Getting out of a(nother) hole

When you’re in a hole, it’s so hard to see your way out of it. What’s worse, for a while there, I didn’t even know how deep the hole was. I was getting by, and on paper you would even think everything was going great. But in reality, for about two years now, things haven’t been good at all. Mental Illness Awareness Week was two weeks ago, and it is time for me to reflect on my journey out of a pretty dark place and to stand in the light.

The last two years of my life have been objectively pretty shitty. My spouse cheated on me not long after we moved to a new city for me to start my postdoc*, and the relationship eventually fell apart; a close family member had some serious health problems and I was too far away to help**; a TT job offer got rescinded because of toxic*** backroom politics of the kind that I don’t think I’ll feel safe talking about even when I’m old and tenured; and inner-departmental politics were unhealthy and I was caught between students who were desperately asking for help and an abusive faculty member who was too powerful for me to take on.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated a lot of anxiety. Eventually, a friend dragged me to the crisis center at the university’s mental health clinic, and I got diagnosed with panic attacks. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was alone in a new city, away from my good friends and family, unhappy with my work life, and not doing much better in my personal life. I developed a dislike for the city I was in, and also didn’t enjoy the weather. I tried seeing two different therapists over the course of about a year and a half, but I can’t say that it was doing very much for me. There were just so many things going wrong that I couldn’t control, and of course the uncertainty of also being on the job market at the same time was not helping at all. My insurance wouldn’t cover more than roughly a 45-minute session every other week, but things were moving far too fast and there were just too many of them happening at the same time for it to be effective.

At various points I thought that I was doing better. Professionally, papers kept coming out, collaborations were ongoing, I was presenting at all the important conferences, and I was getting praised and noticed by major players in my field. I was doing my best to keep business as usual. On the personal life front, I decided to take a break from dating to focus on myself, and was doing my best to go out and meet new friends who wouldn’t know about all the messes in my past. I started exercising, and I was also eventually able to take some time off to travel home and be with my family.

But there were also relapses. Really, I think the best way to describe it is that I was fragile. Any little thing could break me. Getting stuck in traffic and being so late for a talk I was supposed to give in a reading group that it had to be rescheduled. Breaking my phone and having to get it replaced. Getting an abstract rejected from a conference that wasn’t even all that important. Things that are perhaps unpleasant, but on a normal day I would shrug right off. But these (and other) bumps in the road would send me spiraling down for days, to the point of considering suicide and even googling ways of doing it. I wasn’t at the point of actions, but the thoughts were there.

I kept this from my family. They were far away and spending time in the hospital with a sick relative. They clearly knew something was wrong, but I doubt the knew the extent. Most of my friends are also colleagues, and the fear of rumors kept me from talking to them (there was already enough gossip about my job offer and relationship going around as it was). Besides, this wasn’t really something I wanted to talk about on the phone with someone who was far away. I had one close friend who I trusted with this information, who helped me talk through the irrational thoughts I was having.

I knew I needed to make a serious change.

And as luck would have it, I was able to land a new job and move away. I resolved to take the change of location and the opportunity to start over with new colleagues as my chance to change the narrative. I still had to wait several months for my new insurance to kick in, but as soon as I could, I found a doctor I got along with, and I told her the whole story. Following her advice, I decided to start taking an SSRI. I was wary at first — I don’t even like taking meds when I have a headache. But I did my research and decided it was worth a shot. I use glasses to correct my vision and I don’t think that’s in any way “messing with reality” or “not really me”, so why not do the same for my mental health?

The change was immediate and remarkable. I had some side-effects that completely went away within a couple of weeks, but I immediately started sleeping longer and better. I have been more upbeat and, I suspect, louder. Initially this was strange and I felt like I needed to hold back when I felt like I was being too outgoing. But it’s funny how fast it’s become natural. Several of my friends who I saw when I went to visit my PhD institution told me that I seem very happy. And even some colleagues who see me no more than one or twice a year remarked at a recent conference on how glad they were that I seem to be in a better place in life. Which I was mortified by, to be honest, because who knows what kind of godawful vibes I was sending before if people who are passing acquaintances noticed.

