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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.

Sabbatical Preparations – Panic Time

Sabbatical-1Some updates from the sabbatical planning. OK, “planning” is basically in the past. We are actively doing now.

Last week, I packed up two boxes that contained some basic toys and clothes that were appropriate for our new location (which has different weather from where we live and work). I checked that I could send some stuff ahead of time. My landlord there said he would keep it for me. If he hadn’t, I would have gotten a PO box at the post office, so I could send stuff to myself and have them hold it. I plan to send 6 boxes total, basically 1.5 for each member of the family.

I also arranged for someone to come by the house regularly while we are away, and found some online resources from “FancyPants” magazines about how to close up your summer house for the winter. Here is one I found useful (link). I will probably do some of these things, but not all right away. It turns out I have to come back for some stuff in the first month of being away, so the house won’t be abandoned for long.

This week was a big one. I actually went to our sabbatical spot. I was able to hook it onto a conference that was within a driving distance. I swung up for less than 2 days. I stopped by the house and said hi to the landlord. I walked to the elementary from the house to trace the route we will likely take every day. I turned in my pre-filled paperwork to register my oldest for school. Next, I went to the daycare my youngest will be attending to get a tour and sign him up. It was pretty sweet, and I can’t wait to hear what he thinks about the school, kids, and toys I saw there.

This trip got me really excited. It also made me think about new things including health care for my kids. My oldest is almost never sick, but the younger one is accident prone and has allergies. This made us check up on our insurance. It turns out they are affiliated with a network of providers in our sabbatical location. If they hadn’t been, I had two possibilities. Pay out of pocket and send receipts for 80% reimbursement from our insurance for using a provider out of network. Another option would have been to sign-up for supplemental insurance using “ObamaCare” so that we have in network coverage. I would have had to weigh the costs of each. It is much easier to use a provider in our extended network for our short time there, so that is what we will do.

The thing that was forgotten – the cars. Actually, it wasn’t forgotten, just more difficult than we thought. Our plan was to sell one car (our airport car that we don’t really use much) and to leave the main car and have it driven periodically. We were planning to rent a car in SabbaticalTown. But, now, I think we are going to ship the main car and leave the back-up car for periodic driving by our house checker. I think part of my visit back in January will be to orchestrate the car pick-up for cross-country transport. I feel bad that I didn’t get this together, but frankly, there is only so much I can do while actually still maintaining my job, too.

So, we are going. This is really happening. I am trying to be calm, but sometimes that anxious feeling of butterflies in my stomach still crop up. Is there anything else I am forgetting? Do I really want to know? I have time to course correct because I will be going back, so please comment or post if I am missing anything! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Work Life Balance – Not Just Kids

ScorpionMamaAt a recent women in science luncheon, we were talking about panels and sessions at women-centric meetings. One of the women complained that all the talk about work-life balance revolved around when to have kids, but she wasn’t ready to think about kids. That makes sense, because she was an undergraduate student. Most grad students aren’t even ready to think about kids or know if they even want them. They complained that the sessions and panels about babies were missing the point for her and were annoying and a waste of time. This is a very good point, and I want to address a different kind of work-life balance in this post – one that is specifically pointed to younger people.

Before that, I do want to defend the baby-mongering of many women’s issue forums. Why are we so obsessed with babies as the only form of work-life balance that needs to be discussed? Here are my personal thoughts (and I welcome all others to comment).

  1. Preparing you. Having a baby is a lot of work and much of that work specifically falls to women. Having a baby is a medical condition that NO MAN will ever face or understand. It starts very early with morning sickness and fatigue for many women. You continue to have crazy medical issues that are routinely checked with medical appointments. The event of having the baby concurs with a hospital stay and a surgery for many women. And then there is a long recovery afterwards. I felt like I was hit by a truck after delivering my first kid. Couple that with postpartum sleeplessness, learning curve, and perhaps even depression, and this is basically a year-long, or more, medical condition. WomenOfScience who have gone through it want to prepare others for this condition. So, they want to help you with these sessions. I am sure after that description, you will never want to have a baby!
  2. Letting you know that you can do it. Having a family is often cited by women as a main driver for their leaving STEM fields. Since many women “know” they want to have kids – just not the specifics of when, where, and with whom – the thought that a life in STEM is at odds with having them is enough to drive many women away. So, the point of these panels is to convince you that you can have children and still be a WomanOfScience. Wouldn’t it be weird if we had sessions for men about being a dad and staying in science. For a funny twitter account along those lines, I recommend: @manwhohasitall. Funny stuff.

