Archive for the 'LifeTrajectories' category

Sciparenting and expectations

Apr 22 2011 Published by under LifeTrajectories

Jade has a post up over at LabSpaces about why she isn't a parent and views a career and being a mom as mutually exclusive activities. It's a personal and subduedly emotional post that I would bet a lot of people can identify with. On the other side of the coin, you can also find posts on being a scimom by Dr. O, Janet and Gerty-Z, as well as other links within those referencing the #scimom hashtag started at It's Not a Lecture.

In Jade's post she indicates that it was growing up in her household and watching her mother deal with the stresses of parenting is what convinced her that motherhood was not for her. Unlike the Jade's commenter who goes all self-righteous about parenting, I don't think the kinds of things you have to do to be happy as a parent with a career is something that everyone needs, in order to fulfill their lives. The guild of parenting is not unlike that of academia, where the default assumption is that if you do not conform to the in-group measure of "success" then you have certainly failed.

Balancing careers with kids while maintaining a good relationship with your partner is way harder than you might think before plunging in. It's easy to get selfish about accomplishing your own goals and we all fall into that trap at times, putting huge strains on our relationships. No one can be everything to everyone at all times, we all make small sacrifice everyday in some aspects of our lives. The key is to rotate those sacrifices so that you can give more to what is most critical on a given day. Some days you need to get things done at work that can not wait. Some days you'll need to miss a deadline to be with your sick kid or help out your partner or just to spend time with both because it's important. As a result, you're gonna miss somethings at work or at home that you really don't want to, but that's the game. The perfect parent who can do everything rides a unicorn to work and never has to sit through a meeting that wastes their time (The latter being the more rare of the two).

But why is this the pinnacle of success? Whereas I agree that no one should ever feel like they can't have kids for career reasons, there are plenty of people who actually don't *want* to have children just like there are a ton of people who don't actually want a tt position (shhhhh). The default opinion expressed by Jade's commenter yannisguerra is the same bullshit that PIs so often spew onto their trainees, but sometimes not wanting something is a feature, not a bug.

I forget who said this or where the conversation happened, but a recent parent mentioned that they were never so avidly pro-choice until they had a child. Wise words.

18 responses so far

How hard is being a feminist?

Mar 27 2011 Published by under LifeTrajectories

As I have discussed before, the community of bloggers I try and keep up with has been a tremendous resource for me to learn much much more about feminism than I had previously known or even considered. I'm not proud of how easy it was for me not to think about the issues women regularly face in science, academia and society, but I had the privilege of being insulated from those problems. I figured if I wasn't contributing to the problem directly, I was doing my part to help.

I like to think of myself as being less naive these days and more proactive. I've tried to address several things I can control in my work environment and made a number of concerted efforts to promote female colleagues and students. In many small ways this has paid off, but I also realize I'm hardly scratching the surface.

Nothing has brought that quite to the fore like a conversation I had while traveling not long ago. I was discussing the representation of women on a particular high-profile committee with a male colleague and in his explanation for why there were so few, he produced such a mind-numbingly sexist argument that I thought I had been instantly teleported into a bad after school special (if they had ever done one on sexism, that is, and not smoking). The more his explanation wound around the Pole of Stupidity from whence it started, the more I thought there was sure to be a punchline. There wasn't.

But in retrospect, what bothers me the most was my reaction. There I sat, basking in the sulphuric stench of a monologue that could basically be summed up as "Ya know, girls just aren't as smart as men." and the self-content look of someone thinking "I read that on the internet, so it must be true" and how did I reply? In previous conversations with women who related similar offenses they had to suffer through, I was always able to suggest a witty response to put that asshole in his place! These jerks need to be embarrassed! And here was my chance.

I had little to lose but some social awkwardness. No one was going to call me a ball busting bitch, shrew or harpy. I had little to fear in terms of career consequences or being black balled and what was my pithy retort? I managed "you can't really believe that." before changing the fucking subject. That's right, with the opportunity to dismantle a blatantly false argument taken directly from the oldest warehouse of the patriarchy, I froze and redirected the conversation. Way to help out.

Dude. Fuck. Sigh.

The benefit I see from this encounter, however, is that I am now slightly more prepared to be broad-sided by ignorance. I am a little more ready to respond in a way that lets the person know I think they are full of shit without putting them on the defensive and making an enemy. I may not have a handbook of witticism at the ready, but at least this is making me think about how I would counter the absurd in the future. Maybe it's not a silver bullet, but it's a step.

