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?

12 thoughts on “Balance and the tenure track: to be or not to be your whole self

  1. You and I are on the same page about this. I maintain that I don't want to get to the end of my life and look back only to see nothing but work. I try not to work nights and weekends and I have so many extracurricular interests that it's sometimes impossible to cram them all into non-work time. If this approach means I don't reach stellar heights in my career, so be it. I don't want to be known as the crazy professor who lives out of her office/lab and doesn't have a clue what goes on outside the hallowed halls of academia. I'd much rather be remembered as the adventurous, adrenaline-junky, supercool prof who loved her work with a passion, inspired her students to reach their full potential, published some incredibly amazing research and who managed to complete everything on her crazy to-do list.

  2. The notion that you can't have tenure AND a life is propagated by old farts who wear their multiple divorces as badges of honor. It's a steaming crock of crap. Of course you can have both. But you do need to be organized and efficient.PiT, I made tenure without working nights and weekends. Well, very few of them at least. I had/have no intention of missing my kid's childhoods.

  3. The notion that you can't have tenure AND a life is propagated by old farts who wear their multiple divorces as badges of honor. It's a steaming crock of crap. Of course you can have both. But you do need to be organized and efficient.I agree completely. If you can read and write quickly and efficiently, being a successful PI takes far less time than being a successful student or post-doc.

  4. uhm, dumb but honestly meant question: how do you become efficient? I realize the answer I come up with will probably entail less blog commenting... but I'm more curious, how did you develop the skills you have that help you be as efficient as you are?

  5. GREAT post. I am so glad to hear so many PIs chime in with their affirmations too.And can we please see some pottery pictures? *squeee!*

  6. uhm, dumb but honestly meant question: how do you become efficient?Not dumb at all. As CPP said, reading and writing quickly and efficiently (and effectively) is a big part of it. Another other big part is developing the ability to recognize what's important and what can be ignored. And who's important and who can be ignored. Finally, you need to learn the difference between supervision and interference when it comes to managing people - let them get on with their jobs while you do yours.These are skills that can be learned through practice.

  7. Arlenna, this was a great post. I had a mentor tell me that if you don't get tenure living life the way you want to live it, then you don't actually want tenure. The approach should be as you describe - making academia fit into your life and hoping for the best. It sounds like you've got it sorted out and I wish you luck! Keep blogging about the process, I enjoy it.

  8. I really appreciate the more experienced PIs coming to help dispel the monomaniac myth, too. It really helps us to get the reassurance that even with all the pressures of this job, it's okay and even encouraged to still be ourselves. Becca, I can tell you I am not necessarily a naturally organized person. I have to make myself do it. I think I'll write a whole post on it soon: "Organizational tactics for the procrastinatorially-inclined." Watch for it, lol...

  9. Becca: I second Odyssey in that efficiency is something that comes through practice. For me, a big part of learning to be efficient (and I'm still learning myself) is to prioritize what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by, if it can be broken up into manageable bits, who needs to do it and how long/what resources are necessary. It takes a lot longer to figure out the most efficient way of completing the task itself but this is a good place to start.

  10. What I mean about reading and writing quickly and efficiently means being able to read research articles and other written documents very fast and with excellent comprehension and recall, and being able to generate very high quality first drafts of written documents that can be tweaked into final product with little additional editing. These are skills that are definitely limited by personal capacities, but within those capacities, practice makes perfect.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! As a postdoc trying to figure out what I am going to do next, I am finding it really hard to find people who will give an honest answer to how much time outside of the lab they have available. I've found that some of the new profs I know seem to want to (or feel they have to) keep propagating the notion that they are working constantly and have no time outside work. However, many grad students and postdocs say the same thing, and while my own experience has shown that, yes, work is long, I have found there is plenty of time to pursue other interests. The critical thing in my mind is that while grad school and a postdoc are temporary (so I can reason to myself at each step that if it gets to be too much I can always do something else) pursuing and landing a faculty job requires much more effort and is "permanent", so it's harder to ignore the warnings about prof. work schedules. I also think a distinction people don't often make is how much time they HAVE to spend is not the same as how much time they WANT to spend on work, where total time spent is often have+want.

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