Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wednesday Night Gratuitous Rant

There are several reasons that made me start blogging. One was to share some of the hard-earned wisdom as a hard-STEM faculty over the tenure hump. Another was to connect with people whose lives and interests are similar to mine. But perhaps the most important reason is that I simply thought writing would make me feel better.

The last one hasn't really panned out, perhaps because I let the advice-giving know-it-all set the tone for the blog. So I actually censor myself as though I owe something to my ivory-tower cruising, advice-dispensing GMP persona. She's quite a lady, isn't she? Well, fuck her.

So I am warning you: the following is a rant. There will be some profanity. Stop here if you visit this blog for my academic pearls of wisdom and do not care to gaze into my navel with me. What I will write next is not balanced or well-thought out and is written solely for the purpose of venting. If you end up disappointed, appalled, or offended, don't say I didn't warn you.

Here's the deal: I have a wonderful family, the job I always wanted, security in every aspect of my life. And I am miserable most of the time. What the fuck is wrong with me? The Web says it's burnout.

I actually am so bored by my job that I want to cry. Or pull my brain out so I would not be so goddamn bored any more. I do a lot of "service" collaborative projects where my expertise is needed and appreciated, these papers are read and respected, but I am soooooo bored by all of it. Bored by what other people care about. Bored by what the rest of my scientific community cares about. WHO CARES ABOUT ALL THAT SHIT?! BOOOOOOORING!

I have some 10 students who all hold on to my skirt; there is nobody with similar expertise in the whole university, so I have to teach them every single thing they need to know in order to get things done. So I am into the nitty-gritty details of every single project. Yes I have a postdoc, but he's not much help really; he's basically another senior student. And senior students are not as good at transmitting knowledge to junior ones as they ideally would be, because they are kids and they want to get out of here. Have I mentioned that there is no one with the same expertise? Ironically, that's why I accepted the offer from this university when I was job hunting -- no one here who did what I did, and plenty of opportunities for collaboration. You know what -- I was oh so right. All these opportunities for collaboration panned out. And then some. So be careful what you wish for, 'cause you might just get it. I sure did.

I went on vacation, and of course all hell broke loose. I have so much work piled on that I want to strangle someone. I can never go anywhere. If I go away from family, I kill myself cooking for the week ahead, making sure everyone's laundry is done, that all forms have been filled out, playdates scheduled.
If I am away from my group or my work, I come back to a pile of stuck students and a shitton of paperwork. All these papers that need to be looked over, white papers for the gazzillion of impending proposals, abstracts, paperwork for students who came back from conferences... And always at least 2 or 3 papers being written.

And there are the collaborators. They are the most fuckin' exhausting of all. I wish we'd move from the same old, same old, and do something exciting and new for a change. Sooooo fuckin' booooooooored. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

And don't get me started with hype. Everyone in my field (at least people considered successful) is a hopeless slave to funding. Which means this: Nature or Science publishes a paper with some earthshattering measurements. Everybody and their brother drop everything that they have been doing and jump on the new shiny object.
Funding agencies funnel all the money into the promising topic, the funding milieu changes significantly. You cannot afford not to flock to the hot new thing as that is where all the money is. For several years people try to repeat the hyped experiment or actually materialize on some of the promises put forth; after a number of students and postdocs working around the clock throughout the world keep failing for years, the truth starts to emerge: the hyped experiment had a flaw -- usually a too liberal/optimistic interpretation of measurement -- and the fabled effect is nonexistent or much more modest. And yeah, in the meantime a number of important but less flashy problems are abandoned and underfunded while everyone is busy being hypnotized by the shiny new shittopic.

So the job is a giant downer, all the time. And it affects my family life. Which is quite demanding. And have I told you we get no breaks? I am not comfortable about babysitters so we never go anywhere without kids. Never. Ever.

Yes I am burned out. But, if you are going to tell me to eat right, get plenty of rest, cut back on work, and exercise, I want to tell you straight up to go fuck yourself. I am exhausted, I am not mentally challenged; I can google too. Unless you are going to come babysit for me while I cook or do dishes or (gasp!) go to the gym, you cannot give me advice on how to relax.

People constantly want stuff from me, from all directions -- my husband, my kids, my students, my collaborators. No one ever leaves me the fuck alone. Which would be OK if I could recharge by lying on the beach alone sipping a cocktail (never happens) or doing interesting work. Except that I cannot, because I am completely enslaved by stupid uninspiring collaborative projects and the need to perpetually go after new funding. There is no fun left. The stuff I like to do I never have the time for, and there is no money for it. Yes, I play the academic game well, but my neurons are dying along the way -- being faculty makes me more and more stupid at actually doing science. On the upside, my plan to get an ulcer in my late 30's is going just swimmingly.

