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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

I don't need a nap, I need help making a better system.

Updated: Apr 6

Tl;dr: You're heading into a candid post about some things that are exhausting about being an underpaid, contingent faculty member. (And yes, I am acutely aware of the privilege I still possess in this role. But, we shouldn't expect people to be grateful for relative crumbs. As the bumper sticker says, "Equity ain't pie." There are incredible resources in academia -- more than enough for everybody -- and we need to actually share the pie.)

A row of four, slender beeswax candles are anchored in a base of sand. All four candles are lit.
We could shine such a bright light if we'd stop pretending burnout can be solved individually. (Image: BGMerkle, © 2023)

I keep insisting to my husband that I like my job (though you needn't love yours). I like what I do. I like that I get to combine a wide range of my otherwise-seemingly unrelated skills and knowledge bases (e.g., master gardening, informal conservation education, science journalism, running nonprofits, community development, strategic planning, art-science integrating, how to teach writing, and my list goes onnnnnnnn).

But, every time I'm grumpy about some bureaucratic inefficiency or an "unforced error" committed by an administrator, he asks me if maybe I'd be happier doing something else.

And I repeat that this is the best professional fit I've had in years (maybe ever). I don't want a different job.

All of that is true.

But also, I (by choice, granted) work at the intersection of several fields that are vital to the future of science and society, yet are chronically undervalued and underfunded. My work weaves together things like science communication, education/pedagogy, art-science integration, and writing, as a start. Perhaps not-obviously, these are essential dimensions of doing and sharing science. But, the prestige systems that academics are socialized in leads most people to not see it that way.

I have a non-tenure-track faculty position that technically only started three years ago, though I've been doing this work at my institution since 2015 and since ~2005 outside academia. While my position is a recent "hire," I did not receive any startup, even though startup funding in our department currently ranges in the six figures. I do not need a PhD to do the work that I am uniquely qualified to do on our campus and in my profession. And, I do have a terminal degree. But, few people in the corners of academia where I work understand it that way; they just see that I don't have a PhD. This is their problem (and they could technically give me a PhD and eliminate their problem). And yet, this is one of the administrative justifications for my position also being considerably underpaid, relative to both my colleagues and relative to the level and extent of expertise I actually bring to the table.

Yes, I've agreed to these conditions. But also, they were the only conditions offered if I wanted to keep doing this work and doing it here. Usually, I maintain my equilibrium about all that.

But today, I'm tired. And when I'm tired, I get less patient.

Foremost, I'm tired from producing about 18 year's worth of work in the past half a semester (not a typo [1]). That's excessive and problematic, even though I care about the work and initiated a lot of it.

I'm tired from trying to talk administrators into funding programs that I know (and have evidence to confirm) could make a huge difference to students and scholars on campus.

I'm tired from grant budgets where I do equal work (or more) and get half the compensation [2].

I'm tired from all this really important work being dismissed as "service," as if contributing to the good of the department, university, and society was something to sneer at [3]. (I don't swear in writing anywhere near as much as I do in real life, but this one brings me pretty close.)

I'm tired from knowing that prioritizing the too much that I signed myself up for this spring means that I haven't spent any time in the pottery studio in months. And that's the one place where -- these days -- I seem to be able to shut off my brain and hit something close to meditation. It's a calm that my synapses feel desperate for, but I can't reach back for it for at least another 10 days; not until collaborators and I get a major grant proposal submitted. (Something that isn't required in my job description, but is required to make get to the next phase of my work.)

If I sound like I'm complaining, my husband would agree.

But, this is not a litany of complaints. It is a list of realities that make me tired.

Mine is the exhaustion that comes from knowing the honest truth of this work environment (and most jobs these days, academia isn't uniquely a hamster wheel). That is: there is never an enough unless I define it myself [4].

To say what enough is, we have to get a grip on what matters to us, and reframe how we work accordingly. I know my work matters; it's why I do it. To work accordingly, I start with Dr. Beronda Montgomery's wisdom to work from affirmation, rather than for it [5]. I also regularly revisit another essential truth from her, to prioritize what I can uniquely do.

But, this week's post is "late" (if anyone is even paying attention) because I haven't had enough brain space to say out loud that even working from affirmation and having my own, unique priorities isn't enough to balance out the fatigue that comes from working uphill all day, every day. I found words for the feeling yesterday, when I read Dr. Loleen Berdahl's post about burnout in academia [6]. (Incidentally, that was the third piece I bumped into on burnout just this week.) A central message of her post came from one of the many books she's read on burnout recently, as an effort to manage her own.

