Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture: Continue reading

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More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” 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?

Celebrating the village that ‘raised’ me

Earlier this week, Professor Terry McGlynn shared his story of how he found science as a career path on the Small Pond Science blog. As a woman in the academy who is also a scientist, I wanted to share some of my story.

Why? It’s not that I think I have a particular unique path to where I am now. Mostly I want to share it because there can be so many difficult things about being a woman in science and a woman in the academy. I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the path that led me here, to a mental and physical place where I work hard to do work I enjoy while mentoring women students in science – and to thank (although anonymously here) the many women mentors who helped get me here. It takes a village!

There’s certainly a stereotype that kids who have chemistry sets or collect fossils are the ones who grow up to be scientists. Maybe that’s true, but that wasn’t my path – and it wasn’t the way I was brought up. Continue reading

Life After the Job Market

At this time last year, I was waiting anxiously for a large research university in Texas to call. At this time two years ago, I was waiting anxiously for a comprehensive university in Georgia to call.I felt like a lovesick teenager, constantly checking my phone, my email, the department website, anything that would give me some idea of what was happening. In both cases, the offer had been made, and I was second choice. Long negotiations left me in limbo for months after promising campus visits. I must have known on some level that this was the situation, but hope and despair take turns running your life while on the job market; neither has a basis in logic. One day, I was sure I had a job, the next, I was sure I would never get one. Both schools kept me on the hook until mid to late April before finally letting me down easy. The second time, I knew I was done. I accepted a job offer at a Community College and have been making sense of that choice ever since.

I love quit lit. It got me through those final months when I knew I might keep trying indefinitely for that tenure-track research job without ever getting one. Continue reading

“Up” on a pedestal: mental illness and grad school, or mania and research

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after I was born, and shortly after her grandfather, who she loved deeply, suddenly died.  As an adult, I can make sense of it:  I can reason that the combined effects of grief and pregnancy on her body did something to bring to light an illness that had been latent; but when she told me when I was a child, I thought maybe if I hadn’t come along, my mom wouldn’t be sick.

Bipolar disorder is highly heritable, and both of my parents have diagnoses.  I’ve known this for most of my life and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.

It has taken years for me to push back against all of the ableist rhetoric that society has shoved into me.  The thought that depression was something I could just push through if I tried harder.  The idea that if I went on medication I would lose myself, I would change.  The notion that if I went to therapy I was weak.  That I couldn’t seek services because then it would be official, I’d be crazy, and what’s worse than that?

And frankly it’s all utter bullshit—but it took years to deprogram.

So here’s where I am now:  Continue reading

Evaluating my semester

This semester I’ve had a teaching leave. Fifteen weeks to focus on research and getting papers out and research done. I had lofty ambitions for this semester, and slightly unrealistic expectations for how much I could do.

The plan
The cut down version of my plan (after planning my semester with far more, realizing that was not going to happen and re-planning with less) was to get 2 papers written and submitted, with one of those resubmitted. Another paper drafted, and one major grant submitted.
My softer goals were to spend more time in the lab at the bench, attend 3 conferences and speaking at two of them (lined up well before the semester), and increase the time I spent reading broadly and thinking about the future of projects happening in the lab.

So how did I do?

Continue reading