So, what kind of work-life balance do young people need? Many older people with kids might say, “You should work all the time! It’s not like you have kids to take up your time.” A lot of my friends without kids hate it when people with kids say that kind of thing, and it is no less annoying to young people. So, if I had to do it all over again, here is what I would do (BTW – as I was writing this, I realized that I already did most of these things and had fairly good work-life balance even as an undergraduate).

  1. Basics. You need to get your basics covered for your health. There are four things you need to do to be healthy and balanced as a young person:
    • Sleep. I know this is hard to do. You have 4-5 classes and each demands a lot of time to devote. STEM classes are notoriously bad about this. Sometimes it seems like professors think that their class is the only one in the world. If there is a perfect storm of lab reports, term papers, and midterms, it can be hard to get a good amount of sleep. But, you really need to try. It is so important to help you to remember and make new connections. This is what you need to actually learn something. You are in college, doing a science major to learn, right? How can you learn, if you never give your brain time to process and cool down? When I was your age, I slept ~8 hours per night. I only pulled one all-nighter in all of undergraduate – for studying. (I pulled other all-nighters for fun – see below). I would have all sorts of dreams about science and math. I once dreamed my legs were test tubes when I was taking organic chemistry. These crazy dreams were my brain’s way of processing the science I was learning.
    • Eat. Along with sleeping, eating regularly and healthily is essential to your learning. Why? The brain uses up a large amount of your calories each day. You know when you have low blood sugar, and you can’t process and you might even get “hangry” (hungry + angry)? That is because you actually do not have enough calories for your brain to function properly. Your higher-order functions that control your impulses and emotions go bye-bye, and you snap at people. Your brain uses a ton of fuel, and is the number one user of calories. So, you need to feed it often with good food. A large number of undergraduates don’t go to lunch, or eat breakfast. They substitute caffeine for food. This is not good for you, and it really won’t work. You need to eat. Schedule your lunch and dinner times. Breakfast is a lifestyle choice, but you will be low of fuel in the morning. When I was in college, I did a good job of eating lunch and dinner every day. I did schedule it. I also often ate a late snack and went without a significant breakfast. That was a choice I made, and you have to do what is right for you. I could do that, because I was more of a morning person. I needed less uppers in the morning than in the evening to get work done. Food is an upper.  BTW – your brain can survive on both protein and carbohydrates. If you need to fast for some reason, it will take 4 days for your brain to switch from incoming fuel to using your own stored fat to function. You will be very stupid for 4-5 days, so do not do anything drastic or important!
    • Exercise. I am super impressed by the number of undergraduates I see regularly going to the gym. I totally didn’t do this when I was an undergraduate, so me telling you to do this is a bit hypocritical.  Anyway, it would have been good, if I had done this.
    • Bathe. OK, I know it sounds weird to have to tell adults to shower, but the number of scientists and engineers who are too stinky to stand next to is alarming. So, for the love of yourself and everyone else around you, please take showers (and wash your clothes) regularly.
  2. Explore, try, have fun.
    • Try new stuff. When you are an undergrad you should make time to try new things. This is one of the times in your life where people expect you to try new stuff. Do you like sushi? How do you know if you never tried? If you don’t give yourself the opportunities to try new stuff, you will never know what you like and do not like. How can you decide to go to grad school and devote yourself to a life of science if you haven’t ever done anything else? I used to DJ on the college radio station and go to see shows with my friends. I also programmed events for campus. It was fun, and I met a lot of people outside of science I never would have known who were super awesome. After trying those things, I decided I didn’t want a job in the music industry, and wanted to stick with science, but at least I knew there were other things out there. College is also where I tried Thai food for the first time (it wasn’t as common back then) and learned to dance like a mod.
    • Take a day off every week. In college, I tried (and mostly succeeded) to take one day off each week. It was usually a Saturday or Sunday. I wouldn’t work on problem sets or read for Japanese literature class. I would just hang out, go into town, catch a movie with friends. The other day of the weekend, I had my nose in a book working on problem sets for my science and math classes, so I would have them mostly done before our week-night study sessions. But I always took one day to relax and try new stuff. When classes and midterms got to be too much, I would work on that day of rest, and I would always turn into a raving bitch for the next week because I never relaxed and destressed. I actually still try to do this even now. It is very important for my psyche to have a day to lounge around and goof off with my family.  Starting these habits early help to cement them in later.
    • Who are you? Most importantly about all this is being open to exploring who you are and what you want. If you think you might be someone who wants a significant other in their life, the first step is knowing who you are and what you want in life. In order to know yourself, you have to try things and figure it out. Once you know yourself and what you want to do and what you want out of life, then you are ready to get to know someone else to share your life. Typically, the best relationships are between people with the same values and want the same things out of life. If you are the jealous type, you probably should: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. not date someone who is into open-relationships.  If you never want kids, you should probably: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. make sure your significant figure agrees with that.