“The question, in the end, cannot just be “how can I prevent my burnout?”; it has to be, “how can I prevent yours? […] the cure for burnout has to be cultural and collective, focused on offering each other the compassion and respect our work does not.” - Jonathan Malesic, The End of Burnout

Malesic's statement is the genuine truth of what makes me so tired right now. I know the work I do matters. Indeed, I have written very compelling annual review statements and grant narratives and research papers articulating exactly why and how this work is what we need to move science and society forward, together. And, I have gotten better at keeping my focus on the specific areas of this work that I'm effective at and find meaningful. I remain a fervent advocate of Dr. Montgomery's from affirmation paradigm

None of that saves me from the reality that I can't access the same resources as my colleagues. I can't assume I have a job next year, or even get taken seriously by some of my colleagues. And today, that makes me really tired.

I don't need a nap.

I don't need a colleague "putting me" on their grant as a hand-out.

I don't need an administrator saying "I'll make sure you get more credit."

I need the colleagues and administrators who say they think my work matters and that they like working with me, to actually give me the resources to make this work sustainable. I need them to make sure that I, too, have an equitable salary, job security, and $300,000-$800,000+ to spend in the first three years of my position in the department. Anything else is tacit obstructionism.

Put another way, most of the burnout research is really clear. "You can't self-care away your burnout," notes Dr. Christina Maslach, who developed the eponymous Maslach Burnout Inventory [6]. "You have to remove the cause of your stress, and that often requires structural changes in the workplace" [8].

And, that's what I'm getting at here. The reality is that we, as faculty, are the majority of the system of academia and thus can shape it into what we want (including determining how money, prestige, job stability, equitable workloads, etc., are distributed). Standing aside and watching me exceed our tenure-track expectations every year with none of the support they got is the same as telling people like me that you don't value us, don't value our work, don't think we merit funding or recognition or stability.

I'd rather you say that to my face than passively (or actively) ensure the system keeps grinding against me.

If all this makes anyone I work with uncomfortable, well, that's actually the point.

Because, I'm perhaps most tired from being polite when, too often, people only say they wish things could be otherwise for me. They might mean it, because they do know me, do value what I do, want me to keep doing it, in their department, at their institution. But, wishing isn't helping contingent faculty like me. Wishing rent was cheaper doesn't pay a living wage to underpaid and overworked staff and grad students [9]. Wishing a colleague was nicer doesn't mean undergrads who need empathy get it, rather than a "life lesson" about course deadlines.

While I go take a long nap, it's time faculty and administrators in and beyond my department invest their time, social capital, and discretionary funding into making the situation equitable. They actually do know what needs to change.



[1] My job description is skewed toward teaching and admin (which is a fine fit for me, right now). This means that while the typical scholarly output expected in our department is an average of 2 papers per year, my expectation is only 0.5/year. However, this semester already, I've published 2 papers, revised and resubmitted another, drafted two more that will be submitted by summer, and submitted the co-authored book I'm leading (which I'm conservatively calculating as equivalent to 5 papers). This month, I will also submitting two grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, one of which I'm a co-PI on to lead assessment and broader impacts, the other of which I'm leading as the PI. I'm also teaching two courses and a non-credit-bearing short course. And, I run a weekly newsletter that reaches over 600 people, connecting them to resources, trainings, jobs, and funding in scicomm. I do all that on the lowest faculty salary in our department, with no startup or operating funds. (I only got my work computer, a laptop, through some leftover COVID-19 support funding.) So yeah, I'm tired...even though I think this is important work that I can and want to meaningfully do.

[2] If you're not familiar with the academia + grants system, the short story is that I get less compensation because my salary is lower, and federal grants tend to calculate compensation as % of our salary.

[3] See Babcock et al.'s book The No Club for an eye-opening and infuriating look at what vital dimensions of professional work (in and beyond academia) get lumped as society and who gets pressured into doing that work and then devalued for doing it. A more recent study reaffirms their findings.

[4] As I noted earlier, I'm aware that I have distinct privilege that buffers me from even worse working conditions. For example, I don't have to deal with a lot of the things that wear down people in similar roles: identity based discrimination (other than being a woman in STEM/in the world), poverty, caregiving, working multiple jobs on short-term contracts, etc.

[5] You can find a collection of Dr. Montgomery's writing on self-affirmation as an academic here.

[6] I highly recommend Dr. Berdahl's blog, starting with yesterday's post.

[8] See science writer Isobel Whitcomb's piece about Maslach and burnout in Popular Science.

[9] Here's an example someone posted online of how underpaid grad students are. And, at my institution, a lot of staff, including custodians, work for below-poverty wages.


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