Third Year is Kicking My Butt

In which @Scitrigrrl realizes that time is not stretchy and cannot be extended simply by adding hours at the beginning and end of each day.

I’m a little over halfway through my second semester of my third year, I am totally overwhelmed, and really feeling the pressure to do everything: Get funding! Publish papers! Teach with excellence! Be a good department/institutional citizen! I feel torn with the constant demands on my attention and time. I am tired, but I also still love my job, I finally feel settled in the job and in the town, and overall, I am happy. But between third year review (!), a dramatic increase in demands on my time compared with the first two years, and increased anxiousness about money, I am feeling overwhelmed. I know, in theory, what I need to do to get to where I need to be, I’m just not always convinced that I will get there.

There has been a running joke this year among some of my peers that now they have forgotten how long I’ve been here, I can no longer claim to be new. On the one hand, I love this. It means my colleagues feel like I belong here. In fact, I feel like I belong here, that this is not just the department I’ve landed in, but it’s *my* department (1,2). On the other hand, not being new anymore means that people have started to expect things of me. I can no longer claim ignorance (3) and, while there is a general expectation that things take a long time to get moving, to set up, to get used to teaching. But now, although there is some understanding that I’m still figuring stuff out, that there ARE limits on how much should be expected of junior faculty, there is also the real-world effects of a high administrative load on faculty, and not enough people, especially if some are out on leave, is that this doesn’t always happen. There are starting to be expectations about productivity, teaching, and funding. To be clear, many of these expectations are self-generated, which doesn’t necessarily make them easier to deal with (4).

It’s not only the expectations (from self- and other-) that have increased this year. It’s also the sheer amount of stuff that is going on. There is more of everything. I’m not teaching more classes, but I have more undergraduate students in my classes, and in my lab, and more grad students. I have been doing too much service – despite saying no to at least as many things as I took on. In part because some things are important to me (5) and in part because in feeling like I belong here also makes me feel some responsibility for what happens next (6). The amount of research-related activities has increased.

In terms of research, the increase and the momentum is a good thing. It is, in fact, THE thing. We, as a lab, are doing more (or at least more experiments. Many of them fail, as is the way of experiments). There are more people, we have projects running and data trickling out, and right now I have hope that at some point we will even understand what the exciting stuff means! It also means I have cool, if scattered, pilot data for grants! And incomplete data sets for papers. All of this is fantastic! And it means that I am spending a lot more time talking with my (awesome) lab people (7) about science and experiments and statistics and where it fits in to published data. It also means that I’m spending a lot of time (just like everybody else) writing grants and writing papers and dealing with rejection.

The rejection is starting to feel more and more personal. The grant writing feels like more and more pressure. As we churn our way through my startup funds, the thought of running out of money is increasingly present, which makes me feel like I should be writing MOAR GRANTS, which  in turn prompts me to do some completely unsustainable things – like attempt to submit to a deadline almost every week for a month (8). Meanwhile, I also need to get papers out, stay on top of teaching, deal with the committees I am on, be available enough to my students to help out when they run into difficulties, or are writing papers, or abstracts…

On top of all of this is something that is a little more subtle, and something that I find very hard to deal with: more people ask for things. More undergraduates ask for letters of recommendation or advice about science or research. More people in my lab are doing things and need more support. More colleagues ask about techniques I am using. Graduate students outside my lab ask me for advice. More requests for “in-house” seminars, guest lectures, and participation in student activities. More requests to review papers. These are all good things, but the volume and the sheer amount of time these things absorb has, all of a sudden, really taken me by surprise.

Outside of work, I am also busier. I moved to this job alone, I knew only a couple of people in this town, and because of that had a limited social life for the first chunk of time here. Now (9) I know enough people to have a support network! Friends! A trivia team! This is fantastic – and a lot healthier than my first year here. It also means that I’m completely unwilling to ditch my social life entirely in order to get everything done.

Now, the question that I’m trying to answer for myself is how do I make this manageable? How do I get everything (10) done – including having a personal life and interests outside of work – and still sleep? How do I become one of those super efficient people that I admire so much? There are several very specific things I am working on in this regard.

First, I’m working on what to prioritize. This differs depending on department, career stage, and a lot of other things, but here I’m going to defer to my faculty mentors (and the wonderful @pottytheron here) and prioritize papers. Papers over grants. Papers and grants over service.  I have data, I’ve just got to (a) sit down and churn it out as a paper and (b) get my postdoc to do the same.

Second, I’m tracking my time (inspired by the amazing @duffy_ma and this post in particular ). Tracking time is challenging and enlightening. So far I’ve realized that I’m somewhat more efficient than I thought, but SO MUCH TIME goes to people asking for things! That has just got to change.

Third, I’m working on having a more realistic idea of how long things take to get done. I reliably underestimate this by an embarrassing amount. Time tracking is helping, scheduling is helping, but accurate estimates of how long it takes to do small chunks of tasks (writing an introduction for a paper, for example) is something I’m still just not very good at.

Fourth, I have a social life and I am committed to outside activities, and I actively use these activities to limit the hours I spend working. I spend time with the people important in my life. I play trivia. I go to concerts. I am training (hard!) for a half marathon. I blog here (!). And I sleep (11).