It’s only been about two months since this change started. I am still adjusting to the new me. What I now think is the ‘real’ me. I am now finding it hard not to hold back when I want to laugh and be loud, as ridiculous as it sounds. I am listening to music again, and its just occurred to me that I haven’t been doing that for almost two years. I just bought myself some colorful socks. I wear less black. I wasn’t even aware that I was making those choices, but I just seem to want different things now. There are still setbacks, and I have no illusions that everything in my life is fixed. But I really do believe that I can handle things now. I am slowly making my way back out of the hole.

Some of the things that have helped me most were finding a trusted friend to share this with, so it’s not a secret I am keeping from everyone (though I am very selective in who I share it with!), exercising, time-tracking, and actively scheduling time off for social activities, grooming time, and sleep. I am trying to get better at saying ‘no’  to things, and when I’ve done so, I’ve found that everyone around me has been supportive and understanding.

I am not advocating for or against deciding to take medication. But I am advocating in no uncertain terms for taking care of your mental health. Needing to seek help is nothing to be ashamed of. Seeing a therapist is nothing to be ashamed of. And needing medication, if together with your doctor you decide that that is the right course of action for you, is nothing to be ashamed of. Getting the help you need is something to be proud of, and you are not alone. So many of us are sharing the hole with you, and if you just reach out, we will hold your hand and help you through.

* but long enough after we moved for them to have met all my new colleagues, so people kept asking about them long after we had split up.
** they are doing better now, thankfully.
*** in fact, from all that I’ve been able to gather, some people’s actions were actually illegal. Certainly they were unethical.

Have you been in a hole lately? Share your experiences being in the hole and your advice on how to climb out of it.

In Negotiations, The Pen Can be Mightier than the Mouth

A long time ago I heard that women are not so good at negotiating. You can’t blame this all on women, since part of the problem is how our attempts to negotiate are received.

Recently I was told that young women are “getting *$%^ed” because they are told that the staring salaries at various companies are fixed, which they interpret as “no need to negotiate.” This is far from the truth, because there are moving costs, bonuses, and other possible perks that can be negotiated. If you look at the data and compare what male and female students are getting when they graduate it is not equitable. We need to do a better job mentoring our students how to negotiate.

My own experience has led me to conclude that when I negotiate with my pen (through email) I can be far more successful than when I negotiate with my mouth (by talking either in person or on the phone/telecon). Here’s what I have learned in my own negotiations:

  1. If the promise isn’t in writing it does not exist. Department chairs, Deans and other administrators change (sometimes unexpectedly) and the next person is only obligated to honor things that are in writing (and signed). When you are hired, make sure your needs regarding space, travel, equipment, supplies, student funding, etc. are met as much as possible.  It should be in writing how that is going to happen and who is going to pay. Not just that the institution will take care of it, but what funding source at the institution will pick up the bill.
  2. Negotiate with your pen (keyboard), not your mouth. Unfortunately, when women negotiate with their mouths, people generally respond based on how they look, the tone of their voice and how things went with the last woman who negotiated. When you make your request politely but firmly in writing, you are just stating your needs. The person reading the request can “hear” it in their own inner reading voice. They can respond to the content and take the time to consider what should be a yes and what must be a no.
  3. The strongest position is one you can walk away from. That’s why having more than one job offer is an advantage. This goes for consulting gigs too. Recently I negotiated a consulting job where I asked for an amount. I was offered about ¼ of the amount. I provided evidence that if I took another job I would be paid ½ again as much as the original amount I asked. I wrote politely that I would prefer to work for them, but only if they could meet my salary and other requests. They met the requests.
  4. Concisely explain what you will do with the resources you require. If an institution is providing something (money, space, small class enrollment), they deserve to know what the institution will receive in return.   This can be phrased as a benefit to the institution, not a defense of your request (even if the request for information seems like a challenge to your request). In my consulting contract negotiation, after the salary was settled, the other party asked for several new things (I’m assuming to get what they thought was their money’s worth). I made a tiny compromise, but basically (in writing) said that what they were requesting would not work and provided the educational reasons. They met my request. Everything went well and I have been asked to perform a second job, but doing much more for the same money. I have made it clear that I will be happy to continue the work, but only under the same conditions as the first job. I also joked (with my mouth) that each time they ask for more, I’ll double my salary request. I can do this because of condition #3 (see above).  We’ll see how it goes…
  5. Be friendly, professional and positive as well as cool and tough. Negotiations are a test of both parties. How will you and the institution behave when things are tough and awkward? Discussions about money often make people act in unusual ways. You can show that you are cool, tough, positive and professional under pressure. Then the institution (and individuals) can expect you to be that way on the job.   Your institution deserves that kind of behavior, especially if you are provided the resources you need to do your job well.
  6. Be reasonable in your expectations. Before the negotiation begins, do your homework (with your mouth). As much as possible, find out from several people what has been done in the past, and what might be possible at that point in time. If you ask for something far outside the normal realm, it can be difficult for administrators to honor your request. If you really need something unusual, then possibly ask (with your mouth since you might not want this in writing) if it would be possible to trade it for something else that others normally receive. Once you have done your homework, you are ready to begin real negotiations.


Academics and Deplorables

As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.



Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected. As a subtle version of #NotAllMen, this line of argument allows men to ignore their unwillingness to acknowledge or intervene against misogyny.


And Jessica Valenti wrote perhaps the most poignant statement of all in her column in The Guardian. She says the video is “painful to watch not just because Zucker doesn’t know what was said about her, but because this is what women are afraid of. That the men we know, the men we work with – or even love – say horrible things about us. That despite assurances that they respect us and consider us equals, men are secretly winking behind our back. That we are not really people to them, but things.”

In short, Trump’s gleeful, self-aggrandizing admission of sexual assault is not shocking to me. It is all too familiar. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen professional and educational contexts from my childhood to the present where men have said or done horrifically inappropriate things to me. But I want to revisit one instance from my Middle School pre-Algebra class. Avoid that boys will be boys impulse, y’all. Men of all ages move through the world with power and privilege and need to be held accountable for their actions.

I was in seventh grade and taking pre-Algebra. I was relatively new to my school as an army brat who moved every two years or so, but I was starting to make some friends in the class. We had taken a quiz and the teacher was handing it back with a grade. I got a 98% and sheepishly placed the quiz on my desk while my nosy classmates looked over my shoulder. Two boys near me began laughing and asked me if I had given the teacher a blow job to get that grade. This became a running joke for the rest of school year with a growing cadre of participants. In this way, my good math grades became shameful to me. In retrospect, I realize this is the year when I decided I was not good at math, a myth that I kept with me until very recently when I began learning about stereotype threat around STEM for girls. I’m an English professor now, and I teach about stereotype threat in my writing class. We watch Debbie Sterling’s excellent TED Talk about her invention Goldiblox, an engineering tool for girls. It was not until I watched this video that I realized: actually, I am good at math. I finished 2 semesters of College Calculus my senior year of high school. How can I carry around this belief that I can’t succeed in that subject area? I wonder how many women have been sexually harassed out of STEM fields by mediocre men.