13 responses so far

What is "fit"?

Mar 01 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

"Fit". That term can be the bane of existence for those applying for faculty jobs (like the one Dr. Becca just got, go congratulate her!). It can mean everything and nothing at the same time, but is intangible. If I had to write a definition it would be something along the lines of "the feel a department gets from you as to whether they want to deal with you everyday for the next 20 years."

Having been through a couple of searches on this side of the fence now, I can tell you that it is a major component of the search. As frustrating as it is to define, there is no question that you can sit through an interview with someone and be impressed by them, but have no interest in hiring them. It's kinda like test driving a car, sometimes they just don't feel right, even if you like all the features.

What is a candidate supposed to do to improve their chances on this front? Unfortunately, nothing. All you can do is be yourself* and hope that is what the department is looking for. I have been on both sides of a "fit" decision, so the reaction of one department to you could be completely different than another and it is entirely out of your control. In some respects there is a component of luck involved, realizing also that there are certain things that will turn your interviewers off entirely, no matter what they think of your work.

So, for those of you starting to hear back after interviews and getting bad news, don't get too frustrated. Realize that you may be an excellent candidate but just not be right for that particular department. Use the experience to refine your next interview and continue to build your CV for the next open spot that is perfect for you. With the benefit of a little time and space you may even realize that the position you land is a better fit for YOU than previous ones you interviewed for. I know I did.

*Assuming no one has ever described you as "axe-murderer-chic".

14 responses so far

PLS and the tale of the three grants

There once was a wee lad by the name of PLS. One day he was skipping through the forest of science when he came upon a house in the middle of the woods. He knocked but no one was home. Being naive to the frightening number of guns owned in the US, he let himself in and made himself at home.

As he looked around this seemingly familiar home, he realized that there were three of everything, but of varying sizes. Displayed prominently over the fireplace was a large picture of three grant proposals. "Oh." he thought. "These proposals must live here." The pictured showed one proposal that was big and mostly complete, with just a few parts needing editing. The second proposal had a lot of its parts, but needed some significant writing to fill in the holes. The littlest proposal was juuuuust getting started and merely the remnants of a previously gutted proposal.

PLS walked over to the table and saw three objectives sections. The first one was big and robust. It had obviously been thought out and worded carefully. The second one had all the parts, but needed some work, and the poor third one was a mere skeleton of a real objectives section. The littlest one was juuuuust getting started and required some serious attention.

On the counter by the sink were three preliminary data sections. In contrast to the objectives sections, all three of these looked pretty strong, but all three had many new pieces that were lumped together in a range of cohesiveness, from incoherent to reasonably accessible. Provided a decoder ring, one could juuuuust make out how they made the proposal better.

PLS walked up stairs and found three beds, each with methods and expected outcomes sections strewn across them. The first was too big and rambled on for pages and pages. The second one was the right length, but needed some serious editing, but the third one was juuuuuust a mess.

At this point PLS was tired. He curled up into the big bed (because for a wee lad he was freakishly large) and drifted off to sleep for a few minutes before being woken up by the yells of a 2.5 year old, saying "Daddy! I have to pee! Now! Pee pee coming out!"

The End

7 responses so far

Year 3 licks goat scroti

Nov 04 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

PiT's post from yesterday sounded all too familiar and I don't think that is a coincidence. Despite pretty massive differences in just about everything you can compare, we are on very similar career trajectories. We've both just finished two years on the job and I think one thing is clear: Year three sucks.

In year one, you are the new person. Everyone likes a new person. People are excited to get to know you and no one wants to be a jerk to the shiny new faculty member. They expect you to look lost. They expect to protect you from certain responsibilities as you feel your way around the new surroundings and fill your lab. Other than trying to get all the equipment purchased, it is a Care Bear tea party.

Year two rolls around as the lab is starting to come together and it is time to ease into some teaching and maybe a bit of service. No one expects you to be good at either one and if you are it is a bonus. Any research progress is applauded like new parents praise a child's first scribble that looks remotely recognizable. "Our new faculty member is sooooo smart and soooo far ahead of that dude they hired in the math department!" Folks in your field finally figure out you've moved and begin to track you down for things. As a new faculty member, you are ready for the challenge!

Then there's year three.

