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Dear Kerry Ann: Academic Guilt

Wednesday, July 01, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
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Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.

Dear Kerry Ann,

My biggest problem is guilt! I work all the time, but when I’m not working I feel like I should be and that any time off is going to cost me tenure and promotion. I would love to take a day off work every now and then during the summer. But whenever I try to, I can’t really enjoy it because I am racked with guilt. On an intellectual level, I realize that this is insane: I should just take a day off and enjoy it. But I can’t seem to figure out how to be a bit more free this summer while still meeting my tenure expectations.

Please help,


Dear Guilty,

Thanks for being so honest about how difficult it is for you to take time off from work. Many academics struggle with placing healthy boundaries around work, allowing themselves to experience non-work-related pleasure, and managing the ever-present fear of not winning tenure. That internal struggle is exacerbated if you work on a campus where people strut about bragging about how many hours they work, how little sleep they get and how unbelievably busy they are. It’s difficult for that workaholic culture not to permeate your own work habits and self-assessment.

While you may not see healthy work habits modeled around you, the great news is that you get to choose how you work, when you work and most importantly, how you feel when you’re not working. That’s right, I want you to seriously consider that your feelings of guilt or joy stem directly from how you understand the value of your leisure time relative to your working time. That may sound abstract, so let’s focus on three specific questions you can ask yourself in order to shake the guilt off your free time.

Where Does Academic Guilt Come From?

Guilt emerges when we feel like we are doing something wrong. So if you’re feeling guilty, then at some level you believe that the behavior you are engaged in is inappropriate, incorrect or bad. As such, it’s time to ask yourself directly: Why is taking a day off wrong?

I’m not sure what the answer is for you, but I’m guessing that you (like many tenure-track faculty) received a great deal of professional socialization and role modeling in graduate school that normalized working long hours, sacrificing health and well-being for academic accomplishments, and diminishing pleasure, play and guilt-free joy. With such powerful and persistent messaging, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when you engage in leisure activities, you feel a bit naughty!

As hard as it is to challenge our professional socialization and buck the workaholic culture you are embedded in, we know from study after study that working all the time does not lead to greater productivity (it leads to exhaustion, illness and burnout). Instead, regular breaks enable us to do our best work. I can say that repeatedly, but the only way you will truly start to shift is by experimenting with the impact of days off on your productivity and happiness.

Are You Doing the Work?

Having worked with many tenure-track faculty members, I know it’s also common that the inability to experience leisure without guilt stems from the lack of transparency in tenure criteria. In other words, if you don’t know exactly what the standards are and they escalate on an annual basis, it breeds an anxious insecurity that you’ve never done enough and should work more, produce more and publish more. I don’t see a movement toward greater clarity or transparency in tenure criteria, so if this is at the root of your guilty feelings, it’s time to set some goals and do some planning.

Personally, I recommend taking a long look at people who have recently been awarded tenure, talking with your departmental mentors and then setting a goal for the quantity and quality of scholarship you aim to produce during your tenure-track years. Once you feel good about the goal (as in, if you have this type of portfolio you will have put forward the strongest case you can), it’s time to get down to the business of planning.

I’m a huge fan of planning! It’s not because I enjoy the practice of doing it, but because it forces me to face the twin realities that time is finite and I can make choices that eliminate guilt and insecurity. If you know the type of research portfolio you must produce in order to have a tenurable case on your campus, the questions become how and when that work will get done. And while you don’t control the publication part of the process, you do control the production part of the process. This is why planning powerfully impacts your feelings about work time and leisure time: if you are executing your plan on a weekly basis, then there’s no reason to doubt that you will end your summer/year/tenure track in the strongest position possible.

Is It Time for a Reframe?

While it’s important to acknowledge that “taking a day off is wrong” is a limiting belief, it’s even more helpful to replace it with a different story. In other words, how can you reframe your time off so that it’s no longer time you are stealing from work, but time that enhances your success, happiness and quality of life? I often remind myself that a good life requires work and play, my brain is powered by sleep, and success means having a whole life. I’m not sure what succinct way you can remind yourself that taking time off is positive, but why not experiment with a few affirmations that can trigger your joy (instead of your guilt)?

And after a few outings of leisure without guilt, it will be time to take a larger step: creating a vision of what success looks like for you. This is critically important because one of the most powerful aspects of our professional socialization is the cumulative messages about what success looks like. Nobody ever told me directly: if you get tenure at a research-intensive university, then you will be considered a successful academic. But somehow that idea was firmly planted in my mind and drove much of my behavior on the tenure track.

At a certain point I realized that model of success wasn’t a great fit for me. At that point, I started to think about what success looked like for me and came up with a very different vision because it involved being highly productive and having a full, healthy and vibrant life off campus. I don’t know what your version of success looks like, but if you can start to visualize it and use that new model as the baseline for guilt versus joy, you may find yourself more productive and enjoying your leisure time.

I hope that these three questions will help you to realize that it’s possible to both be productive and enjoy your life, but it involves a thoughtful consideration of your academic socialization and intentional choices that makes sense for you. As always, I’m sure that readers will have plenty to share about how to shake off guilt during their nonworking time, so please share them, and keep your great questions coming via my Facebook page. 

Peace and productivity,


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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