Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for April, 2016

Sabbatical Lies

national-lampoons-vacationSo, for those of you who know me, you know I am pretty honest. Some might say blunt. One comment on my 360 said that I do not “suffer fools.” I accept this about myself. I think it is a defining characteristic of scientists to seek truth and report it. Part of the drive behind this blog is to expose truths. So, that’s why I have to tell you this truthfully: going away on a sabbatical is hard and kinda sucks. And the worst part was that no one told me! All my friends who went on sabbatical in Japan, France, UK, San Francisco, they left out a lot of the hardships. It reminds me of people who have kids and they try to get others to have kids, too. They don’t tell the truth of the horror stories. It’s like a weird cult that they want others to join and buy-into. So, since I am so blunt, I will tell it to you straight. Going away on sabbatical is hard and parts of it are not fun. Of course, I am going to detail all the ways that sabbatical is tough. Some, you can probably guess, but others might not be so obvious.

Sharing your Office: When you go on sabbatical, you aren’t the big shot. You are a visitor. You will likely get a desk somewhere, but you will have to share an office. It has been 9 years since I shared an office, and I have forgotten the etiquette for office-matery. My first roomie was also a professor like me. We both realized pretty quickly that we were going to be annoying to each other as we held 2-5 Skype meetings every day. I brought headphones to try to be less annoying, but he did not. We also both traveled a lot, so that helped us to be less annoying to each other.

My first roomie left after a few months. He was a visitor, too. My next officemate is a new postdoc in some lab in the department. He is nice and quiet. I am annoying and loud on my Skype meetings. We never discussed how we would do the locks, but we figured it out through trial and error. We have now been joined by a new grad student in the same lab. The postdoc and student are from the same country and speak the same native language. They have a lot to talk about, but they don’t talk when I am there. If they were talking, they stop talking when I come in. I feel bad about this, but I haven’t exactly oppressed them. They just have a training to be respectful because I am a professor.

The worst part about sharing your office, especially if you aren’t used to it, is that you can’t really fart in your office anymore. I know you do it. We all do it. It’s OK because most of the time you are alone. If you have a single officemate, you can’t fart because it will be obvious it was you. Now that I have two officemates, I might be able to get away with it when they are both there. But, then I suppose they could talk to each other in a language I can’t understand to confer that it was me…

Leaving your House: I’ve had a previous sabbatical report from another WomanOfScience who described some sabbatical woes about renting out her house. That sounded bad, but the distress I am feeling is not so much worry about my house (since we are not renting it and had to have work done on it while away), but more a desire for normal size of our house. We are renting a small, two-bedroom apartment with a single bathroom for the 6 months of our sabbatical. No matter how nice, a rental is never going to have all the comforts of home. This place is really small – there isn’t even enough room for all of us to sit on couches or chairs in the living room at the same time! So, we are basically all crowded in this one small room. If I ever thought our house was too large, I definitely don’t think so anymore. It will be nice to get back to our small, but not too small, house in a few months.

The other thing is the completeness of our house. We are renting a furnished apartment with a lot of utensils and items you need, but it is always missing something. Here is an incomplete list of things that we have standard in the house, and I know exactly where they are: batteries, tape, decent scissors, knives that can actually cut, trash bags, a decent sized trash can, Band-Aids, extension cords, bags for groceries, sand toys, picnic basket, a drying rack, plastic cups, sippy cup lid closers, a bottle brush, and cable TV with basic network access. We have made due, but it is clear that “all the junk” in our house is actually stuff that we use – if not all the time – frequently enough to make it worth having and having a place for it.

Getting into the Lab: I have said before that it was hard to get into the lab because of the coordination with the PI, but really, it is also because the PI doesn’t go into the lab! I realized about a month in, that if I wanted to get into the lab, I had to make friends with the grad students and postdocs and shadow them on their work. Until I got a key to the lab, I also had to coordinate with one of them just to get into the lab. Then, there is the actual training of how to do things in the lab. I remember being a new postdoc and going into a new environment and needing to try and fail with a few things before feeling comfortable enough to get work done. This is even worse because I am sort of an intruder in these labs where the grad students and postdocs have their stuff working perfectly. This is also why befriending and working with the students is super-important!

New Schools: You might be worried that your kids would have a hard time adjusting to a new school with new kids and a new system. I think we should give kids more credit than that. Meeting new kids and having new experiences is exciting to them. On the other hand, figuring out a new system is difficult and burdensome for parents. My oldest kid’s new school apparently wants us to be helicopter parents and communicate directly with the teacher all the time and be all over our kid. Simultaneously, my kid’s teacher is disorganized and uneven. The school has a ton of projects and weekly reports on top of regular work that feels less important and more like busy work. My kid is very excited about all this, but HusbandOfScience and myself are less enthusiastic. It isn’t clear that our kid is learning the basics with these projects. Plus, they aren’t fun or easy for us, since we don’t have access to our normal slate of materials, supplies, and reagents (see Leaving your House, above). Unfortunately, our griping is starting to affect our kid, too. Kid is not excited about the busy work anymore (although the kid still likes the projects). My younger kid is the same here as back home – hates school when not there and loves it when there. Younger kid has also been complaining about wanting to go back home. I think most of these gripes are based more on the fact that we are squished in a tiny apartment and getting on each other’s nerves.

