In Which I Feel a Kinship with Bruce Banner

As faculty at research institutions, we have a lot of freedom in how we run our groups and that’s generally a good thing. Most of us do many things in similar ways: we have group meetings and individual meetings with our students; we teach them how to write research papers and give presentations; we train them to identify compelling problems at the cutting edge and devise ways to tackle research challenges.

Yet, we are not all the same. Some things transpired in my workplace that reminded me that not all advisors are made equal and that many students suffer in bad advising situations.

I found out one of my colleagues has mandatory group meetings on weekends. This is in addition to multiple research-progress checks during the week (as in, every other day). This I learned from a student whom I know from coursework and who is quite capable, but who is now thinking about dropping the PhD altogether or switching groups because the pressure is unrelenting.

I am angry for the student, for all students. Angry with everyone who thinks that their own priorities need to be everyone else’s priorities.

Look, I am a workaholic, or at least I used to be. I spent my youth perpetually craving to work more. I was irritated by other people’s laissez faire approach to research, angry that they didn’t feel as passionately about it as I did. But I never chained anyone to the lab. I never required people to be in on the weekends or in the evenings, even though I regularly worked evenings and weekends myself.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a mentor and, fortunately, did so pretty early on, is that the people I advise are not my clones. Many students are in grad school for reasons different from mine. Most people, in grad school and elsewhere, do not run towards challenge, difficulty, and constant change. They want well-paying, interesting, and secure jobs that won’t stress them out too much. They want to have time and energy for other people and hobbies.

Graduate students have to work hard, but their workload has to be reasonable. I am confident that if a student really works 40 hours a week on coursework and research, they will get a ton of work done, generally more than enough for very good progress toward the PhD. I know sometimes there are experimental demands that might necessitate longer uninterrupted hours (e.g., when you finally got some time on an expensive shared instrument), but these should be intermittent.

There is a big difference between following your inner workaholic drive and foisting your workaholic habits on others. Maybe you want to work only with other workaholics, so if you select them well things might work out, but forcing everyone in the group to forgo weekends and evenings because you do is just cruel.

I have another colleague who still keeps bleary-eyed-teen hours himself: rolls into work close to noon, has meetings with students into the evening. If I had had an advisor like that, I wouldn’t have gotten a PhD with him. I had a kid in grad school and daycare was only open during certain hours. I knew I had to be productive during those hours and I was, extremely so. I hinted to this colleague that maybe graduate students have other obligations in the evening, and he said they were all single (?!) and anyway those were his hours and the students had to adjust.

These two colleagues both came from large, high-powered groups. I am assuming they do what they saw done, the way they saw it done. Top people in my field all run really tight ships and work themselves and their groups extremely hard, which is disheartening: if you want balance and variety in your life, if you have significant obligations toward family, or if you are simply not willing to push your group members beyond what they might be comfortable with, you cannot reach the top echelons in the field.

I am angry because capable people should be able to complete their PhDs without becoming so miserable from overwork to think about quitting. They should not feel unworthy of the degree because they need time on the weekend to do laundry or buy groceries or see their significant other or catch up on sleep. The PhD is hard enough already; the technical challenges at the cutting edge are hard enough.

I am angry because everyone is so enamored of prolific researchers cranking out dozens of papers every year that we turn a blind eye to the abuse they might inflict on their group members. Whenever I’ve brought up these concerns with somewhat higher-ups, I’ve been met with uncomfortable laughs and “Boys will be boys” “Ha-ha, I guess he just works really hard and expects a lot from others.”

I am angry because, at the same time, these same higher-ups make empty promises to help with grad-student mental health, which seems to be universally abysmal, yet never say out loud that some advisors are, in fact, unreasonable and abusive. Yes, some  — perhaps many — make it out of the groups of these abusive advisors seemingly unscathed and go on to become successful, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others who have been run out of degree programs and out of science altogether not because they didn’t work hard or love research, but because they were human beings who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the work their entire life.

I am angry because of how cutthroat and competitive science has become. I am angry at how often, at the same time, the expensive, cutthroat science is actually quite boring, at how often what legions of overworked junior scientists produce is flashy but underwhelming. I am angry because the demands are so high yet the payoff is so mundane.

I am angry because I am 5*3^2, old enough to be wise, yet deep down I still feel like a loser for not working more and harder, because, deep inside, KoolAid still runs through my veins and I feel that unless I am all in I am not worthy of being in at all, because it is so hard to shake the workaholism as a necessity for self-actualization and instead embrace balance and empathy and deep relationships with other humans as a genuine source of happiness and not feel it’s a cop-out.

