Archive for the 'work-life balance' category

The Six Month Postdoc Evaluation

I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.

Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.

What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.

  • Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.

 

  • I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…

 

  • I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.

 

  • Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.

So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!

 

*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.

No responses yet

Unpaid Work

It’s summer! I can hardly believe it – for the first time in 20 years I have an actual summer vacation with no job to do, until I teach again this fall! Only… that’s not really true at all. I am practically working full-time, doing work I’m not technically paid to do. There are two sides of this that I have different degrees of tolerance for.

 

workoutside httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

Totally not how I work in the summer… source: httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

 

First, I am in the place that virtually every scientist finds themselves after a recent (and often not-so-recent) job change. I have unfinished business from my last job, i.e. manuscripts to write. I will not get paid for that job again, but I am obligated to do these tasks. The common reasons we find ourselves in this position are:

  • I put a lot of work into this project that didn’t get quite completed/written before I started my new job, and I want to maintain my ownership/get top authorship – it will benefit me and my career to do this, and/or I want to do it.

OR

  • I promised my old boss I would do this.

In this case, I am fully in the last category – I didn’t even conduct the original research experiments, just did some analysis and started writing the papers, I have very little feeling of ownership or desire to participate, and there is no real way that these papers could make a difference in my career. But I promised. As you can imagine, that makes the unpaid aspect all the more irksome. But this is the culture of research that is unlikely to change because of the way we jump from job to job quickly, relative to the pace of research, early in our careers.

I’m trying to devote about 8 hours per week this summer to finishing up those projects from my last job. And If I can finish them up, then I think I will be truly done with research at that point.

Second, I am doing work that is technically unpaid for my current job, which is a 9-month contract position. I have a complicated situation involving planned but unofficial family leave this fall (since I haven’t worked there long enough to have ‘earned’ it), during my regular working year. My current work is an attempt to prepare for this leave ahead of time, working with Teaching Assistants, testing out labs, and revising course syllabi, assignments, and schedules to work with my absences. But I am certain that other instructors who are unpaid for the summers do plenty of prep work for their courses as well – I know I would: how could one, especially with new course preps, really only start 1 week before the start of the term as specified in our contract? And that leads to my reasons for doing work for this job off the clock:

  • I want to put in the time to develop quality teaching plans, and to make it easier for myself in the fall.

AND

  • I like doing it!

So in a sense, whether I’m getting paid doesn’t really factor in at this point. In addition, not getting paid for this doesn’t sting as much since I’m kind of making up time I’ll be out on leave. But it is still on my mind, especially since this is following my first year, where I had so much initial work to put into teaching courses for the first time that I was working every minute I wasn’t with my kid or sleeping (okay, I did have one date night in that year, but…!). This isn’t unique to science, or even academia, but aspects of the culture here are relatively unique.

One of the perks of academic work is that most of us don’t have to account for our hours or whereabouts or sometimes even vacations. The flexibility to make daytime appointments or go pick up a sick kid or not have to schedule time off is fantastic. But it’s all dependent on being able to get the work done – whether that’s specific projects in the lab, article publications, grants funded, lectures given, or classes taught, the ‘product’, not the time, is what matters to keep the lights turned on. And that’s what I signed up for – I agreed to teach 4 classes per term, for a certain salary and that’s what I have to do, regardless of any assumptions of a 40 hour work week. But I am confident my hours will be much closer to that 40 hour mark after this first year, and I will not get myself into so much unpaid summer work again. But I also agreed to write these manuscripts for my previous lab, so that’s what I’m going to do. Unless the new person in lab wants to write them, since they could actually help her, while she gets paid to do it!

Wish me luck, and you’ll hear from me this fall about how smoothly things go for my leave time based on this preparation!

No responses yet

An Oasis of Sanity

Saraswatiphd

I think I might need help.  Staying sane. Which, frankly, most days, I manage just fine.  It’s the days when deadlines got my brain so occupied, kids are getting their 3rd strep infection in 4 months (and of course, not sleeping), dishwasher needs to be replaced, fridge is persistently empty (of anything nutritious any way), dog’s got the runs… well, you know, the opening scene from “Bad Moms” comes to mind.  Except in the movie, this scenario is funny.

