Month: November 2018

15-Minute Stream-of-Consciousness Post

12 min to write, 3 to edit, then post:

  1. Going with Middle Boy and another family (mom and twins who are MB’s friends) to watch a monster-truck show. I’m so excited! I am trying to embrace all my interests, no matter how lowbrow they seem. In fact, the more lowbrow, the happier they seem to make me. I will take burgers and beer in a sports bar over fancy cuisine any time. Next: flannel shirts and a pickup truck. (I’m only half joking. I think.)
  2. I will be taking Middle Boy to two NBA basketball games in nearby cities over the coming few months! Again, I’m really excited! It will be great bonding and I love watching basketball. The tickets are really expensive, though. Even the not-so-great, relatively inexpensive ones.
  3. I have decided to reconnect with people who are important to me. I contacted my sister and dad, a good friend from graduate school with whom I’d lost touch (will see her in a few weeks!), and I invited a local mom on a girl date.
  4. I found a speculative-fiction discussion group that I plan on joining. They meet monthly, and I will see them all for the first time in a few weeks!
  5. I have also decided to embrace “Forget those who forget you.” A few people to whom I’ve maintained an ever-so-slight connection mainly by pinging them and wishing them happy birthdays will be out completely.
  6. I’ve been walking 5k+ nearly daily for the past few weeks. The fresh, crisp air does wonders. The plan is to gradually include more running and maybe even run some 5k races in the spring.
  7. I tried joining a nearby kickboxing-focused gym. I enjoyed a couple of workouts, but I cannot take the constant intrusion of the trainers — boy, do young fit men enjoy patronizing flabby middle-aged women! Everyone in the gym is so damn fit, I feel like an ogre. Us out-of-shape people need our own spaces to pant and sweat in peace. The point is, I went twice and I already feel anxious about going again and it’s not exactly cheap or easy to get out of the membership. I don’t want to waste time or money on stuff that stresses me out so I decided to terminate while I am still within the three-day grace period after enrollment. I might try the YMCA for some classes where I can be reasonably incognito and surrounded by schlubby brethren.
  8. Last but not least, I just got nominated for the Pushcart Prize for one of my short stories. The award is a big deal and it’s an honor just to be nominated. So I’ve been in pretty good spirits and celebrated as I’ve been doing the last few months —  spreading the joy by paying it forward: I pay the bill of the person behind me in the Starbucks drive-thru line.

What have you been up to, blogosphere?

In Which I Feel Sorry for My Former Self

We have had a wave of new hires, so we now have well over a dozen assistant professors. This is great for the department.

When I was hired, I was alone. No one for two years ahead of me and for several years after me. There were two people hired at the same time as me, but one was an awful person whose contract wasn’t extended after year three, and the other left after a year to take a job at a university in Europe.

I had two senior people assigned as department mentors, but they were both clear about not wanting to be bothered, so I didn’t bother them. One was a senior man I was afraid of, being that he struck me as someone who’d vote against my tenure if I ever showed any weakness. The other was a superstar woman who was in principle friendly and available, but in practice it would take her weeks to respond to my emails (by which time I had already acted on whatever the problem was) and she always treated me with a veneer of pleasantness over a clear undercurrent of annoyance, so I quickly stopped asking her for stuff. I did receive most advice from a couple of collaborators outside the department.

As for commiseration, there was no one. I met two people from a related department during orientation and initially hung out with them, but they were both single yet immediately became strangely attached to one another in a way they insisted was platonic but that seemed weirdly codependent to me (they eventually married and remain), so I was a third wheel there, and, again, didn’t feel I was really needed.

I honestly felt, most of the time, that nobody gave a shit what I did and how and that I was most definitely on my own.

These days, I am a mentor to one junior faculty who I believe comes and talks to me whenever he likes (I see him multiple times per week, as he’s across the hall from me). He’s doing great, going up for early tenure. I don’t think I have much of a role in his success other than to generally try and provide a welcoming environment and be a sounding board. I’ve recently received my second mentoring assignment.