So there. I actually do feel a bit better... No, not really.

Oh, yeah. If you are going to tell me I am a whiny spoiled little bitch who has everything and is so self-absorbed that she does not appreciate what she has and is thus a despicable ingrate, get in line. I was the first one there.


Anonymous said...

I hear you. You speak your mind here, and that is why I will keep coming back to your blog.

melissa's said...

I also hear you. I think sometimes the academic/science blog community forgets that most of these issues are not specific to science or academia, they are life issues, plain and simple. GMP I hope you manage to find room for excitement in your work and home lives soon...

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that someone else is bored with their science.

Odyssey said...

What would happen if you started dropping the boring collaborations like you would flaming bags of dog shit? Seriously. What would happen? Piss some people off. Obviously it's not the total solution, but you will feel better and have more time.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I write my blog for myself. If other people derive something from reading it then that is awesome, but it is not why I do it.

Soon after starting it, my blog quickly morphed in to a series of whinny self-indulgent posts. I let it all out. It did not make me feel better, but it made me address some issues. By expressing myself in this media I was able to figure out what was wrong and possible solutions. It was not a warm fuzzy process, but I am happier now and glad I did it.

Alyssa said...

Good lord - I have been bored with my "science" for quite some time now. I just cannot fathom how others can think their research is interesting or exciting in anyway. Thankfully I'm getting out of the whole thing (for numerous reasons, not just the boredom).

I hope that this is just a rut you're in and that you find a way out. It sucks when everything that takes up your time is shit you don't care about or don't want to deal with.

I love rant posts, so don't feel bad! It's nice to see that side of things too (that not everything is perfect).

Hang in there!

irongrrl said...

I will definitely not tell you to hang in there or hope that things improve, because things never magically improve on their own. What is that quote about doing the same thing and expecting different results being the definition of insanity?

I feel strange trying to give you advice because you are so much farther along in the career path, and I am just starting out, and you are someone I would go to for advice. But, I know a thing or two about happiness and how to hold onto it, so here goes: if you expect things to change, you must do something differently. If you want everything to change, you must do something else entirely. Have you considered a new job? I don't mean a new university, I mean a new direction in life. I understand that tenure=job security, and this is not a trivial consideration, but it sounds like your job is eating at your soul. What are the chances of you telling the academic machine to go fuck itself, and looking for a job that is a little more nurturing of both the mind and the spirit? Of course I am a total outsider, and I know nothing of your family situation or whether you could even leave your current institution without a huge disruption in their lives, but even if it required a big disruption ... might it be worth it?

Perhaps you should ask yourself these two things: 1) Have things been getting worse for a long time, and therefore is there any reasonable expectation of them getting better? 2) How do you feel when you picture yourself in the same position 10 or 20 years from now?

You are not alone here. Other people have felt the same way ... and other people have managed to leave, and never look back. Case in point, my favorite former academic and all-around strong chick:

Good luck, and keep those rants flowing.

prodigal academic said...

Nice rant! It's your blog, you can do what you want with it. You probably don't want advice, but since it is a Web 2.0 kind of world, I'll offer it anyway.

I agree with Odyssey--you have tenure, you have skills, you have other interests. Drop the boring stuff, start saying no, and start having a little more fun. Even if you need to do some boring stuff to pay the bills, you should can hopefully carve out a little fun space too.

As for babysitters, we use someone from the kids' daycare. They know her, she knows them, we trust her, so it all works out. Most of the time, though, we don't go out. As a sanity saver, my husband and I each take 1 night a week where we do something (anything we want to) while the other parent feeds the kids and puts them to bed. It really helps. Even my non-cooking spouse can make Kraft mac & cheese or nuke up some leftovers for them

PUI prof said...

A nice rant makes us all feel better. Ahhhh, see!

pika said...

You sound like my department chair. :-) I vote for Odyssey's and prodigal's suggestion to drop the boring stuff and replace it with something that you find exciting. What my chair did is to apply for a grant for a project that was totally and completely unrelated to anything we were doing at our institute - and he got it and is really happy now whenever he works on that particular topic.

