Archive for the '[Education&Careers]' category

The lingering challenges of "bootstrapping" in academia

Nov 12 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

Some of you may have seen this piece in The Chronicle by Rachel Wagner, discussing her struggles as a single mom from an impoverished rural community trying to make it in academia.

To put it mildly, it stuck a chord with me. Enough to get me to un-mothball the blogge and post something, obviously. Her experience is mine. She discusses how financial troubles are one of those things you just don't speak of in academia, and describes how things as basic as finding money to go on an interview can be humiliating:

Here's what happens when you are living close to the financial edge as a single parent in academe: You need to attend an academic conference to interview for a job, as your current position is a one-year temporary position for someone on sabbatical. So you have to buy a plane ticket. Sure, you'll be reimbursed from the college's travel allowance for about 80 percent of the trip. But how will you buy that plane ticket in the first place, in order to be reimbursed a month or two later? Credit card? I'm afraid not. That was closed out last year because you couldn't pay for it while you worked as an adjunct for $15,000 a year.

Well, ask your parents for a loan. Weren't you listening? OK then, ask a colleague to help you. I could, but that violates all standards of friendship, especially the one where you aren't supposed to tell anyone affiliated with your job that you don't have enough money to go on an interview. And your nonacademic friends? They don't have any money, either. So why not ask the college for an advance? Because it doesn't give advances. And you have just violated the unspoken standard that stipulates you should never reveal your financial struggle if you are in academe.

This is all too familiar. To interview for my current position, I was offered travel expenses--but like the author, to be reimbursed at a later date. After college (where I worked 3 part-time jobs just to pay for books, rent, and food), grad school (raising Progeny and trying to pay student loans with almost all of my salary going toward daycare), and my post-doc (more income for me, but also more daycare, and I had to quit my part-time waitressing gig), the bare minimum of credit cards that I carried were close to maxed out. No way could I pay for a $400+ flight, so I drove instead (~$150 worth of gas for the round-trip drive in my hideously teal 1995 Dodge Neon).

Professorship made it better, right? Ah, but with that came divorce, single-parenthood, and a crushing amount of legal bills.

Yes, these are all due to my choices. I recognize that and am not asking for sympathy, or pity, or whatever. Thing is, life happens. Like the author, I come from a community where it was not weird at all to get married and have a child in my early 20s, no matter what my career trajectory. Hell, many in my graduating class already have children of their own graduating from high school, and one who graduated a year ahead of me is a grandma to a one-year-old at age 36. This is my normal. It's a different world in the Ivory Tower. A fellow graduate student (who also had a child) confided in me once that a professor had told him that "students who have children aren't serious about their studies. Might as well quit now." I've had other student-parents tell similar stories. It is a difficult road, but not insurmountable--and any bit of support helps.

As Dr. Wagner mentions, it's also difficult to discuss all of these issues in academia, especially pre-tenure, when your senior colleagues are also your judges and jury. Colleagues seem to assume you're on equal footing financially, perhaps forgetting that they're married to a surgeon and I (was) married to a blue-collar worker, and now am a single parent. The fact that I attended a pricey private college further serves to disguise my lower socioeconomic status, both currently and by upbringing--they only know the name on my diploma, not the fact that I worked my way through there waitressing, working in the dining halls, and calling alumni for donations (yes, I was that person, sorry--it paid $12/hour and allowed me to work evenings). They don't know that my dad worked third shift in a factory and my mom couldn't work, or that I started driving myself to extra-curriculars in my uncle's old beater on the rural backroads at age 14 just so I could participate in music and athletics. It's as if that background should just have evaporated now that I'm Professor Montague, replaced via the Pricey Degree University diploma with a person of a more privileged pedigree.

But it doesn't go away. My parents weren't university professors, doctors, lawyers, businessmen. I didn't really even comprehend academia as a career until after I started my PhD program. Yes, I knew I wanted to do research, but I didn't yet understand all that it entailed. I couldn't even tell you which was a higher rank--assistant or associate professor. The horrors! Ah, the depths of my ignorance and naïveté.