I hope this was helpful. And to the young women out there: yes, there is way more to work-life balance than having kids. Half of work-life balance is having a life. So, go out, explore and determine who you are and what you want out of life.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Comment or post here! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Preparations – Part 2

Sabbatical-1In the spirit of travel blogging, here is part two of my N-part series on planning and being on sabbatical. Sabbatical seems glamorous and exciting, but I just  spent 2 hours last night on paperwork. Ah, paperwork. Essential parts of bureaucracy and essential for you to go where you want. The paperwork I filled out last night included:

  1. Paperwork to have a complimentary appointment at the university I will be visiting. This wasn’t so bad, just a page or so.
  2. Paperwork to enroll my eldest in public school. This was a lot of paperwork. Plus, they wanted a birth certificate, immunization records, and three people to contact who were not me or my husband in case of emergency. These people must be local, and I am lucky that I know three people there already.
  3. Paperwork to enroll my youngest in pre-school. This wasn’t a big deal yet. It was just name and our names and what days of the week we want. I will have more paperwork to fill out later.

This paperwork is all important and needs to be filled out so I can work and my kids can go to school. It is about a month and a half before we arrive there, and the paperwork had to be done. But, I also had to get the paperwork. In order to get the paperwork, I called the schools about 2 weeks ago to inform them of our impending move. This timing seemed good, so I would say that you should call the public school about 8 weeks ahead of time to inform them about registering your kid for public school. You must have your rental set up before this. They won’t register your kid unless you have proof that you will actually be living within the district. In fact, we had to send a copy of the contract for our rental as proof of address. As for the private preschool, I called them 6 months before because I wasn’t sure about availability. Sometimes daycares – especially if you are trying to get into university schools, are difficult to get into. Infant care might be close to impossible because many places need to be on the waiting list several years in advance to get a spot – and by that time, you aren’t an infant anymore. Preschools often have more availability because the student to teacher ratio is larger.  Our new preschool costs significantly more than the one we are leaving – adding a big expense to our sabbatical costs (on top of double housing costs!).

Once we contacted the schools, they sent the paperwork either by email or in the mail. I got it all, and decided to spend a couple hours filling out the paperwork. After filling it out, I scanned each document in and saved it as a pdf. I scanned everything I filled out, so I could save it for my own records in case it got lost in the mail.

The next step is to actually go to visit and register my kids for their schools. I will do this in about a month. I could probably do this via email completely, but I am going to be somewhat close for a conference, so I am going to swing by and visit in person.

Another thing I am doing now is getting our tickets for our actual trip to our sabbatical location. It is far enough that we will need to fly, and we will not be taking our car. I am starting to figure out how we will get our stuff to the new place. Also, the new place’s climate is very unlike the climate we are leaving behind.  I think I am going to request to ship some of our stuff to our new place before we leave so we have the right kinds of clothes there.

What am I forgetting? I am sure there is something. I have a dinner planned with a family who went on sabbatical a few years ago, and I am planning to grill them to figure out how best to “close-up shop” in my house. I have never, nor has my family, ever owned a second house that needed to be opened and closed for specific seasons. I certainly haven’t gone away from my home for such a long time before. I am trying to figure out how to ensure my electrical doesn’t blow up my house and my plumbing doesn’t freeze and crack pipes while we are away. One thing that makes me feel a little better is that our house manager will continue to be around and manage. So, the house will (hopefully) not truly blow up, nor be abandoned.

Tips, comments, suggestions – comment or post here! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button!