I don't know when it happened, but things changed this year. We have had some good success as a lab, but for every one thing that seems to go right, there are five things that are a problem. It seems like everyone wants a piece of me so often that I have nothing left for myself, and I have said "no" to plenty of things. Everything is done with good intention ("Oh, this will help you get X, Y or Z and that is important"), but the cumulative is just too much. Teaching, service, advising... it all gets ramped up and sits on top of everything you had precariously balanced before. Shit starts slipping through the cracks and you can no longer claim to still be learning.

Certainly my funding situation (or lack thereof) is adding to the feeling of not living up to the myriad of expectations. I think we're in a position now to be very competitive funding and I've been killing myself to do all the right things to close the gap between where we are now and getting a proposal funded. I believe it will happen in the next 6ish months, but I have to. No one else has to trust that feeling, however, because why would they? Without question this is a critical year for my lab and I don't want to know what happens if we can't secure something by summer. I know it can't be good.

But more than anything this year, at some point this job became work. I got into this career despite the long training period, low pay, long hours, years of instability and not being able to pick the geography of my "permanent" job because I could not see myself enjoying something else in the same way. Now I wonder where that went. I'm not saying I don't enjoy the work on good days, but it is work now. Maybe this is temporary, I don't know, but I look at the people ahead of me whom I would consider successful and they look just as strung out as I feel. Not the inspiring image I was hoping for.

I'll keep churning out the proposals and get the papers out from our work so far, but I can't help feeling a little shitty about how things have changed. Rather than getting excited about something working in lab, I'm just relieved that we've moved incrementally forward rather than epically backwards. With so much of my time is spread among so many different constituencies I'm struggling to do the very thing I was brought here to do.

40 responses so far

Repost: How day care will be the death of me

Sep 20 2010 Published by under Etc, LifeTrajectories

It is merely September and I'm already on my first bought of anti-biotics. All the kids who were out of day care for the summer are back and the Wee One already has pneumonia. Of course, you would never know it, save for an occasional cough, but I'm wiped out. Seemed like a good idea to bust this post back out from just last spring.

Day care is a necessary evil if you have a two income family. Unless you have relatives close by who are willing to entertain your child while the two parents are at work, chances are you have to rely on day care. It can be expensive and a huge hassle, but there are not a lot of options.

There are good things about day care, such as your child getting to play with their peers for much of the day. This can lead to learning a lot of things they would otherwise not be confronted with at home. Children at day care also have to get used to being with non-parents for much of the day, which one could argue helps them when their parents need to leave them with someone to get something done or to go out for a night. A lot of day cares also go to great lengths to take what is understood about how children learn and incorporate that into daily activities. All of these are good things.

But daycare has another effect on your life. Before we sent the Wee One to daycare she almost never got sick.

The Wee One, before day care.

We had the normal run of one or two colds a winter as a household, but nothing major. But day care changed all that. Day care is apparently where every cold and flu goes to party. It's like the runny nose equivalent of Burning Man and we have our very own vector from that source. It's like living with the monkey from "Outbreak".

The Wee One in day care. This is actually the look we get every afternoon when we arrive to take her home.

This winter the family has been a revolving door for colds. Every time one sweeps through and leaves us for dead, there is another one at the door. I'm pretty sure I have been healthy for a grand total of 8 days since November and my wife has been hit harder by each cold than I have. Day care is probably taking a year off of our lives, and we're not even getting to play with play dough! The thing I am most excited about this spring is the chance that the time between colds will lengthen as the days do.

7 responses so far

Are spousal hires a tool for faculty retention?

Sep 17 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

The subject of spousal hires is always a contentious issue. There are those who rankle at the thought (unfounded assumption in many cases) that an individual might get a coveted tt position simply because their spouse was desirable for an advertised position. IME, the spouse is often as or more qualified for a faculty position, but the sheer ratio of available positions to qualified people out there has meant either that their spouse found a job first or that their spouse landed an offer in a more desirable location. There are, of course, a hundred permutations of how this can work, but my point is that I have rarely seen an instance where the "trailing spouse" is inept or lacks the experience to get hired, but is anyway*.

Like it or not, the nature and rarity of tt jobs means that spousal hires are going to be an issue and there are numerous blogosphere electrons dedicated to the discussion of whether spousal hires are "fair". I am less interested in that question** and more interested in whether, from a university standpoint, spousal hires can and should be used to increase faculty retention?

