Another Post on Work/Life Balance

It’s the last night of spring break. Two weeks before the break my therapist strongly suggested I take the week entirely off work. Between ramped up research (with intensive data collection requiring my presence), a faculty search, increased service expectations in my third year, and…oh yeah…teaching, I haven’t taken much time for myself this semester and the stress has really been wearing on me. Usually I like having the break to catch up on writing with shorter days in the office, I decided to try taking the whole thing off.

I’m not sure it helped.

Today I spent some time weeding in the front yard while my toddler napped. My thoughts wandered to this concept of work/life balance again. Since starting my TT job I’ve prided myself on leaving work at the office – and leaving the office at a reasonable hour. I don’t go in on weekends unless I absolutely cannot avoid it. It helps that I was experiencing first trimester exhaustion when I started the job and couldn’t work at home in the evenings even if I wanted to.

Having a young child at home means I’m very focused on her in the evenings. It’s distressing to me if I miss dinner too often (let’s say, more than once a week) or if I have to miss bedtime. Some of this comes from my childhood – I remember my dad missing dinner a lot, or having dinner at 9 PM so that he would be home for it. He was always gone when I woke up in the morning and often had just arrived home when I went to bed. He didn’t make sporting events. He was department chair from my middle school years until after I started college, and worked extremely long hours during that time. When he was home, he was grouchy. That isn’t what I want for my child.

So, I don’t bring work home. I’m home by dinner (almost) all of the time. I try not to leave before she wakes up. More often than not, I do the daycare drop off and pick up. I’m home on weekends (while my husband works).

But today while I was weeding I wondered if my insistence on leaving work at work is helping – making me more efficient – or hurting. Would I feel the pressure less if I went back to the office after my toddler went to bed, or worked from home in the evenings?

Realistically, I don’t think so. First and foremost, I think my marriage would suffer. Evenings are the only time we get together, just the two of us. Second…damn I’m tired. I don’t really think the work I did at home in the evenings would be as good as what I do during the day.

Should I get up at 4:30 and work? I don’t know. Maybe.

Clearly I’m still on the steep part of the TT learning curve. Any tips for keeping work within “business hours” but being sufficiently productive and not losing your mind? I’m all ears over here.

On Ideas and Fear of Academic Writing

Recently there’s been a lot of talk on blogs and twitter related to academic writing and ideas. I’ve been struggling a bit (maybe more than a bit) in these areas lately.

DNLee’s piece on fear of academic writing struck a real chord with me. We’ll not discuss how many papers I’m essentially sitting on right now. Several literally only need to be formatted and submitted (side note: can scientific journals please just agree on at least reference format already?). Others were recently rejected and I need to spend some time with the reviewer comments before sending them back out again.

And yet they sit, sometimes untouched for months. This is Not Good. Why do I do this?

Where’s a girl to start? (source)

In response to DNLee’s post, the always brilliant Dr. Isis shared her thoughts on the writing process. My process is similar to hers in some ways, different in others. While I wish it had occurred to me to put a giant whiteboard in my startup budget, it didn’t. Even so, when I sit down to analyze some new data I start by writing my research question(s) on a blank piece of paper. Usually with a Sharpie because this seems like an important occasion to be bold. Then, I write out what each table will be and then each figure. If I’m not sure whether something is better in a table or figure, I note that too.

Every single time I analyze my descriptive variables first. This is usually Table 1., though I’ve occasionally written a paper that didn’t require that standard descriptive information. Each subsequent step of the analysis is dictated by my research questions and the data I need to show to address the question. Sometime during grad school I also started writing exactly which statistics I ran (because I would sometimes forget which confounders were included) and any findings that come out of each step. Explicitly. With a Sharpie. Then it’s back to the computer and I actually make the tables and figures. Then, I print out all of my tables and figures and move away from the computer, somewhere that I can spread everything out and look at it. At this point I usually scribble down some thoughts about interpretation. Sometimes I talk to other people, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wait a day before I do anything else. Next, I write the results. While I’m writing the results I will also scroll down and add bullets to the discussion because that’s usually when I make most of the connections that need to be made in that section.

This is the first place I tend to get hung up. At first I would self-edit too much while trying to write the discussion. I’d get hung up on whether that sentence sounded weird or if that transition sucked. Eventually I realized that and started forcing myself to quit it already. Now, if I hate a sentence, I’ll actually type something like “that sentence sucks – fix it” in italics and just keep going. Unfortunately, I’ve sent a draft off to a coauthor with a statement like that in there more than once – they’ve come to expect it from me. When I really get stuck on those types of editorial things, I at least try to get bullets and fragments for each of the points I want to make. Paragraphs wind up filled with italicized sentences and fragments. Eventually, I leave it and go back to write the methods and introduction.

