop jumpers and people pleasers (or perhaps the less attractive phrases for these phenomena). Pre-tenure, it is fairly clear who we need to please: powerful faculty and the Dean. Post-tenure, once the five minutes of euphoria have passed, the potential field of people to please or impress grows exponentially: stars in your own field, academics in related fields, lateral hiring committees at higher ranked schools, academic publishers, the media. The list is endless. Most irritatingly, technology constantly creates new modes of measuring our status: SSRN download counts, google searches, and now of course, blog response rates.

So – here’s hoping that I figure out the rules of the game for guest-blogging on Concurring Opinion so that this month isn’t wildly stressful.

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12 Responses

  1. Kyounshi says:

    “It’s as if evolution has built a safety device in our nervous systems that allows us to experience full happiness only when we are living at 100%–when we are fully using the physical and mental equipment we have been given.” Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

    Status anxiety about anything, pre or post-tenure, probably, at the deepest level, gets in the way of the 100% rule.

  2. Thanks for linking to my Prawfs post, Rachel. For another view about the conflict between our great academic jobs and the stress of it all, see the post Rick Bales did today on Workplace Prof Blog, entitled: An Academic’s Life, from a Labor Perspective.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I must say, from the outside looking in (in the sense that I came to the academic world at middle age and only part-time and on the periphery at that), all this blather about stress strikes me as a tad too self-involved. Try driving a furniture truck for a living, fighting forest fires, running a jackhammer all day, constructing wilderness trails in the heat of summer in chaparral country, building homes for the rich and wanna-be-famous, and so forth and so on (I used examples I’m intimately familiar with): it’s hard to sympathize or empathize. Trust me, you’ve got it good, make the best of it. If this is asking too much, confine the ‘stress talk’ to colleagues and the intimate realm….

    Take time to leisurely ride a bicycle (note: some bicycles aren’t built for leisure, so make sure you find one that is), meditate for a few moments once or twice a day, or engage in any number of activities that have proven effective in combatting real or imagined stress. Or, think of the misery and suffering of untold others throughout the world: the focus on stress can then only appear rather self-obsessed if not solipsistic.

  4. Frank says:

    This is a very perceptive analysis. I think Rick Garnett has a post on PrawfsBlawg where he broadens out the “people to please” to stakeholders in the community, law reform organizations, etc. I think that sort of concrete engagement is one solution to the problem.

    But as for the academic aspirations that are the main concern of the post–I think the best solution is a bit of satiric distance, best provided by novels by the likes of David Lodge and James Hynes.

    And there is always Ecclesiastes 9:11:

    “[T]he race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”

    & 1:18:

    “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

  5. Kyounshi and Paul, thanks much for quote and the link to Workplace Prof. The article quoted there wholly supports Patrick’s point. I guess it wasn’t as obvious as I thought that I was intending to be self-abnegating. The status-related stress of a a well-paid job for life is wholly different (and of less concern from any societal point of view) than the life-stress of many who are forced into soul-deadening, poorly paid jobs. And Frank’s point about engagement in the real world to get outside of overt ego-involvement is completely right. The irony of it all — and my reason for posting on the subject — was to acknowledge the absurdity. Patrick’s response certainly made it clear!

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I might have said my comments were not necessarily directed to Professor Godsil. And I admit to often being a bit obtuse when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of irony and absurdity. Part of that may be due to this peculiar and relatively new form of communication, or perhaps it’s because I travel in different circles, etc.

    In any case, I do want to welcome Rachel (if I may) to Concurring Opinions. And I hope you occasionally post on topics directly related to your scholarship, which intrigues me (to put it feebly), especially after having read Kristin Shrader-Frechette’s Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (2002). What is more, having for a time been active in the Green movement, we had lively discussions and passionate debates owing to the concerns of those with a (New) Left pedigree and orientation as found among self-described ‘Social Ecology’ Greens (after the late Murray Bookchin). Thus talk that revolved around ‘the convergence of race, poverty, and the environment’ was not uncommon.

    Best wishes,


  7. Orin Kerr says:

    One of the big questions, it seems to me, is whether you happen to set goals that are easy to reach or are hard to reach. For example, getting a tenure-track lawprof job is really hard, so it’s very stressful. On the other hand, getting tenure once you have a tenure track lawprof job is less hard, so it’s less stressful. And if you decide to pick post-tenure goals that are really hard, then it’s stressful again.

  8. Eh Nonymous says:

    What about influencing the government? What if a judge cites your blog post on Concurring Opinions? What if the Office of Legal Counsel does? Wouldn’t that be an ever more important audience than the media, your peers, and potential employers?

    That is, wouldn’t you be affecting the law by writing about it?

  9. Bruce Boyden says:

    It’s an interesting feature of status that it seems to “scale” — no matter where you are, the next big crest always seems just over the horizon, like a graph of stock prices that looks equally lumpy whether it’s hourly trading, weekly, or over 5 years. So the post-tenure law professor can experience considerable stress over whether they’ll make it to the next goal down the line, no matter whether that goal is modest (impress a few colleagues) or ambitious (become the greatest legal scholar of all time).

  10. Frank says:

    I like Bruce’s point (which was also behind a crucial plot development in The Matrix!)

    But here’s a counterpoint of consolation, this time from poetry (Thom Gunn):

    “At worst one is in motion; and at best,

    Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,

    One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

  11. Rumi says:

    “Past all ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll met you there.”

    Rumi, from 12th Century Afghanistan Sufi Gathering at a cafe where also gathered bohemian world open Moslems, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Budhists

  12. I am thrilled by the melange of responses! When Rumi meets Thom Gunn meets scripture, something has gone right. I think my own underlying objective for the post was achieved — I was able to be candid about my own anxiety while also getting a sharp enough response (thanks to Patrick) to tell myself to get over it and start writing about substance. For any still interested in thinking about the nature of status anxiety even for the absurdly privileged, I recommend Robert Frank, Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status (recommended to me by the ever erudite Frank Pasquale). Frank (Robert) confirms Bruce and Orinn’s comments that the degree of status anxiety we experience is enormously dependant upon the “pond” we are competing within — the measure is local rather than global. Enough about all of this for now — on to substance!