Mid-career slumps

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From the mailbag–a letter from Historiann, to Historiann’s readers. 

Dear friends,

Mid-career slumps:  I’m afraid I haz one.  What do I do about it?

Outwardly, I’m not slumping.  My definition of “slump” has more to do with how I feel about my career now than any major failures or setbacks.  I applied for two grants this year, and didn’t win either of them.  (If at first you don’t succeed, reapply, reapply again, right?)  I had been especially hopeful about the one grant, to which I had been specifically invited to reapply.  (Last year, I was the first runner up.)  But, I didn’t even make the wait list apparently–I was rejected even faster this year!  I’m enjoying my teaching this semester.  I have a major research project that I’m working on, as well as a few side projects that will afford me opportunities for publishing bits and bobs along the way to completing the book manuscript.  I have no doubt that I’ll write this book–I’m enjoying it a great deal, and all of the intellectual detours that it’s taken me on. 

But, this is the strategy I followed for the first book.  It worked, but something tells me that I should be doing something different.  Specifically, I wonder if I should be challenging myself more.  I hate rejection and like to play it safe.  I recognize that it has limited me professionally.  I talked to a colleague about my slumpishness, and he’s reviving a faculty reading group in environmental history that will help me recharge intellectually.  (And, it will connect me more with one of the key specializations in my department, since I’m a marginal rather than a central player in our program.)  If I’m learning to alpine ski at age 41, I should be capable of taking some professional risks, shouldn’t I? 

What do you all think?

Your pal,


Have you ever been in a slump?  What did you do?  What do you recommend, and what do you suggest the rest of us avoid?  I am soliciting your advice.  Tell me your stories.

0 thoughts on “Mid-career slumps

  1. Sorry to hear about the grants. These things are always a bit random.

    Since I am junior, I don’t think I have any advice about feeling blah. It does seem, though, that the next project after the first book gets many people down. Indeed, it is hard for me to imagine another NERPoD.


  2. Well, I guess the question is what is the downside? Ok, you will have to learn to get over rejection, but on the plus side, sometimes risk has big payoffs. And, it is usually those people who are willing to take risks that have spectacular careers. And, you have a stable job with an established publication record, so it isn’t going to break your career- you’re unlikely to end-up unemployed and homeless. Worst case you waste a bit of time- and if you can’t do that mid-career, when can you?

    On the rejection side, if you get rejected you should also be able to tell yourself, ‘I am established; I am a good historian, this is just a glitch’. Because you are. It’s not like you a new historian trying to prove yourself and who might be able to tell herself such things, but doesn’t have the evidence to back it up.


  3. Get a dog? A bucking bronco of a horse to break in on weekends?

    Seriously, my typist started blogging to combat her own case of mid-career blahs and that became the springboard for a significant reorientation of both her research and teaching. (She will be teaching a “Writing for the Blogosphere” course in the fall and is hugely excited about it. I’m like, wevs, Moose, just give ME the credit for all the work I do.) Of course, she’s an English prof, so that kind of thing may be easier to do than it would be in history.

    Still, we totes recommend the taking of risks at mid-career. Isn’t that one of the wonderful things about tenure — that it frees you to make moves that aren’t calculated to get you through the next hoop but to keep you learning and feeling challenged? Srsly, girlfriend, if you’ve got the guts for alpine skiing, picking up a new sub-field should be a breeze if that’s your inclination.

    Strap on your scholarly skis and take Moose’s motto to heart: Tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.

    Hugs to you, Historiann.


  4. When I finished my first book, I outlined a project that I thought was book #2. I even got a small fellowship and worked on it, and published a few articles. I realized that I could write a boring big book on the subject (Everything you ever wanted to know about…), but I didn’t have a hook for a good interesting book on the subject. Then a publisher asked me if I’d write another book, (survey on “Women in…”) and I thought I would write that for a while. But that was boring, and I don’t write synthesis well or easily or happily. In the midst of all that, I didn’t get tenure. I got another job eventually, but an odd one. I went through a mild depression, I think, for a few years. Eventually I found my way to what became book #2, but that was 7+ years after I started what I thought would be book #2.

    Which is to say, I don’t have brilliant advice. Keep your eyes/ears/brain open to ideas that may lead you in new directions. In my case, it was an off the wall question that got me going. Other people I knew took detours for book #2 – they had a project, and there was a corner of it that became a book.

    But you know, you *are* a risk taker — what else can you call someone who doesn’t make their diss their first book? Maybe the risk taking will be the writing?

