Why the 'sophomore slump' of adulthood hits so hard

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Year one of a job or other major life milestone can feel thrilling. Why does it get so gruelling, so quickly?

When Hana started working at a top PR agency in Washington, DC, she thought she’d landed her dream first job. She was looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the new position, especially since the agency had clients in the beauty and wellness space – a sector that particularly interested her. She felt lucky to have landed the role.

But a year or two in, she was surprised to find herself feeling discontent; after the initial excitement, work had turned into a stressful grind. Reality had hit hard: the job was exhausting, far less glamorous than she had envisaged and she had little control over the kind of tasks she did. She was stretched very thin – and had no indication that she’d soon be doing the work that would re-ignite her passion. 

She realised she’d felt similar emotions before. A few years earlier, as a second-year university student, she’d also been newly ground down, having lost the spark and excitement she’d felt during her first year. Her studies had become more difficult, and she had to juggle them with the job that paid her living expenses. Everything about year two was harder than year one, when the school experience was new.

Back then, she’d gone through what’s dubbed the ‘sophomore slump’: a phenomenon often linked to university, that occurs when students realise they need to knuckle down after the excitement and discoveries of freshman year. Now that Hana was out of school, and the shine had worn off the first year of her job, the sophomore slump was back in full force.

Indeed, sophomore slumps aren’t limited to education. More broadly, they can occur in any period in which new projects or commitments lose their initial gloss, and evolve into routine hard work. Think of a musician or a band having a sparkling debut, and realising how difficult it is to produce a second blockbuster; or a newly-promoted football team who has a stellar first season but drops off in their second year in the higher league.

As Hana was discovering, the sophomore slump can also creep into the workplace, as employees become accustomed to their less-glamorous professional lives after the initial novelty of starting a job. Younger workers are most vulnerable to this phenomenon, but anyone starting a new role might find themselves experiencing a comedown period after the early excitement. 

There are many reasons why people fall into this sophomore slump, even multiple times throughout their lives and careers. But there are ways we can anticipate one and correct for it. And if, like Hana, you find yourself in an unwelcome second-year grind, you might have options to shake the feeling.

Many workers – especially younger ones – may find themselves "shocked" by the grunt work they didn't expect to be doing (Credit: Getty Images)

Many workers – especially younger ones – may find themselves "shocked" by the grunt work they didn't expect to be doing (Credit: Getty Images)

‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’ 

People typically start a new transition at their most motivated – but then can’t keep up that level of activity, says Jean-Nicolas Reyt, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at McGill University in Montréal. “People allocate a lot of time and attention to really perform very well [at first], and the problem is a lot of times that’s not sustainable,” he says. “So, they do that for one year, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

He adds these “macro-transitions” – large life events, like starting university or a new job – can be very challenging, long term. While someone might feel that initial spark when their major life transformation kicks in, “after a huge change, it’s pretty normal to experience a slump. You're going to be tired… You've been through a lot, and you’ve changed a lot of things”. 

This type of fall from grace can affect everyone, especially in the workplace. Younger workers, like Hana, are particularly susceptible. This may be in part because those new to the workforce haven’t experienced the feeling of disappointment or discontent in a job, says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

But even people with lots of experience – including those at the upper echelons of the workplace – still fall victim to the sophomore slump, adds Maitlis. Her research has shown that these workers often come in with a set of beliefs about themselves and their identities as a worker. But when later-career workers experience frustration, it can challenge this identity – and even make them doubt themselves.

Falling short

The sophomore slump may be a natural feeling that’s hard to avoid for many people. But some people may set themselves up for their slump to feel worse, if they don’t calibrate their expectations from day one of a big life change.

For instance, someone may go into university focusing simply on having a wild time, without acknowledging there’s going to be a less pleasant part of the experience too – like work. As a result, they may find themselves smacked hard in year two, when they need to lean into that work to get a good degree. Without acknowledging all sides of their lived reality from day one, the fall from grace may feel particularly bad. This can play out similarly in the workplace.

