Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

The Ups and Downs of Science

catenary_bikeMy kid was watching “Bang Goes the Theory” this morning (nerd mom, so proud), and they had a segment about making a bike with square wheels. Obviously, such a bike only rides smoothly on a surface that is humped. I wish I had a personal life bike like that, so I can navigate the ups and downs of being an academic.

Not sure if others agree with me, but I feel like this job is very cyclic in how it makes you feel. At some times you feel amazing, like you are invincible and you walk on water and can do no wrong (e.g. you get your first paper, you get your Ph.D., you land a tenure-track job, you get a big grant, you get tenure, you win a big award). At other times, you feel worse than the crap someone accidentally stepped on and are trying desperately to scrape off onto the side of a cement step (your reviews come back from a paper or grant and they say you are stupid, your colleagues are jerks and bully you, you get no respect, attention, or credit for your work). Somehow the great things flocculate to make the highs so high, but that only makes you have farther to fall when the crappy things also flocculate.

For me, the timescale of a full cycle (up to up) is about 2-3 years. I am currently in my second “down swing” after getting a tenure track job. I had one just before turning in my tenure packet and it lasted about a year. This one is even worse than last time, but I am trying to see the long-time trends. This too shall pass, and I just have to fight and scramble and push until I pull back out of it. This adds a lot of stress to an already stressful and (frankly) overworking and overtiring job.

Another issue is that the personal issues (your health, your family’s health, your fitness) all flocculate down together, too. So, that adds immensely to the stress, and you can easily downward spiral. I know just when this recent down swing started because I gained 5 pounds. In this down swing, my health got wonky and my baby most likely has asthma and is allergic to cats. So, we had to give away a cherished family member who was may older child’s cat. And we now have to clean the house top to bottom to remove all cat hair and dander. Right. Because I was cleaning my house so well before. I do have a cleaning service and grass cutting people (as previously discussed in prior posts about getting the help you need here, here), but now I need them to come every week. Cleaning people won’t move furniture and clean behind it – even if you pay them extra. Instead of spending more time having fun on the weekend with my kids, I spend time moving furniture, vacuuming and mopping behind it, and moving it back.

But I am a fighter. So I am pushing back. I am turning around and pumping out new versions of rejected papers. I am cleaning my house top to bottom. I am even trying to get back on the wagon with the gym to stay sane. I will survive. I am wondering if you have any tips? Have you battled your way out of a slump? What is the collective wisdom for reaching those high highs again? Or even just leveling out the ups and downs? Do people think it gets better or worse over time?

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Comments on: "The Ups and Downs of Science" (5)

  1. Robin Selinger said:

    Some ideas…1) No more housecleaning service. If they bring their own mop, broom, or vacuum cleaner it will likely carry cat dander and other potential allergens into your home and make things worse. Hire an individual (who does not smoke or own a cat)as your family’s own part-time housekeeper. You will find someone willing to clean behind the furniture. Offer a decent wage of $15/hour or more. You will need to pay social security taxes and get workman’s compensation insurance but it is worth the cost. Maybe the same person can assist with dishes, laundry, shopping, cooking, maybe even childcare. 2) Make a Skype appointment with one or two mentors/senior gurus and talk through your research plans. 3) Go back and read the good reviews from previous papers and proposals. Smile. 4) Buy a stuffed animal that looks like the cat you had to give away, or make a photo album, to remember it by. 5) Cultivate your management skills and practice being a good and patient listener. 6) Go do ten minutes of open mike comedy at a local comedy club. It will feel amazing. 7) Do something nice for your family, something nice for a friend, and something nice for yourself. 8) Consider submitting the paper to a different journal. Hang in there ….!

  2. I saw a very similar post from FemaleScienceProfessor today. Maybe sketching a rough graph will help.

    http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2014/09/why-being-administrator-is-sometimes.html

  3. I agree, the ups and downs are hard. My ups and downs occur on a variety of time scales.

    Last year I had a grant get rejected, although it was close. Last week I was at a workshop and talked with the world’s expert on one of the topics of my grant, and together we came up with a fantastic new spin for that topic: yay excitement science is wonderful! Then later that same day I got sent a referee request from a high-profile journal, to review an article that scoops me on the other topic of that same grant. Meh, I can’t do this, life sucks. What a day. And this sort of up-and-down is along with other ups and downs on longer time scales, as you describe in your post.

    I think what keeps me going is exactly the point of your post: I know these ups and downs come, and I know I will be up again. I know the key is to keep going even when I’m down.

  4. […] not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep […]

  5. […] you trust who can tell you if what you are seeing and feeling is racism/sexism or just regular old periodic suckiness of this job? You need to know how a cis-white male would deal with the same situations you are […]

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