work-life balance

The CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

Temporary Work-Life Imbalance

I could not wait for Friday night this week. I am very tired.

I don’ think I have yet managed to get a hold of my schedule or my workload this semester at all. Pushing things to the sidelines because of the proposals just made everything worse, because the work never goes away. It just piles on, sitting there, waiting. And it didn’t help that I didn’t catch a break before the semester started. Now I need to find a way to recuperate and re-energize, the sooner the better, without any serious time off.

I know us folks with kids complain all the time how it’s hard, and we are busy with the kids, etc. It’s times like these, when I really need a breather, that make parenting tough. I wish I could say that I would just stay at home in my pajamas, watching TV all weekend. But weekends are kids’ time, and the kids have their own ideas on how all of us should be spending it. Plus there’s housework and just keeping it together so next week can go smoothly. If I need a day off, I have to take off work, which is really a terrible idea, not because I will get in trouble with my boss, but because I am the boss and the work never stops or lets up.

I am still digging myself out from underneath a mountain of service work. As evidenced by yesterday’s post, I have been writing letters of nomination and recommendation and reference and evaluation left, right, and center. Some of it is for the people I know well (e.g. my undergrad researcher applying to grad school), some is department service on behalf of worthy colleagues, but each new letter is a fair bit of work.  Also, I have something like 5 papers to review.  Why do I do that? Why do I accept all those referrals? You’d really think I would learn by now. But I get a referral, and the paper looks cool and is in my area, and I think in two weeks I will have the time (as if) and before you know it I have a freakin’ pile and it really looks like it’s going to eat up my whole weekend. Yet I can’t have it eat my weekend, because I really need the weekend…

There are four manuscripts in the pipeline, in first draft form. I wish we could submit them all before New Year, but I don’t know how I will manage to do that, considering that each needs considerable work.

I really hate over-scheduling and over-structuring my days, but perhaps that’s what I need, at least temporarily, in order to get back on a productive track.

But for now, I will start by getting some sleep.


The Reluctant Exerciser

When I was younger, I used to play sports. In recent years, I tried kickboxing and loved it, but had trouble fitting it into my regular schedule after I came back from sabbatical, and I finally stopped on account of shoulder pain and panniculitis (inflammation of the subcutaneous fatty tissue) in the front of my lower leg, which I believe had to to with the kicking trauma.

I have always hated running; I admire people who can do it, because it seems to be  phenomenal exercise, but I find it deathly boring, among other things. I would prefer to have some sort of activity where there is someone who pushes me to do stuff (because I know I will cheat if left to my own devices) and I like it if there are other people around, but such an activity would have to be one I can accommodate in my schedule and which hopefully doesn’t involve excruciating shoulder pain.

There are also constraints in that I don’t want to make my DH have to pick up the slack regarding handling the kids on account of my exercise too many times per week. With child drop off and pickup/evening activities of various children, my time at work is highly constrained, so I also can’t just take an hour to go to the gym in the middle of the day.

If people really want to exercise, they find the time. I completely agree with that. My problem is that I don’t really want to exercise, but I know that I should, because I am getting older, I sit too much, I don’t want to get diabetes/hypertension/heart attack/blood clots from too much sitting, and I would like to see my kids grow up.

So, how does one squeeze in the time to exercise, when one should, but is not burning with desire to do so and therefore is not willing to go to great lengths upending her and everyone else’s schedules? How do you fit in the minimum necessary exercise around the fringes of your schedule? And what is the true minimal exercise? People say 1 hr per day, which is too much of a time commitment for many people, and definitely for the likes of me who don’t actually want to do it.

Kudos to everyone who exercises regularly.
However, this is a post and a question for the rest of us, for reluctant and/or simply lazy would-be or barely exercisers (especially those who work and have young families):

Do you exercise? How often, how much? What would you consider an acceptable minimum? How do you squeeze it in?
How do you will yourself to do it? Were you once more or less lazy than you are now?

Can one stay fit and healthy long-term, while never falling in love with exercise? Is it possible? Or are heart attacks looming in our collective future?

Midlife Not-Crisis, Caffeinated

On the way to get my afternoon caffeine fix, I passed by a large bulletin board and noticed a flyer for a public lecture, sponsored by a local atheist, agnostics, and humanist group. The lecture will discuss how people who are not religious find meaning in life. The speaker is someone who was formerly a minister or a pastor (no idea what the difference is or when it applies).

