Monday, April 30, 2012

From the other side of the fence

"Collin came home yesterday, and I think I spent an hour talking to him about dog food and grocery store aisles. I open my mouth and these words come out, and I don't know who it is that is talking," Selene told me as Collin buckled their twins into the car after a play date with Epsilon. "I envy your travelling around for the summer. I wish I could put on my backpack again and hitch hike around Europe."

My protestations of rootlessness and loss of friends all seemed empty in the face of Selene's frustration at being bound to one place for so many years. In spite of the fact that we'll be making a significant move in June to start new positions in September, the fact of the matter is, three conferences relatively close to each other, with a week's down time between each means that our family will have a chance to travel significantly, with a sort of subsidy. The number of stamps in Epsilon's passport embarrasses me when talking to my friends, who, for one reason or another cannot travel so much.

In some cases, it's a class thing. In others it's a job thing. Travelling is one of the perks that keeps me in this line of work. Taking my mother abroad to stay at a fancy conference hotel (and watch Epsilon) where 20 years ago she would take me is a cherished pleasure. Each year, my flight to a different tourist city for a conference, is one more than I could make in a different line of work.

I hear the envy for this lifestyle in Selene's voice. I share her periodic feelings of restlessness and sense of being tied down by family. As the kids wave goodbye to each other, I know she mirrors my sadness in knowing that their remaining play dates are numbered. We both say our goodbyes, longing for the parts of the other's life that we don't have.

I am trying to convince myself that it is not just that the grass is greener on the other side. I am trying to remember why I chose this career.

Friday, April 27, 2012

For mere mortals like us....

A student asked me after class how I would recommend studying for the midterm. I believe he's one of the freshmen in my class, so this was not an unreasonable question to have, even at the end of the year. I gave him some standard tips and advice for college exams.

"I asked Professor X the same question." Professor X had taught the a previous class in this sequence. "He told me that he never studied for exams."

What the ****?! How do you say that to a student?! Even (especially?) a highly motivated student who shows up early every day to a 9am class and sits in the front row?

"There are some people, many of whom become tenured professors at a school like this, who know the material well enough to never have to study. But for mere mortals like the rest of us, use the tips I gave you."

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Comrade Physioprof wrote a while back comparing taking postdoc positions to being in the minor league in baseball.

The more accurate analogy is to minor league baseball: yeah it is necessary training to learn how to play ball in the major leagues, but it is also a selection mechanism to identify those players who have a decent shot at success in the majors. ...
Longer post-docs should be welcomed by those aspiring to PI positions, as it provides a much fairer opportunity to prove one's mettle. Many post-docs start slowly for a variety of reasons, and so just because you don't have much to show after two years, doesn't say much about your potential. But if you haven't achieved much after 5+ years as a post-doc, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not just a matter of bad luck, bad mentors, or anything other than a simple--and unfortunate--lack of the skills and talents required to be a PI.
He was referring to length of post docs. But I think it applies to the number of post docs one has to go through as well. I recently received information about why I am failing to get TT offers (though in retrospect, I think I've known it all along.) The why is, I don't think, because I'm not a good enough scientist, but more due to some unlucky political factors. I guess this is what second post docs are for. If I can't break out of this problem soon, we'll know differently.

I would be much happier about it if it didn't require me to live so far from my family. It's a second chance. One doesn't get those very often. I just wish this second chance wasn't so bloody costly.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Happy Administrator's Day

After teaching, I went to the department administrator's office to ask for advice about movers, vaguely aware of something big and cellophany in the corner of my eye. I head back a few minutes later to get some coffee. "What are all the flowers for?"

"Today is Administrator Appreciation Day."

Oh. Well. Don't I feel stupid. Not having gotten anything for my department administrators, I'd like to take a moment to thank all the support staff who have supported me through the years.

For instance, thanks to the singing janitor at a university I visit often. His rendition of 1980's pop songs, belted out to the back beat of office trash cans being emptied, has helped me keep my nose down through annoying calculations.

Thanks to the the department administrator who put up my course website for me a few days after I gave birth, so that I didn't have to come into campus to deal.

