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

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

How do you spend your breaks?

My big kid spent spring break in another state, with my ex-husband. Early in the week, we were talking on Skype and we had the following conversation:

“What are you doing for spring break?”

“Nothing too exciting. I’m going to work, pretty much like usual.”

“But don’t you get a vacation?”

“Yes, but I’m just using it to work.”

“But does anyone at your work take a vacation?”

“Yes, some do. I know some people are going to visit their families. One person is going to Disney World with his family.”

“So how come you aren’t doing anything fun?”

“Well, I’m trying to get caught up because of time I’ve spent with you, and your brother and doing family stuff at other times. And I’d like to get a bit ahead so that we can spend time together when you’re around.”

[Noises of not really buying my story. I try again…]

“You know how we’re planning to go on a couple of trips this summer? To Big City in the US? And foreign country?  I’m working now, when others are on spring break, so that I can take longer vacations during the summer, when you can come too.”

“Oh. OK.”

So that’s how I spent my spring break. Continue reading

Off the beaten tenure track

Last week, I got an email from a friend suggesting that my husband (who adjuncts) apply to a tenure track position two and a half hours away. Even though I am happy in my full-time, non-tenure track position here, my (tenured) friend still saw this as an option. Why?

“Because tenure-track trumps all,” my husband said, and he’s right. Even with the stress, workload, and uncertainty faced by my TT friends and colleagues, it’s clear most see NTT as an unacceptable option. Yet despite the shadow cast on anything except tenure-track jobs, three years ago I chose a non-tenure track over a tenure-track job offer. Today, as I work to juggle being the family breadwinner with taking care of a newborn, I still think this was the best decision for myself and for my family.

As criticism of the percent of faculty who are adjuncts grow, I expect to see universities increase the number of faculty who are full-time, but not on the tenure track. This is not as bad as it sounds. Before I explain why it’s worked for me, let me add this caveat: My R-2 university has a long-standing NTT structure, one that includes a union, a benefits package equal to TT faculty, and the opportunity for promotion. The structure of the university’s NTT positions promotes permanence. So, this is not an part-time adjunct or “instructor” position.

In this position, I am expected to teach a solid number of students, with a focus on general education courses, and to teach well. I get paid less. I am not required to do research, but I can continue to research and publish if I choose to. However, I can’t expect to receive workload reductions in exchange for being research active. I cannot get tenure, so although there is a 9-year “post-reappointment” zone, my job is less secure than tenured faculty. Continue reading

Dual Careers, One Academic

I’ve seen a lot written and discussed about the so-called “two body problem”, as universities take on the challenge of dual career couples coming into a new position. It’s a particularly important issue in my field, as the majority of married women in it are married to men in the field. The problem is that I’m not one of them, as I married someone who’s career is outside of academia. Continue reading

Figuring Out My Next Steps

I’m nearing a point in my post doc where I think I’m ready to finally start applying to faculty positions. I’ve gotten a few publications out, I’ve built a lab pretty much from the ground up, and I’ve mentored students in the lab ranging from high schoolers up through grad students. I’ve gotten leadership positions within organizations in my field, and I’ve managed to secure a chunk of time using the equipment at a national lab. Right now, it’s also the time of year when positions are advertised for the few months before the November and I’d have to wait another year for the next one. And though I’m ready to start applying, I’m a bit concerned about leaving.

Continue reading

10 Ways that Academia Has Made Me a Better Athlete

I’m an academic with a serious time (and money)-consuming hobby – I like to run and bike and swim. I like to obsess about workout schedules and how fast I can bike 25 miles and how that changes depending on hills, road surface, and how my legs – and lungs – feel today. I like to do races, and this summer I have been training for a triathlon*, which means I’ve had a lot of time to think while running and biking and swimming, and what I keep coming back to is this: Academia has made me a better endurance athlete**.

There is a lot written about life lessons from running; and what-I-learned-about-X-from-sports. But my experience is the opposite – I’m not a natural athlete***, I have medical issues I need to constantly deal with in order to work out consistently, and I didn’t train for anything athletic until I was a postdoc. instead of learning about life from running, many of the lessons and strategies that have made me a better, tougher scientist are things that apply equally well to endurance events.

We don’t often think about the skills we learn in academia as applicable to much else (although it does and we should emphasize these transferable skills more), so here is a top 10 list of how academia made me a better athlete. Continue reading