Month: November 2021

The Long Game

Just another professor asks, and is seconded by lyra211

JAP: What is the long game or, alternatively, the ultimate point, of an academic career? The opportunities to go upward or across are very few and far in between, you either succeed (and get bored), or you always struggle (not bored but not fun either). What would one do after becoming a full professor in a mid-rank R1? Thank you for openly sharing your thoughts on this topic.

lyra211: I’m going to second “Just Another Professor,” and expand to ask about thoughts for dealing with life after tenure — the “post-tenure slump,” the sudden crushing service load, but more positively, the opportunity to reinvent yourself career-wise once you’ve secured a long-term position. Have you ever thought about changing fields, moving into more administrative roles (I’d never want to be at the dean/provost level, but I’m kind of intrigued by running our pre-matriculation program for underrepresented STEM students…), starting a side gig within academia (mine would probably be science education research) or even outside of academia (like your writing)?

I think this is one of those questions that every individual has to answer for themselves, and answers differ widely; I can say what is crystalizing for me. Warning: Meandering, stream-of-consciousness post ahead.  

My personality is such that I like to dabble and try new things. I enjoy learning and gaining competence;  traveling the road from novice to expert feels exhilarating. In my work, this means I would, in an ideal world, change fields pretty dramatically every few years. This would presumably be much easier for me  than for people who are experimentalists, but I am in a discipline where I am expected to work with students and postdocs and raise grants to support them, and raising grants in a field with no track record is very hard. Yes, if you are flush and have an army of underlings and discretionary funds, you can do work first for a few years and publish some papers in a completely new field before you start applying for related grants.  But how many of us are that flush? Basically, to keep people funded, I have to make small plausible changes to my research focus, rather than the big exciting ones I would love to make. Why don’t I just do the work myself? I try, but there just isn’t time. I am only one person, teaching, doing a mountain of service, advising, writing papers and grants in a field I’m established in or adjacent fields. This is already a full-time job.

And, to be honest, sometimes you need a break from your full-time job. I don’t have the energy or motivation to take on a pet technical project that I would do all on my own on top of my actual job. A new technical project in a really remote area is simultaneously too much and not enough. I know how to do research, I know what the endgame would be — write papers, write grants, teach students. Even though the topics would be brand new and challenging, the endgame is something I am perhaps too familiar with. 

Instead, I write fiction. This is a path along which I don’t need to teach anyone anything except myself. I rise and fall on my own, and my own skill is the only one I need to worry about. I enjoy meeting writers; they are a different breed than my colleagues. My worlds has become kinder, more colorful, and more joyous after I’ve let more arts and artists into my life. 

But that’s me, and those who read this blog already know plenty about me. 

In midcareer, most people in academia face a reckoning. They ask, “What now?” They feel exhaustion and boredom with what they have been doing, yet see limited options to do something else. Even former superstars  with massive groups might find the funds have dried up, their groups have shrunk, and they’re scraping to get by. I know some people who’ve been well-funded for years only to start getting slapped around with declinations, facing a mixture of anger and bewilderment that the rules of the game seem to have changed (they haven’t; it’s just that their new-faculty sheen has worn off). I can totally understand the impetus to go to administration, especially for folks who have good people skills. You feel you’re doing something important and are doing it well. For certain individuals, feeling successful, competent, and externally validated is very important. A scientific career, sadly, offers very little of that. In the long run, most people feel overworked, overlooked, underappreciated, and often completely hopeless and helpless when it comes to the grant race. It can get really bleak out there. 

Some people need external recognition, and getting awards or fellowships in various societies is their imperative. I used to think that was important, but cannot really give a toss at this point. 

I really enjoy teaching. I also enjoy working with my graduate students, and I want to be able to do some exciting work with them, and write papers that I find interesting. Hopefully others find them interesting, too, but that’s ultimately not something you can control. You can only follow your own instincts, passions, and scientific taste. Follow the love, as they say. 

Opening my world to arts and artists also has the benefit of reminding me that an academic job is objectively a very good job. Much better than most other jobs. It has security, good pay and benefits, and the ability to work flexible hours with no direct oversight. I don’t really know if there are other jobs out there quite like it, but I can tell you that many would kill for a job like it. 

I think much of our midcareer academic angst comes from our belief that we need to be in love with the job to do it well — where well means well enough to be worthy of it. This issue may not plague just academia, but it gets amplified by the lifelong job commitment typical of academia . I am here to tell you that you don’t have to love your job. Your job is not your child nor spouse nor friend. If you like and enjoy your job for the most part, that is more than most people — not in academia, in the society at large — can say. That is enough and you are worthy. I objectively work just as hard right now, probably harder, than when I was junior. I am better at it, but there is also so much more work. I love it all less, in part because having been beaten down by grant rejections has taken its toll, in part because the job and I have been at it for almost two decades and some of the spark has gone out, but I do it well, and I do it hard, and I am worthy of it even when (or perhaps especially when) my heart isn’t in it. Because it is a job. It only loves you back to the extent to which the people who are in your life because of it love you back. 

