Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”.  In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?

Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science.

Sometimes it means a lot of hard work and effort. Perhaps a task requires good hand-eye coordination – better if you have it innately, but with enough practice and experience you can become an expert. Perhaps you need to get over a fear of the water and learn how to scuba dive. Or perhaps those archaeological samples that need to be carried can be an inspiration for better health and physical condition. Last semester I took some students on a walk for our last lab. I realized halfway through that one of my students was really struggling with our pace, and she was very embarrassed that she couldn’t keep up. At one point in my career I was like her… I remember how horrible I felt when I realized that I was holding my PhD supervisor up in the field. It took a lot of concerted effort over many months to get myself in shape enough that I could keep up. Even today I’m not a superstar in the field and I have to acknowledge my limitations when planning sampling.

It can be a real challenge to motivate yourself physically, and not everyone is going to choose that path. However, it’s not only cardiovascular ability and physical strength needed. Many fields require long days (and nights) in uncomfortable conditions in sometimes remote locations. This can really be a barrier early in students’ careers – if the first experience a student has is exhausting, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, they are less likely to stick with that field. This could be a real hindrance against diversity in certain fields.

Sometimes, however, all the hard work and effort isn’t going to lead to success. One of my dissertation experiments was almost a complete wash because I couldn’t pipette at the required level of precision due to a physical condition. I ended up needing help with that part of my project, and after that, I knew that I couldn’t specialize in that area. I do think that there are some physical barriers that are serious enough that not every person can do every job, no matter how we strive for equality and opportunity. If the barriers are in the sample collection stage an academic could become an expert in analyzing the data, interpreting the materials, and/or writing – but that’s more feasible later in your career. Students are expected to be able to succeed in all aspects of their research projects. How do you help students understand or work past their limitations? How do we, as mentors, provide support and realism at the same time?

What to do before a reporter calls…

So you have a snazzy new result and you want to share it with the world? There are plenty of reporters out there looking for a good story.

Interactions with the press can lead to good things – recognition by your institution, your department and even funding agencies. But there is risk involved — interactions with reporters can be problematic if the story they tell isn’t one you like.

In the best cases, stories are a collaboration between scientist and reporter. Here are 10 tips on how to foster productive press interactions.

BEFORE THE PRESS CALLS (OR YOU CALL THEM):

  1. Work with your institution’s public relations staff.  They can help you prepare.
  2. Ask for the major theme and angle of the article.
  3. Ask for the interview questions in advance.
  4. Anticipate misconceptions.
  5. Write down short sound bites and talking points.  Stick to them.
  6. Test communication ideas on novice audiences.
  7. Be careful of what you say – chopped quotes can come across terribly.   Don’t ramble or an offhand comment may be the quote that takes the prime spot.
  8. Ask for permission to check your quotes before publication.
  9. Be ready with images to share and let reporters know how they can use them.
  10. Be prepared for short turnaround times.

This last point is important. Some interviews have to be arranged and conducted within 48 hours. Other times you may work with a reporter over weeks or months, but still need to respond quickly to the initial contact.   If you want to work with the press, you should be ready before they call.

Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly. 


I can’t do this.

That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?

“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”

“But, for now?”

“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”

One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.

Twelve months later… Continue reading

Guest Post: Searching for an academic position on maternity leave

Today’s guest post is by Chicken_little. Chicken_little is a postdoc in clinical psychology in the midst of an existential career crisis – but officially in search of an academic position. She studies the impact of mindfulness interventions in various populations, although she very often forgets to practice mindfulness in her daily life. When she is not working or reading funny academic tweets, she is the proud mom of a baby boy. 


I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to finish a manuscript. I can hear my son yelling in his crib, refusing to take his nap. As I try to concentrate on bringing the finishing touches to my soon-to-be submitted paper, I can’t help but feel incredibly guilty of, once again, favoring my work over my son. The appeal of a tenure-track position is big, and so is the pressure to be productive and to get out several manuscripts this year, even though I am (supposed to be) on maternity leave.

Thank goodness my spouse is home and is there to soothe the baby. Being a postdoc and working from home does have benefits : I was able to transfer my maternity leave to my partner, so we can both spend some time with our son in his first year of life. But let’s be honest here : having him at home only means that I can get more work done, as he watches the baby. I am trying to make things happen for my career all the while he is putting his own on hold. This better pay off.

This is what I have learned so far on being a mom and a postdoc in search of an academic position at the same time : Continue reading

Getting out of a hole

Last year sucked for me in an epic way. Health problems and personal losses, compounded by a long-distance spouse, made me realize just how tenuous pre-tenure life is. When your everyday status is “barely treading water,” there’s no leeway for life to throw curve balls*. I was already overcommitted and doing too much service. Then I hurt myself. My dad got cancer. I had a string of demoralizing events. I ended a couple of long-term close friendships that had become toxic over the years.

I got behind. A lot. And I felt like I didn’t have much of a safety net yet in my new job, so I didn’t ask for help. I avoided the things that were stressing me out. I stopped taking care of myself, partly because of my injury, but partly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I dropped balls. A proposal never got submitted. A paper was late, and another one stalled. I didn’t make progress on a workshop commitment. I missed a couple of reviews.

I felt like a failure, and this just exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Lack of progress on my health goals meant pushing back trying for a baby by another year. I regretted not having gotten my reproductive act together sooner, before I lost my dad. I felt like I had no one I could talk to about any of this. I didn’t want my mentors to think I wasn’t worth the time they’d put into me. My family was already suffering and didn’t need me to worry about. I didn’t want to lean too much on my friends or my partner. I felt so self-conscious about not being invincible.

I made a lot of mistakes in the lead-up to my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year that set me up to have a harder time than I needed to. And then I made poor choices in how I handled (or didn’t handle) what life threw at me. Once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out. Much harder, I think, than avoiding the hole in the first place. So what should I have done differently? Continue reading

On seeking accommodations in school

I’ve known for a long time that accommodations are a Thing–that is, that they existed.  About a year back, TSW had an excellent guest post on this very topic, outlining what sorts of accommodations exist, who qualifies for them, and some of the hurdles folks face in moving through the system.  I hope for this post to serve more as a personal case study, to describe my experience in requesting accommodations for the first time, and to offer any insight I might have gained from the experience.

I’ve written a bit already about my mental health.  As I mentioned in that post, I have pretty serious depression, but I’ve found a combination of therapy, medication, and physical activity that keep me pretty darn happy and stable.  That said, though, most of my first year in grad school has been tougher than it needed to be due to my housing situation. Continue reading

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?