Summary: The worst part about having difficulties on sabbatical is that no one wants to hear you complain. When people ask, “How’s sabbatical?” and I say, “It’s ok, kinda hard.” The response I get is equivalent to a sarcastic, “Yeah right, I feel soooo bad for you.” But, the thing is, it is hard. And you know it is. I know you know because most of you, my colleagues, don’t even try to go away. You do “stay-batticals” where they stay and work in your own labs. This is much easier. You are in their own house, in your own labs, not teaching, not doing service. You might get sucked into things in the department and on campus, but I do too! The difference is that I get sucked in and I’m 3000 miles away and off by 3 hours! So, don’t believe the hype. Doing a sabbatical away is cool and good for you, but it isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning, prepping, and shipping before you get here. But, being there isn’t a picnic in the park either. Much like having kids, it is worth it, but it is still tough. Don’t be fooled!

So, what do you think? Don’t hold back. What other woes have occurred on your sabbaticals? The time to be honest is now! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

How to Get (the most) Out of Service

Nagasakibomb-colorThe recent linked post about being a “good girl” in STEM focused a lot on following the rules and how that can actually be bad for you. I was particually happy with the list of practical things that you can do to resist, but they were all geared toward “after tenure.” BTW – there is a male-equivalent to being a “good girl.” I call it being a “boy scout.” Many of the men in my department are boy scouts, which makes being a good girl not so out of the ordinary or weird.

In the original post, there was an undertone that you should be a “good girl” before tenure, because you don’t jeopardize your tenure case. Seeing how a large number of my male colleagues get away with doing little or crappy service – even before tenure – I think it is worth exploring things you can do to avoid or get out of service before tenure. This is especially important if your department doesn’t have a protection policy for untenured assistant professors. It is even more important if you were protected pre-tenure, are now tenured, and are staring down the barrel of a sh*t-ton of service.  Here are a couple solutions of some ways to get out of service, or at least spend time on service you value so it isn’t a “chore.”

  1. Mildly suck at your service. A senior faculty in an adjacent department gave HusbandOfScience and me some advice when we first got our jobs – don’t do a good job at your service assignments. This means not going the extra mile for service. You should prioritize it last, do it at the last possible minute, and perhaps miss assignments and deadlines sometimes. Spending only a quarter of the time on it you “think” you should. I definitely did this on some committees like graduate admissions and personnel committee stuff. It’s not that I did a bad job, per se. I am still basically a boy scout/good girl at heart, but I definitely didn’t spend a long time on these things. Why is this OK? A. Service is not going to get you tenure. B. On campus service never got anyone tenure. C. No one is going to not give you tenure because you sucked at your service. D. They might not ask you to come back.
  2. Play one service role off another. This basically means to use any other service you have as leverage to say no to the thing you are being asked. When I was asked to serve on admissions for GradProgramX, I was able to say no because I was already serving on admissions for GradProgramY. I ended up serving on both in consecutive years for about 4 years total – flipping between GradProgram X  and Y. This was great, because I learned a lot about how each program did things and could communicate successes and failures between the programs. Once you are committed to a big service role like admissions, personnel committee, or quals committee, you can use that commitment to say no to a lot of other department and college service.
  3. Make Up Your Own Service. When I got to UState DepartmentOfX, there was no women’s group, despite the department having a very small fraction of women and minority students. So, I started a women and minority group. We met for tea, and there was a lot of bitching because there was a lot to bitch about. The students told me they didn’t have a venue to give 1-hour talks, so I started a student seminar series where they could talk to each other and practice job talks and just exchange ideas. We discussed professional development and work-life balance. I told the department chair that I was doing this, and that it should be a service assignment (and not just assigned to women and minorities). And he made it one, and I got to do a service role that I really cared about. Along the way, I have invented or help invent with others other service assignments including Publicity committee (to fix and update the website more regularly) and a Departmental Teaching Luncheon working group. These were all things I cared about and were providing a service for the department. In addition, because I was doing these roles, I was also able to say no to other requests on my time (see #2 above).
  4. Question Yourself. One question you can ask yourself when considering a request of your time is: “If I had only a limited time to live, would I spend my time doing this?” If the answer is “Yes, this is important. It will help me leave a mark and affect a positive change,” then say yes. If the answer is, “No, this is a waste of my precious time,” then say no. I had a minor breast cancer scare a couple months ago (don’t worry it was a cyst!), and I went through all my commitments and thought, “If I do have breast cancer, do I want to work on this?” and for most of the things I was doing (my made-up service) the answer was yes. I feel like the service I am doing and have been doing is really good to affect positive change in the lives of students and my department colleagues, and it is worth doing.
  5. Armageddon: Blow Up Your Service. OK, I am NOT recommending this, and certainly don’t do this before you get tenure, but… another way to get out of service is to be so miserable and heinous to work with that no one wants to work with you. Call everyone assholes to their face. Accuse them all of being racists. Act racist yourself. Start flame email wars and never, ever let anyone else get the last word. Be super negative and disgruntled about everything. This behavior is what we call, “un-collegial,” and it will get you out of service. But, there is a price. Just as the price of being a good girl/boy scout is that you get dumped on. The price of being a truly heinous colleague is that you never get to do service. You are not trusted with the responsibility. You certainly will not be trusted to lead or have any important service. In fact, you might get stuck with the worst service, having no impact, but high work load, if you act this way. If you are fine with that, go for it. But, if you think you are important and you should be heard, don’t act like this.

So, what do you think? Are there other ways to get out of bad service? Not all service is bad, and you can get out of anything, actually. You can even back out of service you already said yes to. People won’t hold it against you, especially if you are over committed and won’t get the work done. Also, if you get better service and don’t have time for something that isn’t good or interesting to you, you should back out. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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