A Leap-Day Post That Has Nothing to Do With Leap Day

I don’t like snow or cold, so you’d think maybe I shouldn’t live in the Midwest, but it’s hard to beat the low cost of living and the good public schools. Luckily, we’re at the tail end of winter — nicer weather, longer days — so I’m coming out of the slump and feeling (somewhat) energized again.

I’ve been chipping away at the mountain of backlogged papers from group members past and hope to be done with it all, along with a few new ones, in the spring and summer. I’ve also been busy recruiting new students, but, after extensive interviews gave only 25% offers, even though I can afford more. I’ve been bitten by some bad hires in the last few years, and you know the saying — once bitten, twice shy.

Writing is going really well. Some great sales, including a first pro sale of a full sci-fi piece which would enable me to join SFWA as affiliate member. Several poetry publications (who knew, right?) and acceptances of some really weird literary pieces. I’m coming into my own and it feels good to let my freak flag fly. I have a few good writer friends with whom I exchange beta-reads and shoot writerly $hit. If only I could curb my Twitter usage, that would be awesome, but, alas, it is hard.

Anyway, I don’t write here as often as I used to, mostly because when I have an idea I don’t have the time to write it up and then the idea goes away, and otherwise because I feel I’ve beaten everything to death, but that’s neither here nor there, because over my nearly 10 years of blogging — yep, started in May 2010 as GMP, moved here in 2014 (I think) — the readers have come and gone, so things bear repeating.

Maybe I should take my own and everyone else’s advice when it comes to writing fiction and apply it here: Write what you feel compelled to write, and don’t worry whether anyone wants to read it.

So here’s one thing that has been on my mind. Performance of work, highlight reels vs bloopers, and how we look at ourselves and each other in academia.

When I was a young assistant professor, I wanted to work all the time. I nearly did and obsessed over it when I didn’t. But I also always had small children (heck, I still do) and was thus neither able nor willing to travel as much as some of my peers. I felt bad about not looking busy enough, about not always being unavailable or out of town. I could find time for lunch or coffee or to meet with students whenever they needed me to,  and it didn’t take me three months to give a colleague half an hour to discuss a joint paper.

I got tenure easily (even if only in hindsight), got promoted to full professor quickly, and now hold an endowed professorship. So it looks like I’ve been doing what I needed to be doing along the way. I am successful and well respected in the department and my small professional community, but I’m not a superstar. Program managers don’t fall all over themselves to have me in their portfolio. I write what I feel are nontrivial, interesting, well-written papers. I am good at my job, but don’t dwell in the stratospheric professional echelons. I feel like I should be there, like I should want to be there, but I’m not and don’t honestly want to be.

When I was an assistant professor, there were two people hired at the same time as me, but three years in I was the only one still there. Nobody else was hired in the two years before me and for several years afterwards. My tenure track was a deep well of peerlessness.

Today, we are hiring like crazy and feels surreal. There are so many of these junior people, several each year. They hang out, there’s different energy in the department. I am glad they have each other, but wistful for what I never had.

All these junior people are without families and travel all the time.

How exactly did I manage to do what I did while clearly not doing what it seemed I was supposed to do? Or this is all bullshit, and we all spend far too much money and time on travel, Time and money that would better be spent funding students and writing papers?

Some fifteen years into my career, I have deep distaste for travel. The airports, the hotels, the scrambling to get everything done before departure, the backlog of work waiting when I return, the overwhelming boredom.

I like hearing an interesting talk or getting to shake someone’s hand, but I don’t have to have fifteen trips per year for that. To me, a small number of well-chosen conferences with a good program can be invigorating, and I mean small.

Plus, you know, there’s the “been there, done that” that I feel everyone hits sooner or later in this profession. It’s hard to get pumped for something you’ve been doing awhile. I think it’s developmentally appropriate to become restless and seek new challenges.

I am not sure where I’m going with this, just thinking how I felt  like an underachiever when I was junior and compared myself with older colleagues, now I feel like I am a has-been old foggy when compared with junior ones.

But funny how the performance metrics don’t actually reveal (or at least not too much) this decaying passion for work. The job is transitioning to just being a job, and I’m efficient at it and that’s it’s, I guess.

Isn’t it funny how there can be aspects of a job that you never considered that important when you got the job, but it turns out they are now the biggest selling point and you’re really good at it? Yeah, that’s me with teaching. I never knew I’d love classroom teaching of undergrads as much as I do, be so good at it, and get so much satisfaction. Yet, it’s among the most enjoyable parts of my job (if not the most enjoyable one) these days.

So here I am, doing my job, doing science, wondering where all the magic has gone. Wondering how I, always feeling like an undeachiever, managed to objectively achieve enough to live between two globe-trotting generations (is this a very Gen X problem, being sandwiched between Boomers and Millenials)? Are they/we all full of shit with this busyness? What the hell are we all doing?

I, for one, keep seeking ways to feel a bit more like myself.




  1. As a Boomer, I don’t think that this is a Gen X problem—I think that it is a distorted-small-bubble problem. I don’t think that Boomers in academia travelled as much as you thought, nor are the Millenials in general travelling that much. Your path sounds to me like a typical successful one for any generation of academics—it’s just that you’ve been comparing yourself with outliers.

    I wish I had data to back up my beliefs, as I too feel that I traveled much less than my colleagues (some of whom are treated as superstars). Should I have travelled more? Would that have made me any better at what I do? Probably not, though it might have made getting funding easier, as more people would have known me. Would I have been happier with more travel? Probably not, as conference travel was never much fun for me. I did like the few times I spent a few months in a different location, though, so I would have done more of that if my family had been more comfortable with it.

    There are always paths not taken (I could have been one of Apple’s first hires, but decided to finish my PhD and go into academia instead)—looking back at what might have been is not the path to happiness. If you are reasonably happy with where you are, then the choices you made to get you there were good.

  2. Seems like you made the right calls: Prioritized what was important to you, did what was needed to get tenure and be where you are now, found some aspect of your job that keeps you going and have outlets on the side to keep you sane.

    Don’t be wistful for not having become that big shot in your field. From an outside perspective, most of these typically seem to suffer from an advanced sort of sociopathy – a club you might not want to be member of…

  3. I think part of this “wondering where all the magic has gone” [that I think effects the whole range of academics from grad students to full profs] stems from the attitude that your work should equal your life. When you talk to people outside of academia, their work is their work, it doesn’t necessarily define them, and it is normal to not want to work all the time! I’ve been trying to accept this more and having friends outside of the university helps with that a lot.

  4. I am at a similar career stage, but probably less accomplished than you are (i.e., not an endowed chair). My productivity has been OK over the past few years, but the spark has been missing. Of course, today’s productivity probably stems from the work I did a few years ago, so this lack of current “spark,” whatever it may be, will show up in my productivity a few years from now. I try not to dwell on it, but can’t help thinking: is this the start of deadwoodification that I so dreaded when I was younger?

  5. Very good post! Thanks for writing it.

    Your experiences and journey almost exactly mirror mine. The most enjoyable parts of being a full prof (around the 20 year mark) are the control you have over your job, the satisfaction that comes from writing “nontrivial and interesting” papers, and the joy of classroom teaching.

    Hope the current COVID-19 crisis will not take away the latter for too long.

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