Balance and the tenure track: to be or not to be your whole self

The issue of work/life balance in science is huge--we're all talking about it all of the time, and it's a frequent topic of articles in career advice-type publications. Based on a lot of conversations (too many for me to find and link them all) it looks like more and more students are opting away from traditional science tracks because of the perception that to succeed in science (particularly academic science) you must give up important parts of yourself. I almost made that decision nine years ago and almost made it again last year: I have many, many interests and loves in my life, and science is only one of them. It's the prevailing one, plus it can support a reasonably normal lifestyle (unlike some of my other interests, which would have me living out of a tiny box of an apartment--or even an actual cardboard box--in NYC or LA, like my friends who did go on to pursue those dreams). However, I am not my whole self without these other things in my life, and I believe that I shouldn't have to try to be.

Part of the revolution in academic science that I want to see is a change in the perception that a life in academia needs to be monomaniacal--that there is no time for anything but science (especially if you also have a family to try to fit into the week). For one, this just isn't true. We let ourselves become biased by our feeling of intensity during the times we ARE under pressure, and that perceptual bias overwhelms our assessment of reality. For two, most people find that productivity does not necessarily correlate to the number of hours spent on something. Being organized and efficient with your time is FAR more valuable than sitting in front of your work for double the number of hours. For example, I submit Exhibit 1A below illustrating the approximate amount of time I spend TRYING to get work done vs. how much work I actually end up doing.

Exhibit A. My activity/productivity levels plotted roughly by day of the week. Note several features: 1) Neither time spent working nor productivity ever reach 100%. b) Actual productivity levels bear little relationship to time spent trying to be productive. iii) Me feeling like I have no time to do anything is actually just me wanting to MAKE more time for sitting around not doing anything.

**A big DISCLAIMER here: HENCE you should all understand that I am by no means trying to imply that I am the queen of efficiency, organization and success--just illustrating the model, and it's just a model after all, right?

Even with how busy I know I am, and how much work I have to constantly do, I still see gaps where I should be able to fit some other constructive, productive activities (meaning activities that do not involve sitting on the couch watching Law & Order reruns and eating chips). So, I joined the local Parks Service pottery club. I last worked on pottery at the end of college, right before graduate school. I had never done it before, but my teacher was excellent and I am good with my hands. I took to it like a duck to water, it just felt so natural and I fell completely in love with it. I made hundreds of pieces in my nine months in three different classes. My favorite class: a soda fired porcelain class where I made some truly beautiful things. I have to say, there are some things I am good at, many things I am not good at, but some things I am DAMN good at. Pottery is one of those. I hadn't had any time or opportunities to do it since, and it's like a part of me has pined for it. Now that I have joined this Potters' Club, for less than a hundred bucks every three months I can go to the pottery studio and make things whenever I want (i.e. after work, on weekends, times I have open in my productivity plot).

I went to the orientation for new members last weekend and felt so, so happy just being there around the equipment and shelves and seeing all the glazing sample tiles and the clay. I'm so anxious to get started, I feel like how my doggie must be feeling when he sees something he wants to chase to give into his racing instinct. I have to admit, I do not always feel like this about my science (although I frequently do). If I couldn't have this part of me, I just wouldn't be myself. Do I need to sacrifice myself for the tenure track? I don't think I should have to. Will it require superhuman efforts on my part to keep up all these disparate foci of my life? Probably. Does that make me crazy for trying it anyway? Yes.

But will it make me a more interesting person and make me happier with myself? Most definitely yes.

So I'm going to try this experiment (like so many before me) in making the tenure track process fit into my paradigm for my life, rather than the other way around. For so many who are in the midst of, or have already been through, this process, this will feel obvious. But for those of us just beginning and those who are looking at where to take their lives in science, this perception is a major concern. Let's see if I can liveblog it (like Isis, drdrA, juniorprof, proflikesubst and others have been doing) over the next few years, to find out if it's really the same on the ground as it looks like from the war stories. Isn't this part of the change we all keep talking about?

I'm more special than most people

My openness to experience made me curious about taking this personality test as seen on Ambivalent Academic's blog:

The questionnaire you filled out measures your scores on five different personality dimensions collectively known as the "Big Five". Below are your scores on each dimension based on the answers you provided, along with some interpretation. If you'd like more information about these personality dimensions, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.