    Oh, and grants? I almost never get them, as I’m always a little too weird. And I’ve never had the biggies. Harumph. I think the bias is (intellectually) conservative. Oddballs need not apply. Maybe that will change now, but my experience is not encouraging.


  5. I’ve done a lot of ‘outside the box’ adventuring, physically and intellectually, in the last two years and personally it has been incredibly rewarding and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. All the goofy buzz words apply, I have grown emotionally and intellectually, I’ve learned amazing new things about myself and my personal journey, met amazing new people, had old friendships deepen and new, life changing ones open up …. from a personal perspective I can’t recommend radical adventure strongly enough.

    However — the jury is still out professionally. I *think* the end will be good, but right now I have no idea.

    But, I have to tell you, my adventures are the result of being forcibly ejected from my original life plan. I was denied tenure and at the same time my husband walked out, so I was already in free fall when I decided — by necessity — to spread my wings and try radically new things.

    If I had caught the brass ring, I would probably be in a very deep slump right now.


  6. Historiann, your second (first long) paragraph above sounds like my trajectory AFTER things began working out. The biggest risk I ever took was staying on line to da’ gree when they called us in and told us the discipline was going on hiatus for, oh, about the rest of the century or so. Everything after that has felt sort of like adolescent experimentation, albeit in the gratifying sense as much as the get a “permanent record” sense.

    Anyway, I think the play safe/take risks dualism that we hear may be just that, a rhetorical but false dichotomy.
    A fair amount of academic risk-taking sometimes ends up seeming like styling or kabuki, with minimal long-term meaning or contribution. Playing it safe conjures for me people who write versions of the same book (or other end-product) over and over again, sometimes to great critical praise, but why? Your profile doesn’t fit either of these modalities, as Susan suggests.

    Getting rejectoed after an invitation is nutsifying, but sometimes they throw in a sort of tiny consolation prize (at least that’s what’s happening to me in a few weeks). Having what non-academic writers call a slush-pile of ideas and half-completed manuscripts in a nearby drawer that can be pulled out and mobilized at sudden opportunity is the best slump-buster there is. The keywords in your post, to me anyway, are “side projects” and “intellectual detours.” With enough of these on hand I think you can and will power through the blahs! The “bits and bobs” often continue being rediscovered and cited long after the “blockbusters” are remaindered as “last year’s Nehru-suit!” [60s reference…]

    I like that pic, and that pitch, above. They stopped throwing me those high-inside ones when they figured out that they were the only ones I could drive!


  7. This is a hard one. I think of myself as a risk-taker, though perhaps that’s just hubris. But, I do experience parts of my research-and-writing process as genuinely wrenching: specifically, the parts having to do with conceptualization, with figuring out how to construct the categories I want to center my analyses on. I seldom choose topics that have an intrinsic structure to them that helps me figure out what goes first and what goes second. Rather, I can’t help visualizing my research results as a dense, solid sphere that I somehow have to render into linear form, in language. It’s a struggle that I love and hate by turns.

    It sounds to me as if you are not truly content with where you are, in terms of your research. Something is nagging at you: though you like the topic and research, you yourself seem to be feeling the lack of a challenge. I’d say you should listen very carefully to this impulses: if you feel that you *can* push yourself, and this project, to a higher level then you should — because that’s clearly what this sense of being ill-at-ease is telling you you must do. Perhaps redefine the project in a more ambitious way; restructure it to make a more provocative, but perhaps more risky, argument; reframe it to be in dialogue with a different set of issues or historiography. As Feminist Avatar says, mid-career is exactly the moment when you should feel empowered to make these moves. Be experimental!

    You always could join a circus as a little rest from the academic grind for a bit! ;^)


  8. It all depends on what you want, Historiann. My big mid-career realization was that I wanted to do work that has a longer “shelf-life” than most of the work in my field. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in that, but I’ve taken aim at a lot of sacred cows in the field, and that’s been enjoyable in a lot of ways–though it’s weird to see how much resistance there is when you challenge long-held opinions. My next book project will take me way out of my comfort zone (1500 years of book history, as one person put it)–but I’d like to have something to say in other fields, too, I think.

    But boy, if I really want shelf-life, maybe I should try a critical edition. Have you considered that?


  9. I agree with Squadromagico — go play! Can you go branch off into a different subfield and go back to the time of learning all sorts of new and fascinating stuff? Can you be playful with what scholarship and writing consist of, and try to invent new and exciting ways of doing things? (of course you can; you’ve already tried blogging.) Can you play with new voices and styles in your writing? Switch media, work in film/video for a while? Get involved in advocacy work? Education reform?