I think this is particularly plausible for mid-tier universities, and here's why. Given the choice between two offers, a single position at a top-tier university and a position for both spouses at a mid-tier university with some potential, I would guess that a decent number of couples would chose the latter. From the university's perspective, they're getting at least one and possibly two highly competitive faculty members who are going to increase the university research profile. After a while, this is going to pay dividends.

Let's face it, long distance relationships or long commutes for one or both partners sucks. You're never going to get the most out of a faculty member if their home life is being made more difficult because their spouse is either un- or under-employed, or works in a distant place. By refusing a spousal hire, a university is basically getting less than full effort from someone they just hired AND upping the potential of that person leaving for a better situation that includes their spouse. I am not advocating for departments having spousal hires foisted upon them for the sake of the university***, but if done correctly and as a concerted effort, it might be a very effective strategy.

*I'm sure some readers will weigh in with anecdotes refuting this.
** For the record, my opinion is that barring a beach of ethical practices, candidates don't get to decide what is "fair" in the hiring process.
*** The university would obviously have to be willing to commit resources to this strategy and the ever-present issue of "space" would not be an easy one to solve. But for the creative administration, perhaps this could work.

20 responses so far

Question: Which TT job should I apply for?

Sep 10 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

Answer: Every one you are qualified for.

Ms. PhD. has a post up right now in which she mentions her job application strategy.

A well-meaning former colleague sent me an ad for a faculty position in another city, at a school where I don't know anyone.


I said thank you. What's the point in explaining that I'm not going to waste my time and energy applying? I took it as a compliment that she seems to think I deserve a faculty position.

In the comments section, she answers PiT's question about the above statement with:

Well, it's possible that I don't know anyone there because they're not famous. But the practical issue is that it's nearly impossible to get an interview if you don't know anyone at the school, and in the long run, you'll never get any useful feedback if for some reason you have an interview but don't get the job. That's what happened to me last time. I got some bullshit explanation, which I couldn't (can't) address in future applications....

....So far as I can tell, there is no point in going through the stress and heartbreak again when the economy is only getting worse, especially in academia. I've literally seen maybe less than 10% of the ads there were last year, and last year was down to maybe 20% of the ads I had seen in previous years.

I don't think applying blindly to ads works in my field. You absolutely have to know people, preferably multiple people in the same department, who will ACT on your behalf. The departments are too big, and there are factions within them. Even if half the department wants you, if the other half wants someone else, you're very likely screwed.

Okay then. We'll assume that Ms. PhD. is right about her field and that it's not worth applying to a university unless you have someone pulling for you. I would suggest, however, that this is not the case for most fields (Ms. PhD did not claim it was, BTW, nor did she offer the above as advice to others, simply stated her situation). I didn't know anyone in the department that hired me, aside from being 'conference familiar*' with one individual.

I have had several postdocs I know ask me about applying for certain jobs and my advice is the same: send it in! If you don't apply, you are certain to not get the position. Worry about whether it is the perfect place for you after you have interviewed and after you have an offer. When I interviewed for jobs I would say that I was pleasantly surprised by one I thought would not be a good fit and came away with more questions than I expected from one I thought was perfect. But I never would have had that insight without applying.

Have two or three different application packets ready that you can send to the different types of jobs you qualify for and get them out there. If you have them already done up, the effort per application is not particularly high. Don't spam the world, but you should be able to find at least 10 positions a year (and many more in a good year) that you could fit into.

Don't assume you know anything about a department, university, city or part of the country without checking it out. The worst case scenario is that your suspicions are confirmed and you decline an offer. So what? You still had some interview experience and got your name out there.

I also often hear people say that they don't want to bother their letter of reference writers if they are not completely serious about a job. You know what, you LOR writers expect you are going to apply to a lot of places and, I hate to tell you, but they are just changing the address on the top and sending it off. You can pay than back when you have a job.

In the fields I am familiar with (and I'm sure there is lots of variation out there), either you are serious about finding a job and you get your apps out there or you are not. If you are not and you only send your application to a select few places, then you better have a back-up plan because you are stacking the odds against you. It also means that your first interview might be at your dream spot, and it's a good idea to have a little experience with the two day marathon you have to go through so you can have your routine down before you get to the one you really want.

Now go scour those listings and make yourself fit the descriptions. You and the committee might be pleasantly surprised by your interview.

*As in, talked to them briefly once at one conference and maybe saw them across the room at another.