So, what helps you stay sane?  You personally.  If it’s diet and exercise, that’s wonderful, but that’s not what I’m looking for.  I want to know something that keeps your mind in balance of blissful homeostasis after or during an insane day, something that the internet doesn’t know about you.  Because, let’s be honest, the internet is already full of really (un)helpful suggestions. But I want less impersonal/generalized/blanket statements about how I must do this or that… until my eyes glaze over with information overload.  So I want something a bit more personal.

Ok, I’ll start.  For me, I mean besides the obvious (wine was created for a reason!), it’s probably keeping a small garden at work.  I have a large window that faces south, and I grow lots of plants. Some bloom gorgeous colors, some are just green and leafy.  They make me feel happy and calm(ish). That way, when something has gotten my mind so uptight I feel like my head could snap off any second, I take a moment to water my plants.  That feels good. I am doing something productive, taking care of a living thing, and in that moment, my mind rests. Sometimes, I dump whatever cold leftover tea is in my cup to just think “hello there green friend, thanks for blossoming” before I refill with some hot water.  That’s another reason why I try to bring my dog to work at least once a week – he forces me to go for a walk and watch him splash in puddles, chase after squirrels and be happy just by being. Also, CandyCrush, but please don’t tell anyone I said so, I don’t want anyone to know because that’s embarrassing.

 

Ragamuffinphd

I have not been shy [here] about expressing how unhappy/stressed/lost I have felt in the first 4 months of my new postdoc role. In addition to the immense solidarity I have found with a few moms with similar circumstances, I have found frequent peace of mind in the following:

  1. Getting home early enough to spend time with my baby. Because he is my first. Because at 8 months, he is still new (for how long are babies “new”?). Because he is happy and relatively easy right now. I cannot get enough of him or my husband on days that we can briefly stop time and spend a bit of quality all together.
  2. I live in Sunny Southern Cal, where there are many days that I can take a cup of coffee, step outside of my building and spend a few moments with my caffeine and the sunshine. Before I became a mother, I drank almost exclusively tea; recently, I have swayed toward the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps someday I’ll settle down nicely in the middle…

 

Megan

I have a few strategies to avoid and cope with workplace stressors:

  1. I try to identify and avoid certain types of people at work: the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists. If that’s not possible, I intentionally keep our interactions to polite but impersonal conversations.
  2. If someone’s having a bad day, I might jot them a quick encouraging email, or buy them a cookie. But I no longer postpone my experiments to talk for hours to calm someone’s nerves before a meeting. Or stay up till 3AM listening to someone practice their terrible talk over and over again. Or routinely clean up after someone else’s lab messes so they won’t get in trouble. Yes, I have done all those things. The funny thing is, you get more credit for buying a stupid cookie.
  3. I take walks. This is my big-guns stress-buster. Stupid things happen in academia that will drive you crazy if you let them: unfair reviews on papers and grants, soul-destroying amounts of administrative red tape, collaborators making careless mistakes that cost months of work, prehistoric department heads berating you for taking pumping breaks, etc… When these things happen, I need to step out of the lab and I’ve found that short walks work wonders. If the weather is awful, I wander the weird labyrinthine basement tunnels that connect the labs on campus. Eventually, my thoughts fall in time with my footsteps, and I can sort things out. (an added bonus: I know where all the cool, hidden places are on campus. Just discovered a ‘textbook-exchange’ room the other day– who knew?!)
  4. When the minor stressors start to get to me, I focus on my environment– what can I see? What do I hear? Sometimes I get so lost in my head, or so fixated on something someone’s said to me, it’s like I’m blind to what’s right in front of me. Deliberately trying to notice what my five senses are telling me is grounding and calming.
  5. I have a savings account with ~6 months of income saved. The knowledge that this money is there prevents me from feeling trapped in my job and servile to my PI or department head. Having this economic cushion stops me from panicking and obsessing over my relationship with my superiors. Which, ironically, has improved my relationships with them (at least from my perspective!)
  6. I do my best not to feel guilty about any of my sanity-saving methods. Taking even a 15-minute walk can feel like such an indulgence, but if stress is hampering my work, I’m no use to anyone.