First of all, coffee is the meaning of life. End of story.

After having paid $2 for a meaning-of-life infusion, I thought more about the flyer on my way back to the office.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family, which was not religious. My husband’s family wasn’t either. My grandmother was nominally religious, which meant we celebrated Christmas and Easter at home, and they were fun occasions to get together with extended family and eat a lot. There was minimal, if any, religious aspect to these celebrations and we never went to church. All the core values I possess come from my family. What I see in the US, that so many people equate morals with religion, is completely mind-boggling to me.

Midlife is a very interesting period, which perhaps you wouldn’t think considering that it really is the age of plateauing. While in your youth you climb the hills of education, ambition, and romance , trying to achieve professionally and personally, the growth slows down for most people in early middle age. You see the panorama, with many obstacles now behind you; you see, fortunately or not, that there are likely no more big, exhilarating firsts in your future any more, not in the way in which the youth was replete with them.

But middle age brings a visceral grasp of what’s important in life. Here’s what it is for me.

  • My immediate family, and enjoying my kids as much as I can while they are still in our home.
  • Intellectual challenge, fulfilling the need to think and learn and brainstorm and discover.
  • The people who need my help, one way or another, for some amount of time (my undergraduate and graduate students).
  • Taking care of the body that is in good working shape right now, but alas won’t be forever.
  • Reconnecting with my roots: Rediscovering things that gave me great joy when I was young, like drawing. Dusting off a foreign language I used to speak. Pretending to write, like I do in this space. Finding ways to reconnect with a family that is very far away and very expensive to see regularly.

While this is not a hierarchy, the people I love are by far the most important. Now, that does NOT mean that I should quit my job to spend every waking hour with my kids while they are still little (although I occasionally wish I could somehow bottle the moments of their cuteness and preciousness forever, as SMBC nicely captures). But part of love is letting people live their lives unsmothered. The kids are their own people, with their own abilities, interests,  and friends; it is a privilege  to be able to be there and love them and be loved by them as they are growing up. You don’t have to sacrifice ambition and leave your job for the kids, that’s not what the kids need from you or what they ask of you. Kids need love and care, but they also need space. And they are perfectly capable of understanding that they are loved deeply and profoundly, but that the world does not revolve around them even if they are the center of the parents’ universe, and that other people have jobs and obligations that they have to fulfill… But I digress.

So how do people who are not religious find meaning?  A while ago I saw a documentary, and a woman in it said something that stayed with me. “Happiness comes from the experiences we share with the people we love.” Mano Singham, one of my favorite bloggers on Freethoughtblogs, says nicely in the linked post that precisely the fact that you have just one finite life is what makes all of it so special. To me, the meaning is about doing the best you can for the people around you and connecting with the wider world in ways that you feel are authentic; to me, it’s through doing science and other creative pursuits. And drinking as much coffee as humanly possible.




Riff-raffin’ It

A lot has been written around the scientific blogosphere about some prominent gentleman of science lamenting the fact that science today is populated by riff-raff as opposed to the intellectual giants among whom he undoubtedly counts himself. I am not in the mood to retell what was already covered elsewhere, so if you are interested go ahead and check out these links (here here here and here)

I have a somewhat related riff-raff story of my own.

Some time ago, I was nominated for a university award, which is very competitive and several letters of reference are required. I suggested the names of several colleagues, all senior to me but not dramatically (perhaps 5-10 years). I suggested them because I know a) they are serious scientists who do good work on topics close to mine, b) they follow my work and would be able to write about it in detail, and c) they would be willing to write these letters for me because they think I am a serious scientist who does good work, too. These colleagues are from all over the world.

It was brought to my attention that some of them may not be not high-profile enough to write letters for me for this internal ward.

I felt a little offended on my colleagues’ behalf. First, they are excellent people and some of the top people in our relatively small field (not small for a physical science, small when compared to most biomedical fields, for instance). Many of them are in Europe, where getting a full professorship is much harder than in the US (basically, a chair has to become vacant). Many of them don’t care about the accolades the way we do in the US —  for instance, even some very prominent people never bothered to become fellows of the appropriate professional societies, even though I am sure they would be shoo-ins. Lastly, most of them, being outside of the US, don’t maintain meticulous professional pages with awards and honors; for all I know, they could be drowning in awards, I wouldn’t be able to know without point-blank asking.