Thanks to the department administrator who was always available for a quick chat, advice on where to find my advisor, and stories of colleagues who have left the department. When faced with teaching reviews that criticised how I dressed in class, she came down hard on the "it's none of their business" end of things, when I needed someone to talk to.

The difference between a department with an administrative office that is full of welcoming smiles and warmth and one that is staffed with even neutral people is palpable. I think I owe a few administrators from bygone universities a few e-mails.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A gift from my father's side

After dinner, my father used to sit in his easy chair and listen to music and watch TV while we kids played in the living room. "Barefoot," he'd regularly call. "Come pluck out my white hairs." I'd run over to him, and he'd move to a position where I could reach better. As the years rolled on, he realized that he was fighting a loosing battle. A decade later, a few of the cousins, with goading from the aunts got his brothers and him to dye their hair. But at this point, all the men in my father's side of the family would do as well to have their few remaining dark hairs pulled out to leave a full field of snow on their heads.

I thought of this sequence of events as I stared, flabbergasted, at four white hair front and center on my head.

"How old are you?" He asked. Shocked, I could not find the wits to politely tell him That should be irrelevant. "28." I answered. "Huh. People often don't want to take post docs who are over 30." Back in the visitor's office, his grad student assured me that he was just trying to be fatherly, and that this mindset was true in his home country.

It doesn't matter I tell myself, staring at the white cluster. I'll be moving to his home country in September, 5 years after that conversation. I put my date of birth in the application, and I got the post doc.

Shocked choruses of "you're old," and "I would have guessed you are much younger" from colleagues who, never deviating from the academic path, entered graduate school at 22 and post docs at 27 fill my head. I respond with a memory of walking home from a friend's house when I lived abroad after college. I was giddy with the realization that I was finally living in a society where my age and waistline did not anti correlate with my desirability in society. At 23, I was devastatingly young, to young to be deemed able to do anything. At 40 a man comes into his own, and stops being one of the younger generation.

Which of these would I give up, I ask myself. The fifth year of undergrad to complete my second major? My years abroad? My year studying something completely different? None of these are worth the possibility of tenure before 40, of being rid of my student status before the greys appear. No, I've made the right decisions. These few years are just a rough patch. Once I am through this, I will wear my experience and my hair proudly.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Grad student life style

I've packed my partner and Epsilon off to my in laws yesterday, and I find that I've already slipped back into my gradstudent lifestyle.

I stayed at work until my brain was full last night. Came home to a dinner of ramen and vegetables over a paper on a new subject I am trying to learn. When I got stuck, I got ready for bed, thinking about the problem. To keep my mind for fretting while trying to sleep, I went to bed with a novel, and read into the early am.

This morning, I turned the alarm to radio, and drifted in and out for a while listening to the morning's news. When I finally stumbled out of bed, I settled down to a cup of coffee and last night's paper. More coffee, and I packed lunch and reviewed my lecture notes for my morning class before heading out the door. I used to keep interesting papers on my bedside table, in case there was a morning I didn't feel like getting out of bed. I'm considering this luxury for the weekend.

Tonight, I even have an evening engagement!

None of these things could I do if they were around. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed this lifestyle. This is almost enough for me to look forward to being apart from them again in September!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Playing at Poverty 2