And then I’m stuck. I have one paper that’s been sitting in exactly that state for over a year. Introduction, methods, results done – discussion points down, no transitions. It’s not that I’m having trouble interpreting the findings and synthesizing them with what we already know…it’s the filler. I get caught up on it not sounding right. Frequently I wind up going back, cutting the italicized criticisms, and leaving it how it was in the first place. More often I do edit, but sometimes I think I just need to get fed up with it, accept that it will never be perfect, turn it into a complete sentence, and stop screwing around.

I need to do this, now. Today I set some deadlines for myself to finally get some of these 99% finished papers off my desk. Two grants due on 2/3 and self-imposed deadlines for 3 papers over the rest of February. Completely and totally doable. I just have to do it already.

Now, while I’m thinking about sucky transitions…Scicurious and InBabyAttachMode have both written recently about generating ideas. Timely, because as previously mentioned, it’s grant time.

When I started in my doctoral program, I was afraid I would never make it because I didn’t have any good ideas. At the time I was working for a PI who had been exceptionally well-funded for decades. He always knew what the next step would be – we could see it in the planning phase of a grant. He didn’t just know what this study would address, he knew what the next two, or maybe even three, would address. That was something I really was worried I wouldn’t have. This fear pops up again every few months or so, usually when I start thinking about conferences I’d like to attend over the next couple years and what I could present at each one.

How awesome would that be? (source)

In March of last year, right before Miss Baby was born, I received a call for an early investigator award from a society closely related to my discipline. It required a letter of intent within a month, and I knew just the study I wanted to propose. But, in the process of planning for that LOI and, hopefully, the full proposal, I realized my idea was way too big. I didn’t have one idea, I had done what my former PI did without realizing it. All he did was take one big idea and break it down into steps, and that was what I needed to do.

In that process I also realized I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do in the timeline dictated by that grant. It was a one-year award and I have one very involved and one lesser study ramping up this year, and three brand new masters students who can’t take a lead role in any of them. Couldn’t have done it. Instead, I decided I would spend the fall planning, break that big idea down into smaller ones, and identify a series of funding opportunities to knock off one piece at a time.

The first of those proposals went in this past Friday. The next will go in at this time next year. This plan – this one big idea that I didn’t realize was as big as it is – may realistically take 5 years (unless a bigger funding opportunity comes along to tackle more aims at once). If I had rushed it and proposed the big idea, and if it had gotten funded, I don’t think I would have done a very good job, realistically. The science will be a lot better this way and it’s much more manageable given the resources available in my department and at my university.

For really the first time in my career I feel like maybe I can come up with enough ideas, now that I’ve suddenly realized they don’t all have to be the idea.

Now if I could just submit those papers. Because unproductive scientists don’t get grants.

Midsemester

Howdy.

Wow, this semester is just flying by. Training and travel since my last post have kept me very busy and meant too much time out of the office, so I’m even more behind. As I sit at the kitchen table watching the snow fall, it seems like a good time for reflection and a look ahead.

The second year on the tenure track has certainly been an interesting one thus far. Most times it feels like a roller coaster – the kind people stand in line for hours to ride – lots of twists and turns, steep drop offs, and maybe some inversions just for kicks. The scenery flashes by as the coaster careens around bends but occasionally there are mechanical problems and the roller coaster comes to a complete, and jolting, halt. This seems to especially apply to my research this year. Currently I have 10 papers at some degree of completion. Eight of them could be submitted in a matter of hours if I could just gather the hours (when I have enough mental power remaining) to polish them up and send them out. On top of that I’m percolating several ideas for new studies and really need to get grants out for at least a couple of them…but which? An opportunity opened up completely unexpectedly last week and necessitated pushing one of those ideas to the forefront when I’d really been planning to wait a year or more on that one. That leaves me with the options of pushing another idea back for a year or submitting something extra and taking the chance of winding up with more funded projects than I’d planned on. Of course, nothing’s ever guaranteed til the money actually comes through, so…

We’re settling into a routine at home though I have to admit I never really feel caught up there, either. Now and then – like earlier this week – my old fears of doing a mediocre job of everything come roaring back in again. I mean really, how hard is it to fold and put away laundry? Nevertheless, two-thirds of my wardrobe seems to be piled in the corner of our bedroom. At least most of it is folded. The baby is doing well at her new daycare facility and learns something new every day. She is sitting like a champ and no other position will do. Unless, of course, she can put her feet in her mouth and then she’s happy on her back for ages. She isn’t trying to crawl yet but as active as she is in her relatively immobile state I think we’re in for it when she can figure out how to crawl.