If working with your students fills you with joy, if chatting with your colleagues makes you laugh, if brainstorming with your collaborators fires you up — that is it; that is the love your job gives to you, and you are worth it because you make those relationships thrive. So do not feel bad that you do not love your job because I guarantee you do love the parts (the people) who do love you back. The rest — the rejections, the grading, the unnecessary paperwork — of course you don’t love it, as well you shouldn’t. 

At the end of the day, it’s the stuff that nurtures our inner selves (our creativity and curiosity) and the relationships that we have built that make our time here worthwhile. 

So strike that new collaboration, give one talk and hear dozens at your favorite conference, have fun with undergrads in your classes, and proudly send a newly minted PhD into the world. The people who are better off for knowing you and working with you and learning from you are your real legacy. 

Academic blogosphere, what do you say? What is the long game/the point of an academic career? 

Random Bits of Sunday

Best laid plans are…well, never that well laid, it seems, when they’re mine. I managed to finish the proposal and the grading of the midterm, so that’s something. But my editorial duties and homework grading still await.

I wish I felt more relaxed. My kids have had a real break; I wish I could have had it, too. But jobs with real breaks don’t usually come with very good salaries, at least not in this society. So yeah. Thanksgiving  grading and proposaling it is. 

Some days, the job really feels like a job. It used to feel like such a privilege, and there are still many such days, but the longer I do it, the more frequently I feel the jobbiness of it all. That’s probably natural with any long-term job. 

Someone asked in the comments to the November post why I remain in academia. I still owe the reader  a full post, but for now, I think it’s because an academic job is still the best job someone like me can have. In no particular order: no direct boss, lots of flexibility with time, working with young people, working with smart and interesting colleagues, working on fun and creative projects, job security of tenure, good benefits. See, listing it all like that does remind me that my line of work is a privilege. 

Tomorrow’s Monday again, so I bid you farewell, because that cheesy show isn’t going to watch itself  before bed.  

What do you do to unwind, blogosphere? Do you watch something? Read? Exercise? Bang head against wall until you pass out? Meditate?

Random Bits of Gobble-Gobble

  • Just finished my lecture (I’m teaching in person, but folks might be traveling, so today’s lecture was online and recorded). The advances in videoconferencing and everyone’s comfort with various tools used for the purpose are a positive thing that has arisen from the last two years of craziness. 
  • I am teaching a massive undergraduate class next semester. It’s twice the size of the same class that’s being offered right now, and I am puzzled and a little terrified. It would be great to think the overflow is because I’m a popular instructor, which I am, but it’s likely because of increasing enrollments and/or some student schedule conflicts. Still, it’s a lot. A LOT.  
  • Which brings me to the fact that I am glad I will be mostly done with this season’s (many, many) proposals by the end of January. 
  • Today I had a story accepted after a wait of 134 days. That’s a lot for a flash piece, and A LOT for someone as pathologically impatient as I am. It’s a story I really like, going to a market I really like. I should be jumping with joy, but I’m not. And it’s not that I am not happy, because I really am. It’s that the joy doesn’t break the surface, if that makes sense. Maybe because the surface is all business, thick and leathery from grownup concerns. Maybe it can’t because it’s such a tiny, niche, private joy, the kind that’s too small or too weird or too mine to share with most people. And if a joy can’t break the surface, you don’t really feel it, no matter how much it bubbles underneath.   
  • Over the next four days, I need to: 

a) Grade one exam and a homework assignment (graduate class, so manageable) 

b) Write solutions for current homework and prep class for Monday

d) Polish an existing proposal and submit it to a new program on Monday

d) Review a paper

e) Editorially handle a bunch of papers at two journals

I’d also like to edit a couple of very short stories to a publishable form. 

Oh, and I’d like to watch some movies and read some novels. And cook. And hang out with kids. 

What are your plans over Thanksgiving break, American blogosphere? And for non-US folks, what are your plans for the rest of this week? 

