Friday, December 30, 2005

The job would be a lot easier with no students or other professors

Last week, I made it a goal to clear my task list of everything but the long-term items so that I could leave for the holidays with no workish stress items floating around the back of my mind.

I have goals like this a lot. They never work out.

But last week, aaaaaahhhh. No classes, no students, few people on campus - I got through the whole list with a few hours to spare Friday afternoon. It was brilliant.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Love and Hate

A brief list of things I lovelovelove about my life:
  • I have the best, cutest husband in the whole world. I won't lie: when we very first got married, we were both pretty miserable for about 6 months. My friend N called it growing pains, and I think it was. Since we grew into being married, it just gets better and more satisfying every day. *heart*
  • We have nice friends. When I consider the possibility of leaving this job, one part that makes me not want to consider it any more is that we have a nice little social network here, and they make everything more fun (also, some of them have pretty much the same or similar job frustrations, so . . . that helps).
  • I have nice coworkers. They really are great people, and I enjoy coming to work every day and hanging out with them, to the extent that we have time to talk to each other (about work or anything else!). My department is really supportive, so there are always compliments on a job well done, and helpful criticisms on jobs that could be better next time.
  • I have great students. Seriously, I enjoy them a good deal. I get the sense that they enjoy me, also, for the most part, even when I accidentally write bitchy tests or that kind of thing. (Don't imagine, however, that all my students like me all the time; I have a collection of snitty emails from angry students which I keep around to humble and amuse me).

A brief list of things I don't love so much about my life:

  • All those things I've already said.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Other Woman

There's this woman that I run into maybe once a year, because we have sort of overlapping research areas, so we often end up at the same kinds of meetings and attending the same kinds of sessions. She is one of several recurring characters in my cast of work-related semi-acquaintances.

She really, really rubs me the wrong way.

She is extremely predictable in the following way: she will always sit at the front of the room during oral presentations; she will always look bored and contemptuous; she will always ask a question, and it will always be negative and accusatory. UNLESS the speaker is one of the "big guns", in which case: her expression will be one of enlightenment and interest, and if she has a question, it is more likely simply a veiled complement.

No joke. She could be a drinking game (take a drink every time she lets out a big sigh, take a drink every time she starts a question with "did you just ignore . . . ", etc.).

I don't understand her at all. Is she very, very insecure? Or just a really angry person? To tell the truth, I don't really try to understand her either, because it's simpler just to dislike and avoid her (because I have, honestly, on occasion seen her in a room and decided to find another session to attend).

Monday, November 07, 2005


I like work travel for several reasons:
  1. I enjoy hotel rooms. Especially Marriotts, because they now have these AWESOME beds. And often, free internet.
  2. I always get a lot of good ideas at conferences. I take lots of notes.
  3. Sometimes, when the technical sessions are boring, I take this as a personal complement. I like to interpret my boredom as superiority. ;)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Greener Grass

I was at a meeting the other day with a bunch of other professors in my sort of work, and they were all very convicted about the value of what they are doing. I wish I shared this conviction; I don't know why this work depresses me so much. I feel like if I described to a lay person the sort of work I do, and why, they might say, "Hey, that's really important." I feel like if I agreed, it would make the frustrations much more tolerable. I don't know why it is that for example, in a proposal, I can describe all the reasons it's important, but that on an everyday level I allow my insecurity to tempt me into thinking that I invent these justifications, that they're part of the big picture of my failures or lack of great success. I allow the insecurity to taint my passion for the work, and that makes my insecurity worse.

On a flight on the way back from the meeting, I was seated next to a pediatrician. We talked about a lot of work-related things, even though I don't know anything about pediatrics. It was funny where the similarities are. For example, he talked for a while about all the paperwork, that for every 15 minutes he spends with a patient, he has to fill out 3 or 4 or 5 pages of paperwork, and that this takes up a lot of his time. He talked about how the measures of success seem arbitrary, for example, that if you take two diabetic children, one from a well-off household and a healthy background, and the other from a poor household with a lot of health problems, you can't compare their quality measures, like how many times your diabetic patient goes to the eye doctor or how many follow up calls you have. Maybe the poor diabetic child doesn't have a reliable phone number and moves around a lot, and probably rarely ever goes to the eye doctor - but this doesn't mean that your care of that child has been a failure. More important than how far you are is how far you've come.