People allocate a lot of time and attention to really perform very well [at first], and the problem is a lot of times that’s not sustainable – Jean-Nicolas Reyt

However, having the foresight to correctly calibrate expectations can be difficult for some people – especially younger people, who haven’t gone through as many milestones or jobs. In the workplace, they may not know what to expect, so there can be a mismatch between what they envisaged and the hard work they actually end up doing. 

“You come in with all this hope… you’re thrilled,” says Maitlis. But junior workers often find themselves saddled with “grunt work and being treated like bottom of the totem pole”. It can be “shocking”.

This was the case for Alix, who started her first full-time job in gaming while she was still in university. She was thrilled at the prospect of working in the industry. “It was like a dream, oh my gosh – a gaming company,” she says.

Entering the position, she expected to eventually get involved in tasks directly related her passion, even if she was just answering customer-support tickets to begin with. But although Alix found some work that kept her interest, her expectations mostly didn’t match reality – especially as she became overloaded with project-management tasks that took her further away from the parts of the industry, like character design, that excited her in the first place. 

Alix agrees her inexperience could have exacerbated her slump. “I would have made different decisions in terms of how I would have positioned myself,” she says. Alix thinks there could have been a “nice medium” between doing her required tasks and more of what she wanted, but “I didn’t even know how to find that”.

Communicating with managers and mentors can help workers get their spark back (Credit: Getty Images)

Communicating with managers and mentors can help workers get their spark back (Credit: Getty Images)

Adjusting expectations

Especially since the sophomore slump can affect people at all levels in the workplace, it’s important to figure out how employees can avoid disappointment – or at least avoid it hitting so hard.

One way is to address expectations – understanding most jobs are a combination of less pleasant tasks, even if it’s a ‘glossy’ dream job on the surface. Starting a new job with the expectation that it will come with potentially uncomfortable transformation later might help workers to focus on what they want, and avoid the feeling of being stuck in a slump, says Ian Williamson, Dean of the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, US.

“If you feel you’re potentially in a spiral down, do share that with somebody – and ideally, not just with your mates in the evening,” adds Maitlis. She suggests speaking with a manager or someone in the organisation – especially the person who brought you on board – and let them know what you’re struggling with. This is especially the case “if your inclination is to keep smiling and saying it’s fine, or fantasise about writing your letter of resignation and looking for other jobs”, she says. For younger workers, this conversation may look more like asking a manager to give and receive feedback, and in the conversation, share what they’re most enjoying versus finding harder in the role. “There is an in-between stage that we often don’t think about.”

If you feel you’re potentially in a spiral down, do share that with somebody – and ideally, not just with your mates in the evening – Sally Maitlis

Maitlis also suggests considering “job crafting” – the idea of tweaking a role to something that better fits a struggling worker. Conversations with a manager on how they feel they could contribute more or differently can help re-energise employees and possibly “craft” a better position (though, she acknowledges, this may be easier said than done, especially for entry-level workers).

Ultimately, it may not be possible to avoid the sophomore slump outright; after all, everyone’s human – even CEOs – and it’s natural to be excited about a new job or other huge life change. But having a sense of how to help temper those feelings can make a big difference.

And it might not hurt to think of the sophomore slump as a learning period, too.

Alix, now 32, stayed in the gaming position for six years. If she could go back in time, she says, she would have found a mentor who could help her “develop a career plan”. Hana, too, believes mentors are key; going through the sophomore slump taught her to reach out to them when she's flagging in a position, to try to figure out how to push her career forward. Some mentors have told her it may not make sense to try to make a position work that no longer feels right – something that can be liberating, when sometimes there feels like an obligation to stick around in a new job for a while.

Hana also says she’s giving herself “some grace”, and not panicking about her job as much anymore. After all, “there’s more to life than work”, she says.

Due to employer policy that does not allow on-the-record comment, Alix’s name has been changed to protect her identity. Hana’s surname has been omitted for job-security concerns.