24 responses so far

The delicate daycare dance

Aug 30 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], Etc, LifeTrajectories

From the perspective of planning one's week, I don't think there is any toddler malady worse than a head cold. It's right in the middle between "Oh, she's staying home today" and "Meh, daycare will deal." because it can clear right up or get worse by virtue of the fact that the kid can't sleep while coughing.

So the debate begins.

She's not that bad right? She hasn't coughed in a bit. Do we just send her hoping everything is fine? Maybe it will be and we can both get a full day at work, but if she gets 'kicked out' at any time during the day one of us has to leave work immediately and on short notice. To make matters worse, they ask that she not return for 24 hours.

You lose, back two spaces.

Commence schedule comparison. What do you have this morning? What can get done from home? How about each taking half a day? What about taking her to work? Where will she have the easiest day so she can get better quickly and our schedules can get off the tilt-a-whirl?

Where is the sweet spot that allows us to take the least amount of work off while getting her healthy the fastest?

We do this probably a dozen times a year and sometimes we get it right and others we don't, but it never fails to throw a monkey wrench in the best laid plans.

11 responses so far

Repost: The balance

Aug 05 2010 Published by under LifeTrajectories

Since there seems to be a tornado of "how do we pull this shit off" going around, I figured it might be a good time to 'me too' and repost this from only two months ago. I'm also trying to finish up the data for a talk  have to give tomorrow, so yeah, repost!

There has been quite the discussion recently about work / life balance and how it relates to gender issues. Things started with Isis' commentary on a ScienceCareers piece on balancing the chores with work, that was aimed specifically at women. After a bit of a scuffle, mostly on Isis's blog, Jim Austin had this to say at ScienceCareers. Despite the "special announcement" (which ends with the dismissive Thanks for your attention. You may go back to whatever you were doing.), I'm not sure Jim ever really heard Isis and Zuska's complaint that the implicit assumption in ALL of the ScienceCareer articles aimed at work / life balance was that the target audience was women and only women.

Based on the discussion, ScientistMother called out the men, and specifically Drug Monkey, to write more about how they deal with the balance between work and life. I think that's a fair thing to ask, because by not addressing this it appears is if it isn't a problem for us and I can assure you, at least in my case, that is not true.

Most of you will know that I am married and have a daughter who is just over two. While I am not in a two body academic relationship, my wife works close enough to where I do that we own one car. I mention this because it is critical to how our lives are scheduled. Basically, our hours are daycare's hours. We drop the Wee One off at 7:30 when it opens and we pick her up at the end of the day (though not when daycare closes), usually between 4:30 and 5:00. Those are my weekday in office hours, whether I like it or not because I have no other option to get home.

At first I found this difficult because I was used to working later in the day, but now I actually appreciate the restriction. Why? Because it means that no matter what I go home with my family and we play, eat dinner and have bath/bed time with our daughter together. I can go back to the office afterwards if I want, though more often than not I work in the evenings from home. But during the week we don't see the Wee One for that long each day and this schedule means that I see her all the time she is not in daycare. It means I have to be a bit more organized and that I have to get everything I can done during the day, but it also means that I spend more time with my daughter and, importantly, that the parenting burden is not skewed. For the same reasons, I try hard not to work much on weekends, but when I have to, I pick one day to get things done and spend the other day with my family or just with my daughter if my wife has to work.

As far as chores go, we have essentially reached a balance where the overall work is split evenly without both of us doing every task equally. I do more of the cooking and dish washing, whereas my wife does more laundry and yard work. We both clean the house when it needs it, which usually either happens in concentrated bursts or in fragmented pieces (just the bathroom gets done, or just the kitchen gets cleaned) during the Wee One's naps or after dinner. We take turns giving the Wee One a bath and putting her to bed. For the most part it works.

The tough part is travel. At the moment I travel more for work than my wife and that places an enormous burden on her during those times to single parent while I am away. For some reason, when I travel is also the time when random catastrophe strikes the household, making my time away that much more difficult on my family. There have even been times when my travel and changes around the house have caused anxiety in the Wee One, which was a bit scary. Travel times are stressful times and I've tried to make careful decisions about travel to get the most out of the time I am away. Sometimes it means missing a relevant meeting. It is what it is.

Kids are a lot of work. Relationships are a lot of work. Work is a lot of work. Everyone finds their balance and what makes the most sense in their relationship to get 26 hours worth of stuff done in 24 hours. There is no one right way to make it happen but allowing home duties fluctuate between us depending on each other's work burden at the time allows us to manage.

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