In any case, I realize that academia is not the only area where many of us from rural/impoverished backgrounds feel out of place, despite years of training and the trials of "bootstrapping." But to be good mentors and colleagues, it's important to keep these things in mind. So no, I can't attend your pricey golf outings. I can't go along on your extra side-trips at conferences to explore the wineries. And yes, I realize that you will likely "talk shop" on these outings and then leave me out afterwards, and I will think you're an asshole. So mentors, please don't assume that students, postdocs, or even junior faculty have the means to simply pay for interviews, conferences, even social lab meals. If there are ways to have things paid in advance, or supported by the department in some way, help them do so. If you will be discussing work on outings where they can't attend, don't be a dick and exclude them just because they don't have the financial means to tag along. Or, don't assume they don't want to attend and are uninterested--they may just be too humiliated to admit that they're broke. Just as you wouldn't discriminate against someone due to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., don't let economics be a segregating factor either, as much as you can help it.

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The Passion of the Scientist

There have been a few responses (updated: Janet has one also, as does Mike) to this chuckleheaded essay chiding, well, basically anyone who isn't in the lab 60+ hours every week about how they lack passion about their research, and are essentially letting sick people die because they think they have the "right" to lives outside of the lab.

I wish I were kidding, but I'm sadly not. In sum, Professor Kern (a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins) is obsessed with how many people (or few, by his observation) are around in the lab on weekends, and how this represents the death of American science as we know it (OK, I may have extrapolated a bit, but still). A choice quote:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

Though he uses the strawman figure of "country club hours" and "35-40 hours/week," he does go on to note in the next paragraph that surveys (but not his own!) have found that scientists work more along the lines of 50 hours/week or more, but summarily dismisses it.

I'm cranky about this story because I *have* been in the lab 50+ hours a week over the past 2 weeks--something which is rare for me. It has nothing to do with my lack of passion, but simply the fact that I do carry out a lot of work off-site and don't feel I need someone like Dr. Kern looking over my shoulder and clocking my hours as a measure of my "passion" for the job and the science.

I'm cranky because Progeny was sick yesterday, but I had no one else to take care of samples that needed to be tended to, and so Progeny and I went in to work with a sleeping bag, book, and a bottle of 7-Up and some saltines to nap on my office floor while I took care of my samples as quickly as I could.

I'm cranky because being in the lab 50+ hours a week does mean that there's hardly anything left of me for my family, and because this hits women harder than men and there are already enough damn hurdles that we face that we don't need more set up by Dr. Kern and his ilk, and I don't need to have my passion doubted or measured by the hours of facetime I put in.

I'm cranky because no matter how good the science is or how much time you spend doing it and how much you sacrifice or how much you put up with, some asshole will still dismiss your science and talk about how you're a "witch" behind your back with competing colleagues.

I'm cranky because the examples of "passionate" scientists he uses are, of course, both men.

And I'm cranky because I still have several weeks of 50+ hours in the lab left to go before this winds down and I can get back to writing papers and grants--probably off-site--to keep my lab going. But I guess that crafting lit reviews and writing paper discussion sections just doesn't show my passion for the subject like being in the lab at 3PM on a Sunday would, right, Dr. Kern?

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Sep 28 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

It's been on of those months. Have way too much shit to do, and to complicate matters, I stupidly took on a new project on contract. This was supposed to be fairly easy, but it has been kicking my ass. Supplies haven't been coming in on time, had to make a bunch of shit from scratch, track down people to actually do the work, and still ended up spending 60+ hours this week working on this project. Really don't have time to deal with this, and we have at least 3 more weeks of this to get through before things calm down. Meanwhile, Partner is working like a crazy person as well, and Progeny has way too much going on as well, between band, choir, and sport-y stuff. Even the dogs have had issues, with New Dog having dog training classes in an attempt to get her to calm the fuck down, while Really Old Dog is...well, really old, and becoming even grumpier and smelly than normal. Meanwhile, have too much paperwork to do that I've been putting off (paperwork is the worst damn part of being an academic, IMO--how the hell do administrators handle it??), and several upcoming guest lectures that remain unwritten.