Finally, it hardly seems possible to blog this week without mentioning the large issues surrounding sexual harassment that have surfaced on twitter this week. To be honest, I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all amidst everything else that’s going on, and I find myself having a hard time coming to grips with it all and forming coherent thoughts to share. It has been an eye-opening week as a young scientist and someone who is relatively new to twitter. Prior to this week I would have told you I’ve never experienced any sexual harassment. Some of the stories I’ve read – particularly the blog post by Hannah Waters – have made me rethink that and question why I interpreted things as harmless in the past when maybe, really, they weren’t. Perhaps one day soon I’ll have contemplated this enough to have clearer feelings but for now I just feel…lost.

The snow is really coming down hard now, it’s becoming quite the winter wonderland out there. Baby is sleeping and I think I’ll make myself a cup of tea before the roller coaster starts up again.

 

A Weak Foundation

Here we are in the fifth week and I find myself losing sight of the accomplishments and successes I discussed in my last post.

I like to say things started crumbling when I took Labor Day off. The university was closed and my husband worked – he usually does not work Mondays, so we didn’t have care for the Wee One. I greatly enjoyed having an extra day with her and returned to work feeling refreshed. But that Tuesday – and especially by Thursday or so – I felt so far behind that it was more like I’d taken a week off.

The next week I had to be out of the office one day to go to the nearest major city, a few hours from here. Another day lost to work that left me feeling even further behind.

This semester I’ve been making an effort to work from home as little as possible. Working full time and sending Wee One to daycare, I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with her as I’d like to and she’s growing so fast – sitting unsupported already! My evenings with her are so special to me and I want need to maximize that time. By the time she’s down for the night I’m exhausted and also would like to actually spend some time with my husband – the person whose company I greatly enjoy and whom I feel like I never see anymore. Unfortunately, I’m about done and ready to pass out within an hour of the baby going down (an hour that, tonight, I am spending blogging). And so, even when I bring work home the only way it gets done in the evening is if it absolutely must be done right this minute.

The end of last week found us with a daycare crisis and scrambling to find a new provider. I’ve had considerable stressful experiences in my life but nothing even remotely compared to having a bad experience with daycare and the worry that came with finding somewhere new and trusting someone new – again – with our little girl. Last Friday was completely lost to me.

This feeling of being so behind has been wearing on me this week. On Tuesday I made a to-do list divided into tasks I would do in the morning and tasks I would do in the afternoon. Approximately half of the items on the list still remain. Some of the items are still there because things come up. Others are there because they all took more time than I thought they would. The to-do list I meant to accomplish in one day has become my to-do list for the week.

Unexpected items this week have included emergency counseling with my brand-new masters student who had a conflict (totally not the student’s fault) with a senior faculty member earlier in the week and wound up in tears in a 2nd year student’s office – my first graduate student crisis from the faculty advisor side, and my first time dealing with a conflict between one of my students and another faculty member. The student is now fine and the problem has been remedied. Not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction, but remedied.

Literally within minutes of dealing with that I learned that because of schedule changes I needed to get myself and a graduate assistant enrolled in a short course, absolutely essential for my research, that will have me out of the office two consecutive days next week. This means I’m in the office the remainder of this week and then, because of that class and a conference, gone for 7 of the next 10 business days. And so here I sit, at 8:42 PM, on the verge of panic and blogging in the hopes of getting this all out of my head so that maybe, just maybe, I can sleep tonight.

I’ve heard the second year on the tenure track can be a little easier than the first. We’re settling into a routine, teaching classes we’ve taught before and moving forward with research. Things we did all the foundational work for last year and over the summer. Except I didn’t. I spent the spring semester of my first year either on bed rest or maternity leave and the summer enjoying my time with the baby. Do I regret spending my summer with her and doing very little work? Not for even a split second. But I do think I’d probably be better off now at work if I’d laid a stronger foundation in the first part of 2013. Not regret, exactly…just, noticing.

Successes and Struggles in the First Two Weeks

This post is perhaps a bit premature as today is only halfway through the second week, but whatever.