Pop Star PI

buckaroo-banzai-movie-poster-phantom-city-creativeI have been thinking recently about how being a research-intensive academic in science (I will qualify with many fields, but realize not all are like this) is like being a pop music star. Now, you may be scoffing and getting ready to stop reading this post, or you may immediately think of Buckaroo Banzai, so hear me out. I think that this analogy can go pretty far and actually has merit. Further, I hope that by making this analogy, I can help some of you come to terms with different aspects of this career path. For instance, if you are part of the postdoc army and thinking you want to be a faculty member, thinking about being a research-intensive academic in this light might help you to position yourself better to become a professor.

  1. Scientists and Musicians are both creative. I know it is obvious that pop stars and musicians are creative because they make up new lyrics and guitar rifts that are catchy and moving. But, scientists are inherently creative, too. Our entire job is to solve new problems that have never been tackled before. We invent new techniques to observe, analyze, model, and describe the phenomena of the world around us. I think that there is some idea that what we do is not creative because it is often opaque, uses math, and results in facts and new knowledge. On that note, there is another issue, too. By the time we present our results (perhaps on NPR, if we are cool), we are telling you some new facts. But, we don’t capture and retell all the creative moments it took us to get to these new facts. We don’t advertise very well that science is creative.
  2. Scientists and Musicians are influenced by the past and present of the field. In music, it is clear that there are trends in sound (remember auto-tuning?) and rehashing of old sounds to make them new again (sampling and covers). Scientists need to be pushing forward while constantly keeping the literature of the past and present in mind. Previous experiments and results help us to find the path on our future experiments. Referencing the literature is the first thing we do in journal articles. Further, some of our intellectual work is in the form of review articles where we completely rehash the literature in new ways, trying to make connections between what has come before with what is happening in a field now. Finally, every now and then, a field will “rediscover” a whole type of experiments or model that was basically ignored or dead to completely revive these ideas to have significant impacts on a field.
  3. Scientists and Musicians both have to re-invent themselves every couple of years. Part of being creative is pushing yourself to be creative about new things. Musicians come out with new albums every few years. Many times the sound is new and they even re-invent themselves. If they are good at it, a pop star can have a 30 – 40 year career or longer (think about Madonna or the Rolling Stones). A typical tenured and continuously active (see below) scientist will have at least 30 years of productivity in their career. Over 30 years, there is no way to continue to do the exact same thing. A scientist must re-invent themselves every few years to continue to come out with new ideas, results, and papers. So, it is not enough to have an idea of what the next experiment is, you must think about what the next big idea that will result in 5-10 or 20 papers. Then you must give it up and move on to the next, next big thing. To be truly excellent, you should be inventing fields that hit and riding the wave of popularity – not following it. Of course, there is merit to studying one thing really well, but even in that, you should be applying new techniques and learning about new avenues, or else there will be nothing new to study.
  4. Scientists and Musicians have a public face and profile to maintain. In my “state of the lab” address (post, post, post), I call myself the CEO of the lab. Much like a pop star, you have a public face that you present that needs to be maintained. In addition to being the “front-(wo)man” of the lab, I am also the manager. I maintain my lab website. I make sure that our great achievements are properly advertised. I make sure we are seen at all the right venues (parties for pop stars and conferences for scientists).
  5. Scientists and Musicians both have to go on tour. In order to both maintain their public profile and to promote their new work (album or results/papers), musicians and scientists both have to travel. Musicians can also make money on their travels because touring is the best way for musicians to make money these days. For scientists, some fields do pay honorariums for giving talks, but usually you just get your travel paid for (reimbursed). Around tenure time, many people go on a “tenure tour.” I am not an advocate of the tenure tour. In my mind, by that time, it is too late. You should be touring all the time to promote yourself, your work, and your personnel and students consistently.
  6. Scientists and Musicians often marry others in their field. Musicians often marry other musicians, artists, actors, or similar creative types. Scientists often marry other scientists. This can make touring and work-life balance difficult (see next item). At least musicians can make music wherever they want. To do science, you must be at a university or research institute. There are not an unlimited number of open slots at these locations. There are very few (I have met one only) self-employed scientists. There are many, many self-employed musicians, and you can live wherever you find inspiration, if you are self-employed. So, this ended up being a similarity that resulted in a huge difference.
  7. Scientists and Musicians have to juggle work and family. With all this touring and creating, it can be difficult for pop stars and scientists to have kids, juggle their jobs, and get to PTO meetings. Also, creative jobs are often all-consuming. Creative types, when engrossed in the creative process, often have a hard time putting their jobs to bed at night. This also makes work-life balance difficult.
  8. Scientists and Musicians are both mostly men and there is a glass ceiling. Many of the top pop stars are women, and certainly being a woman in music is more socially normal than being a woman in many scientific and engineering fields.  That being said, there are few women in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame (salon). Beyonce is not remarked to be a marketing and musical genius (although I think she is) (Atlantic). How many women in rap can you name? (girl talk, smithsonian) I won’t rehash all the literature about the fact that there are very few women in STEM, but I’m just saying – women musicians and women scientists all live in the same male-dominated society and are fighting a lot harder for the recognition they deserve.
  9. Scientists and Musicians collaborate. Musicians naturally collaborate to make their music. Most obvious are musicians in bands, but even solo artists work with musicians, producers, and sound mixers. In science, very few papers are single-author. As a PI, I always have my students and technician on the paper. This is the equivalent to the band and support. In addition, the duet is making a comeback in pop music and people have always sung together with people in different bands. Similarly, scientific collaborations are common, frequent, and often changing. This is because working with new people can be intellectually invigorating and enable you to recharge your creative spirit.
  10. Scientists and Musicians set their own schedules daily, monthly, yearly, career-wide. Just like some pop artists are one-hit-wonders, there are a number of scientists out there who basically only did one thing. A pop artist with a one-hit-wonder might be able to live off the royalties for their whole lives (maybe not so much anymore with pirating music), just as a one-hit scientist can get tenure and hang around forever living off their singular accomplishment. In both science and music, one-hit-wonders are not well-respected… I’m just saying.
  11. Scientists and Musicians can both be “night people.” There are very few fields in the world where waking up late and working to the wee hours of the evening is a plus, but both musicians and scientists can definitely do this. For musicians where you might be taking the stage at 10pm, it is a must. For scientists, it isn’t a requirement, but seems to be very popular. In fact, as a morning person, I feel like a huge slacker compared to HusbandOfScience, who can work on real science all night. All I can do is write blog articles with millions of typos.