 

Notarealteacher

Finding sanity has been a real challenge for me at this life phase. I have 2 small children, a job that requires me to be “on” from the moment I walk in the door, I just sold my first home and I’m remodeling a new, larger (and seriously in need of work) fixer. On top of all that, my husband was recently out of town for a month long work trip, and I often feel like I’m drowning. I don’t get nearly enough down time, and nothing is ever “done”. Here are my methods for finding sanity (though I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to be giving advice, but should be taking it).

  1. Taking a break at someplace new. Instead of going to the convenient starbucks across the street, I’ve been trying a new coffee place weekly. It breaks up the monotony and gives me something to look forward to. Simple, I know.
  2. Do something that feels tangibly productive: I am about to go clean out my work bag. I have a million other things to do, but having a little order in my life always helps me stay grounded. Some days, I clean the lab space in my classroom, clean out my car, or organize a drawer. I realize that this is actually adding more work to my overly busy life, but it helps me.

And now I’m opening my ears for all your suggestions, because my list is long and my patience is thin.

 

SweetScience

Besides chocolate chip cookie dough, my go-to when I’m stressed is arranging my calendar. I use Google calendar to map out every hour of my waking days and I check it frequently to keep on task, remember things I’m likely to forget to do, and also de-stress. Yes, I can see how looking at your to-do list could be anxiety producing in many people, but it helps relax me to know that there’s a time set for everything, so it will get done. Even when things are not getting done at their set time, it makes me feel good to just rearrange things, figuring out how the time blocks best fit together like a puzzle.

 

StrongerThanFiction

My sanity searching behaviors have changed over the years. This was an interesting exercise that helped me reflect back on the different work environments I have been in and how the stresses have changed with the different responsibilities, goals, and people. Grad school: In graduate school, it was hard to ever let go of feeling like I needed to be doing something productive. This caused a lot of guilt for me, and that increased my need to escape from it. Going to social media, and getting lost in fun internet searches, and trails was a way I used to escape that feeling. But not in a healthy way, because after this escape, this feeling intensified.

One of the more healthy things I did to grasp onto that sanity was going to career preparation seminars. I would try to sit and chat with the panel member or another mentor-type faculty member. It would help me to widen my perspective, and take in all the possibilities and good ideas without sitting there dumping all my stress onto them in return. That was a fantastic mental escape for me that would leave me with an optimistic feeling that lasted for a while. The downside is that it is not a daily accessible escape. But I would imagine that there might be a few webinars and email questions that might serve this purpose.

Post-doc: A similars set of stresses plagued me during my time as a post-doc fellow. I still sought out refreshing conversations with people who were ahead of me in the career path, but my strategies changed a little during this time, and shifted towards utilizing my peer support a little more. It was different (for me) in grad school, because being an incredibly competitive person, I couldn’t get away from that negative behavior of always comparing myself to my classmates and focusing only on the aspects were I was behind. My post-doc friends all started at different times, and we were not really competing for funding. We just were all kind of dealing with similar fears, personalities and stresses, so talking about it on a coffee run or lunch breaks was very therapeutic. One person and I had a regularly scheduled walk around the building that really helped us clear our heads. I agree with Megan, above, that the most helpful times were NOT with “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists.”

An administrative person that I was friends with at the time was also a breath of fresh air. We would take little breaks and plan on which park we would visit in the coming weekend. When I moved to this new city, she had the idea of going to a new place each weekend. Yes, it did involve exercise, but it would always be early one of the mornings for no longer than an hour, so it really didn’t get in the way of social or work planning at all.

Current gov’t job: The environment I am in now is SO different than academia. The stresses I experience now revolve almost exclusively around people – mostly peers, sometimes management. So, my current strategies revolve a LOT less around people. I actually get lost in my work now, and it is so refreshing to me now when I say “no” to that coffee walk or that lunch outting. For one, it leaves the lab a lot more vacant from the (to use Megan’s phrase again) “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists”, and getting out those short, relatively short reports is SOOOO satisfying. Amazing how my strategies completely flipped with the change in career.

And, like Notarealteacher, organizing also provides sanity.

I wrote above about one or two strategies I used, however, I relate a lot to many of the other things already mentioned. In reflecting back, what sticks out most to me is that I tried lots of things, and it took a while to see what stuck.

One response so far