Boxcarkids is a blog I follow for the economic analysis it regularly provides, and for the insight it gives into how our current economic disaster has affected one family. The writing is very good, and I read the personal posts feeling not a little like a voyeur. I am lucky enough to not know anyone personally whose life has been torn apart by the current recession. I am also fortunate enough to have forced myself to play at poverty for 2.5 years after college, living in the developing country my parents grew up in. Sometimes the bog makes me think about those years. Take for instance her recent post on living 5 people to a trailer.
I have seen how living in such cramped conditions, with no personal space or privacy, has contributed to the deterioration of our cohesiveness as a family.  We do not, for the most part, enjoy each other’s company.  We tolerate it.  We all breathe a sigh of relief and expand a bit when one of the kids has a play date, or even better, a sleepover at another house.  We move a bit easier, with one less person to maneuver around. 
I remember living in very tight conditions during my years abroad. I remember returning to the states, culture shocked and angry about the inequality before me, feeling physically uncomfortable with the largeness of the first bedroom in grad school. The years have unruffled my feathers and I haven't really thought about space constraints and living conditions for years.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to compare poverty in the US with poverty in my parent's homeland. I think it can't be done, certainly not outside a peer reviewed paper with rigorous metrics. So much of poverty is context. (Is a person financially poor, or lacking social capital? How much violence is in a person's daily life? What services are available, either for purchase or state provided. What are the societal expectations of "wealthy" which determines whether or not someone feels poor.) For instance, when my father claims that a family we know are wealthy because they had a good computer and fast internet, I point out that they are 7 adults living in a an apartment the size of a spacious 1 bedroom apartment, or a small 2 bedroom apartment in most cities in the US.

By my own arguments, I am being disingenuous. Extended families in that country are still the norm. It is rare for a child to have their own room, or even a room separate from a parents' room. While there is definitely some resentment of the amount of parental involvement in a teenager's or adult's life, the fierce independence that Americans value appears bizarre, if not outright wrong.

During my years living in my parent's homeland, I lived in these conditions. But I was young, used to living in dorms and in shared housing, sharing space did not bother me. In subsequent visits, I've put up with friends for several weeks, living three adults in a space the size of my current office. Because of different cultural norms, and because of my friends' uncanny ability to respect emotional privacy without having any physical space, the conditions where not unpleasant. But I was visiting. I knew it would be over eventually. That made all the difference in the world.

Eight years after my return to the US, as a less angry angry person, I try to imagine living five to a trailer. I try to imagine shifting to that life, after growing up in a household where not wanting to share your parent's bedroom as a child is not acceptable or weird. I try to imagine it with no end in sight. I don't like what I see.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Eggmus: Textbooks

In an attempt to get organized, I've started keeping my lecture notes in 1 inch white binders. On a weekend afternoon, it is not unusual to find me writing in one such binder.

The other day, Epsilon found one of the 1 inch white binders given to me by HR at the start of this position. He grabbed a pen, opened the binder and started writing.

When asked what he was doing, he announced "Textbook!"

He may be the first to author a textbook in our family yet.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A few thoughts on tenure from this side of the fence

GMP had a repost yesterday on the tenure debate that I thought was quite good. When I mentioned it to my partner, he told me about a rationale for tenure that one of his colleagues puts forth. Note to readers: This is being translated twice from the original source, and both times by people who don't have limited to no experience sitting on faculty committees, and neither of who have tenure. Feel free to correct our interpretations if you know better.

The way that universities are run, the faculty play a large roll in the management of the university. In a normal corporation, the equivalent management duties are performed by people who a) were chosen for the position because of their management skills, b) have their pay checks/ working conditions/ jobs retainment tied to how well their domain fares. In particular, there is a good mechanism to ensure that the managers have the interests of the corporation in mind.

How do you ensure that university faculty have the interests of the university in mind? You could only put people who are brilliant researchers and good at working with other faculty on faculty committees. This creates incentives for people to be particularly bad at working with their colleagues. You could make faculty committee work a more explicit part of a faculty member's pay check/ raise criteria. This would probably have the effect of decreasing the level of research produced by these faculty. Or, you could offer incentives for the university faculty to be personally invested in the long term future of the university. A faculty member who knows they have a secure position for life, and therefore is likely to still be at a university in 15 years is more likely to create a good environment for his/her future self than a faculty member who is on a 5 year contract.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Student I like or don't

I like teaching undergrads. No. I like teaching Freshmen. Maybe I'm spoiled by having a really good selection of student at my university. Maybe I'll change my tune after several years of teaching large intro courses to my subject matter filled with students from several types of majors. But I really get a kick out of their fresh out of high schoolness, from raising their hand to use the bathroom to  demanding that I do their homework for them. Aren't you a cute little fledgeling. You'll either get your act together in a few years or you'll fail, or you'll sneak past and go work in daddy's business. But by then you won't be my problem.