Neuroticism (sometimes also called Emotional Instability) is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as sadness or anxiety. People who score high on neuroticism are vulnerable to stress and tend to experience negative feelings more often. People who score low in neuroticism tend to be less susceptible to stress, and experience negative feelings relatively infrequently.

You scored 26 out of 50. This score is higher than 51.4% of people who have taken this test.

Extraversion (or Extroversion) is the tendency to experience positive emotions and seek out stimulating situations. People who score high on extraversion tend to be active, energetic, and enjoy being around other people. In contrast, people who score low on extraversion, known as introverts, tend to be quiet, low-key, and are typically less involved in the social world.

You scored 40 out of 50. This score is higher than 78.8% of people who have taken this test.

Openness to experience
Openness to experience is a general tendency to appreciate emotion, adventure, and unusual ideas or experiences. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. People with low scores on openness tend to have more conventional, traditional interests.

You scored 48 out of 50. This score is higher than 92.7% of people who have taken this test.

Conscientiousness is the tendency to show self-discipline and persistence. People who score high on conscientiousness tend to be persistent, responsible, and duty-driven, but are sometimes perceived as being overly perfectionistic and concerned with order. Individuals low on conscientiousness tend to show less persistence and may have trouble seeing things through.

You scored 40 out of 50. This score is higher than 79.8% of people who have taken this test.

Agreeableness is the tendency to be sympathetic and cooperative towards others. People who score high on agreeableness strive for social harmony and value getting along with others. Disagreeable people tend to be more suspicious and hostile towards others.

You scored 41 out of 50. This score is higher than 76.7% of people who have taken this test.

Lunch buddies and mentorship

I really lucked out here with my colleagues. Of course there are all of the usual idiosyncrasies and personality quirks, and lots of overdone discussion of various kinda pointless issues, but everyone is very tongue-in-cheek about it--even the quirkiest, most persistent folks tease themselves a little about it and take the teasing from the rest very graciously.

There are also some strong friendships and good-natured alliances between faculty here. There's a group of people (a core of about six with about another six who rotate in and out) who go out to lunch every Friday. They're really consistent, and only miss it for very important meetings or being out of town. My first week on campus they invited me and the other new professor out with them, included us in the mass carpool and started checking with us every week to see if we wanted to go. Even though they are all close friends, they opened up the circle to us newbies and brought us right into the conversations. They always check up on us to see how we are doing and try to help us navigate the unwritten aspects of the department so we don't get ourselves in trouble, and so we can function optimally with some of the red tape. They've been very welcoming, friendly and inclusive. They're all 40's-ish white men, besides the other junior faculty who rotate in and out, and I am the only woman. It's not like it is some big shock that white male scientists could ever be friendly and inclusive--it happens every day all over the place--I'm just telling the story of my own personal allies.

This group of lunch buddies has become a really important mentor group for me. They do a lot of alliance-building on departmental issues during these lunches, and because I have been brought into the conversation, I see their strategies, know their motives and desired outcomes are for the good of the whole, and feel comfortable with their collective attitudes because I have a part in them. This kind of interaction seems like it is really, really important to growing into a connection with a faculty group during the tenure track, and from what I read around the blogs and hear from friends at other institutions, the inclusion of junior faculty in this kind of thing is pretty rare. I feel really fortunate to have found a department with this level of openness and collective feeling of responsibility towards helping the noobs.

So if you're a senior faculty member of any gender, trying to figure out how to help give a leg up to your junior colleagues, consider taking time once a week to go to lunch. And if you're a junior faculty member feeling lost and isolated in your department, find out if others are too and see if you can get together with friendly senior faculty on a regular basis like this. Sure, everybody is busy--life is hard uphill both ways in the snow with no shoes on--but for us, it could be a matter of the life or death of our career. The earlier you start including us, the better, and we are very, very appreciative of your support!