I asked him how easy it was for him to become disenchanted by the whole thing: the paperwork, the irritating metrics, etc. He said, "Oh, I guess it happens sometimes. But usually I just figure it's the price of doing the job, and kids need doctors."

I was thinking, "But hey, pediatrics, that's really important."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Faculty Wives

My department, being somewhat old-school, relies a lot on the "faculty wives" to coordinate the more social events associated with normal department function. They do things like arrange tables for dinner meetings, bake things for events, etc. I find this reliance very weird, though I understand how this worked, a million years ago. These "faculty wives" belong to the oldest members of the department, and to an almost bygone era.

It recently came to my attention that some of the "faculty wives" have been pointing out that it's time for some of the younger wives to get involved, and I find this both sad and funny. Certainly the services these women have provided to the department have been valuable and much appreciated, but it's just not realistic in today's world to expect the same level of participation or co-dependency. Wives have their own jobs, events, etc. to try to coordinate. PLUS, allow me to point out the obvious: not all the faculty are men. Ain't no way my husband is baking some fancy breads for my departmental meeting, nor getting together with all the ladies to discuss whether we should have off-white napkins or gold ones at the upcoming breakfast.

I'm sure we can do without the niceties once all those ladies are gone. At the same time, it does make the job just a little colder. It's been pleasant with somebody thinking about the napkins.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shock and awe

A few nights ago my husband and I met some distant acquaintances for dinner, the wife is a woman that I sort of know, but have never met, and I didn't know the husband at all.

With in minutes of introductions, and what-do-you-do? sort of chit-chat, he more or less came right out with some very nonchalant statements about his political leanings, to the right.

I was oddly taken aback. I lean to the right myself, but in academia, nobody would ever admit to such a thing, certainly not on a "first date". But he was so casual about it, AS IF IT WERE TOTALLY NORMAL.

So I am forced to admit that my perspective is skewed. If I had ever really thought about it, I could have come to this conclusion, but before this evening I never really thought about it. There have been a lot of discussions on my campus and others recently (and certainly before recently) about the general political leanings of college faculty, but I didn't realize how much I had assimilated this microcosmic attitude as reality everywhere.


I'm a little disappointed in myself that this took me by surprise. Fffft.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Why doesn't my office look like the ones in those TIAA-CREF commercials?

You know those commercials? I *heart* the ones about professors because they make my job seem so noble. That's nice. But, those commercial professors have the nice wood-paneled academic-looking offices, with lots of space and books and scholarliness. My office, which is, from what I have observed, more common especially at the big state schools, is cement block, flourescent lighting, and not a speck of wood paneling.

I'm not going to lie to you. It's ugly. It doesn't help that it's kind of a mess. (In my department, if you are gone for a few days, you will come back and somebody has moved a pile of stuff into your office . . . we've had a lot of turnover recently, and nobody feels empowered to throw out files from somebody that's moved on, so they just get shuffled into the next logical person's office.)

The other day, the building custodian came into my office and asked me if it ever annoyed me that my tall filing cabinet was grey while my desk, lateral file, and bookcase were beige. It had not, up until this moment, annoyed me, but now that he mentioned it . . . So he volunteered to swap out my grey filing cabinet with an empty beige one across the hall. This encouraged me to throw out most of the contents of the grey one, which were not mine to begin with.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Through the looking glass.

So, on Friday, I went home and had a little breakdown. Possibly a little breakdown every once in a while is a good thing, except I still feel like crap. Oh, well.

Yesterday I got an email from my friend R, to whom I had recently written a sort of self-pitying note about how icky I feel about my work. He said,

You seem to be harbouring a touch of uncertainty in your accomplishments.

Which made me laugh right away. Seem! A touch! Hahaha! He then proceeded to try to convince me that I am successful and awesome, which I appreciate but don't believe. But everybody needs people like this, who tell them nice things. My husband would do this for me, except that he's been overloaded with my insecurities the last several years and has now moved on to the "tough love" approach wherein he does not permit me to wallow in, or express in any major way, these fears. I guess everybody needs people like this, too.