Other than mentoring, there is so much more that we as a department collectively do for these junior folks that didn’t happen when I was on the tenure track. For example, they have teaching relief built into their tenure track — not just a lower load, but an option to have a semester without any teaching; that would have come in handy when I had kid No 2 on the tenure track. Moreover, there are so many assistant professors that they can find a friendly cohort and do some peer mentoring. There is much more and much better mentoring than I had as an assistant professor (I never had a meeting with department chair and both my mentors, which we now do once every semester).

I am happy that the new folks are having an easier time than I did, but I must admit that I have other feelings mixed in:

a) I feel sad for my tenure-track self. It felt so lonely.  I wonder if it would have been easier if someone had given a little bit of help or a pat on the back.

b) I don’t know that I can offer the mentoring that they need to these junior folks. They are all much more ballsy than I ever was, seem like they have their shit together, and command much greater resources from the outset.

I feel like a dinosaur, like my experiences are from another era. The era with no help and nobody giving a shit. What a difference a decade-and-a-half makes! Also none of the junior faculty have children. My experience on the tenure track was colored in every way imaginable by having kids (one in grad school, one midway through the tenure track, one post tenure)—the inability to go to the social gatherings and orientations and whatnot after work and on weekends; the never-ending exhaustion.

I feel like I ended up being depleted by everything — work, life — before I ever really reached my full potential. Even when I worked my hardest, there were weights around my ankles that prevented takeoff.

I believe DrugMonkey writes about this sometimes, that Gen X scientists haven’t reached their full potential. I can definitely see my tiny cohort being completely outnumbered into irrelevance by  the junior people.

Repost: On Boundaries in Research Groups

Originally posted here.


This is a posts that I kept remembering to sit down and write, only to forget yet again. I was reminded of it as I read this post by mathbionerd, to which I arrived somehow by tracking the good news that Dr Becca of Scientopia and Twitter fame had indeed been approved for tenure — congrats to Dr Becca!

The post is about boundaries between the PI and the graduate students/postdocs in a research group.

I have junior colleagues who meet with students at all hours, so 6-11 pm or weekends are not off limits.
Many PIs seem to have their group over for barbecue or holiday celebrations. Some PI take their groups to camping trips. Recently, I found out that the members of one research group are all expected to participate in certain 5k races, which really didn’t sit well with me.

In my view, any activity that is organized by the PI is not truly voluntary for students. There is always a power differential, and a student may feel like they have to attend even though they rather wouldn’t. For instance, late afternoon/evening/weekend meetings with the PI would have been a deal breaker for me in grad school as I had a kid in daycare; mandatory participation in activities like running 5k races isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or withing everyone’s physical abilities, and seems unfair to expect people to do.

Therefore, my students know (we have a document on the group website delineating what I expect and what they can expect from me) that I will not require their presence outside of 9-5 M-F. No late meetings or weekend meetings. When someone is about to leave the group, we go out to lunch during the week, somewhere close to work and I pay for everyone. I occasionally order pizza for the group for minor celebrations (again, during the week, and I pay). No one from my group has ever been to my house and I don’t see why that would be necessary. I don’t want to put the students in a situation where they have to do something they don’t want to because they think I might be upset if they refuse, even if I most definitely wouldn’t be. Our relationship is professional and as such benefits from solid boundaries between personal time and work time.

I would be delighted if my students all hung out without me, and I think there are some nice friendships in the group, but it’s all student-led and I have nothing to do with it. Maybe bonding experiences, like group barbecues and hikes and races, do really contribute to bonding, but this potential benefit is overshadowed (for me) by not wanting to impose on the group member’s personal time. Also, I certainly don’t expect them to spend their own money on the activities I require and they aren’t 100% free to refuse, such as the aforementioned lunches to say farewell to a group member.

I know that, once people join the “real world” they will likely have company retreats and perhaps intrusive managers who won’t respect personal time, which I think is all the more reason for me to be nonintrusive.

Dear readers, what is your attitude on group activities or other meetings requiring one’s presence outside of regular work hours?

Postdocking 2

EngProf asked:

“Hi! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about postdocs. Although postdoctoral experience is practically required to be considered as a top-notch applicant for junior faculty positions in most fields now-a-days (and no longer a niche practice of the biomedical field), I find that most engineering and physical sciences departments aren’t exactly sure how to handle this campus group. Do you mentor postdocs? Does your department do anything to help postdocs? If yes, how is this relationship different from faculty/grad student interactions, and what could be done to make it even better.”

