Pushing the river: Boundaries, choices, and life as an academic

A very wise clinical mentor of mine once told me: “You can’t push the river.” At the time, I was trying to work with a family to make change that they needed and recognized, but weren’t ready to make. As I’ve moved down river in my career, that phrase has come to mean many things. As I worked towards my doctorate and later struggled through my postdoctoral fellowship and third masters degree, and a mentor who self-destructed, it meant that I had to ride out the rough patches. Hold on, keep your head down, and see where you came out when the rapids eased up. As I’ve advanced into the professoriate, it’s come to mean something different again- hearkening back to something that I learned back at the beginning of my clinical career- something about boundaries and choices.

As academics, we get a very long line to play with sometimes. There are expectations, parameters, guidelines and rules, but we often get to build our own bridges and do our own thing. As long as we are productive with grants and publications, show up to meetings, hold office hours, and get decent teaching reviews, no one questions how happy we are or whether we love our work. Community engagement, outreach, and things that make your department look good are applauded. Student opportunities created are rewarded with applause in faculty meetings at the beginning and end of the academic year. The problem, though, is that those things are not valued at the same rate. Starting a clinic or doing community outreach is not ‘the big one’ that you hoped for… not unless it leads to external research funding and a publication. Student mentoring is gratifying, especially when you can see the change in the future practice field- when medical students ask about structural barriers to care or social determinants of health, or when pharmacy students automatically start looking up alternatives for expensive medications that could help someone when they meet a family living on the edge, or when social work students get excited about working with the PTs, med students, and nursing students to help migrant farmworkers. Student mentoring, however, is not a plank in the boat that brings you to tenure. It helps- it’s teaching or service, or both, and the connections made are good for clients, students, and for us- boosting our morale as we see the future of our profession being created in the excitement of our students.

So- how do you know when you are pushing the river? What are the signs that you are the only one championing a cause, and how do you decide if it’s worth holding onto a project? This is where that insight about boundaries and choices starts to appear.

Early in a clinical career, we are taught about boundaries: how to find them, where to put them, and how to hold them. We are taught about how to know when you are dealing with countertransference, or just flat out getting your buttons pushed. Academia is not entirely different from a clinical career; we still deal with people who are seeking our help to advance their lives, with families, individuals, and sometimes even with damaged partnerships that we hope to help repair. We seek out opportunities to advance the evidence base about understudied things, to bring that work to communities that can use it, and see it put into practice. So how do we recognize when we’ve become passionate about something that isn’t serving us well? How do we recognize that the passion might be countertransferance- our need to make change in the world? And perhaps most importantly, how do we know when it’s time to ‘cut bait’- to let go of something that has had such promise?

As an early career academic (in that critical first 10 years), I am learning that applause is wonderful, but a project- no matter how much passion you put behind it- cannot be sustained unless someone wants to wade into the water with you. Project sustainability requires buy-in- not just from the actual participants, but also, critically, from peers who will step in and share the burden of your role. If you can’t convince people that it’s worth it, or if the same passion isn’t present among your peers, it may be realistic to consider whether you are driving your passion in the right time and place. Without peers to share the burden, sustainability relies solely on your own ability to keep it up. When the river continues to rise, when the pull of the current that belongs to other projects, other responsibilities, and the constant pull of tenure progress begins to win out, it’s useful to think about boundaries… choices… why those are where they are, and how they were made. Sometimes, no matter how passionate we are about something, we have to remember that we can’t push the river. Sometimes you have to cut bait and trust that the river will take care of itself.