What I don't like teaching are grad courses out of my expertise. In general, grad courses encourage dialogue, and I get find out what the academic interests of people in my department are. But they are a whole lot of work for not a lot of entertainment value.* And then, add in the dread student. The one that thinks he knows more than me (which he legitimately does at times this is not my field); the one that lets me know his lack of respect for me by his tone of voice in asking/answering questions; the one that is busy staring at his shoes or rolling his eyes.

I have seen more experienced professors deal with the undergraduate version of this student effectively by initially asking them to be patient until the class reaches the point, then by publicly pointing out errors in logic, and finally by ignoring the student's in class comments altogether. I don't think those tactics will work in this setting, and I'm not quite sure what to do. Fortunately, I have other students who are more helpful/supportive/respectful/eager to learn the material to alleviate the problem. I still feel like a failure after each class session though.

*Sure, I get to learn the material in the meanwhile, and usually it's material that will eventually be useful for me to know, but it's not fun.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friends with kids: A fresh start

This is the third and last in my series about the discussions my partner and I have had about the continuous process of making friends and moving while having a child. In the last two installments, I discussed how people with children have featured more prominently in our friend pool, how our schedules sometimes exclude socializing with young, night shifted professionals, how energy levels and candidate pools have effected who we socialize with and when. In September, we get to start over again in our new homes. Here I've listed a few plans to battle loneliness in the upcoming years.

As usual, comments, advice and stories from fellow educated tumbleweeds are welcome.

One of the mistakes we made in our current location is that we didn't activly befriend permanent people in my department who have children of the same age or slightly older than us. We mostly socialized with other post docs in the same position as us. The longer a person has lived in an area, the more likely they are to have a larger network of friends with children we can tap into. My partner has made friends with several such people at University E. We hope to encourage them to help us meet people.

These last few years, I have spent a lot of time trying to find other parents that may also be socially interesting to me. I have specifically shied away from socializing with intersting academics in a setting where I am a parent. This is my shortcoming, and as much as I may wish it away, it will not disappear by September. My partner, fortunately, does not have this fault. We hope to invite many people from his department over to our house for a weekend brunch or some quiet evening activity. As I look back, there are many people in my department who may have understood and/or enjoyed spending time with Epsilon, if we had taken the chance and expended the effort. Now may not be the time to start making this social gamble, but September almost certainly is.

As I will be living several hours away from my partner and Epsilon, near University F, my problem of making friends will be different. It will be easier in some ways. Without Epsilon around, I will not have a domain of my life while I am near my colleagues where I feel embarrassed to interact with them. I enjoy the part of academic life that involves going out for drinks and dinner after a seminar. I look forward to taking full advantage of these occaisions. I need to make sure that I aggressively insert myself into the social life of the department.

In this discussion, I should note that there are multiple reasons why I am not thrilled with the physical location of University F. Without Epsilon to aid in my intergration into society outside of the university, I will probably be isolated outside of work.  My only other socialization will be when I come home near University E. Past experience has taught me that not having any part of my life outside an academic setting makes me very grumpy. This is a problem I will have to tackle.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Friends with kids: Lessons we've learned

I feel like making friends as an early career academic is like trying to set down roots as a very educated tumble weed. This is part two of my thoughts on making friends while having a child, an unsolved 2 body problem, and a career that asks me to move across and between countries every few years. Comments and experiences from other educated tumbleweeds are very welcome.

Last time I tried to describe how the people we felt comfortable associating with had changed drastically pre and post Epsilon. Before his birth, we hung out with other graduate students, post docs and young professionals. We didn't see much of our neighbors. We met people by playing sports or participating in religious/cultural activities, and built friendships by inviting people over for dinner or games or drinks.

Now we choose housing by which neighborhoods have lots of children, and hang out with our neighbors as toddlers and preschoolers play in a lawn. We meet parents at parks and religious/cultural activities, and arrange play dates. Our favorite time to have people over is breakfast or lunch. Philosophical discussions over dinner mostly concern why the engine on the plastic train is not running.