I am always angry.

Image result for hulk i'm always angry

Per Annum

I’ve been working on my annual report for 2018. It was not a bad year; I got a lot of new money, an award, but paperwise it was lower than my usual annual output and I know why — senior students graduated in the two years prior and the group is full of newbie folks who are still ramping up. I also didn’t travel as much as I usually do, as I just felt deflated: Eldest going away to college slayed me and the rest is just general midlife angst; it was hard to get motivated to do things that at best helped in the second or third order but were draining in the zeroth order. (Do I need to serve on one more panel of a program director unlikely to ever fund me? I think not. Do I have to go give that talk abroad? I think not, because I have tenure dammit and I hate traveling overseas.)

Objectively, everything is fine. Still, I feel a bit like a failure, in part because I had several really good years just before. It looks like 2019 and 2020 will be great in terms of papers, so this mini slump (again, objectively not a slump, but I feel like it is) isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Except that I fear it might be. I fear it signals some sort of irreversible change about me, and maybe it does. That doesn’t mean I will stop doing my job, just that priorities shift and maybe I need to be doing things differently altogether and that’s OK.

Because it is really hard to get pumped about the things I  was pumped about 15 years ago. The science is still exciting, but the mechanics of doing the job isn’t. Writing proposals, getting pummeled, occasionally funded. Writing papers, getting desk-rejected because we don’t make sexy gadgets, sending to reputable but nonflashy journals, battling reviews, getting published. Teaching graduate students from scratch, suffering through their insufferably bad first drafts of first papers, teaching them the genre, having them graduate when they’ve finally grasped it.

I have a full life and it’s a good, enjoyable life. I need to preface everything with this because I am aware of my enormous privilege in every way imaginable (except for the privilege of a very high metabolism that would enable me to eat whatever I want and still remain thin as a noodle). When we go to a school in a bit poorer neighborhood and my kid plays basketball against these kids who just run and hustle and live for basketball, while he’s semi-bored and protesting in advance the lameness of the summer vacation plans, it takes all I’ve got not to yell at him for being an ungrateful brat because he is; he doesn’t realize how good he’s got it and he doesn’t appreciate what went into him having all that he’s having. So I try to remind myself of my many privileges, too, one on them being well paid and tenured, being able to whine and opine and explore what interests me from the standpoint of financial security.

Perhaps my relationship with my job need not be the infatuation of my youth but a friendship with a full recognition of both our flaws and limitations. Perhaps I need to be committed to doing a good job teaching and serving, doing a good job thinking about science and advising PhD students and writing papers. Maybe it’s OK for my job and me to have other friends and hobbies and not be everything to each other.

Then I think about my junior colleagues, so many of them so unencumbered, even if they have families (but quite a few electing not to). I remember never having been able to give my 100% to my work because I was always spread too thinly. I don’t expect people to make accommodations for my choices, but maybe I should allow myself to acknowledge that life is good, that I have done well, that I don’t have to constantly compare myself with the people who can sprint without anything slowing them down, and who are also 10+ years my junior.

I don’t want to cut myself slack or make allowances for my choices; no one else will. But I could cut myself a little slack inside my head, sometimes. The inside of my head sometimes feels like the cruelest, least slack-giving place I will ever find myself in.


(I crave to write fiction again; I haven’t in months, as this semester has been kicking my butt. Maybe starting in September I will go to a coffee shop to write, to maintain some structure but not go to work. But this is all a topic for another post…)


Lying Low

On the one hand, things would likely not be better elsewhere.

On the other hand, things might be better elsewhere.

I like my department. I like my colleagues, I really like most of those with whom I interact frequently, I like department staff, and I like department leadership.

I am, however, not delighted with our college-level leadership. I do not like or trust our dean. Our dean keeps pushing against the established practices of self-government and has made several  decision-making processes much more hierarchical than they used to be. There is more power in his hands than other deans historically had. He has the effect of a wet blanket whenever he delivers a “state of the college” address. In his words, we are never doing enough or doing well; we should always be doing more; we are always failing, always disappointing. I have stopped going to these and I know many other faculty have, too, because it is too disheartening. Our daily reality is good and positive (students, papers, grants, colleagues) while the big picture delivered from higher up is never anything but gloomy. I do not consider this to be effective leadership.