So, have I convinced you? Did I miss anything? Add it via a comment or send me a post of your own! If you want to be a tenure-track professor, are you thinking of the job in these terms? To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Report

cycling_sabbatical_by_katandkitty-d5eakjxI have two WomenOfScience Friends who just went away got sabbatical with entire family in tow. I have been asking them to write a blog entry about the do’s and don’t’s of going on sabbatical, but it turns out, when you go on sabbatical, life gets really hectic when you get back. Note to self: Life After Sabbatical is rough – try to take it easy.

Anyway, despite the huge amount of work and catch-up, I got one to write a little “report” on reflections on her sabbatical. If you like this blog, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.  Enjoy!

My husband and I are both faculty members at the same university. This past year we took an amazing sabbatical for the entire academic year. We called it “Our BIG Year.” We were fortunate enough to both be awarded fellowships that helped to support our sabbatical research. We spent the first half year in Tokyo, Japan. I worked at the University of Tokyo and my husband worked at Keio University. Our two young sons attended day care and kindergarten in traditional Japanese schools where no English was spoken. The second half of our sabbatical was in Paris, France. I worked in a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and my husband had an appointment at Paris 12th University. Again our two sons attended day care and at that point 1st grade in a typical French school.

For me there were two major concerns going into the sabbatical. The first was maintaining the base I had worked hard to establish in my research group during my first seven years as a faculty member. My second concern was about how my kids would adapt to multiple school situations on two different continents both taught in languages with which they had very little to no experience. I would say that my concerns were appropriate; those were the two major areas that most impacted my sabbatical experience.