First of all, this was a competitive but ultimately university-level award. I wanted to ask people for whom it would not be too much of a stretch or effort to write about my work and whom I would be comfortable asking because I believe they wouldn’t mind doing it for me. I must be riff-raff myself, as I don’t rub elbows with MIT or Stanford folks; I do know people in these places (and god knows I send them enough grad students with REU experience and awarded NSF fellowships; where are my brownie points?!) and I will bother them when the time comes to write letters for my inevitable second Nobel prize. But for an internal award? Not so much.

Why is it that whom you know and who vouches for you are  the most important proxy to scientific quality? And why is it that a select few get to have an opinion about everybody’s work ? Surely the opinion of someone who doesn’t follow your contributions at all because they do barely related things cannot be more valuable than that of someone who does follow it? Why does being at Elite U endow someone with superpowers to judge everyone everywhere for everything?  If only a handful of universities are worth anything, why not close all the other ones and be done with pretending that there is important science elsewhere? We who are not at Elite U give them that power.

There are kick-ass riff-raff people everywhere. They are smart, curious, respectful to colleagues, and they they make doing science fun. They are my riff-raff.  Don’t anyone dare say anything bad about them.

To wrap up on a cheery note, here is good cheap wine that DH and I have been enjoying lately. Apothic Red — it’s great, and about $8 per bottle at Costco. (I do not recommend Apothic Dark.)


Proposal update: 1 submitted, 1 to go. Mad writing around the clock to meet the Oct 31 deadline (yep, that’s tomorrow) with the second one.


Pushing limits of human ability to process caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine has replaced blood, sweat and tears. Also urine.

Sugar has replaced sleep, air, and love.

If you haven’t already, fill out the poll below and tell all us crazy NSF folks where we should be placing the page numbers in our lovingly crafted unsolicited fall proposals. It’s a once-per-year chance, and circa ~10% paylines.
You can bet your sweet typesetting butts that font size, page number placement, and the position of Jupiter at the exact time when the Sponsored Programs Office clicks “SUBMIT” are all valid criteria based on which your proposal ends up not getting funded.

In the meantime, here’s the old post on writing in a time crunch.

And other AJ works dealing with proposals and funding.

Good luck everyone!




I think I might have never been this busy in my life.

Today I was at the Eldest’s swim meet (didn’t need to volunteer, yey!) While all the other parents were sitting around, chatting, playing with their phones and iPads, I had a legal pad, a pen, and a freaking textbook , and was doing undergrad homework problems (i.e. writing up solutions) on my lap, so I can post said solutions before the midterm. Normal people are able to chill over the weekend. Your humble host, not so much. The fact that I was able to find a Starbucks within a 2-min drive greatly  improved the whole experience.

This weekend, I have had three sets of homework solutions to write up (almost done!), and I have to create the midterm exam problems for next week. I also have to finish a brief internal proposal with a colleague and review a proposal for a federal agency. (I still have to go grocery shopping and cook for the week tomorrow. And there are also these kids who seem to expect love, care, and nourishment from me; what’s up with that?)

And this is all so I would have as much prime work time as humanly possible to finish my two proposals by Halloween. Why? Because I just found out yesterday that the  NSF program to which I had been planning to submit one of the proposals, with explicit (written!) encouragement of the program director obtained this summer, has in the meantime changed the program director; the new one is very, very far removed in his interests from the previous guy, so this program is now a no-go. I quickly found a new home for the proposal, but their deadline is 5 days earlier. In all, the proposal which is less done (because its deadline for the original program was later) is, as of yesterday, due sooner than the proposal that’s nearly done.

Of course, when it rains, it pours. There has been so much academic politics drama in the department… So draining. So pointless. So much time wasted by so many people. So much disappointment in colleagues whom I naively used to consider rational and humane, but have since grown to recognize as selfish, vindictive, and manipulative. Egomania, fueled by success in receiving grants and enabled by the money-hungry administration, appears boundless.

Now back to work.

(Ms. Mentor dubbs October the exploding-head-syndrome month.)

Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!