We've muddled through these last few years for better or for worse. But we get a fresh start come September, and my partner and I have been trying to take lessions from the last 2.5 years.

The first notable point is that we have less time and energy to devote to making friends than we did before. In fact, our energy levels have dropped to the point where it is hard to try something new, or try again after something didn't work. We've settled into a pattern where we try to do something fun every weekend, to cut the boredom of having the same three conversations with Epsilon every Saturday and Sunday. That has helped, but it hasn't fixed our loneliness. This is something to change next year.

The second point is that ideal current friend pool, the intersection between interesting people, interesting professionals, and parents is not as large as it may first appear. Some academics with kids are unfortunately academics who are married to a parent. Conversely, the family events organized by the campus women's group are largely populated by stay at home mother married to academics. Similarly, mothers I meet in other settings are often not devoted to a career. I have nothing against mothers who take time off for their children. It is a choice I could never make. However, since so much of what I love about life is my science, I have a hard time bonding with a person who doesn't understand having a passion for one's career. At a time when my 2 body problem consumes so much of my life, it is hard to make such friends empathize with or even understand the decision to repeatedly tear our family apart.

This is not to say that I have found no meaningful relationships in this intersection. Rather, if I had known the probability distributions of who I may encounter in which setting, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and heartbreak early on.

Third, as lunch is now one of my favorite times to meet people, I should take advantage of the fact that lunch is a convenient time to socialize with people on campus. There was one year when I (and my partner when he was aroud) managed to schedule weekly lunches with a grad student from a different department. We all looked forward to those meetings. She has since moved on, and I haven't found a replacement engagement. That is a mistake I should not wait until September to mend.

Finally, as much as I lament having to leave old friends behind, or have friends move away, I have learned in the past few months how much a few regular (daily/weekly) e-mails or phone calls to people in distant cities can do to revive the embers of friendship, and to make me feel connected to people I may see less than once a year. Before I started this blog, I tried mass e-mails to friends on a roughly monthly basis to no avail. More frequent, specific e-mails to specific people, while a lot more work, has paid off for me in an amazing way.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Friends with kids: the shifting pool

My partner and I have started some planning for our impending emigration. In the process, we've started talking about the different situations we will find ourselves in with regards to making friends. He'll have Epsilon in a department where he knows  peoples, I'll be alone in a new department and commuting to them every weekend. In this series I'll try to collate our thoughts and write them down.

Sometimes making friends in as an academic feels like building a community while being a highly educated tumble weed. I welcome any insights and experiences from my fellow tumbleweed readers.

Epsilon was born a few months after we made a significant move to start my current post doc. We knew no one in this part of the country, and the logistics of seeing old friends is difficult enough that it rarely happens. One of the first things we noticed is that it was very easy to meet people with a kid. By the time Epsilon learned to like dogs, we knew every dog walker on the street. Well before that every neighbor who was of a grandparent's age knew our little family as well. We became friends with those of our immediate neighbors who had children.

At the same time, the people we met outside our neighborhood were very different. At the religious organization I attend periodically, it seemed that giving birth graduated me from the group of "young adults" to the group of "full fledged adults." Instead of hanging out with the young, post college/early career crowd I was used to, I found myself surrounded by older women who wanted to coo over the bundle in my arms. There were also some other young mothers there as well that I organized play dates with. But it was very hard to make friends with young childless people.

The colleagues I socialize with outside of work, as a result, are those who also have small children. I know very little about the lives of other post docs in the department. The people in my group I socialize with while at work, but see very little of outside work, no matter how interesting I may find them socially or scientifically.

Part of the problem is scheduling. Given Epsilon's early bedtime and early mornings, it is hard to go out as a couple with people after 7. Sometimes we manage to invite people over for after dinner drinks or games, but often the noise level involved causes problems with Epsilon. Part of the problem is my discomfort with the mixing of my parental life with my academic life.

The result is that our new friends set would be unrecognizable to either of us from our graduate student days. We had very few friends with children before Epsilon. After Epsilon, that ratio has literally been inverted, at least locally.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Why the pre-Christmas hype is useful.

