Managing Health on the Tenure Track

When I started my first year on the tenure track, I did so knowing that it would be challenging. Not only would I have the tenure process to worry about, but I also began teaching more than I ever had during my graduate school training. On top of these challenges, I live with a chronic autoimmune disease which can be unpredictable and flares under new and stressful conditions. It was a perfect storm and I knew that my health would suffer if I didn’t make it a priority.

Today I submitted grades for all of my writing classes, and I want to briefly reflect on what worked as I tried to take care of myself this year.

  1. Health Insurance! As I have mentioned in the past, benefits for full time faculty at CCs can be substantially better than other types of schools due to a strong union presence. This was the first time I had access to all the medical help I could want, and I took advantage. From taking care of my Vitamin D deficiency to getting referred to a dietician, this benefit was immensely helpful.
  2. I had a health coach. In the past couple of years, I have noticed an increase in the availability of life coaching, career coaching, or other kinds of guidance beyond a therapist/patient relationship. A friend of mine was beginning a coaching career and allowed me to work with her for a discounted rate as she earned her license. We talked on the phone twice a month about my goals and values alongside her speciality in mindfulness and meditation. These conversations became an opportunity for me to re-center my health as work demands constantly drew my focus.
  3. My chronic illness buddy. My very good friend suffers from an autoimmune disease similar to my own and we are working to create structure and support for each other even though we live far away. When doctors do not take our pain seriously, we take each other’s pain seriously. We have a Google Doc with updates on our health, procedures, and doctor visits as well as resources such as recipes and articles in the news.
  4. Rituals for Selfcare. From Adeline Koh’s line of Sabbatical Beauty to Rebecca Schuman’s 10-step Korean Skin Care Routine, to Sarah Ahmed’s Selfcare as Warfare this has been the year of academic women taking care of ourselves. My personal rituals include epsom salt baths with Ylang Ylang and lavender essential oils, watching The Americans while eating chocolate, and sleeping 9-10 hours per night.

What rituals, practices, and support networks do you turn to when health issues flare up?

When should you (or your students) defend?

At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)?  If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?

The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated.  I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else.  So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.

What’s so complicated then?  Lots of things. An example: students who TA can’t leave in the middle of the semester, or else they will have to pay back their tuition remission. So most students graduate at the end of semesters. No big deal, right? But that’s not necessarily when jobs start, or even postdocs.

How can students (and advisors) time defenses to help students best be ‘ready’ to successfully leap into The Next Thing? Should students defend right before graduating, even if they don’t have something lined up?  Should students defend far in ‘advance’ of actually leaving, to give themselves time to revise their thesis (on paid time) and line up The Next Thing?

Norms seem to vary widely by advisor, school, and field of study.  Many folks in the humanities, especially aiming to continue on in academia, I’ve spoken with defend FAR in advance of actually leaving. Many end up depositing their dissertation 6 months or a year after their defense. In fact, several mentioned being advised by faculty to go on the job market indicating on their CV that they had already defended – the faculty saying this would be a plus in the eyes of the job committee, in that they were “really ABD” and ready to take a position.

Conversely, in the life sciences, I’ve heard very different approaches.  Many students mentioned that they hadn’t thought about this and that their faculty advisors had never discussed this aspect of career development with them. One mentioned that their advisor said it “didn’t matter” when they defended or graduated since “postdocs are always available.”  Current grant funding rates and employment rates seem to indicate otherwise.  Other students mentioned defending and then nominally becoming a postdoc in their same lab under the same advisor until they found a new position – this gave them greater flexibility to leave than student status and is viewed (at least by these students and their advisors, and hopefully their future employers) as improving their CV.

There are lots of additional considerations as well. Does the student have a partner whose employment also needs transitioning (or not)? Does the student have a kid whose needs (perhaps not moving them in the middle of a school year) also must be met?  Is the student pregnant or trying to have a kid (which at least complicates things in the US, since even unpaid employment protections for pregnant/new mothers don’t generally kick in until you’ve worked someplace for 1 year)?  Does the student have to worry about whether employment options are available in institutions and locations that are accepting of their status (perhaps as gay, trans, POC, or PWD)?

There’s lots of debate on how to identity the holes in “the leaky pipeline” that prevents diversifying the faculty, admin, and leadership roles in the academy. I am convinced that this, timing of defense and how to move on, is a critical part of the pipeline conversation – and that if we want to have a more inclusive, fair, and diverse academia in the future, we need to talk about this.