Sigh. Is it December yet?

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Grad students, get writing!

Aug 25 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Over at Academic Inspirations, Dr. O brings up a great point about dissertation writing:

On the contrary, grad students should be continually writing throughout their thesis work, one results section at a time. For papers, if possible. If not, then for practice. Writing is an art, and it takes lots of practice. You understand your data and results better when you have time to write and reflect on them. Speaking on those results is important too, but unless you can convey your message on paper, you're doomed.

So grad students, start writing now.

Yes, yes, and more yes. For some of my students, I've had to structure them a bit, coaxing them to get me a draft of a manuscript--even if the results aren't all in yet--but such-and-such a date, just so that they get in the habit of writing about things while they're fresh in their minds and they don't procrastinate and put off starting the manuscript for another month (or 6). Grad students, it's a great habit to get into RIGHT NOW--write a bit every day (or every week, if you're like me and prefer to vomit papers up in larger chunks)--just get into the habit of doing it regularly and you'll be way ahead of the game when it comes to your thesis or dissertation.

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On the night shift...

Aug 24 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Must be "feeling like a college kid" week here in the household. Yesterday I was mulling my drinking habits (which are, essentially, identical to those of Progeny, minus the chocolate milk) and today I'm practically pulling an all-nighter trying to catch up on work. Glaring zit, check--minus the serious self-esteem issues, I could be 19 again.

I've always been a night owl--I hate getting up with the sun, and feel much more productive in the late evenings. This hasn't always worked for me. During my post-doc, I had to get to the campus by 7AM to grab a parking spot, and I lived an hour away and had to drop off Progeny at the sitter's--so not many late nights for me (and as such, several years' worth of poor sleep, both due to baby issues and trying to fight my preferred sleep pattern). Now that my schedule is more flexible and Progeny sleeps through the night (and well into the morning or afternoon, if I'd allow it), I can reclaim my late nights/early mornings and get some work done to the snoring of the dog instead of the crying of the child.

However, clearly this isn't optimal. I could try to do more work in the early mornings, before getting everyone up and off to school/work in the mornings--but every time I set my alarm for 5AM when I know the only pressure to get up is coming from me (rather than a scheduled meeting, appointment, etc.), I know that inevitably I'll push the snooze button a few times and then say "fuck it" and shut the damn thing off, finally rolling out of bed several hours later. I could try to get more done in the evenings before Progeny's bedtime, but that's mom-kid time that I'd have to miss out on. I'm already scheduled throughout banker's hours, so I can't figure out how to draw more blood from that stone. Next option--altering the space-time continuum, I guess, or changing the earth's rotation to tack a few more hours onto the day.

Or, more practically, taking on fewer tasks? Definitely one of those weeks where it seems it would be preferable to change the laws of physics than to turn down one more box to check on ye olde tenure evaluation.

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Hook 'em while they're young

Aug 18 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is all sorts of awesomeness:

When Shivani went off to Princeton, Dr. Sud was like many professional women who interrupt their careers to raise kids: should she return to her former career or try a new path? Then Shivani said to her, “Mom, why not help other kids like you helped us?”

She went to Dr. Carl Harris, then superintendant of Durham Public Schools, and out of their joint vision, she says, Scientifica was founded. This unique program exposes Durham Public School kids to scientific research being conducted at local universities and companies. The kids are mentored by students at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill and are given the opportunity to conduct research during summer internships.

The link to the program is here, noting "Durham Public Schools encourages highly motivated students in Grades 8 through 12 to discover the world of science, pursue a career in this field and succeed in their career — and in life. Scientifica is designed to harness the resources offered by Durham’s many partners in the scientific community to significantly improve students’ exposure to science."

I'd love to do this in my current town--or even better, where I grew up. As I noted, I had pretty much zero exposure to science and scientists while growing up, and would love to be able to introduce HS kids to that kind of experience. I've done it individually by hosting a handful of high school age kids in my lab for summers, but nothing on the magnitude described here; if only there were more hours in the day.

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How did you end up in your career?

