Melissa Soenke speaks at Convocation in front of a red backdrop with the CSUCI seal on itNov. 1, 2023 - The job just doesn’t seem as rewarding as it was. There’s no time for your family anymore. You’re irritable and have trouble working up enough energy to be productive.

People from all professions will recognize the signs of burnout, but there are stressors and causes of burnout that are unique to academia, especially after the pandemic.

“We were doing our teaching under an emergency situation for a few years with online versus in-person teaching,” said CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Associate Professor of Psychology Melissa Soenke. “I’ll be looking at our culture of overwork and the life we’re finding post-pandemic. We’ve seen it with health care and people working in therapeutic settings, but there is not a ton of research on academic burnout.”

Soenke is currently researching burnout in academia as a 2023-2024 President's Faculty Fellow - an honor she received at Convocation at the beginning of the semester. 

“It’s been a controversial topic in psychology - is burnout a real thing?” Soenke said. “Then post-pandemic burnout became such a big, hot topic. I introduced it into a class I was teaching and my students were into it.”

Faculty burnout is a nationwide trend, according to a survey of 1,122 faculty members across the U.S. conducted in 2020 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the study, overall stress experienced by faculty increased from 32% in 2019 to 70% in 2020, with 75% of female faculty experiencing higher levels of stress compared to 59% for men. 

“Women experience a lot of work-life conflict,” Soenke said. “They are still largely responsible for childcare and taking care of things at home. They are picking up their kids at the same time they need to be in the classroom. It makes it difficult to meet expectations to be in the office by eight and leave at five.” 

Soenke’s research project is an offshoot of a large study conducted in Spring 2023 by a collection of CSUCI faculty and administrators. CSUCI received an almost $300,000 National Science Foundation grant for a study called “Discovering Enabling Systemic Advancement and Faculty Inclusion Across the Ranks” - a study aimed at how to diversify science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty.

After completing their study, Soenke and another researcher, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Lindsey Trimble-O’Connor, had several conversations about the role burnout plays in retaining faculty and staff and Soenke decided to launch her research project. 

“She and I are still unpacking the data from the large NSF study, and it’s probably going to take years,” Trimble-O’Connor said. “One of the really troubling things to emerge was just how burned out everybody was.”

Soenke is conducting her research with CSUCI faculty and staff and believes the campus will be a good statistical sampling of what’s going on across the nation, with higher education faculty leaving academia at record high rates following COVID.

“I think the work I’m doing may have findings unique to CSUCI but can definitely inform the experience of faculty at other universities, especially those focused on teaching undergraduates,” Soenke said. “My hope is to publish the work and make it accessible to improve the experience of faculty broadly.”

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