I love writing for a blog with a large readership of women scientists, because I get a better sense of what women are up against in male-dominated academic fields. In some ways, I am privileged as a Humanist, but even in a field where the gender balance is more equal, my women colleagues and friends face ubiquitous sexual harassment at their colleges and universities. One of my acquaintances quit her tenure-track job due to sexual harassment. Another had to change dissertation advisors when her chair began relentlessly propositioning her. My point is, Trump’s treatment of women in general, or of Arianne Zucker at her workplace in the video, is not unique to the deplorables. Sexual harassment and assault determine the fields where women pursue their talents, determine our career outcomes, determine our mental and physical health. I hope this election makes academics rethink our comfortable superiority in relation to the mass of Trump supporters and look more deeply at how we got here, and what we are going to do about it.

Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading

Valuing chronically ill graduate students


Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

Continue reading

How to Publish Without Institutional Support

My institution defines me as a teacher. I knew this when I accepted a job teaching a 5-5 load a community college. Publication is not a part of my tenure review process, but teaching evaluations are, and I take part in an elaborate observation of my classes each year. The thing is, I am trained as a researcher and I define myself as a scholar, which to me means equal parts research, writing, and instruction. I was one of those people in graduate school who couldn’t wait to start my dissertation. Even as I have come to see myself as more of a teacher and found real meaning in working with my students, I feel a need to go beyond the classroom, to try and solve the systemic problems I see in my institution and community colleges more generally through inquiry and writing. This post is a look at my ongoing struggle to make space for the part of myself that is a writer in a teaching-focused job.

Problem 1: No Writing/Researching Community

Research is not exactly frowned upon at my institution, but there are not many folks around me who see themselves as researchers or academic writers. Lacking the environment of a research-focused community, I have to seek out like-minded scholars elsewhere. We have a four-year college in our town, and so far I have been lucky to meet junior scholars (on the tenure track and adjunct) to talk with about writing. I am learning to go out of my way to maintain scholarly community. I have no conference funding, but there are ways to finagle some travel money from our professional development funds at my college. Most importantly, I have become more assertive with my communications within my field. If I am writing something, I send emails to senior-scholar acquaintances I met during graduate school. I have them read my work. I have them suggest others I should be engaging with. Some senior scholars ignore my emails. But by and large, I have had great success and continue to nurture connections in my field.

Problem 2: No University Library

Books, articles, dissertations. I had no idea how lucky I was to have access to a university library system for 10 years of my life in higher ed. I have not figured out how to work around this constraint. I can interlibrary loan one book at a time for a few weeks, and our library provides access to some databases (JSTOR primarily). But electronic journals- no. Ongoing acquisitions to maintain an up-to-date collection- definitely no. Opportunities to suggest books that I would like to see in the collection- nope. The library budget is extraordinarily limited at community colleges with most of the focus on students and their needs. Fair enough. But this makes me more or less an independent scholar. Open access is my rallying cry. There is no such thing as academic meritocracy if some scholars have their access limited by paywalls.

Problem 3- No Research Funding

This problem has been surprisingly simple to get around. I have started applying for funding through professional organizations and external grants (I’ll let you know how that goes). I also have the option to spread my salary out over 12 months. With the academic year of about 9 months, this leaves me the entire summer to travel, write, and get my work out. The main problem is the timing. I managed to get two articles out this summer, but I will not likely have the time to return to them until winter break at the earliest. Depending on the time reviewers spend with the drafts, I may not be working on those pieces again until next summer, with actual publication dates some time in the year after that. I can see my current summer-writing strategy working for shorter pieces like articles and book chapters, but my ambition to complete a monograph does not seem feasible when I can only write for 2-3 months of the year. And there is that furious voice in my head that says no one should produce academic work without compensation. This is why we are increasingly undervalued as workers and professionals. I am not currently compensated for my scholarly work. Should I give it up? I can’t see myself doing that any time soon.

I am certain there are more and more of us in this position. How many scholars are spread between adjunct gigs, postdocs, visiting assistant professorships, and community college jobs? I imagine a lot of us struggle with finding  resources- be they time, money, community, or the promise of professional advancement- to keep writing. If research without compensation is the new norm, we are going to need to think seriously about how to pay for scholarship, and create access to all of us doing scholarly work.



Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading