Month: November 2022

Profanity-laden Post on Collaboration

So I might be exiting a collaboration to protect my postdoc and my own peace of mind. It’s a collaboration of about ten people across several institutions. It came together based on joint interests, but the postdoc and I will quit as soon as the current paper is accepted. I have my own funding (thank gourd). My postdoc is a capable woman and no shrinking violet, but she gets piled on whenever I don’t attend collaboration meetings, and pretty much even when I do, although to a lesser extent because I take some of the heat and can also deescalate some. Plus, the most aggressive people are probably infinitesimally less aggressive when I am there; I don’t allow them to interrupt me as she does out deference, and I talk over them if they talk over me. Still, after every meeting I am winded and exhausted, like I’ve just run a few miles.

It’s not a fun environment. Things have gotten to the point of no return upon the joining of a new junior faculty (male) who, perhaps due to his cultural background, seems particularly hostile toward my postdoc and, to a lesser extent, me.

And I am so fucking tired having to handle assholes in kid gloves.

I pulled out of a grant-review panel a few months ago when I found out I would again serve with a combative jerk with whom I had promised myself I would never serve again.

I will pull out of a collaboration because I don’t want my postdoc dreading every meeting, feeling rattled each time she attends, and I don’t need to be walking into a meeting with a machete to cut through the bullshit flying from every direction.

The thing is, most of the men in the meetings are completely silent. Do they not see what’s happening? Do they think the uppity¬† women deserve it? Do they not wanna say something to deescalate these clearly tense and uncomfortable exchanges? Do they not notice anything? How the hell are people so oblivious? They probably just don’t care.

And, of course, it will be “women are too difficult to work with” again. ūüôĄ

Fuck this, seriously. Thank fuck I am not dependent on them for the funds and can just walk away.

Bullets of Ego

  • Remember months (years?) ago when Pete Davidson dated Ariana Grande (Why do I even know about this? Social media, that’s why), which popularized the term “big dick energy” (BDE) to denote a person who is quietly confident (because they know they’re packin’) and doesn’t have to rub their qualities (ahem) in everyone’s face. Apparently, BDE is perceived subliminally and is very attractive. Someone being all up in your face with their perceived awesomeness, trying to get you to acknowledge them, is said to have “small dick energy.”
  • I remember the movie “The Social Network,” where Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend tells him something along the lines of, “You think people don’t like you because you are a nerd. But actually people don’t like you because you’re an asshole.”
  • Anyway, these days I am thinking about how it would be really nice if there were more BDE people in academia. People who are competent and confident, but not jerks about it. They go about their business, doing their work, advising students, being colleagues, and not having to measure dicks against others at every turn. Not have to constantly show they’re the smartest person in every room. Not have to put people down with no good reason.
  • By extension, I’d like it to not be automatically assumed that, just because someone is kind and calm, they aren’t competent or confident, or just because someone is supportive and helpful, they aren’t an ambitious. I wish people stopped assuming outward self-confidence were a proxy for competence. Haven’t we learned anything from 2016 — 2020?
  • I’ve been interviewing prospective students, and there are a couple who are confident. Very confident. Very, very confident. So confident they are really obnoxious about it. I am sure they were told about having to be boastful in the US, and it’s true in the sense that self-promotion is much more overt and expected in the US than elsewhere in the world, but self-promotion is a fine skill and it’s very easy to land on the side of annoying. So annoying that it will likely disqualify them from admission into my group, because people with outsize egos are exhausting to work with. But such students are brilliant, you might say. Not brilliant enough to justify them being as exasperating they usually are.
  • In a multi-PI collaboration, a brand new male assistant professor who joins the collaboration late is automatically afforded respect. I have to battle with a male PhD student of another PI, a student who is writing his first paper, about technical details pertaining to my group’s part of the work, about the text we contributed, about everything. Every detail is a struggle. (You don’t want to even know how my female postdoc gets piled on when I don’t attend the collaboration meeting.) Being a female professor is a little like being queer, in that you have come out over and over and over again, to everyone individually, only in the case of a female professor it’s having to convince people of your competence, over and over and over again, even people twenty years your junior who should assume you know something based on seniority alone, but they never do.
  • This shit is so exhausting.