As I wrote previously, I was feeling a lot of anxiety about starting a new semester after such a large change in my life. A good friend who has also just returned to work after having her first baby was feeling much the same way and we have commiserated a lot these past couple weeks.  The main concern we shared all summer was in regards to how we would see our work now that we’re also trying to balance it with an extended family. She wondered if her work – particularly scholarship – would be as important to her as it used to be. I was concerned that I would do an equally mediocre job at everything, and who wants to be a mediocre parent and a mediocre scholar?

Now that we’re two weeks in, I’m finding that some of my concerns were well placed while others were not. The first week I felt absolutely swamped by teaching related work and I was concerned that I might never get anywhere in my research. Today I’m happy to report that when I recognized that I got strict with my schedule and set aside all of Tuesday and Thursday for research only – no course work allowed. Granted it’s been a week with that strategy but so far it has been fruitful. The baby is clearly quite happy at daycare and that allows me to work through the day without constantly worrying about her and wanting to call and check in. That, in turn, allows me to be more productive in the office. It’s important to me to get home early enough in the evening to actually spend time with her, so I find myself more focused while I am at work. I waste less time and I work more efficiently. Pregnancy changed my vision so I got new glasses (with no-line bifocals, ugh) and I feel much better than I did whenever I tried to work over the summer.

Other things have not gone as well. Mornings are really productive times for me. Afternoons…well, I’m writing this at 1:45 so you tell me. It just seems like I run out of gas a little before lunch and never get it back again. A few times I’ve given up on doing anything serious in the afternoon and taken my laptop home, but the computer stays in my bag til  I arrive back in the office the next morning. I’m toast in the evenings. Making dinner is a struggle, let alone trying to turn my brain back on. Maybe that will get better as she gets older, or maybe I’ll get used to this half-awake state. Only time will tell.

Daycare Plague hasn’t kicked in yet but I’ve already had to cancel class once, when I woke up with my eye nearly swollen shut on the third day of class. This is like the third year of my PhD when we actually had two snow days in the first two weeks and so we started the semester already behind. But course schedules and lectures can be modified and over half of my students wound up with a four day weekend, so they weren’t complaining.

Baby brain – combined with chemo brain still lingering 4 years later – sometimes leaves me standing in front of the class (or sitting in front of the computer, as ironically happened writing this sentence) unable to find the right word. Knowing it, but not being able to get it out. This week I forgot to get lecture slides online for my students. Just completely forgot. I really hate looking scatterbrained, flaky, stupid…it’s something I’ve always been sensitive about but it’s gotten significantly worse since chemo. That time in my life left me feeling like I had something to prove, that being “cancer girl” didn’t mean I couldn’t still have real career aspirations, couldn’t have a normal life. I think being a new mom has only worsened that feeling. Chances are that when I’m standing there looking for a word it seems like ages to me but students don’t even notice. I hope that’s the case. Maybe it just seems like I’m purposefully slowing down.

This week’s Chronicle Review included a piece about the “superwoman myth” – I have some thoughts to share related to that but need to spend some more time getting them together, so look for a post on that (and related to this post) in the near future.

Anticipating a New Semester

Here we are, a little over a week from the fist day of class. I. Am. Not. Ready.

There’s a lot I’m anticipating this time around. The baby started daycare on Tuesday and though I’ve been feeling for a while like I needed to return to work, in the days leading up to her first day I found that I wasn’t as ready as I thought. With the exception of a few days at a conference and a few days when my husband basically insisted that I leave the house, I’ve been with her nearly every minute of every day for 4.5 months. Until Tuesday, no one outside of the family had cared for her, even for a couple of hours. In the weeks leading up to this I decided – because she was clearly getting overtired – that she needed to be on a better nap schedule than she was and I instituted nap boot camp. It was a colossal failure and her nighttime sleep started to deteriorate. That may have just been the infamous 4-month sleep regression and thankfully her nighttime sleep has at least improved again, but we’re all now going into this (even more) chronically sleep deprived.

Beyond concrete logistical concerns like her care, there are a lot of less concrete things I’m growing more and more concerned about. This is my second year on the tenure track and I still have a lot to learn and a lot of adjusting to do. The course release I was on last year is over and – although I took a one-year tenure clock stop due to childbirth – there’s more pressure to produce scholarly work than I had last year. Imposter Syndrome is rearing it’s ugly head and I’m concerned that my castle of cards will start to crumble around me.

And with that thought, I have syllabi to finalize.