Month: May 2017


Some days, the world is an ill-fitting shoe. It’s annoys me, it hurts me, and I just want to take it off, throw it out, and get a new one that fits.

I am a good immigrant. I speak the language; I am a highly educated asset to this society; I am a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. My children are culturally 100% Americans; this is the best thing I could have done for them — to keep them free of the immigrant bull$hit. They are Americans; not Martian-Americans, not Wherever-Americans, just Americans.

But every so often, I feel, very acutely, how ill-suited I actually am for this culture into which I work so hard to integrate my family. How uncomfortable so many of the interactions are and how lonely the whole immigration endeavor feels.

All the parents of my kids’ friends are American-born. That means I am the only non-American-born parent on the basketball team, and the soccer team, and the swim team… And they are nice, lovely people, although they get visibly freaked out by me the first 74 times we interact. They get brownie points for trying to chat with me like I’m “normal” and for being surprised and then uncomfortable at their own surprise when I crack a joke and it’s a good one.

Still, I love going to kids’ sports. I love interacting with little kids, because they take things in stride. To them, I am just one of the moms. That may be one of the reasons why I love teaching undergrads; they don’t care about me as me, they just care that I am a teacher and a good one, and as long as I treat them well, with respect and humor, they are very happy that I am their teacher.

I went to lunch with two female colleagues yesterday and was in a bad mood all afternoon and all day today. They are nice people, they didn’t do anything bad. They talked, and I mostly listened. To be honest, I was really bored. I have very, very little in common with these women other than the fact we are all the rare women in a field dominated by men. Yet, they are arguably among the closest people I have around. And then I got angry that I have to socialize with people for whose company I am so ill-suited, and who can’t and don’t actually want to get to know the real me, or if they did, I know they would not like me, because the real me has no place in their world.

I haven’t thought about my childhood BFF in a long time. She died when I started this job, about 13 years ago (!), of a congenital heart condition. She was wonderful. I wish she were still around.

It would be nice to be known like  I had people know me once upon a time. Here, I play the part of a good immigrant quite well, and smile, and joke, and say “please” and “thank you,” and chauffeur various kids (both mine and other people’s) to activities, and go to boring lunches, and pretend I don’t totally judge the colleague whose control-freakishness and not legitimate food sensitivities has restricted their food intake to water and air, and hate that someone will come to tell me that having written the previous sentence segment means I am insufficiently sensitive about anorexia or that I don’t actually know what health conditions the person has, and pretend that everyone is special and that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough while at the same time watching 10-year-olds undergo soccer tryouts for very decidedly tiered teams that would make Real Madrid scouts proud.

So much is fake and hypocritical in this society and some days, like today, it’s hard to keep up the facade that I am a good immigrant and that I find all this sooo worth it and just peachy, when in reality I want to tell everyone everywhere exactly what I think about this society and all the hypocrisy and everyone pretending that they are awesome even though we all clearly see that they are not…

And then I write a blog post and feel a tad better, and hopefully tomorrow I am back playing the good immigrant all over again… And don’t long to be known and accepted as a whole person, how I used to be known and accepted, a long time ago and a world away.


Call Me. Not


Who has your cell phone number? And whose number do you have?

My family hasn’t had a land line for years. DH, Eldest offspring, and I have cell phones; Middle Boy will get one once he starts middle school and starts walking home alone. My cell phone serves as de facto home phone on all forms related to the kids.

Not that long ago, a colleague from another department got upset with me and it escalated unexpectedly fast and seemingly without provocation. Recently, I found out that the origin of their irritation with me was a text message; the colleague texted me something that they thought I would be pleased to hear (nothing unsavory, get your mind out of the gutter!) but that wasn’t exactly work-email material; I never responded because I’d never received the text, and the colleague was hurt and angry. The reason I never received the text is that three months prior I had changed cell phone providers (now happily an Android and Google Fi user) and I also got myself a new number, because I had been getting spam calls on the old number too frequently. I sent the new phone number only to the people who I thought should definitely have it. I honestly didn’t think that the colleague ever even had my cell phone number; I certainly didn’t have theirs. I think whatever we had of the friendship is now gone, as the conflict had spiraled out of control, but it’s interesting to ponder the alleged trigger: an unanswered text message, because someone didn’t in fact have the recipient’s cell phone number. (As an aside, I will never understand why the colleague hadn’t followed up by email shortly after the unanswered text to see what happened; that’s what I would have done.)