I’m in a field where postdocs are not uncommon, but they aren’t this endless purgatory that they seem to be in the biomedical sciences (at least that’s how it seems based on what I’ve read on academic blogs).  I’ve advised several postdocs so far, but only two whom I’d brought in from outside specifically for the position. My first outside postdoc  was with me for four years; this was his first and only postdoc. He published well and went on to a successful faculty career (he should be getting tenure soon). I’ve recently hired my second outside postdoc; the primary reason is that several senior students graduated and I have a young group, so I need someone a bit more senior to help me wrangle them. In the past, there were several instances where I advertised for a postdoc and interviewed candidates, but ended up not hiring anyone and instead took on more students. I’d say a third-year grad student trained by me is better at the work we do than a random outside postdoc. So I often find it’s easier (and with more funding flexibility) to train a graduate student than to hire a postdoc who won’t be a very good match.

The postdoctoral experience can make or break one’s career. The position should be a good fit in terms of interests, expertise, and personalities. Ideally, a postdoc comes in with some expertise that they can directly apply, but they should also be able to learn new things in the group. I don’t want to hire just to fill a spot; it hurts the postdoc’s career and drains resources.

While I haven’t hired too many outside postdocs, I have had several who were my grad students first and then stayed for additional  1-3 years. Usually they stayed for personal reasons (waiting for a spouse to graduate, waiting out the process of the green card, etc.) and I had the benefit of a fully trained group member doing extra work for a while at peak productivity. Here we pay postdocs about $50k/yr, so a comfortable salary, even if not industry level.

Jobs in my field are well paid and fairly abundant, and all my group alumni went on to successful employment after graduation. I’d say if someone is headed for industry, they shouldn’t do a postdoc without a compelling reason (see above: waiting for a spouse to finish or waiting for a green card) or if they are quite certain that they want to go into academia; otherwise, one should get a job and move on with life.

Now, as to how the postdocs should be handled. First, it depends on why the postdoc is there. If a postdoc wants an academic position, I believe it’s my duty to make sure they are supremely prepared to write grants, write papers, present, mentor junior members, and network. They need plenty of opportunities to strike up collaborations, refine their various skills, and just do and present science. NSF makes people submit a postdoc mentoring plan, which addresses all this, and I always share it with my postdocs.

Not sure how others do this, but it seems that the fields that rely on armies of postdocs tend to be more abusive of them. To me, a postdoc is precious. They are my second-in-command, a senior fully trained group member who can work as independently as they want to (withing the broad limits of what’s fundable under active grants), work with multiple people in the group and on several projects at a time, just capitalize on all the accumulated knowledge and produce a ton of science.

I don’t actually know what the university does in terms of organizing postdocs, but I send mine (as well as senior grad students) to all the professional-development opportunities that I know of on campus and they are encouraged to explore and find their own.

Socially, IME, postdocs seem to hang out with other group members and students/postdocs from collaborators’ groups and seem pretty happy.

Blogosphere, what do you say? Thoughts on postdocs? 


Grab a Magnifying Glass, We’re Gazing at a Navel Again

Saturdays are always stupid online. Nothing happens, as folks are mostly busy doing laundry, mowing lawns, shopping, or attending kids’ sporting activities.

I’ve scheduled a couple of social events with some moms and found a speculative-fiction discussion group to join. I’m sick and tired of living an isolated friendless life and will do more to find folks to really connect with. Literary Twitter has provided me with a few good pals, but I want real local friends. I’m done waiting to magically be befriended. I will start asking more people do go to stuff and I will override my many, many self-protection mechanisms that make me closed off and aloof because I want to avoid getting judged or hurt, and I will instead act as I am, warts and all, and people can take it or leave it.

I have also entered a weird cultural phase, in that I have decided I would indulge my longtime curiosity for things that are considered somewhat lowbrow. Think monster truck rallies and demolition derbies. Think country music. I still love everything else that I’ve always loved, highbrow or not (e.g., a variety of genres of popular music and much classical music; literary as well as speculative fiction; poetry; all visual art), but I will stop being a self-policing douche. I will no longer censor myself out of interesting experiences.