Lest you think I am all negative all the time, I do have some accomplishments, I just don't think they're important or valuable. I have two papers coming out this fall, which is positive, but doesn't seem like a lot of forward motion to me. I have a couple more currently in the review process and one about to be submitted. I have two grant proposals currently in the pipeline, though I don't expect them to go anywhere because they never do.

See? That's about as positive as I get about my accomplishments. This attitude also depresses me, because prior to this job, I considered myself a pretty upbeat, confident person. I am really hoping that this new anxious, insecure me is only temporary.

Friday, September 30, 2005

There's no crying in baseball.

Oh, but there are days when I want to cry.

Like today. And many other Fridays. I think this is because Fridays are a big disappointment; I look back on the week and try to determine what I have accomplished, and invariably it's not as much as I wanted, and sometimes it seems like I have hardly accomplished anything. Research progress is tricky that way, because it's so slow. It's hard to see the forward motion except looking back across a big distance. (Or, maybe I am doing it all wrong? Maybe other people make all kinds of progress day in & day out.)

Plus, my Fridays are usually full of meetings, so it's easy to feel like the whole day is just floating from one bit of (nonsense) to another. When you only have 15 minutes between one meeting and the next, you have just enough time to run back to your office and respond to emails, and then as you're walking to your next meeting you wonder what on earth you are doing with your life that you can spend a whole day this way. :(

But it's not just Fridays, it's just more frequently Fridays. The truth is, I spend a lot of days this way, not getting as much done as I want, and then also tossing in a little bit of "bad news" such as a rejected proposal or journal article, or a petulant undergrad, or a depressed grad student. I was thinking the other day that the one upside of this is that I'm in pretty good shape these days because I'm so frustrated. Usually, by 3 pm I'm feeling really agitated, and use this to power through the rest of the afternoon against the agitation, and by 5:30 or 6 I'm just good and pissed. So I let this all out at the gym, and my workouts are better on days that I've had a lot of negativity.

But, then, there are days like today, where instead of getting angry-frustrated, I get depressed-frustrated, and prefer to crawl under my desk as opposed to hitting the gym.

(I wish I were I were just using a figure of speech. There are days when I crawl under my desk. Sometimes I just need to spread out somewhere, close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and be still for a few minutes.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hey ladies.

Yesterday I had a meeting for the women undergrad students in my department, of which there are only a handful (about 6% of our undergraduate majors). I did this because as THE female faculty member, there is an unspoken, and sometimes spoken, expectation that I will somehow be the cheerleader for all the women students.

If they needed this, I would oblige. But they don't need it, and yesterday they told me so - THAT made me want to cheer. But they did say that since there are so few of them, they don't necessarily run into each other in classes etc., so they would appreciate if I could facilitate a few social events. This is very much my speed. I am terrible at making an issue of women in science/engineering/technology, but I'm good at socializing. :)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Exams. What are they good for. Huh?

I gave an exam yesterday in one of my classes; since it's a small class (16 students) I decided to try an oral question component. I gave them all the questions in advance, but not my rubric for what constituted a good answer. But it's funny the wide range of answers I got in response, and interesting which students a) had clearly prepared thoroughly versus not, and b) were very nervous about the oral portion.

The written portion, which during my making of the solution key I completed in 15 minutes while watching The Apprentice on TV, was clearly too long - I had to kick students out after two hours, despite telling them I really didn't think anybody would need longer than an hour and a half. Well, live & learn. This is my first time teaching this class or in this major (there are several programs in my department) so I wasn't sure what to expect, even though it's my own degree program, so theoretically I should have a good handle on where these students are.

Today I asked for a little feedback from them regarding the exam. The only surprise was the number of students who, in retrospect, decided that the oral component was "unfair". And not because each student could get a different question, but because all I did was ask them the question and make them give me less than 5 minutes of answer. What was evidently unfair was that I didn't prod them for more information, that they were not given sufficient time to reflect upon and then change their answer, and that I made them nervous by recording it.

That last part I can understand, and if I do this again I won't spring it on them. But the other parts . . . sorry folks, in the real world when somebody asks you a direct question, you answer, and that's the end. If you're sitting in a meeting, the person that asked you the question will not then ask you a series of leading questions so that you can ultimately retract something stupid you may have said. My least favorite things about exams in technical coursework is that it's such a bad model for what actually happens in a job setting. It's unfortunate that this unrealistic situation is the sort of "spot" that we train the students to be the most comfortable "on".