When I host a visitor in a professional capacity, I usually give them my cell phone number for emergencies, but I don’t expect that they keep it and would be freaked out if sometime later, without a reason, I received a call from such former visitors. It’s understood that this information is temporary and for emergencies only. Similarly, when I visit, the host usually shares their cell phone number; I would never presume that it’s okay to ever call them after the visit and I never actually save any of these numbers.

I have the cell phone numbers of several colleagues from the department and they have mine. These are usually close professional ties. I have the cell phone numbers of my chair, chief department admin, two close collaborators in the department, four other close/friendly colleagues (two of them next door), and four close collaborators outside of the department. I also have the cell phone numbers of several out-of-town collaborators. With these colleagues, I usually communicate via email or in person anyway, and only use the cell phone if something is really urgent, cannot be done via email, or we actually schedule to talk over the phone.

Other than that, I have the cell phone numbers of the parents of my kids’ friends. Aside from DH and Eldest, these parents are the people with whom I text and talk most often.

I also technically have the cell phones of my grad students and they have mine (we have a web document where everyone shares their phone number), but I have never had to use these numbers for a vast majority of people. These numbers are most useful when several group members are somewhere at a conference together and have to coordinate meeting for dinner or similar.  (I have no idea how much the students interact via phone among themselves, presumably a fair bit.) A couple of times someone really needed to get a hold of me, talked to some of my students, and then the students called my cell.

Basically, I try not to disturb the others with whom my relationship is mostly professional. Email is good for most things, most of the time. I don’t assume I can text or call someone’s cell at will, unless it’s very clear (which generally means long history) that it’s okay to contact them outside of a very narrow set of parameters.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your cell phone etiquette, especially with work associates? I am curious how you feel your answer depends on whether you are a native of the country of residence or you have moved a lot (like most academics) and don’t necessarily have a vast network of local friends.

Question from Reader: Burnout

Reader Burnt-out Postdoc (BoP) has a question for the blogosphere. Please help BoP by sharing your thoughts in the comments!

I’m now in my third year of postdoc. After moving to my current position I started working on a new, challenging and very interesting project, for which I had to develop many new skills. It was a somewhat risky endeavour and I put all my soul into it, working long hours, weekends, even some holidays. This effort payed off and the project turned out to be very successful: I got interesting results, published several papers, got some invitations to conferences and such, and in general became slightly more visible (in my tiny niche, but nevertheless). This fall I also had to apply for jobs and grants. The job search was overall quite successful (no doubt, as a result of the success of my project). I landed several interviews, including one for a tenure track position (which I didn’t get but spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing for the interview), got two offers for postdoctoral positions (both from very strong groups), and accepted the one that seemed to better suit my interests. So far, a classical example of how hard work and dedication pay off. (btw, doing two postdocs is perfectly normal in my field)

However, I now fear all of this came at a price. Immediately after the last job interview was over I fell into a strange state of apathy, probably best described as a burnout. It’s not that I’m tired (I’ve taken a few days off here and there) – I just completely lost any interest in my work. I have to drag myself to University every day, then force myself to actually do something useful. Needless to say, I don’t feel even the slightest urge to work on the weekend. I can only do something very technical, as I feel that no creative juices, so to speak, are left in me. I’m no more interested in reading papers and attending talks. The mere idea of going to a conference is depressing (and I have several of them lined up in the coming months). The results of my project, that seemed so cool a few months ago, no longer excite me. I’m constantly thinking about quitting science altogether, and the only thing that is stopping me is that I don’t really know what else I can do at this point to make a living. In fact, I would rather not do anything at all, so maybe trying to win the lottery can be a good option.

Perhaps if I could take a really long, say month-long vacation, this apathy would go away, but I clearly cannot afford it. On the contrary, I know perfectly well that I should work as hard as ever in order to publish even more papers and to be prepared for the next round of job applications (but what is the point if I don’t even enjoy doing science anymore?). On the other hand, a month-long vacation would only convince me that not working is much better than working, so not sure it would be helpful. I’m really worried that I will never regain that passion for science I used to have. I always had other interests and hobbies, but I don’t see how these could be turned into gainful employment.

If you have experienced or witnessed a similar condition, is it at all reversible?

With best regards,
Burnt-out postdoc

Love, Mobsters, and Varied Undead

Here’s some enjoyable and quirky or otherwise unusual cinematic fare that packs more of an emotional punch than you might expect:

Equals — I saw this one on Amazon Prime and it was much better than I’d hoped. Beautifully shot and beautifully paced, with great casting. Don’t get turned off by Kristen Stewart starring, she’s excellent in this movie.