Whimsical Fauna

Grab a Chair

Apparently, I am at that career stage where I get solicited (with increasing frequency) to apply for the position of department chair or department head at various institutions. I am wholly unsuited for such positions, not because I can’t figure out what people need or solve interpersonal and logistical problems, but because:

  • I cannot do it without it perturbing my inner equilibrium for longer than is healthy or prudent. I am probably worse than most when it comes to leaving other people’s bullshit at the office and not allowing it to affect my personal life, even when I know the bullshit isn’t about me at all.
  • I cannot stomach the requirement to kiss the a$$es of alumni and folks with deep pockets in other to milk them for donations. There are some people who excel at this and don’t seem to find it prohibitively distasteful; more power to them. A few such individuals are academics in STEM fields and make excellent upper-level administrators. Yours truly, alas, is not among these specimens.
  • I like many facets of the job I have now. I am really good at teaching and draw a great deal of satisfaction from it. I enjoy working with graduate students and thinking about cool new science. I like being an editor of technical journals (usually). I like talking science with colleagues. Based on what I see among my peers, it is hard to go back to being a regular faculty member after serving in a demanding administrative capacity.
  • Moving. The other day, Middle Boy said winter was his favorite season, which surprised and puzzled me for about five seconds, until I remembered that he was Midwest-born, and long, snowy winters feel natural because this place is his home. So, yeah. We’re staying put.

Blogosphere, anyone among you considering switching to administration? Why and why not?

No Rest for the Wicked Weekend

Blogosphere, do you work weekends? 

During the summer, I usually don’t. During the semester (winter break, too), I always do. There is just way too much going on and I simply need the weekends. I wish I didn’t, but I do. When I take a weekend completely off, usually I end up hopelessly backlogged and missing deadlines in the week ahead. 

When I am not in a proposal crunch, weekends are usually for: 

a) Assigning homework

b) Writing homework solutions (mostly relevant the first time I teach a new class, like this semester)

c) Grading homework (see a pattern here?)

d) Grading exams

e) Catching up on editorial duties (assigning reviewers, chasing reviewers, making decisions on manuscripts that came back from review)

f) Catching up on emails

g) Catching up on writing miscellaneous documents that fall under service (letters of recommendation or evaluation for tenure/promotions, reviews of people’s papers)

Blogosphere, do you work on the weekends? If yes, what do you do? If no, show us your ways, oh wise one!


From the Archives: Elementary, My Dear Xykademiqz

Originally appeared here. (Only this past January. Jesus, feels like eons ago.)

I chatted with DH today about our childhoods. Mine often feels like another life, or like it happened to someone else. Perhaps that’s how everyone feels.

As I wrote here and there on the blog, I had primary school (equivalent of elementary plus middle, 8 years total), the placement into which was solely based on geography. Then high school (4 years), which, during my time, involved light specialization (for example, mine was natural sciences, but there was also a parallel social sciences and humanities track in the same school that my BFF attended; my husband went to another school where his specialization was math and programming). Then, in college, one enrolled in a major right away and was pretty much railroaded to graduation. There were several tracks to choose from as upperclassmen, but, again, no course cherry-picking; you pick a track and the course sequence is fixed.

Because of this specialization, since high school I was surrounded, more or less, with people who were similarly academically minded. Today I thought of some of the people I went to elementary school with.

There were two siblings born under a year apart in my class in elementary and high school. I look them up sometimes, and they have done well, have BS degrees in math and mechanical engineering and work in their fields.

I also remember the kids who used to sit with me in the back row in physics lab (yes, we started having physics in 6th grade; twice a week; chemistry in 7th grade, twice a week; not too much math initially, but I asked Dad to teach me some trigonometry in 6th or 7th grade so I could do physics problems with inclined planes).  Anyway, each row in the lab had two long lab desks that sat three each. I was tall and was always relegated to sit in the back, usually with boys.

In physics, I sat with these two who were supposedly “bad” kids, but I never had issues with them. They were always nice to me and respectful of my intense nerdiness. (The “nice” girls were always way nastier than any “bad” boy.)

Years later, I heard one of the boys had spent time in prison for a robbery, and was at that point out, taking care of his kid, while his wife was still locked up. It seemed surreal. The other boy I always thought was very sweet, but he was a hell raiser who, in hindsight, might have simply had ADHD. I wonder what happened with him. Unfortunately, I only remember his nickname.

And that’s the thing, I don’t really remember most of the kids I went to elementary school with. I might remember the first or the last name, but not both. You might think it’s not a big deal, but we were together, in the same class, for eight years. I feel like I should remember them better.

I was a middle-middle-class kid. A lot of my classmates were from blue-collar families. A few were what even then I’d recognized as somewhat classy, coming from old money, having had highly educated parents and grandparents and probably great-grandparents, too. In contrast, my maternal grandma had four years of schooling; my dad had a BS and got a MS when I was older; my mom had an associate’s degree.

I’m easily googlable, so, on occasion, a very rare occasion, I get a “Hey, what’s up?” A few years ago, one girl from elementary school contacted me and we shared how many kids we each had and who we were in contact with from school (me: no one; her: about half a dozen people via Facebook), and then it fizzled. It always does. I know there have been reunions, from which I’m separated by one ocean and several decades. We’re mostly curiosities to each other now. Still, I hope the kids are all right.