On Sunday, Epsilon embraced his inner American commercialism and demanded to go shopping. His father had already gone to the groceries to pick up a few things, so I thought "Sunday's as good a day as any to run those errands." I pack him in the car seat to go to Target.

The store's parking garage is closed off. But I checked the hours on line. The store should be open by now?!

I drive to the Office Max on the next block to find its lights out too. What's up with this Sunday? .... Oh

I always forget Easter. Christmas never sneaks up on me. I usually ignore the commercials until about the 18th, when they grow louder and start counting down the days.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I just got another post doc offer, about as far from University E as my current position. I'll have to reject this, of course, since I've already accepted a position for next year.

The have been no TT offers yet, and I'm not really holding out hope. I've been trying to ignore the flood of rejection letters filling my inbox. If I apply to 100 jobs, hoping for a few offers, I can't really be upset by 97 rejections, can I? .... Right. That assumes I can be rational about all this.

Still, this is an indication that there are people who are interested in my research, and that maybe I'll have better luck next time.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Eloquence on race

I'm listening to an interview given by Van Jones, ex white house green jobs special advisor. Since he is a black activist, the conversation turns to race, specifically the recent Treyvon Martin shooting.

Mr. Jones takes some time to put President Obama's reaction to the event in the greater context of his having to deal with race in the American Presidency. Along the way, he revisits the beer summit and Skip Gate's arrest. His description is very eloquent, and can be found here.

Well, first of all, that comment [about Treyvan] from the President really should be seen as the third act in a three-act play on race for this president. ...
Act II, now he’s president of the United States. Skip Gates is arrested. ...
So now you have probably the most famous professor at Harvard, Skip Gates, African American, arrested in his home. Here’s Barack Obama, President Obama. Now, the most powerful man in the world, president of the United States, steps forward and says, "I think the police behaved foolishly." The right wing and the law enforcement establishment brought the wrath of God down on the White House. I was there. And suddenly, he’s forced to do a beer summit, to sit eye to eye with a racist police officer. As a black man, even the most powerful man in the world cannot speak about race. And if he does, he’s then forced to sit humbly across the table from a racist police officer. ... As was Skip Gates. That was one of the most terrifying, shocking revelations about where we are in a racial discussion in this country that I had ever seen. And so—

Monday, April 2, 2012

Emmigration fears: I

A few years ago, I found myself sitting across the table from a Brazilian at a conference dinner, when the conversation turned to a recent act of racial violence in his country.

"Race relations are a lot better in the US," he told me. When I argued against him, citing our history of slavery and Jim Crow and more recent immigration woes, he replied, "You talk about it in the US, and thus you are more aware of it. It doesn't mean the situation is actually worse there."

Those words ring in my ears every time we visit the library for Epsilon. We live in a fairly urban part of the country, and virtually every book Epsilon takes an interest in, that is not populated by animals, has African, Hispanic and/or East Asian looking characters, male and female. In fact, he's found a vehicle series with minor characters of my ethnicity. (That never happens!)

Before Epsilon was born, when we were considering adopting, probably an African American child, we were told to make sure that we had lots of books where the child's ethnicity was prominently featured. Then the adoption agency showed us several books that were about being black. The example books were about race; they were painfully self consciously aware of race. I remember thinking, if I my mother brought home books like this for me from my white suburban public library about my ethnicity, it would not have helped me be more at ease in my skin*. Since Epsilon's birth, I have been so very grateful to my public library for the ease with which it celebrates the racial diversity of my town and my country.

Thinking of my Brazilian's colleagues comments, I asked my partner to look at the picture book sections of the public libraries near University E. He also looked in a neighborhood where a colleague with a toddler lives. The results are not promising. Books that deal with diversity as a normal part of life can be found near University E, but we would have to be aware of the situation, and try to steer Epsilon in that direction, rather than trust that the frequency is great enough that Epsilon will naturally pick up a few.

There are some things I will miss about this country.

*I have nothing against books about race. I've written about one I really like. But there is a fundamental difference between a book written to point out racial differences, in however positive a light, and one that treats it as a natural part of life.