I’m 45 and healthy. That means I have another 20-25 years, maybe more, of good, active living. I am not ready to give up, to just coast through this sedentary, monotonous suburban life until I drop dead. So I’m getting out and moving, really moving. Might enter a race in the spring. We’ll see.

There are people around me who insist that life is basically over, that there are no more big milestones ahead and the only interesting things will be happening to our kids. Sometimes, I think these people are correct. But when I let myself believe this, I feel really low, I wonder what’s the point of  living if there’s nothing to look forward to. So I refuse to believe that there’s nothing on the horizon. There are new experiences and new people and new connections. I hope there will be new career opportunities and new places to live. I am not dead yet.

I know that I occasionally write posts like this one. What is different now?

I have always felt I don’t have the right to perturb my husband and kids, who are happy where we are. This is what everyone expects, isn’t it? Mom, putting family first, always. Woman, putting the needs of others first, always. All the women I know do this; they often do it at the expense of their own ambitions and their own happiness.

But do we really owe our entire lives to our families? Until we die? Why does it not get to be our turn, again, at some point, to put ourselves first?

What precipitated this latest midlife examination is Eldest having gone to college. He’s moved out and doing great. He’s doing so great that he doesn’t really need us at all. We text with him, but he’s well adjusted, independent, and largely doing his own thing. On the one hand, I know this means we did a good job as parents and should be proud of ourselves and of him. On the other hand, so much time, money, and energy gets invested in the kids, and then they leave. If, after they leave, you have no life of your own, you will be in deep shit; I still have two at home, so not an empty nester, but I really did feel Eldest’s departure. Kids cannot be your whole life, at least not forever. And the sooner you realize — not intellectually, but deep down, emotionally — that kids are a big part of your life for a while, but that they are not and cannot be the sole purpose of your life,  that they are their own people with their own paths, that they will go away and look forward and not back, just as you did — the better off you’re likely to be.

When the youngest starts college I will be 56. Perhaps still not too old to start a new third of life. But perhaps it’s best to start planting the seeds of meaningful connections with the world outside of family sooner rather than later.

Kindred Spirits

A couple of weeks ago, I took an older colleague to lunch. He’s in a different area so we’d never interacted too much, but to the extent we had, I’d always thought he was pretty cool. Anyway, he’s 70, retiring, and moving cross-country to take up a research-only position elsewhere. I’d missed his farewell party, which is why I took him to lunch.

The colleague is healthy, active, still believes his best work is ahead, and is quite excited about the next step — his zest for work and life is truly inspiring! But a big reason that made me wish I could’ve hung out with him more is that, as it turns out, we have similar personalities, professional values, and modus operandi. It’s been a long time since I’d felt so understood. Most of the time, I feel like a fish out of water among my colleagues, among my scheduled-to-the-gills, calendar-and-list-wielding, networking/schmoozing/grant-savant peers.

As I talked with this older colleague (who btw is very accomplished in his math-heavy field), he articulated the key elements of how he likes to work and they are exactly what I strive for. And it’s amazing that he — likely by being an old white guy — doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with working how he works or prioritizing the things he prioritizes, even though they are not the norm. In contrast, I — likely in no small part because I’m not an old white guy — keep existing in a state of mild anxiety over not fitting here, over not doing things the way they are supposed to be done, over being weird along far too many axes.

A key aspect of the professional MO that came up is leaving room for spontaneity: having enough time that isn’t blocked off by recurrent meetings that you have the flexibility in when you see grad students; being free to go grab lunch or coffee (alas, with whom, when everyone else is so busy and ruled by the calendar? I tried going to lunches and coffees with colleagues in the first year or two on the tenure track, then just gave up);  being able to devote large blocks of time to projects that grab you, when they grab you.

As I wrote before, schedules and lists and detailed plans give me hives (see here and here). While it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control, the likes of me (who are apparently fairly rare) find it demotivating and stifling (producing a very real impetus to flee).

We ended up having a very lively two-hour lunch and I left feeling quite cheerful.  There’s nothing quite like feeling understood and making a genuine human connection to lift one’s spirits.