On ‘the 40 year-old burnout’ and leaving academia (for now)

A couple of years ago, approaching the end of a second semester in a row in which I experienced the physical manifestations of workplace-induced stress (a new experience), I discovered an article by a former university researcher and lecturer, Jonathan Malesic.  It’s called ‘The 40-year-old burnout: Why I gave up tenure for a yet-to-be-determined career’, and reading it was confronting.  

Not only was it startling at the time but it remained with me for a disturbingly long time, sitting just off to the side, menacing an at-times already foggy brain.  In retrospect, and if I’m honest, it sparked a realisation that continued to chip away at my resolve and thus became fully actualised when I made, in effect, the same decision as Jonathan made, almost two years later.

My own journey through New Zealand’s education system as a student was, in effect, about as perfect an experience as could be written.  The education system as it is, as it was, was set up for learners like me: inquisitive, questioning, naturally oriented towards learning in the style in which it was being delivered.  

A ‘teacher’s pet’ from kindergarten on, I sailed through primary, intermediate, and secondary school, put up a year in a couple of subjects (the joy of sitting in mufti-privileged sixth-form classes while still in uniform was a real joy!), soaking up everything that wasn’t physical education, and left with an A bursary, a scholarship-level result in music, and a (recently re-discovered) glowing testimonial written in superlatives.

My first attempt at tertiary education, straight out of college, was the first time I experienced educational setback.  Although, in effect, progressing just fine, life in general was spinning out of control in ways I didn’t yet have the maturity (or words) to successfully negotiate.  So I dropped out. 

In the grand scheme of things, this is a mere blip now (it wasn’t then, of course), and I always had within the flicker of flame that told me I would one-day resume my studies.  As long as I had this, I told myself, I had no fear of believing a setback would stumble into an abyss from which there was no return.

And so, when I did return, aged 25, (more) mature, ready, the momentum picked up from where at it had ended at college.  I sailed through my return to university, leaving Australia after one year and returning to New Zealand and the University of Otago because, while great for a first-year experience, I didn’t believe my Australian university was going to offer me the challenge I really wanted.  

It was the right choice; the following years in Dunedin represented the most profound period of personal change and growth I’d experienced up to that point.  By the time my honour’s degree in music was being capped I’d already moved on to PhD planning in music and anthropology, experiencing what I call my own ‘Eureka moment’ in drawing a connection between anthropology and the anthropologist-like behaviour I had exhibited since I was a baby.  

I confidently ignored advice to start with a Masters and then upgrade, just in case something unexpected happened, such was my determination to continue gliding on my educational gulfstream. This self-belief, fortunately, was well-placed: within the three-year period of scholarship I had been awarded a thesis was submitted, and later conferred with minimal change.

As life-changing as these years were, I was certainly in no way naive enough to believe mine was a typical experience; I know that; for all the reasons outlined above.  However, in retrospect, as I reflected on in my last post, I entered ‘the other side’ of education with a firm belief in the transformative power of education, for personal growth, for socioeconomic mobility, for whanau (families), for creating more well-rounded and active citizens, and it was up to us as educators to harness this power and advocate for these outcomes in our students.  

Perhaps this was the part of me that was/is naive.

And so, with this naivety, it was probably inevitable that the disconnection between expectations and reality would result in confrontation.  For, while the job certainly contains within it elements of absolute privilege – to teach, to research and be engaged in and follow intellectual pursuits – the reality of day-to-day academia is somewhat more administrative in the managerial accountability era.  

And while some students certainly enter tertiary education to not only learn but to make the most of the experience for which they pay such a monstrous amount (financially, emotionally, time-wise), the sad reality is that far too many students attend (or not) because of an implied and/or explicit pressure.  

They are those who are not really sure what they want to study, to do with their lives, but are there in the classroom anyway; going through the motions so that they exit with the piece of paper they’ve been told will lead to prosperity.  It is an apt illustration of the power of the massified education-for-all narrative that has gained traction over the passed three decades; one that continues to prioritise the prestige of the ‘degree’ label, and one that continues to be championed and propagandised by schools, parents and politicians alike.  

It is an illustration of a system that I think will come under increasing pressure in the next disruptive decade, revealing illusional emperors and exposing systemic faultlines.

Drawing on the Christina Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, Jonathan Malesic writes that academic burnout arises from dislocation: “we train as researchers but spend our days managing the emotions of late adolescents, haggling over budgets, and figuring out how to use Moodle’s gradebook.”  The result is “exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness.”  Maslach asserts that burnout comes from a noble place – a serious investment in one’s work and students – but that, in the wrong conditions, comes back as continual stress; stress that, in a physiological sense, diminishes the brain’s ability to work.

Reading these words at seven pm on a Friday night, approaching the end of another 50-60 hour week, became the confronting moment.  While I didn’t equate my own situation with that of Malesic, who often found himself lying on the floor, motionless, for hours at at time in his final semester, it was confronting to see in some of his words your PC screen turn into something of a mirror, revealing experiences that were too coincidentally similar to ignore.

I’ve thought often of Malesic’s article, and of that confrontation, over the last couple of years, as I edged ever closer to my own stage left.  The marked disconnection between what you thought academia might be and what it is, and the point at which you stop trying to pretend it ever will be something different, is a somewhat bitter and sad realisation to come to.  

It requires a kind of grieving, moving from a sadness that what you dreamed is not what will be, to an acceptance of this reality, but then a moving on to the hopeful: the possibilities of finding something else, something that might turn into something you never knew you might dream about.  How very millennial of me!

But it is at this stage of hopeful that I find myself now, and I have seven long months to use hope to make a plan.  Has my experience formed an impenetrable seal over the door that leads back to academia?  I don’t know; maybe, maybe not?  I still believe in the transformational power of education, for the personal and the collective; I still love the thought of being an educator; I still love the idea of research and writing.  And for now that’s a fine place to start.  Well, it’s the only place I’ve got.


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