I’m not taking career advice from old white dudes anymore.

Recently, a senior emeritus professor called me out because he hadn’t seen me at a talk in a different department (let’s say it’s Astronomy). “I’ve never seen you at a single Astronomy talk,” he admonished. “You really need to go to those.” I patiently explained that I typically have a teaching conflict, which he brushed off, and repeated his imperative that I really needed “to go to those talks.” He was angry at my laziness in failing to attend these critical seminars in a tangentially related field, and didn’t respect my explanations that 1) I couldn’t, and 2) even if I could, I have to make hard choices and don’t always have the luxury of doing everything I’d like to.

Now, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist– in fact, my position is split between a departmental home and an interdisciplinary institute, which means I go to twice as many faculty meetings and probably four times as many seminars as most of my colleagues do. But the advice of this retiree was that I needed to add yet another seminar to the list, and he wasn’t afraid to scold me about this front of my colleagues. This particular professor is of the opinion that I need to be just like him — or, rather, like his retired incarnation, which has a lot of free time to leisurely enjoy talks — in order to succeed. It’s just a small example of a phenomenon I’m starting to grow tired of, which is this paternalistic attitude some of my senior colleagues — all older, white men — have. They give advice liberally, these silverbacks, from the comfortable position of retirement or full professorship.

And you know what? It’s really, really shitty advice. Continue reading

Ask TSW: Can I do a project that’s outside the scope of my home department?

Dear TSW,

I have finished up my first year in my PhD program in public health. I like my classmates a lot, the classes are fun, and I am making the big leap of doing more research, but there are days when I question my decision to attend this program. My problem is that the people in my department seem very anti-health. In recent faculty and chair searches, I’ve discovered that global health isn’t a priority here. I think I can deal with this if I take the initiative. Sometimes I think I should have gone to a school with a bigger curriculum in what I want, but that school didn’t fund me nearly as well as this one.

What advice would you offer to someone who is pursuing a curriculum outside her home department and wants part of her dissertation, say 50%, to be done on a topic that’s outside of her department?  And let’s say the professor in global health can’t fund me, but I still very much want to pursue this?  What advice would you offer in terms of applying for a funding, or looking into grants on campus?

Also, the professor in global health wants me to help him develop a course for undergraduates. However, he knows it’s unreasonable to ask me to help him if he can’t fund me.  I would think developing a course isn’t exactly research, but if a student is considering joining faculty one day, I’d suspect this is something to put on a CV because it’s part of the PhD learning process.  So if I apply for some type of grant, is this something you’d put on an application or would it not be relevant?

Sincerely,

MCH Student
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Transitioning in Academia

Working your way through the academic career takes a lot of time commitments, and often we are pressured away from any time-consuming activities that would take us away from our work. Having children is a huge one, which has been discussed and continues to be discussed as academia works on better policies for women to maintain a work/life balance without losing their careers. As I’ve gone through my academic journey as a trans woman, I’ve had to navigate another tricky balance: transitioning in academia.
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I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too!

As of last week, I have officially survived my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor! I’m sure there are a lot of you out there just getting started, too, and so I wanted to share some advice and reflections, while they’re fresh (Year 2 is already upon me, and it’s already a different animal!). I was told a lot of this before I started, myself, and it didn’t really sink in until I lived it. Still, just having someone normalize your experience is so incredibly valuable, and so here’s my own:

1. You won’t get anything done in Year 1. This is actually not really true, but it feels like it. Everything takes much longer than you’ll predict — getting your office set up, getting phones turned on, figuring out the email client and Payroll and the archaic student course software (or softwares!), ordering equipment. There are meetings and orientations and everyone wants to invite you for coffee and to talk about collaborations and to invite you on committees. You’ll basically find that you get to the summer break and all of your ambitious plans to publish (even if you have a teaching release!) and write grants and collect amazing data all went out the window, and you will very likely feel like a failure. Even if you were crazy productive just before you defended, you’ll find that you’re paying the price now, and finding it harder to focus with so many new demands to your attention. But here’s the thing: everything you’ve been doing, from the thinking to the planning to the figuring out what your space situation is, has value. It’s part of the process. When you hit Year 2, it should all be settled.

What you can do about it: Be strategic about your time, and block off a day (or a half a day) that is sacrosanct. Put it on your calendar. Do not treat it as time for scheduling meetings– treat it as a meeting between you and your computer. Invest in some time management software like RescueTime. Get those last PhD and postdoc papers in the pipeline. Make it a goal to apply for a grant or two, even if you have startup funds. Don’t stay at work too long. I didn’t figure any of this out until recently, and I’m trying it out for Year 2. Continue reading

Poverty in the Ivory Tower

This post is a modified and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

I went to an awesome small conference a few years ago. The location was gorgeous, I got my own room, the talks were all well prepared and about stuff I’m gaga over. There were enough acquaintances attending to feel comfortable and enough new folks to make some useful connections. Plus, the conference sponsors gave away lots of free and super nerdy books.

I also got to interact a lot more with two postdocs from my university who I had developed little science crushes on and really admired. When I prepare for discussion groups, I try to work through the material as deeply as they do. When people ask me questions, I try to respond as carefully and thoughtfully as they do. When they say a book really impressed them, I go read it. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to spend more time with them.

The thing about role models, though, is that they can really let you down. Continue reading