Warm Bodies — Nicholas Hoult starred in Equals above, which reminded me of “Warm Bodies,” where I saw him first; he’s an excellent young actor, with great on-screen presence, akin to Jude Law or Ralph Fiennes in their heyday. (And why can’t we grow this kind of male actor in the US?) This is a zombie movie, but don’t let it discourage you. It’s heartwarming and funny. (Btw, Hoult was also great in Fury Road and as the Beast in X-Men.)

The Lobster —  it’s dry and absurdist, and I loved it.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, that’s for sure, but if you like nuts, this is good nuts.

In Bruges— an old quirky mobster comedy with Colin Farrell. You gotta hand it to Colin Farrell: he could have retired playing the pretty boy, but instead he’s gone full quirk — respect! Yes, I loved the 2nd season of True Detective.

Cashback — another satisfying accidental find from a few years ago. A recently dumped young artist with severe insomnia gets a night job…

Deadpool — filthy and fun.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — I haven’t seen this one, but will when I get a chance.  Not your common vampire movie.

How Far are You Willing to Go…

… by car?

I am contemplating driving 10 hrs each way to attend one day of a conference, where I am supposed to give a talk.

That would be a 10-hr drive, 1 day there, and a 10-hr drive back. I am very, very tempted to do it, because:

a) I love driving

b) I dislike flying (specifically, I hate always being cramped while flying, and ugh other people ugh)

Dear readers, in the poll below, please let us know how far you willing to drive. I am thinking of routine travel for work or leisure, where flying is an option; I am obviously not counting intentional road trips or moving cross country. I have driven 4-5 and 6-7 hours one way many times for work. I would definitely do the 10 hours if there were more days between the outbound and return trips.

Totally Trivial Tuesday

I am apparently a very low-class person, and I think I am okay with that. I am more comfortable in a sports bar, having a beer and eating burgers, than I am at a fancy restaurant. If I am with friends and there’s a choice as to where to go, I would almost always pick a brewery, sports bar, a diner, or a (not overly expensive) steakhouse over any place where the posh congregate. I don’t mind restaurant chains.

I have Amazon prime, and a lengthy collection of movies on my watch list. Whenever I place a movie on the list, I would really like to watch it at that time, but am too busy. This week, I have allotted some time for myself to watch a movie or two. This time is so precious that I invariably  squander it, because none of the movies that I know I wanted to watch at one time seems special enough to spend my hard-won 2 hours on. So I watch nothing, and instead fart around on the web or work on a grant annual report, so the time wouldn’t be a total loss.

As per me being low-brow: I will watch all sorts of movies. I like drama and comedy, especially indie, but I also like science fiction, action, and thrillers; I think of my taste as the amalgam of an educated middle aged woman and a teenage boy. I don’t expect every flick to move me or educate me; there is nothing wrong with some escapism. Occasionally, when I approach a movie with no expectations whatsoever, I actually end up more moved than when I watch overwrought grown-up movies that take themselves far too seriously.

There are certain actors that I simply like and will watch any movie with them in it. Most of these are not particularly good actors, but watching them do anything on the screen cheers me up. There are actors who just grate my cheese, and them being in a movie is generally a deterrent more than an an attraction.

a) An incomplete list of attractors (people whom I will watch in anything because they are so darn adorable):

Mark Wahlberg (also, Research Wahlberg is a hilarious twitter feed); yes, I will probably go see the new Transformers, solely because he’s in it; I just watched Daddy’s Home with him and Will Farrell and it’s as silly as you think, but I enjoyed it

Sandra Bullock

Charlize Theron

Jeff Bridges

Channing Tatum (I want to adopt him)

Reese Witherspoon (mild attractor)

Drew Barrymore (mild attractor)

Adam Sandler (mild attractor)

Chris Pratt (mild attractor)

b) An incomplete list of repellents:

Leonardo DiCaprio (seriously; he only started looking like an adult once he hit 40; I haven’t watched “Titanic” because I just cannot with his baby face in that role)

Zach Galifianakis (I don’t know why, but I can’t shake the impression that he’s just an awful person)

Nicole Kidman (mild repellent)

James Franco (mild repellent)

Blogosphere, who are the actors you always looks forward to seeing? Or avoid seeing as much as possible?

Books and entertainment of note:

The Handmaid’s Tale (the show) is bloodcurdling.

The Good Fight (spin-off of The Good Wife) is awesome. I never realized how glad I would be to be rid of the Florricks.

The Expanse (2nd season) is even awesomer.

Becky Chambers’s “A Closed  and Common Orbit,” the 2nd book in the Wayfarer series. This is sci-fi with a lot of heart and just beautiful, uncluttered, compelling writing, asking what it means to be a person.

Scalzi’s “The Collapsing Empire.” I haven’t read it yet; I’m saving it for an overseas trip in a couple of weeks.

Charlie Jane Anders’s “All the Birds in the Sky” just got a Nebula; not sure if I should buy it or not, as even a hint of magic sends me running in the opposite direction.

Clarissa has some very interesting book reviews (Russo, Strout, Hannah, Ng),  especially books on neoliberalism and on fluidity and the collapse on the nation-state, such as Bauman’s (also here).

Dear readers, tell us about actors you like/hate, shows/books/movies that you enjoyed or hated recently?

Summer Defenses

How do you feel about summer PhD defenses?

This spring, it seems I have been inundated with requests to be on mid-summer PhD defense committees, usually for students for whom I was already involved as part of the defense prospectus committee (our committees don’t have ongoing involvement with students, unless there’s an existing technical collaboration).

On the one hand, I really do want to help the students and try to say yes whenever I can: the student got a job, they want to move on, and we should help them to do that. On the other hand,  getting a job and defending a PhD are not exactly unforeseen catastrophes: the student typically writes the dissertation and interviews for jobs (or at least should, as that’s what I request of my students) over several months preceding the defense. At least at this school, there’s no reason not to defend during the semester and then postpone the filing of the final form of the dissertation by a few months, if the student wants to keep the student status until they need to leave midsummer for a job. For international students, getting the F1-OPT paperwork requires several months of lead time anyway, so filing for F1-OPT is a good time to schedule your final defense. It used to be possible to defend and deposit a dissertation, then be as a short-term part-time postdoc until the job situation is finalized, but since the mandatory low-level pay for postdocs has now been raised to nearly $50k with no part-time options, these short-term postdocs as a courtesy to students are no longer financially feasible.

Just this morning, I had to decline another request for a summer defense. The student wanted to schedule it during a week when I don’t have childcare, and only three weeks into the future. I could scramble, but I said no. I have the right to not be perpetually available for during the summer, especially for non-research activities (remember: in the US, there is no summer pay by the university; any pay comes from research grants), plus this lack of planning by the student and advisor really ticked me off.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about summer PhD defenses? 

PSA: Giant Files

When you send me a ppt, a doc, or a pdf (!) whose size is in the hundreds of megabytes, know that I curse you loudly, using all the juiciest, most vivid expletives that I know.

These files are so gigantic because your images are uncompressed and/or have stupidly, unnecessarily high resolution.

Learn how to use some image editing software and reduce the size of your effing figures before inflicting them on others.

End of Semester

I don’t think I have ever had a harder semester than this spring.

Part of it is that I had a really large class with basically no help, which required a lot of face time (2.5 hrs of lecture, 1.5 hrs of discussion, 6 hours of office hours on regular weeks — always someone in the office, additional all-day office hours pre-midterm, and this is all not accounting for all the email, time spent on writing HW problems and solutions, and grading the exams). I like my students, but it was a lot of time interacting with people, which is temporarily uplifting but ultimately quite draining. In the evenings on days when I had a lecture plus discussion, I could only veg out or go to bed early.

But the biggest part of it was all the service that I had. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on an interdepartmental search which ultimately failed. I am resentful because we were made to Skype interview applicants like the place is on fire — on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, on New Year’s Eve; I could not have one goddamn week off where I wasn’t required to show up on campus. I also chaired a department committee that required a lot — A LOT — of writing; basically assembling award nominations for  colleagues for honors both internal and external, which requires soliciting letters, twisting arms, reading carefully the candidate’s papers and their colleagues’ letters, and ultimately writing lengthy nomination letters that are, of course, supposed to be detailed, specific, quoting external letter writers, and also dripping with adulatory epithets. If you have ever assembled a nomination for anyone, especially a successful one, you know that they are very labor-intensive. There were two additional members of the committee, but they ended up (nicely) blowing me off when I asked them to do things, citing personal demands and apologizing profusely… So I had to do all of the fuckin’ nominations. And there were many. So. Many.

Finally, we get to the institution-level committee that I wrote about a bit before. While all committees were laborious, this one also really challenged my interpersonal skills. Never before have I had to negotiate so much with some very unpleasant, stubborn people. There was a higher-up who revealed themselves in the most unflattering light. This interpersonal-interaction aspect of the committee and the frustrations around it spilled everywhere — they not only ate away at my time, but they killed my will to do technical work; they also left me irritable and distracted at home with my family. Honestly, I don’t know how full-time admins do these types of jobs. They must have ways to turn off the work drama to be able to return to their private lives. I understand doing an admin job for a few years when it’s your turn to chair a department or whatever…  But to crave this type of work? Such people must have personality types that are very, very different from mine.

This experience also makes me exceedingly grateful that I don’t work in a company. I can only imagine the potential for drama, frustration, and the resulting lack of technical progress that can arise from interpersonal friction on a team in a company.


I also did all the usual service that never goes away, such as reviewing proposals, attending panels, reviewing lots of papers, doing my duty as associate editor in a journal. Very recently, I ended up grudgingly scoring some 150 abstracts for a conference for which I am on the program committee. I was huffing and puffing and I finally asked myself why I accepted to be on it. I have been on the program committee for this conference a number of times, and I know why they keep asking me to do it — they cannot figure out which other woman to ask to do it. But I don’t really attend that conference, it’s not really my community. It’s often overseas, and it’s both costly to travel abroad and I have grown to hate travel, so don’t want to do overseas trips without a good reason.  So why did I accept this year? All it will be is a bullet on my annual report. Hardly worth it.

I am going to another conference overseas that is much more my core community, and where I have to give multiple talks by my group because none of the students who did the work can travel — one for health reasons, two for visa issues. Nuts.


Another aspect of fatigue comes from family life. Eldest and Middle Boy have a lot of activities. MB is quite the athlete, and he goes to swimming, basketball (season over, thankfully), and now soccer. That means lots of chauffeuring after work and on the weekends. Eldest swims daily and is very serious about it; he can drive, but doesn’t have his own car, so there are always logistical challenges with his early practices (honestly, everything is set up for stay-at-home moms or for kids driving themselves; as if people can routinely afford to maintain a whole fleet of cars).

But I do enjoy watching my kids partake in sports. Basketball is my favorite, but soccer gets me out into the sun for an hour on Saturdays, for which my bones will no doubt thank me.


All this thankless service work has pushed back the submission times of some of my group’s papers. My group members have been very patient, but couldn’t wait for the semester to end. They are now all over me to send off the papers, and I understand their impatience.

The problem is that I am sooo tired that I would really need to just not be responsible for anyone or anything right now. That’s obviously not going to happen with all my children and all my students, but it would be so wonderful if it could. Although, I wonder how resentful I would be to come back to the grind after, say, 2-3 weeks somewhere exotic where I am unencumbered? Plenty resentful, I bet.

I am eligible for a sabbatical the academic year after next (once every 7 years, 1 semester at full pay or a year at a bit over half pay).
This new sabbatical cannot come soon enough. I hope to spend at least some of it learning new things and honing my rusty German at an excellent overseas institution.


In other news, I have become a named (endowed) prof. I am happy for the honor and for the discretionary funds, but the impostor syndrome is stronger than ever. By now I know not to share my thoughts about this in real life, but I feel like I stole this honor from the more worthy candidates who were up against me. Phoebe from “Friends” illustrates how the impostor syndrome feels:



I thought I had a friend, but I guess not.

FF (former friend) is a peer in another department. We were family friends — DH and I would go to FF and spouse’s house, they’d come to ours. However, DH, who is a vastly better judge of character than I am, never particularly liked FF; he  insisted from the beginning that FF was not a good person, but I kept making excuses for FF’s high-maintenance behavior.

This year, FF and I have served together on a committee and it is safe to say that we are no longer friends. I chaired the committee. It started with FF wanting something that the committee had never allowed before (as I confirmed with former chairs and higher-ups), so I said no. But FF seems to be used to getting their way, so things went downhill fast.  FF started hinting about “concerns about how the committee was run” although they missed most meetings. When they did attend, FF was the nitpicky procedure police, questioning everything we did. Finally, they started acting like I was purposefully singling them out and not informing them of things, which is untrue, as all mailings go through the mailing list.

Thank heavens, I am finally done with this committee. The experience was already challenging, unrelated to FF. But FF really made my job much harder than it needed to be and soured the whole experience.

The rest of the committee seemed to be happy with how things went, and I received several compliments on how everything ran. I wonder if FF would have behaved the way they did if it had been someone else at the helm and not me, for whom they apparently have no respect.

One committee member said that I did a great job and that I would do a great job as department chair. I laughed, because if there’s one thing this experience has done, it’s solidified that I didn’t want to be department chair or take on any significant leadership position in the near future.

A difficult person can ruin the experience for a whole committee of nice, flexible, well-meaning people and silence many whose contribution would be valuable; they can prevent others from going after opportunities and from challenging themselves.

How does one deal with stubborn, demanding, inflexible people? Or better yet, since it’s unlikely that one can change their behavior or always ignore them, how does one minimize the damage and annoyance that these people inflict upon others?