Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wait, I’m not a grad student anymore?

Guest post by Dr. Cara Ocobock:

I thought my final year of graduate school which consisted of finishing and defending my dissertation, applying for jobs, teaching, planning a wedding, and then planning a move would have adequately prepared me for my first year as a faculty member. I figured the differing demands on my time and attention would be similar to what I would face in an academic job. Now when I look back, I realize that my final year of graduate school was basically summer vacation.

  • First, I can no longer spend 98% of my time in pajama pants or jeans. I know this may sound silly, but having to look semi-professional on a daily basis was a more difficult adjustment than I had expected…also expensive!
  • Second, I have had to completely readjust my perception of time. During graduate school I used to think I needed at least a four-hour block of time to accomplish anything meaningful. This strategy worked because I had that freedom in my schedule. I no longer have those gloriously long, uninterrupted stretches of time. The majority of my days are now filled with classes, meetings, research students, office hours, and colleagues. Because of this, I have had to master the art of fifteen-minute productivity. Those short bursts of time in between various responsibilities are golden nuggets of writing and editing. It was difficult and frustrating to adjust to this at first. I felt like I never got anything done since I could only write a few sentences at a time. I soon realized those sentences here and there quickly added up during the day. It also served the purpose of keeping whatever I am working on fresh in my mind throughout the day and from day-to-day.
  • Third, the constant pulls in different directions also meant I had to shift focus quickly. This has actually helped me a great deal. I rarely have the opportunity to stare at uncooperative data for hours on end, which invariably lead to me banging my head against the table and seeking out the nearest tub of ice cream. Being forced to frequently change gears prevents me from getting frustrated with what I am doing. So much so, it has now become a conscious decision to step away from what I am doing when I notice my thoughts wandering or frustration rising. Rather than bashing my head, I continue the productivity in a different direction.
  • Fourth, I needed to lose the guilt I felt when not working. When I was a grad student, I would feel incredible guilt when I wasn’t spending every waking moment (and even the sleeping moments) not working. I would feel guilty about not working, which made me feel horrible about myself, which made it near impossible to work, which increased the guilt, and so on and so forth into the spiral many of us are familiar with. We need balance in life. Let me repeat…WE NEED BALANCE.  Working out, reading science fiction or the latest Krakauer book, occasionally seeing our loved ones, and taking 20 minutes out of your day to build a Lego while watching reality TV shows I am too embarrassed to name. This is the list of things I do that are not work related. And they are necessary. They make a better person if for no other reason than they allow me to turn my mind off, allow me to recharge. I have dropped the guilt and embraced the time I take for myself and for my loved ones. And that, in the end does affect my work output… for the better.
  • At the moment, there isn’t a “Fifth” because I haven’t figured it all out, and I doubt I ever will. For example, I still haven’t learned how to say “no” when asked to take on extra work – and this includes saying “no” to myself. 
I am sure all of you reading this have your own incredible insights on the transition from grad student to faculty – please share in the comments section.

This is a constant learning process, and honestly, I fail all the time. But, those failures inform, I make the correction, and I move on knowing better. Despite all the changes I have had to make as a faculty member, I still delight in those rare days without classes and meetings where I can go un-showered, stay in my pajama pants, and just write.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Not where I want to be

(Thanks to an anonymous contributor for this new BANDIT blog post!)

I was one of the lucky ones. I got a tenure-track position before I had my PhD in hand. When I got the offer I should have been ecstatic, and part of me was. The other part of me was terrified and dejected. Terrified because I would have to be a professor and I didn’t know how. Dejected because this was not the job I wanted. It was neither the institution nor the department I would have liked. Teaching is the first and foremost focus at my institution, with research being a distant second. Though I was also assured that there would be room for research, I knew that this job would not be able to support my goals. But, I was in a damn good position that others would trade me for in a heartbeat, and yes, I realize how much of an asshole I sound like complaining about this. However, I am not where I want to be, and that is a situation we can all relate to. I accepted the offer and girded myself for the challenges ahead.

I, like everyone starting a new job, hit the ground running. I wanted to do all I could to make myself an asset. It has been a lot of work…A LOT OF WORK! I had to prep courses I had never taught before, crank out manuscripts from previous research, attempt to establish my own research program with little to no support and space, and throw in a few service things as well.

I was chugging along surprisingly well. I received excellent teaching evaluations after my first semester, I managed to submit a manuscript fairly fast, developed a community science outreach program, and took part in an exciting, new research project. I started to feel like I belonged, and that maybe this was a job I could see myself at long-term. I was hitting all the marks I needed to hit and establish my research program. I was silly to be upset by this job early on! I was riding high on thoughts of the future. I was starting to make plans! Big plans for research and community outreach! Then the whispers started. I was starting to hear talk that other faculty members thought I was conducting too much research and attending too many conferences, which must come at the expense of my teaching quality. This lead to several contradictory criticisms about my teaching style. This devastated me, probably more than it should have, and it completely popped that bubble of hope I had just formed.

All my original feelings came back...this is not the place for me. This place does not provide an environment that actively supports research and dissemination as well as teaching. However, that was quickly displaced by the fear and self-loathing that so many academics face. “Maybe my teaching is suffering.” “Maybe I am doing too much research.” “Is this going to affect my contract renewal or tenure and promotion?” “Perhaps this is the best job I can hope for.” “But, wait, I don’t even deserve this job!”

I had a rough winter. I wanted to give up, and even considered leaving academia. As I often do, I wallowed in self-pity for about a week, but eventually pulled myself out of it. I decided to turn the sadness into anger, and let that anger fuel me. 

I used that anger to write a couple of internal grants that would support my research and dissemination. I worked hard on them and had a number of colleagues review them for me. I was awarded those grants. I then decided to get my research in my institution’s media outlets, to make the university, students, faculty, and administration aware of the work I was conducting. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get faculty, administration, and students outside of my department interested in my research.

Riding off of that, I developed two brand new research projects. One will be an internationally collaborative project, which will take a ridiculous amount of time to get off the ground. The other includes an army of undergraduate research assistants, promoting a more hands on educational opportunity. Both may be pooh-poohed by members of my department, but both will be highly regarded by others at my university and hopefully other universities as well.

So I couldn’t be accused of neglecting my teaching, I completely redesigned how one of my courses is taught based on student feedback. Granted, I had to go through a number of different channels to do so since my institution does not afford a great deal of intellectual freedom in teaching. However, the class will be taught this semester in a manner to make the information more accessible and enjoyable for students.

Eventually, the anger fizzled out. And when it did, I realized something.  I accomplished a lot in my first year. Having to fight for work to be valued by my colleagues has made me work harder. Am I where I want to be yet? No, but where I am now has made me a better academic. The desire to be in a different position motivated me to do things and inspired me to take risks I would not have done or taken before. These struggles have made me stronger, and that bubble of hope is slowly growing again leaving me with this mentality