Do you as an advisor consider these factors and/or discuss them with your students when trying to help them imagine and plan their transition from your group onto The Next Thing?  Do you (or did you) as a student yourself? Please share in the comments below.

Guest Post: The Banality of Toxicity

My personal statement glows with enthusiasm. My commitment to neglected infectious disease and immunology, and thus academia, is abundantly clear. At twenty-one I am confident my self-declared global citizenship would be unappreciated in the sterile cubes of industry. At twenty-two, before leaving the hallowed halls of elite undergraduate studies, I am self-assured a PhD is the best way to become a game-changing expert in a world of inequitable health care. At twenty-four, mid-way though preliminary exams, I feel the same. My twenty-third year, I did not. What was different that year, was who I considered my mentor.

I was a mentor for the first time in 7th grade. I was bad at it. The guidance counsellors saw the obvious maturity differences between the newly arrived 6th graders and the departing 8th graders at our junior high school and devised a mentorship program to create a stronger community. While I can explain a lot of my shortcomings in the program by my universally shared social discomfort and the internal conflict between my desires to academically excel and rebel, my lack of training certainly didn’t help. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing solutions to tenure-track concerns

The tenure process is probably unsettling for everyone on some level.

Even if everything goes well, the process of being judged by your peers and others, with the possible outcome of losing your career can pretty much give anyone a stomachache. Sometimes we can channel worry into productivity and use it to keep from coasting or becoming complacent. Sometimes it is just discouraging or paralyzing.

Maybe some level of worry is unavoidable, and we just need to push through.  But what about when a concern calls for action?

The following concerns are based on real situations that have occurred at a variety of institutions.  What would you suggest? Continue reading

How do you find the time?

In graduate school, I took up crafting — knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting, making magnets and sock monkeys and jam? I tried them all. I’ve always liked working with my hands, and the grass roots, eco-friendly nature of the DIY movement was really appealing to me. I also enjoyed learning more about what have traditionally been women’s activities. Embroidering science quotes on pillows felt subversive and oddly empowering. I made me feel closer to my grandmother. It gave me something to do. It was a creative outlet. I met new people, and saved money on holiday gifts. My grad student friends and I would meet for weekend stitch-n-bitches and support each other through tough times.

Crafting also helped my mental health. Watching an episode of Buffy or Alias at night to unwind, I’d find myself unable to relax until I discovered that crocheting silenced that persistent little voice saying “Why aren’t you working?” Because I was working! I was making something! My overachieving neurotic brain was just as satisfied by stitches as by words. I was able to relax, and concentrate on Sidney Bristow kicking ass instead of the pervasive feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

When I started my faculty position, I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentional, it’s just that self-care is one of the first things to go when you’re busy. Continue reading

Guest Post: Quitting a PhD

It’s been over a year since I decided to quit my PhD. There are so many things I’ve learnt from reflecting on what made me feel like such a failure, and many things I wished I knew at the time.

The most important thing to realize if you are thinking about quitting a PhD for any reason is YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. This is the feeling that stuck with me the longest and is really counterproductive to making any decisions about quitting and what you might do after. There are so many reasons to abandon a PhD, all of them legitimate, and none of them are failures. I mostly conquered this thought of failure through realizing that I am not the first, nor will I be the last PhD student to move on. Continue reading

Life on a work visa

This year, like the two that preceded it and at least the next to follow, I will be unable to make summer plans. As someone with a non-permanent position, I am constantly chasing opportunities and gearing up to take the next step, move on to the next position. I expect to live in a different location from one year to the next. As a non-permanent resident, my journey is compounded by visa complications that make me unable to travel for anywhere from 2-4 months around the summer months.

This means a not insignificant amount of lost opportunities for me. I never accept invitations to teach at summer schools or speak at conferences or workshops. I don’t even apply for summer conferences, I just don’t know where I’ll be over the summer and in the following year. In fact, right now, as I worry about a commitment I foolishly made two years ago to attend an event this July, I am unable to make travel plans because the one thing I do know is that I will not live in the same place in July as I do now. But where I will live – and more relevantly, where I should book a flight from/to – that is at the moment a mystery. These difficulties, and the anxieties that they give rise to, are shared between all of us who have temporary jobs.

Being born a citizen of the “wrong” country brings with it an additional layer of complexity, beyond that experienced by other transient academics. Continue reading