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Gen-X Academics: 'Roots' Not 'Rungs'

A new report from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University suggests that Generation X faculty — born between 1964 and 1980 — are "good news for academia." The study is a collection of results from 16 interviews from three mid-Atlantic institutions (one small, private liberal arts college, one private master's institution, and one large public research university), and is meant to build upon results of COACHE's Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey. Six of the interviewees were men and 10 were women — two were African American and two of those interviewed were born outside of the US. Though Robin Helms, the report's author, acknowledges the limits of such a small sample size, she writes that qualitative research, such as her own, often captures in-depth experiences that quantitative studies can't properly account for.

"The voices of faculty in this study ought to make college leaders reconsider what they think they know, anecdotally, about Gen X faculty," Kiernan Matthews, COACHE director, said in a statement. "Faculty want 'roots,' not just 'rungs,' and we're beginning to see enlightened academic leaders respond to this trend in their faculty recruitment, retention, and development policies."

When it comes to long-term career plans and feelings about tenure, very few of the faculty members interviewed shared sentiments of leaving their current institutions; further, Gen X faculty respondents appeared to be "mildly positive about the concept, and not too stressed about the process."

Interestingly, the report also highlights the Gen X faculty's apparent evolving definition of excellence. With an emphasis on quality over quantity in research and publishing, Gen X academics don't appear to favor competition, but rather, appreciate mentorships and collaboration.

Work-life balance took center stage in the COACHE survey. Each of the 16 respondents expressed feelings of anxiety over achieving and maintaining a balance between work and their private lives.

"Overall faculty feel harried; as one participant noted, they feel like they are 'running, running, running' all the time," Helms writes. "The feeling was universal regardless of institution type, discipline, and tenure status."

Achieving this balance is notably more difficult dual-career couples and parents, the responses — not-surprisingly — suggest. "To be honest, having a kid completely changes everything. ... When you have children it's just non-stop — there's always something to be done. You relish the [time] when they spend 15 minutes [playing] with toys," one respondent says.

In the end, however, it seems as though, despite the trade-offs associated with the career of an academic, Gen X faculty interviewed were generally optimistic about their career paths.

One interviewee's response summarizes the point particularly well: "Have there been some trade-offs? Yes. I am 43. I don't have kids. Did I want to have kids? Yes, I wanted to have kids. ... Do I have any regrets about it? No. I am really happy, and I am enjoying life, and I have been places I would have never gone" in another career.

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