I am not always doing fantastically well at any of these things, but I am getting better (slowly). I am also very mindful of the fact that despite feeling incredibly overwhelmed this year, despite the constant battle in my mind between “ZOMG! I AM DOING THIS THING!!!1!11!!” and “I am failing”, there is a lot about third year that I am really enjoying. I love feeling like I am a part of this place, and not an alien being that suddenly arrived. I am extremely grateful for the support I have within my department (see 1). I love that my lab people are more productive and are getting deeper into the science and generating data that is super cool…and that we can’t yet explain. I am really happy to have friends and a broader social network, to walk into the coffee shop and chat with the barista – because they are part of my community. I love having my favourite places in town and no longer needing to think about where to get what, and at work, I know who to ask for specific things. Most of all, I’ve just started to feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I might not be succeeding at everything yet, but I know, at least in theory, what I need to do to get there.


  1. I am very, extraordinarily lucky I am in this.
  2. This also means that I feel more responsinle for
  3. Or I can, but it’s not very believable.
  4. Although having mentors around that normalize where my expectations should be is extremely valuable and helpful.
  5. And in part because I’m a sucker for punishment. But I have cut down and will soon be doing (almost) none.
  6. Okay, I’m a control freak.
  7. This is my favourite part of my job- talking with students about their science.
  8. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
  9. Despite academic nomadism
  10. Or some re-definition of “everything”
  11. Still not always great at getting enough of this one.

Never A Fraud: Combating Imposter Phenomenon

As a disabled woman of color, I have had to jump many a personal and professional hurdle to gain admission into my current program. Even without a disability, being a matriculated graduate student is an accomplishment. However, sometimes I wonder if I have truly earned my place among my peers. The insecurity is confusing, and if that weren’t enough, the battle to internalize my achievements is exhausting and demoralizing. I feel like an imposter unworthy of the position I had worked for. Were my entrance essays that good? Did I get special consideration because I am a woman? Or maybe I was admitted because I had a disability?

This feeling is common enough to have a name: Imposter phenomenon. Continue reading

Dress for Success

Ever since I started going to conferences, I’ve been at a loss for what to wear. The men in my field pride themselves in the aloof state of their dress when presenting their results, and it’s not uncommon to see them presenting in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip flops. But for women, there is an unspoken rule that to be taken seriously, jeans and a t-shirt just aren’t going to cut it. Continue reading

Prospective Students and Lab Culture

‘Tis the season for would-be faculty to field campus interviews. It’s also the time of year when accepted prospective graduate students come for campus visits. Usually a two or three day blitz of events, on our campus it always includes a day’s worth of interview time with each lab group that a student is considering joining.* Some of that time is a formal interview with faculty PIs, but much of that time is spent chatting with current graduate students and post-docs over coffee (or adult beverages).

Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve had at least one prospective student interviewing with my lab group. And each time, I’ve been struck by how these students did not ask a single question about the culture of our lab group, even when having private one-on-one conversations with current graduate students. Now that I’ve been in graduate school for several years, I’ve realized the extent to which lab culture and communication norms can make or break one’s sanity. Continue reading

Guest post: Using fiction to explore realities for women in STEM

Ten years ago, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, sparked a controversy by attributing some of the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities to “innate” differences between men and women. I remember the uproar in the media, the indignation of scientists, quoted in the press, and even some of the statements about universities’ commitment to encourage women to apply to tenure track positions. I can recollect some of the ensuing grumbling and bitching, but not as acutely as I remember a graduate student nastily complaining that women now had a better shot at getting an offer. I don’t remember any response from the members of faculty. I have no doubt that professors talked among themselves, but the topic was not raised in group meetings. On the surface everything was as usual – female graduate students and post-docs did not rant in front of those who would write their letters of recommendation, and advisers did not say anything that might be misinterpreted.

A few weeks after Summers’ remark, I had an idea that had little to do with my work. I imagined a female physicist in a fictitious university, the people she works with, her family, and the man she loves. Continue reading

Effective academic advising

One of the components of the ‘service’ part of my job is advising undergraduates from their sophomore year onwards. Each of the faculty in my department takes a (mostly equal) portion of the advising load – at our current enrollment that means 15-20 advisees each. Faculty don’t necessarily make the best advisors – many schools have full-time academic advisors who specialize in guiding students through their college careers. But at most schools, particularly smaller institutions, faculty are the primary advisors on campus or share that responsibility with professional staff. Like teaching, academic advising is another important part of many of our jobs that we aren’t trained for sufficiently, if at all. Academic advising contains pieces of teaching, personal counseling, and career counseling, but is yet distinct from all of them. In a previous post I talked about the challenges of dealing with the emotional side of advising. Recently I have been thinking about whether I am the best academic advisor I can be, and if there are changes I could make to my approach that would help my students. Continue reading

Academic Space

Space. This seems to be one of the most contentious topics out there in academia these days.  OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, since space appears to be one of those issues that has been a thorn in the side of academics (and probably non-academics as well) since time immemorial. Many (all?) of us here at TSW have our own space challenges and we also hear about space issues from friends and colleagues year after year. In an attempt to move from anecdotes to anecdata (as much as we can with an informal poll disseminated via blog and twitter), we are interested in hearing your stories about lab space- the good, the bad, the ugly. So please fill out the following poll within the next two weeks (by Friday, February 20th) and we’ll report back in a future blog post.