I have butted heads with him somewhat on a couple of occasions in the context of higher-level university service, and I know that he is someone I want to stay away from. But I need to work here for another 20 years.

Husband doesn’t want to move. Kids don’t want to move. There are no guarantees that moving elsewhere would be any better. There is no indication that I am in actual trouble here, at least not right now. But, with my big mouth and my opinions, sometimes I fail to stop myself from giving a piece of my mind, so I might conceivably get in trouble. The thing is, it’s in my nature to speak out against things I find unclear, unfair, illogical, or plain mean, but this is not something that is welcome, so I spend a lot of energy suppressing my natural responses or avoiding meetings altogether.

Blogosphere, save for sewing my mouth shut or giving myself a lobotomy, what strategies do you recommend for lying really, really low locally for the next 20 years, while at the same time not becoming completely disenfranchised?

Apropos Something

My reserves of empathy are seriously depleted.

A problem with trying to be supportive and helpful is that people take you up on support and helpfulness, and then some. They take and take, take it all, and then ask for more. And when you say no more, put up boundaries, you are met with a pouty “Wow, I thought you’d be more supportive.”

I think that, going forward, I will be far less accommodating, far less helpful, and far less supportive across the board.

Because being understanding and supportive and keeping my end of the agreement has so far led more often than not to broken agreements from the other side when said side decided they got theirs and I was no longer useful. It has led to my grant money spent without enough work having been done in return. It has resulted in orphaned data and projects. It has taken a great emotional toll on me, it has caused me tremendous anxiety over how I would find the funds to be helpful and supportive, it has resulted in me forgoing my own summer salary over and over in the service of all this extra helpfulness, and in the end I have little or nothing that had been agreed upon to show for it all.

I will run a much, MUCH tighter ship from now on. Those who have a problem with this in the future can go complain to those who have taken advantage of my good will over the years past. Not fair, you say. It’s not their fault, you say. Well, tough toenails, I say. This way I will only become better aligned with the MO of the male colleagues in my hallway, from whom no one expects bottomless, selfless support and helpfulness.

I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of being everyone’s fuckin’ mom.

This sabbatical cannot come soon enough.

In Which Xykademiqz Remembers That Sometimes a Bit of Alcohol Does Help One Have a Good Time


This semester is kicking my butt big time. Teaching overload in anticipation of a sabbatical, lots of grownup service, far too much face time with colleagues and students…

So today I left the committee meeting I had after my second class and gave a ride to a colleague. During class I received ~15 text messages from Middle Boy who was upset that he couldn’t have a sleepover. In the 2 min between mtg and leaving work (with said colleague who needed a ride), I called Middle Boy from office phone (because my cell phone decided it no longer had working mics or speakers, even after OS update and several reboots) to explain that he couldn’t have a sleepover because his dad and I had tickets for a concert and he needed to be at home for half an hour with Smurf before Eldest would arrive to babysit.

I drove the colleague on my way back, picked up Kid 1 from Middle Boy’s basketball Team on the way, came home to pick up Middle Boy and Kid 2 from BB Team (whom I didn’t know I was driving, but the kid had been at our home since school dismissal, had been fed by Middle Boy and was going to the game, so I guessed the more the merrier.) With three kids in tow I got  on the freeway at 10 to 5 pm on a Friday, feeling smug that I’d planned everything so well and we’d be there with time to spare. Hahaha. No. There was a collision and we slowed  down to crawl and ended up 10 min later than anticipated but luckily still with plenty of time to warm up.

We arrived there only to realize the baskets hadn’t been lowered yet and there were high-schoolers playing what I, being from Europe, recognized as handball, but none of the other parents had any idea how to identify. This resulted in them not believing me that it was handball, a popular team sport in Europe with competitive amateur and pro leagues, followed by me rage-googling handball and showing the incredulous parents and grandparents that there was indeed a team sport called handball and that handball was not some squash-like monstrosity.

