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Author Topic: Feeling burned out  (Read 12446 times)
wanderer
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« on: March 07, 2012, 2:07:24 AM »

I'm finishing up several years abroad. I'm in a tenure-track-ish position in Asia. In general I like it. Salary is good. Great schools for kids. Spouse has alumni connections at other U's and good prospects for dual career. Saving money, some research happening, looking forward to trip home this summer, etc. However, I'm also just a bit burned out on the adjustments.

Part of my challenge is the different institutional culture. I've been hear long enough that I'm now at the point where I realize the school won't change. It will always be run from above with little faculty input and no voice for junior faculty. I'm teaching at the edge of my field, using a foreign language. I have trouble getting the support help I need on things like language. There's a fairly heavy service burden. I live on campus, which is free, but can feel like a fish bowl.

I can't figure what exactly the adjustment I'm struggling with is. Culture shock? Something approaching mid-career blues (or at least the sense that I've reached a plateau, am more comfortable teaching, but am also a bit weary of it all)? Maybe it's just having little kids at home.

If anyone who has taught long-term cross-culturally I'd be really interested in your thoughts on the process. What were the sticking points? What kept you doing it? If you packed it in, how did you do that?
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taikibansei
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« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2012, 8:59:38 PM »

Interesting post. If I'm reading this correctly, you're mid-career (or at the very least have been teaching for a number of years at your present university). If so, and with the possible exceptions of "little faculty input" and teaching "using a foreign language," I'd say your experiences (and feelings about them) are pretty typical for someone at this stage in their career. I.e., I think there's a sort of middle-aged crisis we often go through as academics, where even if we love our jobs, we start feeling bored/burned-out with the current "relationship"...and begin glancing furtively and longingly at adverts for "sexier" positions elsewhere. Most probably go no further than glancing, though in both my fields, movement at even the senior level used to be the norm (e.g., nobody from my dissertation committee remains at my alma mater). Keeping this in mind--i.e., that what you're feeling is both normal and not necessarily just because you're working overseas--can help you stay sane. It certainly helps me!

As to what you should do now and/or whether you should leave...difficult to answer with just the information given. One thing I always recommend, though, is that you have realistic expectations about the level/type of institution you'd be returning to--assuming you were hired. Many of the posts to this particular section of the CHE forums revolve around a false comparison, where conditions at universities overseas are contrasted to, say, the ostensibly "typical" U.S. situations found at "cornell, ucla, boston university, and university of pennsylvania" (to quote from just one recent example). However, as even a cursory search of these forums (and the job adverts in your field) should make clear, the majority of college/university positions in the U.S. sadly do not feature 2/2 (or 1/1) teaching loads, with high faculty salaries/generous research stipends and classes populated solely by capable and motivated students. Indeed, unless you qualify for the elite universities, very often the teaching (and research support) situation you'd find at "home" will be similar (or even inferior) to the situation you have now.

As to how to pack it in and return, how is strong is your publication record, and are you maintaining relationships with people "at home" who can write you good letters of recommendation? Particularly with regards to the former, I think you need to plan on having more publications than is average for the equivalent rank at the institution-type you are targeting--for one thing, search committees will need to justify (to themselves and possibly to administration as well) the extra time/effort and (especially) expense necessary to pursue your application. I've served on search committees in the U.S. where applicants overseas were considered (and in one case hired). I've also been pretty lucky in my own (albeit limited...as I'm only interested in moving for the "right" position) job searches, managing to get interviews and campus invites (and even a job offer that I turned down earlier this year) for a reasonably high percentage of my applications. From experience of being on both sides of the table, I can say that you need to be not just "good" but "better" than the other successful applicants for the type of university you are targeting. Are you?
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wanderer
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« Reply #2 on: March 12, 2012, 1:03:23 AM »

This is helpful. There are several responses you gave and they are all valid. I'm at a point now where I am both burned out and not sure what to do after this next batch of projects if finished, so part of this may just be reaching the point where I'm really finally going off the rail I started on in grad study. I'd call myself early mid-career.

Some of this is culture shock. I'm at a solidly good school here. I did teach at a bad 3/3 in the US. What I mean by bad is that the students were nice but rarely academically inclined, the faculty were friendly but there only a handful were doing research (and some had iffy degrees), and it was going to be an economic struggle to stay there (expensive housing, low pay, mediocre schools). It helps to remember that while some things were better there (governance, personal freedom, etc.), others were worse (student culture, teaching field, etc.). Some are just ambivalent (far from home; getting good language skills but struggling to teach fluently; etc.). I think it can be hard to tease out which parts are culture and which parts are institution. It may be that I could shift schools here or move. This week I've gotten several emails from colleagues struggling at others schools, and it's been helpful in reminding me not to take any of this personally; a lot of this is just academia and living in one fish bowl. Switching bowls will change the view but not necessarily improve things.

I try not to think too much about the "am I good enough" compared to others. I think I'm hitting the publishing targets I need to be viable back in the States, and I'm in a good field (area studies-ish) for moving, where time abroad will help. Still, at this point I'm not really ready to job search or contemplate an intercontinental move.