    I don’t know the first thing about tenure, obviously, but a lot of people who blog about getting tenure (like Dr. Virago etc) write about a post-tenure slump; how, after so many years of being conditioned to reach for and overcome immense obstacles, getting the long “flat spot” of tenure is really hard to deal with. I guess you have to take a bit of a vacation, then dream up a new mountain to climb or windmill to tilt at!


  10. Challenge yourself in what way? Do you want to collaborate with a colleague, perhaps? Pursue a limited project in a clearly new area (take document X and approach Y to try and turn out an article that connects you with the rest of the department)?

    I know slumps. Oh, yeah. When you get caught up in all the other busywork of a professional life and ground down out of your research creativity (and make no mistake about it, good research requires creative energy). Rejection, too. Oh, yeah. Been there. Put them in a box (or up on a high shelf) and put them away for a while to let the bad karma dissipate.

    The best thing for me is to pick one new item to try out when I’m feeling in a slump and give myself the chance to move in a somewhat different direction but on a very delimited basis. (Otherwise I flail about and get overwhelmed.) This paid off when I agreed to write three chapters for a new series. Nicely limited topics and context led to real fun. I adored writing the last few pop culture topic and history chapters and realize that I would love to do a lot more in this line. Just have to get my research ducks lined up so that they’ll play nicely with that new aspect!


  11. I’ve been in lots of them! Starting a blog was the way out of one. My latest answer is more complex. I:
    – bought kayak
    – quit gym (it’s indoors)
    – quit caffeine and alcohol
    – started getting up at 6 AM
    – called a strike on deadlines — decided to just march to own drummer, yet
    – formed writing group that does set deadlines.


  12. Apply for a Fulbright. Countries outside of Western Europe and the British Commonwealth are just dying for American humanists because most of us don’t want to go.

    Actually, I’d say that slump or no slump, but there’s nothing like getting out of the country for a while to give you some perspective.


  13. Collaboration (with a brilliant friend, Lisa Jardine–I was incredibly lucky) helped me get going again after tenure. I was working on a huge project and really didn’t know how to begin, though I had a bunch of smaller things in mind, most of which eventually yielded articles. So I took time out, wrote a book with Lisa on a different subject that pissed off a lot of people–and in the course of that collaboration slowly figured out the way to the heart of the big, big labyrinth (my counterpart to Squadratomagico’s sphere)–though it took ten years to beat the mass of material into a book.

    Over time, I’ve heard from scientists and social scientists how natural they find the collaborative model (and from former undergraduates doing graduate work in sciences and social sciences, who tell me the same–and also seem in most cases to enjoy the group work). And it’s become a big part of my life. I have worked as co-author and co-editor, with folks senior to me, at a comparable stage, and much younger, on everything from very technical short articles to very big and sprawling books, and have found every one of these enterprises incredibly rewarding. My main hope for digital history, which tends naturally to collaborative enterprises, is that it will stimulate historians and history departments to make more space for enterprises not run by a single Deep Thinker.

    For me, at least,the way out of the fly-bottle was to find someone to buzz and fly with.


  14. Hey Historiann,

    Everyone here has some great recommendations. I am far from a model of scholarly productivity, so I will not proffer my own advice. But I would like to second what Jonathan Rees said. Please do apply for a Fulbright and go someplace with a strong interest in American studies for a year.

    My personal favorite is Eastern and Central Europe. There are strong American Studies Programs in the Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Austrian Republics. The Austrian Fulbright has a well established visiting professorship at Graz University. The University of Debrecan (formerly KLTE) has a good American Studies program and its in a beautiful city in Eastern Hungary.

    You could do a lot for graduate and undergraduate students who are studying American history at an advanced level, but in a different academic culture. It could set your research off in a fresh direction. And Jonathan is right, not enough Americanists take advantage of this opportunity.

    I hope you feel better about your slump. I would say that you are, from the perspective of a junior colleague at least, wildly successful. Like the posters above, I am sure you will find something new and exciting!


  15. Thanks, everyone, for your wise words. As it happens, I just got an e-mail from a colleague at another institution who’s interested in collaborating with me on writing an article for a Very Important Journal, so it looks like I may well be already on my way to taking the advice that many of you offered! And, I’ve got a trip out of town to give a talk, and some other things coming up, that will almost certainly help recharge me and get me ready to draft another chapter (or even two?) of the book I’m writing this summer.

    My sense is that slumps are periodic, or cyclical, rather than characteristic of most people’s careers. The trick is in knowing how and when to accelerate through the turn, right? (And also when to apply the brake.)


  16. Pingback: Alienation and anomie about a job : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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