Drug side effects listings

So, somehow my body acts a lot older than it is (it SHOULD only be about 30). I have been having chronic pain issues for the last year and a half or so. They are somewhat related to a herniated disc at C6-C7, but not entirely--all of the pain is on my right side, generally in the joints but also some neuropathic-type stuff in the limbs and appendages. There was no acute injury, I don't seem to have any autoimmune disease in particular (although my ANA is slightly higher than normal). I've been going to the chiropractor, which has done wonders for the increasing crookedness of my right shoulder blade (it was starting to poke out, you can see it in pictures of me from the back) and the neuropathic aspects of the pain but not much for the joint-related inflammatory-feeling stuff.

Anyway, I'm not just having a complaining session here. The upshot is that I got tired of being sore all the time and went to see a rheumatologist to get an opinion. He prescribed me Mobic for now--a Cox inhibitor NSAID used mostly as an arthritis medication. I have taken my first one and so far have MAYBE noticed a difference in some aspects of the pain, but not in most. But, like the pharmaceutical scientist I am, I had to look up as much information as I could.

I found a big, long list of all the possible side effects, and it is really funny because you can tell which things were listed in the trial questionnaires that are clearly just a consequence of the trial cohort. Joint pain is listed as a potential side effect: well duh, many people who would want to go on this trial would be people with joint pain. You are trying to find out if it can treat arthritis, after all. Since they always have to keep records of any physical or mental symptom anybody on the trial experienced during the time, they even have to list things like "stubbed toe" if someone stubbed their toe while on the trial. For this drug, one of the less-common potential side effects is "wrinkled skin," another is "Sunken eyes." Others include "Feelings of sadness or emptiness," "Loss of interest or pleasure" and "Discouragement." It is clear that many of the trial participants were elderly and probably had chronic pain for a long, long time. These side effects make me sad mostly because they represent some insight into how many old people feel a lot of the time.

The primary side effect I am feeling is the weird fuzzy-head feeling I get from Naproxen. It makes me kind of out of it. I wouldn't call it drowsy, or dizzy, or even tiredness, but just, kinda... weird. And, my head/jaw, shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers still hurt. Sigh. We'll see, maybe it will take a while to really kick in.

Super exciting collaborations

I just had one of those collaboration meetings where everybody is so excited to talk about the work, and we were all totally bouncing off each others' ideas so fast that we went from mapping out our first pilot experiment to building the skeleton of a kick-ass five year or more research program in about half an hour! These are my absolute favorite kinds of interactions: they were what made my postdoc environment such an ideal place for me to be, and it makes all the difference in the world to have found another PI and some students here to have this much fun with.

Yeehaw! We are gonna make the coolest non-invasive in vivo detection system EVAH!!

Dirty, dirty dirty

I really like the layout and setup of my lab for the most part... but its ventilation system is really yucky. When we first got here, the blowers never blew and they had to come open them up. We had spent hours wiping down all the surfaces and cleaning everything up, and as soon as they did that, crud and dust and dead bug parts got blown all over the place.

I still keep finding new dead insects in weird places, or just parts: a leg here, a wing there. All surfaces get coated in a thin film of some kind of dark dusty powder within a day or two of being cleaned. I'm sure this is not good. Luckily we do all of our cell culture in a different room that doesn't have these problems, but I do have a pretty sensitive instrument living in this environment. I just took out its RF amp board assembly (which appears to have failed), and DAMN is it dirty. It too is coated in a thin, directional (as in, coming from the side the instrument shell's vent holes are on) film, including all over the circuit boards and stuff.

Somehow I get the feeling this is not good...

New baby!

Well, I didn't birth him, but he's good practice!

We adopted an ex-racing greyhound yesterday. We'd been thinking about it for almost six years, but never had a situation where we thought it would work out--now we finally do. He is a wonderful dog: so mellow, very well-behaved, friendly and happy to see anyone and everyone. The first thing he did when he came in the house was find his bed and try it out. He slept almost all day yesterday, all through the night (until 5 am when he started ear-flapping), and is currently napping again. He'd probably be a good office dog! I wonder if that's frowned-upon at my new place?

My husband decided we needed to name him Megatron, so that's his new name. We're going to call him Mega for short. He is going to improve our routine scheduling consistency, and help us with our exercise program: he needs to go for a walk twice a day--and so do we.