Waking Up and Smelling the Roses

Happy holidays, everyone!

I have a little bit of time between turning in grades and starting work on the next flurry of proposals.

I just wanted to say that I feel like I’ve woken up from a long slumber. Maybe it’s the tail end of a midlife crisis, and would happen sooner or later no matter what because it happens to everyone around my age, but it doesn’t matter. I feel like I’d been sleeping for about 20 years and I’m finally waking up to the colors and the sounds and the smells and the joys of the world around me.

I suspect it might have been the dual chokehold of a young, demanding family and a job with the culture that requires absolute devotion.

I love my kids more than anything else in the world, but raising the littles is a lot of work, and it’s very easy for a parent to get pulverized by the daily grind. Now that one kid is an adult, another is in high school, and the youngest starts middle school next year, I feel like I can breathe again.  Actually, I’ve probably been able to breathe for a while now, just hadn’t noticed. It was only recently that I lifted my head, looked around, inhaled, and filled my chest to capacity.

As for the job, I don’t know if I would feel this way with any other profession (probably would), but I feel like I’ve had a really hard time, for a long while, allowing myself to have much of an inner life (intellectual or emotional) beyond my work. I felt like I was cheating on my job whenever I used my brain “nonproductively.” Even thinking about having a fulfilling hobby felt like the betrayal of a lifelong partner.

I know I’ve written a bunch of times about the need to not have your work be everything to you, but it’s  hard, so damn hard, to really internalize this message and give yourself a permission to do it. Intellectually, I am aware of a great many wisdoms that don’t have a prayer of ever penetrating the thick layers of emotional bullshit that I’ve accumulated over the years in order to fortify and protect my gooey center. I am lucky this particular insight somehow managed to go through and land where it was needed.

Maybe the trigger was the pandemic. Maybe it was me getting unceremoniously dropped from a program that had funded me for years. Maybe it was a bunch of faculty retirements and me witnessing how swiftly the retirees were forgotten, like they were never among us.

All I know is that, when I turn around and look at my job and my colleagues now, they all seem so much smaller and less important than they did even just a  couple of years ago.

Whatever the reason, whatever the trigger, I feel like I can see colors again. Like I can take big breaths again. And the air smells delicious.

Sunday Muddy Sunday

Hello, frozen academic blogosphere! How’s it shaking? It isn’t? You’re too frozen? That’s too bad. 

Over here, proposal-submission insanity meets end-of-semester insanity, so yours truly is valiantly battling against the desire to flip off the world and hide from everyone in order to binge-read fiction. Alas, there is no one else to wrap up the teaching, service, and submit all those %$^#%$# proposals, so I have to limit my fiction proclivities to stolen hours in the dead of night. *strikes dramatic pose, with back of hand pressed against forehead*

Tonight I finish grading homework, make the final exam for my class, and clear out the massive backlog in my editorial queue. Tomorrow I administer the final exam and work on a proposal the rest of the time.  On Tuesday, I hopefully submit said proposal (it’s close to done), then have a bunch of meetings, and maybe get a little break in the evening (yay reading!), then I’m back to grading and more proposal writing on Wednesday. 

It would be nice to have a real break over Christmas and New Year’s, but probably not. Too much to do. Always too much to do. *strikes dramatic pose again, now with exaggerated wailing sounds and added waterworks*

How’s it going with you, academic blogosphere readers? What have you been up to? 

Frosty December, Fiery Links

Hi folks, thanks for hanging out with me in November! It has been a busy month (aren’t they all?), so I had to resort to reposts and links more than I’d have liked; it is what it is, and I hope the occasional new meaty post was appreciated. It was fun to reconnect, and I hope not to be a delinquent blogger in the future. I’d like to make sure I have 2-3 new posts per week, which honestly should be doable… Let’s be optimistic!

For now, some bookmarked Twitter hilarity!

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?