When I applied for fellowships and sabbatical, I imagined that I would have a senior postdoc/research assistant professor to act as a stabilizing force in my laboratory while I was away. Due to some unforeseen funding changes, and problems with the visa of the postdoc/research assistant professor, I was not able to have that stabilizing force present in my lab I was gone. I decided to go on sabbatical anyway. Overall, it was a truly amazing experience, and I’m glad that I did it. In case you are considering a “Big Year” here is my list of considerations the next time I consider a sabbatical:

  1. One year was a very long time to be away from my research group without a senior staff member. I think 6 or 9 months would have been okay but one year was too long. I am afraid that some of my graduate students may have suffered a little bit during my absence. One graduate student decided to leave the lab about 5 months into my sabbatical. I think he would have stayed in the lab if I had not been abroad. This was the most significant casualty of my year-long sabbatical.
  2. The kids were extremely resilient. It was very difficult for them for the first month in both Japanese school and French school. Our 1-year-old had never had any problems at daycare drop-off in the US, but for the 1st month in Japan started crying the moment we left the house saying I don’t want to go to daycare. The transition for him seemed to be much harder than for six-year-old son. But after 4 to 6 weeks both of the kids were happily playing with the Japanese or French classmates, so I think the painful transition was worth it. Our dinner table conversations are now conducted in the melange of three languages. My six-year-old son loves to speak French and Japanese and recently told me “I’m thinking about taking up a new language, maybe Chinese.” He certainly takes pride in being multilingual.
  3. For both halves of my sabbatical, I established entirely new interactions with my host labs. I did not have an established collaboration before I approached either of them about being a sabbatical visitor in their lab.   Given the constraints I had with the responsibilities of mentoring my graduate students and the very real need to land and renew grants to support my research program, I could not devote all of my time to working in my sabbatical lab. I think the sabbatical would have been quite a bit more productive if I had gone to a lab with whom we were already involved in an ongoing collaboration. While my sabbatical was productive, I can imagine that a sabbatical could be even more productive under different circumstances.
  4. In both Japan and France I did (some) lab work. Of course it was highly inefficient, because I was in a new laboratory. I thought every day “If I’m going to be spending time in lab it’s really a pity that I’m not spending this time in my own lab in the US with my own graduate students.” On the other hand, I know that if I had stayed in the US for my sabbatical, I would have spent that extra time doing university related work, not lab work – because I’m not good at saying “No.”
  5. Due to financial considerations, we rented our house out. I tried to be mentally prepared for the fact there could be damage done to our house. Still, I was surprised upon our return. In the future I would definitely hire a management agency to deal with the renters, the assessment of damages, and the return of deposit.
  6. I had heard that Parisians dislike Americans and were extremely rude to Americans. I found the opposite to be true for us. We lived in the 15th arrondissement near the Montparnasse station and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. One of my personal side goals of a sabbatical in Paris was to resurrect the French I had studied in high school and college. I spoke to everyone I could in French. I really loved this. Perhaps partly because I was outgoingly speaking in French, people were very welcoming to us. In France parents pick up their children from school by standing outside of the school doors. Every day during this time I would strike up a conversation with another French parent. I will admit that no French parents ever struck up a conversation with me, unless we already had met. Nevertheless I found that all of them were very happy to speak with me. We soon felt welcomed into the community. One mother invited my son to join her son for lunch at their house once a week. This was a highlight for my son. Early on he was also invited to a birthday party where we met many other parents and classmates. Thus we became part of a social group that met for dinner, picnics in the park and play dates. For us having children in the Paris school system definitely helped us to become part of the community.
  7. The time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast of the US was 12 or 13 hours depending on daylight savings time. This was brutal. Because all of the members in my group were graduate students, I felt it necessary to speak to each of them on an individual basis once every other week by Skype. I also conducted our weekly group meetings and our weekly multi group meetings by Skype for the year that I was gone. During the time I spent in Tokyo, I had nearly daily meetings both at 6 AM and 10 and 11 PM Tokyo time. Therefore, although I expected my sabbatical to be very restful and rejuvenating, it was extremely exhausting. Next time I plan a sabbatical I will definitely take the time zone into consideration.

Culturally and personally Our BIG Year was an unparalleled experience for our family. There were so many elements that I loved (the language, the trips around Japan and France, the learning lots of new things, the exciting seminars, the connections on different continents). I am extremely grateful that we had this opportunity and this experience. Perhaps because it was complicated and exhausting and is too fresh in my mind, I am not sure if I would take another sabbatical abroad. Maybe a few years of being back at my home university will change my mind. It is likely that three years from now I’ll be planning another BIG year in some far flung location, but for now, it is great to be home where I can talk to my students casually on a daily basis and my kids can play in their own back yard.

 

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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