Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

“You’re such a productive academic mama! I didn’t do anything the first 4 months after my kid was born.”

Reading this recently in my inbox was unsettling. It was in reference to the fact that I was writing and replying to emails, with an infant at home.  What the sender didn’t, doesn’t, understand is that I don’t feel like I have much of a choice.  As an early career academic trying to figure out The Next Steps (AKA someone hire / fund me please!), there are a round of grant + fellowship deadlines this fall that won’t come up again for at least another year. And by then I won’t be eligible for at least one of them. In other words, external forces just don’t care what else I have going on. Their deadlines are not negotiable.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I’ve ended up backing out of or turning down several things this fall that understandably are time-sensitive and involve large groups of other people- conferences, workshops. Deadlines and set time-frames help organize these groups and keep everyone on task. And these opportunities are important, but I just couldn’t make them work this fall.* One workshop required that I teach a module to peers on a pre-determined schedule, which I couldn’t commit to [with an infant nursing on demand who isn’t taking a bottle]. One conference was willing to let me present remotely/electronically, but said I had to commit to being available to answer questions live [again, I didn’t think that was a realistic option personally].

But I truly do not believe that this kind of inflexibility needs to be true for all academic opportunities. I feel especially strong about this when it comes to grant deadlines. 

There is already an ongoing movement to eliminate some grant deadlines in exchange for rolling deadlines. The latest NSF program to eliminate deadlines is in plant genomics, but NSF started their tinkering with this initiative years ago in the geosciences.

So far, NSF considers their elimination of grant deadlines wildly successful. Why? Because it greatly reduced the number of applications. Which makes funding rates look higher.  They’re chalking it up to reducing the number of mediocre or hastily created applications.  Others think it’s eliminating the procrastinators from the applicant pile. But, of course, there’s no way of knowing (yet?**) whether the quality of applications is better, or whether there are just fewer of them.

I agree with eliminating grant deadlines. But for a very different set of reasons.

Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue. Why? Because when Life Happens, as it often does outside of work, women are left picking up the pieces. And this affects whether women can meet those deadlines – or at least whether they can meet those deadlines while maintaining their sleep and health.

Why do I think this? What do I mean by Life Happens? Kids get sick. Elders get sick. [Check out this entire page of stats on women and caregiving] Women are overwhelming taking care of the loved ones in their lives. Women are STILL doing more housework at home. Women are doing more service and admin work in the office. Women STILL get paid less, so they have fewer resources to outsource caregiving or food prep or take their of their physical and mental health.  Women are also more likely to be dealing with a mental illness, including depression, than men — so self-care and mental health-care are much needed.

Unfortunately, I don’t think grant deadlines necessarily keep women from applying to grants. [But don’t get even me started on how women are less likely to receive a major grant. Or that they are likely to get less funding than their male colleagues when they do get funding. Issues for another post.]  I think many a multi-tasking academic women perseveres and gets their grants in, while doing One Million Other Things, sacrificing all the way.  Even if they are sick. Even if their kids are sick. Even if they are taking on more tasks and roles in the academy than their male peers.

So with funding rates lower and lower, I don’t think NSF should be celebrating making a change that reduces applicants for their grants — especially without yet knowing who is being discouraged from applying with the change.  But I actually think that eliminating grant deadlines could actually help women be better represented in the grant pool – and hopefully give them the flexibility to develop stronger applications.

What do you think?

 

 

*doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be possible, depending on the person or the opportunity. Lots of folks take their infants to conferences or workshops. I took an infant to a conference once. But not this time.

** if we looked at the grant scores for pre- and post- deadline elimination, this could be possible. I’ll look forward to hearing whether program officers are going to do that and release the info publicly.

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.

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

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?

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