Of Beaks and Tusks


Saturday is usually the day I take to myself, in the sense that I don’t do anything work-related. Sunday is a mix of chores and catching up on work, but Saturday is for me and my frivolous pursuits.¬†

Eldest is coming to dinner today, so I have to go shopping for that and cook, but other than that, it’s mostly my fiction-writing time. I have a bunch of short stories (OK, not a bunch, but maybe three, so a tiny bunch) that I want to touch up and send out again, and there’s the novel which I sadly haven’t been able to work on this month yet. But I try not to have the perfect be the enemy of the good.¬†

I have a small Twitter presence under xykademiqz, but I don’t really do much there or check that account often. I spend much more time on the Twitter account associated with my fiction pen name, where my timeline features mostly writers and artists.¬†

But after the recent $44 billion takeover of the Bird Site by the Tesla guy, plenty of people have fled to Mastodon, or more like purchased a vacation home on Mastodon to which they will end up moving if their primary residence goes up in flames.¬† Technically, the network is a Mastodon fediverse, a distributed social network of independently run¬† servers (called instances) running Mastodon open-source software, which offers a cozier and more relaxing experience than Twitter but is in some ways akin to Twitter. You join a specific server (you can change it later if you need to, but you can follow anyone from any server anyway). You write and post “toots” (analogue of tweets), which I find endlessly hilarious, but which I find many people object to? I don’t care how old you are, potty humor is always sidesplittingly funny, so don’t be a stick in the mud and pretend it’s not. Toot with us! Anyway, you can “favourite” (like) and “boost” (retweet). However, the fediverse is not built for virality or promotion; it’s built for interpersonal connection. I have two accounts there (one associated with my short fiction (which is mostly dark and mostly speculative), and another with the genre in which I’m writing a novel), and dipping my toes into different social-media waters has been interesting. So far, I’ve really enjoyed the Mastodon fediverse, but the locals (understandably) aren’t too keen on all the changes the raucous Twitter refugees have brought along with them, not the least of which is the need for swift and presumably expensive hardware upgrades to support all the new traffic.¬†

For those of you who follow (kind of) these events, here’s a thoughtful post by one longtime Mastodon user:¬†

Academic blogosphere, do you use social media? Which ones? If you are on Twitter, are you thinking about moving elsewhere? 

Funding Gaps, Funding Students

Nicoleandmaggie asked this question:

How do you deal with funding gaps (or potential funding gaps) if you have to support PhD students with grant money?

This is always unpleasant to think about, but very important. The short answer, in my experience, is one or more of the following:¬† a) discretionary money (from an endowed professorship or some equivalent-ish internal award), b) small internal research grants (again, if this is available in your field and at your institution), or c) teaching assistantships. Teaching assistantships may or may not be abundant in a given discipline, but even if your department doesn’t have many (or any), there are related departments that might; for example, if you are in chemical engineering, your students might also be able to TA in chemistry, biochemistry, perhaps intro physics or biology; if you are in economics, your students are likely able to TA intro math or statistics, too. In my experience, anyone who’s needed a TA has ultimately been able to get one somewhere, but I don’t know that this is the norm, and it’s stressful for the students because it typically needs to be handled anew each semester.

The thing with funding lasting three years and the PhD lasting roughly five years is that there’s no guarantee a student will both be able to be funded the whole time and stay on the same project. Senior students typically prefer to teach and keep their ongoing¬† project over getting moved to a new one three or four years in. Who can blame them?

As an aside, I think teaching undergrads is an important part of professional development for graduate students, and should be part of every PhD experience. Graduate student TAs also benefit undergrads, who like learning from instructors close in age.

Blogosphere, what do you say? How do you handle funding gaps if you have PhD students to support? 

Shameless Plug: Academaze, Yo!


What is Academaze?

Academaze¬†is a book¬†of essays and cartoons on¬†academic life at a major research institution. I wrote it¬†under the pen name Sydney Phlox¬†and it¬†was published on June 20, 2016 by Annorlunda Books. The book title is a combination of “academic” and “maze,” hinting at the labyrinthian nature of academia. You can think of Academaze as “The Best of Xykademiqz and Academic Jungle (my old blog)” that has been organized into coherent chapters, copyedited, and nestled between beautiful covers!¬†I am very proud of it.

Where can I buy the book? 

Paperback: Amazon | | Createspace

Ebook: Amazon | | GumRoad | iBooks | Kobo

Will I like this book? 

The book is really cool, but don’t take my word for it.¬†Here are all the reviews I am aware¬†of:

Pawel Niewiadomski

Elizabeth Haswell

Alex Small (Physicist at Large)

Clarissa’s Blog

Natalienne (Fill Your Bookshelf Blog)

My Cup of Beauty

All Reviews

All Goodreads Reviews

Review in the APS CSWP & COM Gazette (Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics & the Committee on Minorities of the American Physical Society)

Review in POSDOCket (Newsletter of the National Postdoc Association)

From the back cover:¬†“Academic life can be wonderful, but also daunting. This collection of essays and cartoons on life in academia provides an ‚Äúinsider‚Äôs guide‚ÄĚ to the tenure track and beyond in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields at a major US research institution.

Sydney Phlox, a pseudonymous tenured professor, takes the reader through the maze of academic life: from the job search, through the research, teaching, and service that form the core of academic work to the quest for work-life balance and the unique challenges faced by women in STEM. Along the way, Phlox shares the joys and tribulations of working with students and collaborators and navigating academic politics while trying to get papers published and grants funded.

Who are thee, Sydney Phlox, the author of this fascinating treatise? 

Here is how my¬†pen name Sydney Phlox came about.¬†And here’s a biosketch:

Sydney Phlox is a professor at a large public research university in the US, working in one of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. She loves quantum mechanics, science fiction, and bad puns. She and her husband raise a prime number of unruly children and drive in the snow like champs. Phlox blogs and doodles at Xykademiqz.

And, a little more about me and my various pseuds.

Where did you say I can buy the book, again? 

Paperback: Amazon | | Createspace

Ebook: Amazon | | GumRoad | iBooks | Kobo

How did Academaze come to be? 

All the posts about the book, from the idea, through the editing process, to publication, have been compiled under the tag Academaze.

Cartoons, I want more cartoons!

I am glad you like them! There are many that did not make it into Academaze; all have been collected under the Cartoons category. (Most are also under the  comics tab.)

Supporting Junior Faculty

Profdirector asked here:

What is the best advice for more senior folk to support the junior faculty as they start?

I am going to focus here on what one particular faculty member can do on their own, and not the systemic issues of department culture or tenure process that can indeed make or break a junior faculty member’s career, but over which any one senior academic¬† typically has little influence.

So, what can one senior professor do to help young professors?

Do not underestimate how overwhelming it is to be a new faculty member these days. The requirements for funding and publishing are quite steep, and the funding rates minuscule. From a junior faculty member’s standpoint, the colleagues are there to help, but also to evaluate, so it feels like a precarious situation, and it’s unclear who should be trusted. As a senior person, you should try to reach out to junior faculty and help make them comfortable — in the department and in your presence. Take them to lunch or coffee. Ask if they have questions. Offer to help. (Everything in moderation, though. Don’t waste their time, but do offer a respite. Pay attention to body language. If they keep looking tense and uncomfortable around you even after several outings to coffee and/or lunch, perhaps it’s best to leave them be.)

If you have wisdom to share, especially if it’s something that you think a junior faculty member should hear (like something you noticed they might need help with), it is easiest to convey it obliquely, through a story centered on some unspecified third party or, better yet, through a self-deprecating anecdote. Alas, many of my senior male colleagues wouldn’t be caught dead sharing a truly embarrassing story (within the confines of the professional, of course) or a story otherwise showing vulnerability or weakness. They share humblebrag stories, where it seems like there’s chaos or confusion, but ultimately they come through as superheroes who did superbly while somehow bumbling along . I think on some level the assistant professors expect it, this impenetrable shield of invincibility, and don’t feel comfortable sharing doubts or asking questions. It ends up being an unhealthy game where both sides pretend they are far more awesome than they really are. If you can suspend your ego a little and try to connect with your junior colleagues as real people, it will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Remember yourself as an assistant professor and how clueless you were. Remember all the new and disorienting details pertinent to starting a faculty job. Assistant professors, out of a completely justified fear of being negatively evaluated, tend to hide the fear and the cluelessness. Try to be that safe (but really safe) person whom they can ask questions that reveal cluelessness. For example, maybe the course management system is complicated, so they can’t figure out how to use it at a level above the very basic; this is important to address as it affects student perception of the assistant professor’s organization in a negative way. Point them to the right resources for creating a compelling lab website; this is important for student recruitment. The junior professor probably doesn’t know all the things that go into a new grant, or who can help with this or that, or what the hell data management plan is. I know most of this stuff doesn’t require a PhD to master or teach, but there’s no one else. It’s not like you can assign staff or students to help assistant professors with all these issues (maybe some, but not all). It’s us more senior folks who have all the¬† bits and pieces of knowledge about the crazy tapestry that is our job, so we are the ones to teach.

Seriously, assume that your junior colleagues might be (at the outset, at least) too self-conscious to ask you “trivial” questions or don’t want to waste your time. Ask them if they know how to do this or that, tell them you will be happy to show them and that they should feel free to ask you things anytime.

People align based on interpersonal chemistry. I had faculty mentors assigned to me when I was an assistant professor. I was afraid of one of them and never asked them anything, and the other one was nominally helpful but in practice took three weeks to answer my emails, so I took the hint and stopped asking them for help. How did I get help? I asked a senior collaborator from another department with whom I had good rapport. I asked another grouchy and hilarious faculty member from my own department, who did eventually replace one of my mentors on record.

If you do have good chemistry with an assistant professor, use it to help them. They are more likely to become relaxed with you, and you can really do a lot of good if they trust you (or, sadly, you can do a lot of damage, so tread lightly). Be accessible. If they have to wait three weeks for you to answer a question about some student-related drama, you are useless. We all make time for what we find important. Show them they are important by being there for them when they need you. Yes, that means you will be inconvenienced sometimes. That is the price of really helping someone.

Send good students their way. I get more interest from good students than I can reliably accommodate in my group. I forward those, with introductions, to junior faculty.

Share best hiring strategies. How do you vet students? This is a very nontrivial process with a lot of room for error, and striking out with recruitment carries a steep penalty for junior faculty. Help them bring on good people.

Share your teaching materials. Share everything generously. They may or may not use what you share (I always make everything on my own, but even glimpses of how someone else organizes a course are very helpful). You can save someone a huge amount of work.

Elucidate what their priorities for tenure are. Be honest about the real relative importance of research, teaching, and service at your school. I know at my place we wring our hands about teaching and service, but a person who brings in money and publishes papers will be tenured with middling teaching and service. It’s simply true. My particular department cares about teaching more than most, but I know other departments really don’t. If this is true, make sure that your junior colleague knows how to apportion their limited time.

Help them choose (and fight for them, if necessary) courses that are well aligned with their strengths and interests, service roles that they might be passionate about. Encourage them to seek balance in their lives, to take care of health and their families. Go to bat for them when it comes to lab space or teaching assignments or crappy teaching schedules that conflict with family rearing.

What say you, blogosphere? How can Bluehairs and Graybeards be most helpful to junior faculty? 

Of Birds In Hands and Bushes

Graduate-student recruitment season is upon us, and the inboxes of faculty who work at institutions with graduate programs are again filling with emails containing “prospective student” in the subject.

I will be bringing on several people this year, so I started interviewing early. I have pretty much decided whom I want to recruit¬† already based on the students I’ve already seen, and I’ve given unofficial offers via email. However, there is still more than a month until the application deadline, and some of my other colleagues apparently wait until after said deadline to peruse the candidate roster for the first time.

I have almost always recruited from among the students who contacted me before applying and whose interest and experience in my subfield seemed genuine. That additional step needed to contact people tells me they have the requisite initiative and have done due diligence. In the past, we’d email a few times and then talk over the phone or Skype. These days, we meet over Zoom.

(One thing that’s new — and I don’t think we can blame videoconferencing alone for this, because this is the first year it’s happening and we’ve had Skype¬† before, but perhaps everyone wasn’t quite so comfortable with presenting over video as they are now — is that some students want to speak at length about their undergraduate research, more so than they want to ask me about how the group is run, what projects they might be working on, or things about the university. It is always desirable to discuss undergraduate research, to a point. These grad-school interviews are meant to gauge personality and fit, both ways, and the prospective graduate advisor is generally not interested in the minutiae of the student’s undergraduate project, but rather the general background and skills and analytic thinking the student can bring to the new lab. I do mention, when we set up the interview, that if they wanted to they could tell me briefly about their work, emphasis on briefly, through just a few slides, but that it’s not required, and that they should come prepared to ask questions. Recently, however, there was a kid who prepared a thirty-slide presentation and — despite me telling him I could not listen to a full talk and that he should pick a few slides worth of highlights — he proceeded to give the full talk to the point that I had to interrupt him, not once but twice, because it ran way too long. I ended up being fairly irritated. Do not disrespect people’s time like that.)

Anyway, the above is more of an aside to the main topic of today.

I like to make contact with interested people early and try to lock them in. In contrast, a colleague says you never know who else will be in the applicant pool, maybe better people will come along. I personally go by the proverb that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There may be better students later, but there also may not. Excellent students who apply later and don’t show a particular interest in my group are also not very likely to end up in my group. Yet, I have certainly lost good students in the past because I had to wait for funding; by the time I got to perusing the whole applicant roster, those kids already had advisors (at comparable or even lower-ranked places) lined up. So acting early has definite benefits.

Anyway, that’s me. When I know I will recruit, I do it as early as possible. To graduate student applicants out there, if you know you want to try someone’s group, get your CV, unofficial transcript, and personal statement in order sooner rather than later, and contact the professors you are interested in well in advance of the application deadline. They will tell you whether a) they aren’t taking new students, b) they would love to take new students, but are waiting to hear about pending grants (by far the most common outcome), or c) they have money and are recruiting. If b) or c), and your background and interests align with the professor’s, they will set up an interview. Come ready to discuss your research experience, but the technical details of that particular experience are less important than the perspective and transferrable skills you acquired through it.

What say you, blogosphere? If you work at an institution with a graduate program, what are your grad-student recruitment strategies? 

Repost: Rummaging Through Archives

Original post here.

This was a busy weekend, with student paperwork emergencies, grading the midterm, helping out kids with some schoolwork, and also DH’s birthday, for which I did some extra special cooking (no guests, just us, but it’s nice to mark the occasion).

I’m feeling a bit ūüė©ūüė©ūüė©ūüė©ūüė© and there’s still grading to do, so, without further ado…


I give you some of the most-read posts from 2019!

In Which I Feel a Kinship with Bruce Banner

The Anointed

A Lifelong $hit-Eater Develops Intolerance to $hit

Grant Gnash

Attitude and Aptitude. Alas

In Which Xyk is Called Cynical and Perhaps Rightfully So

An Open Letter to a Kondo Kultist

Reader Question: Funding Strategy for Pre-tenure Faculty

Administration Ministration

Recently, I attended a workshop that discussed faculty transitioning into administrative roles. It was very well run, with engaging and, honestly, very impressive panelists. I did not think I’d ever be able to appreciate one of these event, but it was probably the double whammy of me being amenable and the workshop being well run — a right frame of mind, right event kind of thing.

Why would I do this to myself, you ask? And what did the panelists talk about? Fear not, dear reader, for I will discuss it all.

I occasionally muse about how I am a bad fit for administration. I don’t necessarily believe it, but I also don’t not believe it. Early in my career, a female faculty colleague literally told me I didn’t have the personality for administration, and this comment did something to me. This person is someone who is currently in administration and has held several posts of increasing prominence (yet I have always found them lacking in personability or charisma, something one might think precludes a person from working in a people-facing role, but what the fuck do I know). Objectively, I don’t think I am a deficient human being, however, I do run hotter than many, I have a big mouth (which I control much better now than I did when I was younger) and I tend to say exactly what I think, all of which seem like bad traits for an administrative position, especially in the passive-aggressive Midwest.

However, I also hate being told I can’t do something. And I hate even more not trying to do something because I am afraid of failure. I will take on new stuff to a fault, just to show to myself that I can. This stubbornness has served me well for the most part. I think it’s psychologically harmful to be too risk averse and make choices from a position of doubt, fear, or insecurity. I feel doubt, fear, and insecurity, of course, usually on a daily — nay, hourly — basis, but more often than not, especially when it’s just me versus a challenge, all my doubt, fear, and insecurity are overridden by my outsize contrariness and I will go for the challenge (even though, honestly, sometimes my time would better be spent doing something else). Bottom line is, I don’t ever want to choose to not do something from a position of fear or doubt. So I keep picking at the scab of that old injury to my ego because I am trying to figure out if I really don’t have what it takes. Intellectually, I think I am capable of learning to do almost anything well, so I resent the implication that I am somehow incapable of doing a job so many already do. Emotionally, however, I always wonder if there is truth (or how much truth there is) in the colleague’s assessment, and if I am just as ill-suited for administration as I am for, say, a career as an opera singer.

This is why you shouldn’t discourage people from doing stuff. You don’t know how they’ll take it. It might have been an offhand remark for you, but it might’ve caught on a deep-seated issue of theirs and caused some actual damage. Praise when you see potential, but don’t actively discourage when you don’t. I have several examples where I predicted someone would not do well, but then they did; or I predicted they would do great things, but the person ended up unremarkable. There are many more cases where my prediction aligned with the outcome, but there are enough exceptions to remind us that success is such a multifaceted problem and that is hinges on technical savvy, multiple personality traits, and luck. So do encourage, but don’t actively discourage if you can avoid it.

Anyway, I am contemplating administration because it’s one way to get a significant salary boost. But I don’t think I’d make a good dean or probably even chair. Working with peers frustrates me and I can’t kiss ass of higher-up admins and alumni donors to the extent needed. I simply can’t. However, I excel at working with younger people, either teaching or mentoring students and junior faculty. And I think I do a very good job as an evaluator (proposals, papers, tenure cases, etc.) because I extract relevant information swiftly and I am quite decisive.

A few years ago, I chaired a major committee and that role broke me. It took me a couple of years to recover, and I’m not joking. Overall, if you ask the people on the committee, I did a great job, but it definitely didn’t feel like that to me at the time. We had a challenging year. There was pressure from one particular dean in the direction that would have violated faculty policies and procedures, so it was up to me to push back, and keep pushing. There was one committee member who made my life hell because I wouldn’t accommodate their ridiculous travel schedule (this was way before the Zoom boom) as such requests had not been accommodated by any of the past chairs. We had several departures because people got jobs at new institutions, and I intellectually knew these had nothing to do with me, but it felt like all of these things converging were somehow my fault, and that I was the cause of the collapse. In reality, nothing actually collapsed, things worked quite well actually, it was just a challenging but ultimately successful year. Yet, I felt like I fucked everything up.

Which brings me to something I feel holds: That there are people whose egos insulate them from guilt even when they are objectively responsible for something. These people are probably the ones best mentally suited to endure long-term administrative roles. Then there are those like me who internalize everything because they can’t help it, and if you hint to us that something is our fault even though it isn’t, it fucking devastates us (thanks for this, Mom). It is so exhausting to use the intellect to constantly override these emotional vulnerability pathways, and it’s not even effective 100% of the time. So you end up having a miserable committee chair who vows never again.

And yet…

This is how I got to be in the workshop, and some of the insights I took away include:

a) Try to chair a major committee first (ouch)

b) The best leaders want to make the department, unit, or institution a better place. The worst, most harmful ones are those who are in it for their own ambition or agenda (we all know such folks, don’t we?). These people are never thwarted by feelings of guilt because they don’t feel it

c) Jump on opportunities. Also, make sure people see you and notice you beforehand, so you’re at the forefront of their mind when these opportunities arise

d) Trust your gut and don’t be afraid. There is no ideal timing for a major career change, so you just have to go with what feels right

e) There are many different leadership styles, so a myriad personality traits can be beneficial to leadership. Think instead of relevant skill sets that can be developed with effort and experience

f) No matter what, there will conflict and figuring out how to deal with conflict resolution will be a big part of the job

g) The ability to communicate clearly is paramount. Never stop working on this particular skill

This left me feeling much better and more hopeful about potential administrative roles. I don’t think I will ever want to be something like a dean or even department chair (honestly, I don’t mind running the department, but interfacing with the dean and dealing with alumni and donors makes me want to gouge my eyes out). However, I might take on a role that focuses on student issues and experience, or on junior faculty. I think I might enjoy that.

Then again, perhaps a better path to increasing my income is to double down on my fiction and start selling novels. Hubs is far more in favor of me becoming a part-time novelist than a part-time (or, god forbid, full-time) admin. And when I write, the only people who raise my blood pressure are fictional.

What say you, blogosphere? Have you thought about administration? Leadership in general? How has your path been toward or away from administrative roles? 

Repost: Kindred Spirits

Original post here. 

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.