Thank you for writing back taikinbansei. I'm feeling a bit better about things.

Thank you for helping me think this through.
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taikibansei
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« Reply #3 on: March 12, 2012, 4:42:30 AM »

Our backgrounds and current situations are eerily similar, right down to the descriptions of your former TT position (I believe we worked at the same place!) and your present job situation (a secure position at a good school, with ample research opportunities and nice salary/perks...but something sometimes feels to be missing). Similarly, my research is also aided by being overseas, with the time spent here actually strengthening my candidacy--if I were to choose to return.

Like you, I also go through rough periods when I think strongly about moving on. I think that part of it (as you suggest) is culture shock, and part of it is the midlife crisis-type stuff I mentioned earlier. Regarding the former, what always helps me is doing things to ensure that I have a life outside my workplace. (I think the workplace too easily can become one's sole focus while overseas, particularly if your language skills are insufficient to allow you to function without a translator nearby.) How involved are you and your family in the local community? Is there a PTA or other neighborhood organization you can join/assist with? Also, do any of the professional organizations you belong to have local offices--perhaps they need volunteers/local officers as well? Finally, do you have any hobbies (or things you might want to pursue as hobbies), and are there any clubs/study groups around that cater to learning/practicing these hobbies? I.e., as you appear to speak the local language well, you have options that many do not--take advantage of these opportunities.

Strangely enough, another thing that I do is come here to the CHE forums. Reading the various threads helps me remember all the wonderful students, colleagues and experiences I had while working back home...not to mention the not quite so wonderful (but oh so memorable) exceptions. (The "'favorite' student e-mails" and "Bang Your Head on Your Desk--the thread of teaching despair!" threads really need to be published as books...and maybe made into a movie or three as well.) The forum threads remind me that working as a faculty member at a university back home is a usually rewarding, sometimes frustrating, and often (surreally) entertaining occupation, one that we're "lucky" (if one can ignore all the work necessary to make said "luck" possible) to have. In other words, it's a lot like working where I am now. Keeping this in mind when you are down helps too...at least it helps me.

Good luck to you!
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wanderer
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« Reply #4 on: March 12, 2012, 10:02:03 AM »

I really do like the Chronicle, because it reminds me of how common these types of feeling are. I am migrating more towards "mid-career" discussions, which reflect where I am. I do miss regular hobbies. Our situation is compounded by young children, which limits some of the other ways of getting out (harder to hop a plane to a conference or head off for the stacks). I'm in a better place, but may post on this thread again. It's helped to make contact with some of my cohort and to hear more about their joys and challenges. I may try to post in this forum more. It seems to lack as many regular posters, but perhaps it would be a good place to compare notes with others in a similar place.
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northernacademic
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« Reply #5 on: March 27, 2012, 10:43:33 AM »

I should think that there are a number of overlapping themes involved, and it is hard to know where the best balance is amongst these issues. As taikibansei points, many of these are characteristic questions that anyone in early mid-career faces - juggling your career interests, your spouses' interests, quality of life issues, children's schooling issues, etc. - but made all the more complicated by the additional question of more-or-less permanently living abroad or not. The last is in fact a pretty heavy question. There is no advice to be given, because your specific circumstances and family priorities are going to be unique to you, but it is possible to at least know that many of us out there have experienced this and we can sympathize with your dilemma.

It takes a good two years for the initial novelty of living abroad to wear off, and then a type of culture shock can settle in when one transitions from the thought of the adventure of working abroad for a 'period of time' to the idea of it becoming permanent. When you have to think about pension plans, long-term schooling plans for children, and the like - and deal with it all in another language to boot. I have a few friends for whom that was a very tough mental transition - accepting becoming a permanent expat.

Good luck
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wanderer
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« Reply #6 on: March 29, 2012, 11:43:09 AM »

I've always wondered how universal the process of culture shock is. I'd heard "two years" before also. I think it makes sense and I'm actually just now closing on three years in this position. So culture shock, or the adjustment to thinking of myself as a long-term expat, may be part of this sense of mild alienation.

I struggle also with how involved to be in foreign communities. We haven't joined the American club and the foreigners we know tend to be a mix of people from this and nearby schools: Australia, SE Asia, Brit, South African, etc. I think as kids get older we get more of an expat-y community than we have now. How have you all juggled this?

I think my situation is really a mix of the unsolvable "is this all there is?" with some homesickness and institutional frustration thrown in. I realize I sound pretty negative in these posts. The truth is that in general I like where I am and I know it's an objectively good situation. It helps to hear others who have been through this. I should also add that I know people who probably should have folded and gone home, and I also meet people who had some rough patches but have really found grown over the years. I think part of my dilemma is to figure out how to handle these transitions. I think our goal is to renew for another three years, but this is also the window where we're having to figure that out.

Thank you all again for listening...
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totoro
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« Reply #7 on: April 04, 2012, 6:54:14 AM »

You might also think about looking for a position in another English speaking country where the job market is less competitive than in the US and your experience in Asia maybe is valued more.
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