Monday, September 26, 2005


I am an average professor. Correction: I am an average assistant professor, which is the lowest rung on the tenure-track ladder, if you don't count the bad assistant professor, of which there are not many because they don't last very long. Average assistant professors last only about 6 years, until the tenure committee asks them to leave.

I work at an average state university (ASU), and I have a half-n-half appointment, which means my duties are nominally 50% teaching and 50% research. What this actually means is that my time should be divided into 100% research, and teaching is considered sort of like a compulsory hobby: something with no professional value but that you do anyway, solely for your own satisfaction. In this, the teaching, I am actually above average, but because it has relatively little to do with my professional success, I can't count that into the figuring of my prospects. Ironically, I believe I got this job primarily because of my teaching skills. My teaching seminar during my interview has subsequently been a little bit legendary; it raised the bar for faculty candidates that came after me. I must admit, I was really good that day. Some days I am really good in the classroom; other days I am just okay, but as far as I can tell I am never truly bad (except on the days I hand back exams, when I get a lot of attitude from petulant students).

So, the teaching got me this job - the teaching plus my pedigree, really, since I would not even have been considered except that I went to a well-known university for my graduate degrees.

And now here I am. What makes me average is that I am not a superstar researcher, I don't bring in millions or even hundreds of thousands of research dollars, and I publish an average amount of journal articles. In fact, to date, I myself have earned a measly $8K in grant money, and even that was from university internal funds, though they were competitive. To be fair, I am a co-investigator on a million-dollar grant, but this matters little as I am not the top dog on the project. There's no glory in being a team player.

Why not be better than average, and thus insure my career success? There are two reasons. One, and most importantly, it's not as though I'm not trying. But what I have observed so far, after two years of the assistant professor gig, is that it's not enough to be bright and hard-working, you also have to be very savvy and not just a little bit lucky. So far I have not proven to be particularly savvy (knowing what the hot topics will be so that I can come up with some fabulous, imaginative, yet un-risky grant proposal) nor particularly lucky (being the right person in the right place at the right time). The second reason is that I'm just not in love with this job enough to pimp out the rest of my life. I value my limited free time. I used to think, for example when I was an undergrad and later a PhD student, that I was simply an efficient worker. During my PhD, I never worked in the evenings unless I had some menial task like a little grading or a little reference-checking that I could do in front of the TV, and yet I was successful. However, I have come to realize that efficiency was not really the issue, it's just that there was a single, well-defined expectation of me, and that is the situation to which I am best suited. I know how to do what is asked of me, and how to do it well. The problem with the faculty job is that there are no concrete expectations of you, except to be super. Literally, my job description is "develop a world-class teaching and research program." (So, imagine how much guidance this provides one in terms of what to do with one's time at work.) I am my own boss in many respects except one: I have a series of actual bosses who assess my performance despite not telling me what I'm supposed to be doing.

There are a lot of things that are nice about this - I don't have to work on things I'm not interested in (except that the funding agencies have things that THEY are interested in, and it's in a professors best interest to be interested in THOSE things), I can set my own schedule (except that really, I ought to be working all the time), and I make my own decisions about how to manage my research group (except that I'd prefer not to have to manage them at all, since I don't feel like I'm any good at it; feel free to pity my graduate students).

Or, why not find an alternate career? I've considered this, except that I'm not sure there's a lot of demand for the types of things I do, at least at my educational level. Having a PhD has severely limited my career options. Fortunately, I am confident that if the faculty thing tanks, I would probably be able to find SOMETHING, as unlike with many academics, there is an industry in my field (an obscure-sounding technical discipline; you have undoubtedly heard about the sorts of things people do in my line of work, it just probably never occurred to you that there was an entire profession devoted to those things). I just don't think any of those jobs would be better than this one, both in actual work, and just as importantly, in where they might be (probably not anyplace I'd really want to live).

There you have the basics of my conundrum, and the focus of my very own blog. Perhaps you are wondering if I'm worried about the repercussions of publicising my concerns, since they are work-related, but I am hoping that academic ideologies and the value my business places on freedom of speech will be kind to me in this regard.

(And, I'm thinking, what does it matter? I don't think I'm going to get tenure anyway!)