The handballers cleared out and the baskets got lowered and my mom friend D and I got asked to keep the score and time for the game. This is what dads usually do and it was really chilling to realize how people treated D and me while we did it. Look, it took the ref a total of 30 seconds to explain how to keep the official score sheet (which I did because D was starting to sweat,  so I asked which job was the more stressful one and took it) and how to keep score/time using a simple score box with a stop watch. It was amazing how anxious the coaches and misc dads were; all were hovering, sure we would fuck up. Even the kids on the team were incredulous that moms were keeping score and one kid came up to ask if we knew how to do it and I said not to worry, we got this. The level of patronizing was incredible. Look, D is an accountant and have a fuckin’ PhD; we can work a sheet of paper with check marks and a fancy stopwatch. We are adult humans, FFS. I timed numerous swim meets. This is not fuckin’ hard, but the fact that everyone thought we would be incapable was so fuckin’ telling. D was really anxious, but she said she felt better because we were together. I go to these games often, and have done so for years, and I know we’d done a better job than most and there were no mistakes (except near the end a tiny bit when D got stresses out in overtime and didn’t restart the time, but that’s far less of an issue than we’ve had with the timer and/or score board in the past). The prejudice against women is just ridiculous.

The game ended and Middle Boy and Kid 1 were being driven back home by yours truly, with Middle Boy sulking cause he couldn’t go to a sleepover at Kid 2’s house on account of DH’s and my plans.

DH and I  went to a rock concert, where I was offered a drink by a woman in front of us for reasons that would probably be clear if I had any idea what she was saying to me. DH had a sore throat/laryngitis plus can’t really tolerate alcohol  on account of stomach issues, so he was the designated driver. Two rum and cokes in (they didn’t have two of my go-to cocktails, so I said screw it, just gimme something with rum), I was pleasantly tipsy, enjoying myself, and went to get a third drink. I was in line, when one of the two women in front of me asked me if I could button the back of the blouse of the second woman, as the first one had tried and failed repeatedly. I tried, failed once, tried again and succeeded, because, let’s face it, I have three kids — I have buttoned the unbuttonable, sober or not. Then Woman 1, the one who’d asked me to button her friend, said she wanted to buy me a drink, I refused a few times, they insisted. Anyhoo… I ended the evening with a free double rum and coke for 5 seconds of buttoning the shirt on a the back of a random woman. Not too shabby!

The concert was great. I really enjoyed it and I really relaxed me at the end of a crazy week. I came home to a sleeping Smurf, a no-longer-grumpy Middle Boy who’d waited for me to get tucked in, and Eldest the Babysitter playing video games.

It had been a good day.

More basketball tomorrow.

Till then, yours tipsily,


The Anointed

Monopolies are a feature of capitalism, but I (naively) never used to think they could be a feature of academia.

I am active in several subfields, and in each there is a small number of large, successful, well-funded groups that seem to pollinate the entire national academic ecosystem and largely the international one, too. People from these few groups take up positions everywhere, from primarily undergraduate institutions to research schools, then rise through the ranks and create  impenetrable in-groups that block others from access to jobs, grants, and high-impact publications.

A deeply worrying aspect of this uniformity of pedigree is groupthink. The situation in which  everyone who works in a certain subarea comes from a small number of nexuses and has the same type of training, while no one else is awarded opportunities, cannot be beneficial for the vitality of science.

This post has been brought to you by the annual job cycle, specifically by the flurry of on-site interviews in which I’ve had to partake.

There is no such thing as The One Best Candidate for the Job. There are usually 20+ excellent applicants, of whom some number both look good on paper and interview well; any of them would make a great addition to the department. When a department thinks about whom to hire, should members of the faculty worry that one or more sprouts of an applicant’s academic progenitor are already among their ranks? I think this is a legitimate concern, as it speaks to an important aspect of diversity — a diversity of thought.

I seem to be a minority in this line of thinking. I have heard people who came from famous academic lineage say that they see no problem with big groups having their offspring everywhere. They attribute a junior scientist’s high count of high-impact paper solely to the junior scientist’s individual awesomeness  (and somehow never to advisor fame/success, school prestige, etc.), likely because they recognize (or strive to recognize) their younger selves in the candidate. These folks actively push to bring in more faculty with a background identical to their own and generally respond to my concerns by being upset, because to them I am implying that the best, brightest, and most worthy (read: those like them) — the anointed, if you will — aren’t entitled to absolutely everything.

There is a strong and unhealthy careerism aspect to academic science that creates research-group behemoths and dynasties. Sure, there are variations among fields and in some disciplines larger groups are more common than in others, but, as a whole, what is clearly no longer a trend but a mainstay of academic-science operations is not healthy for the science itself, which — as much as any endeavor and probably more than most — needs many smart but differently trained people to pursue many interesting threads in many different ways in order for truly new insights to emerge.

Academic blogosphere, what are your thoughts on hiring multiple people with the same educational background? On the fact that dozens of people with the same training are on faculty in your field, especially if you are not among the in-crowd? If you are?