Aug 17 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

Interesting new post on benchfly sure to start some discussion with coming posts on the glut of PhDs in academia, and the scarcity of jobs. Before all that comes, though, Alan says:

It’s very possible that only a small fraction of us actually start out with ambitions of a career in academics. If this is the case, then perhaps the scarcity of available academic jobs is not a troubling as it may seem. So dust off the cobwebs and try to remember the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed days of your early research experience in lab – what were you thinking in those days?

For me, it starts way back before the lab. I'd always loved science, but come from a tiny place where I never even realized people *were* academics as a "job." I didn't know any researchers or professors. I don't think my parents had any friends with these careers either--certainly none I've ever met, or that they have ever mentioned to me. However, my mother and grandmother were both teachers. Having younger siblings, I also was the family "teacher" throughout my childhood. I thought perhaps this would be my future as well. As

I fell more in love with science during high school, I was pushed toward medicine, as if there was no other alternative. Truthfully, I stumbled into research during college, since a year-long research project was required as part of my degree. When I found out that I thoroughly enjoyed research, I still hadn't quite made the jump to the possibility of research-as-career. That didn't really occur until my boss asked me what my plans were after graduation. By then, I was already mulling grad school, but still didn't quite understand what it really meant to be an academic.

Long story short, as an undergrad getting into research, I certainly wasn't thinking about how to get an academic job, or what a game of chance that may end up being. Even in grad school, I honestly hadn't thought much further than "I'll do a post-doc afterward" since I knew that was a necessity for an academic job in my field. I think it really wasn't until my first meeting with the professor who eventually became my post-doc advisor that I had any real clue about what I needed to do to end up with a tenure-track research job, and the realities of that happening (or, not happening).

The more I read blogs in this area, the more I cringe and realize just how naive and uninformed I was for way too long, and yet I managed to stumble into my current position nevertheless.

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Vacation guilt

Aug 11 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As Scicurious very sensibly noted last week, it's okay for scientists to take a vacation. The world won't end, your research won't be ruined, students will survive for a week without you, and that departmental meeting you're missing isn't really that critical, right? Yet every time I leave, even if it's for a conference, review panel or something else that's not actually vacation, I practically twitch with guilt and unease.

Part of the problem is that I still have no full-time person in the lab to oversee everything in my absence. For a variety of reasons (which I'll cover someday), I've been able to keep the lights on and publications flowing with tiny grants, but haven't yet landed anything big enough to pay for much more than supplies and a bit of hourly labor. So, while I have some fabulous grad students who have worked in the lab long enough to be independent, there still really isn't anyone "in charge" when I'm not around. I worry constantly that something bad will happen when I'm gone and there won't be anyone around to deal with it.

The other issue is that vacations aren't relaxing anymore. Granted, the last real "vacation" I had--where I actually went to a destination with the sole purpose of taking a break, and ended up actually doing only that--was as a high schooler. Since that time, any time off has been spent traveling to visit family members back home, almost always coupled with assignments to finish or papers/grants to write. Yet no matter what or how much I do when I'm traveling, I never feel caught up when I return home. It's days like these when I almost long for my waitressing days of yore, when I could at least leave the job behind and not worry about playing catch-up when I returned to work. How do you out there do it? Unplug totally? (Not an option due to issues with Progeny's biological father, unfortunately--need at least a phone on). Leave the computer behind, lab be damned? Middle ground?

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More grad school and tenure track advice

Aug 07 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

More great grad school advice from Ambivalent Academic, via Professor in Training. PiT also has advice for young professors in this excellent post.

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'Round the tubes: work-life issues

Aug 05 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's that kind of week--mulling over school starting back up (teaching for me, class time for Progeny) must have many of us in the blogosphere thinking about work/life "balance." Scicurious has a post up discussing balance and grad school, while Southern Fried Scientist writes about grad school advice. DrugMonkey also has a collection of posts on the topic from over at the LabSpaces group.

One more comment on this--like Janet, I think juggling is a better description of my life. Any kind of balance is too easily tipped by the next upcoming lecture I need to write, or grant application due, or kid's soccer practice that needs to be run.

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