And, just a thought (although I am rather fresh PhD supervisor, so take this with a grain of salt), would it help with boring PhD students if you refused to help them so much? Ask them to figure out things themselves? Maybe send them to the postdoc - and then that would also make the postdoc figure out how to be a mentor and help students? Also, maybe don't take any new students this year?

Alex said...

I have been thinking that I want to change jobs from a PUI to a research university. Hearing about the hell of chasing fads and boring collaborations for the sake of funding and prestige, I have second thoughts.

Female Computer Scientist said...

I'm sorry to hear you're so stressed out, GMP.

Ms.PhD said...

I agree with almost all the advice here, although I wouldn't tell you to go find another job before you consider moving to another school that has more people who do things you find interesting.

I'd say to see if you can get yourself invited to some good meetings, and/or to speak at schools that look like potential places to jump. Then you could start new collaborations with those people, and/or see about transferring over there.

I would also seriously consider, if I were you, asking your husband to help out a bit more. I went through a period of awakening recently when I realized that, despite being a rabid feminist professionally, at home I was allowing myself to get bogged down in more than my fair share of chores. It hasn't been easy, but it finally dawned on me that I was so tired from fighting at work all the time that I didn't want to pick fights at home. It was easier to just keep the peace.

Personally, I found your rant kind of gratifying. What you describe actually validates my fear about continuing to try to suck it up and do whatever it takes to get a faculty position: that what gets hired, funded and tenured is just plain dull.

My research was exciting - too exciting. I was told it was too risky, that nobody believed I could do it, even though I had already done it, had already published it, and was in the process of DOING MORE OF IT.

But nobody actually wants that, and especially not from me. Science has become the land of mediocre status-quo, especially for young women. We're the least allowed to anything exciting, and when we do, nobody can believe it's really happening. They want to credit our advisors, they assume we couldn't possibly do it on our own.

I say, if you'd seriously consider quitting academia, do something outrageous first. Make history. Pick your craziest idea that you always wanted to work on, take whatever funding you have left, and do it. What have you got to lose?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

You need more better post-docs--who are much more independent and can *direct* the work of other people--and fewer students. Ten PhD students is ridiculous unless you have excellent post-docs to help mentor them.

Casey said...

Have you considered a career change? Remember, you only live one life ...

Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea someone else felt some of those things. Especially the part about knowing all the little details of each of your students' projects -- I have the same thing, and it has to be that way because of logistics (like you explained). But it is boring, and you are stuck with those same little details for years!

GMP said...

Thanks everyone for the comments and suggestions! Let me just address a few comments (I certainly appreciate all of them!)

Alex, please don't let my rant discourage you from moving to a research school. I can guarantee you that I would be much more miserable at a PUI. I am certain I would not be happy at all doing predominantly teaching and research with only undergrads. At an R1 school, you do have a fair bit of freedom in terms of what you do, except that you need to get it funded, but I am sure you had to do that even at your PUI. So sometimes you end up doing things that can get funded rather than the ones that most strike your fancy... The R1 world is not ideal, but it's not hell. As I am sure PUI isn't either. Perhaps we can talk more offline? I really don't want this rant to cause you to have second thoughts -- it's a rant, so not exactly a balanced view.

MsPhD, I don't think what gets tenured is mediocre stuff. I am bored by my work, but other seem to care about it a fair bit: the work I do with my collaborators is highly regarded (GlamourMag and similar) it's just that I personally am wondering -- is this all there is to it?

Casey, irongrrl, the job I have is my dream job. But I woke up and it's not all that... However, since I cannot stand having a boss, I don't think I would be happy doing anything else really...

A few people (Odyssey, Prodigal,...) suggested I drop collaborations. I could do that but not without a significant hit to visibility and fundability. Let me specify a bit about what I do: we can call it the interface of physics/materials science/electronics. My specialty is a somewhat niche field in theory and computation and my collaborators are all experimentalists. Without collaborations, my funding potential and visibility drastically drop, but with them I must often play second fiddle. The collaborative exp/theory work is what enables us to publish high impact papers and it is very useful for my students to be exposed to experiments all the time and be able to talk to experimentalists -- that's why there is so much pressure on me, and even with the group I have now I don't have the throughput to do all the projects that I am needed on. (Not all my projects are collaborative, of course.)

While I appreciate experimentalists, most of the time they don't care to learn how I do the things I do (equations and algorithms are of no interest) whereas I constantly hear about the different processing steps. The stuff I really like to do is pure theory and development of novel computational tools, but there is little funding for it and not every student is cut out for that -- most thrive on experiment-anchored problems. So there.

While I fantasize about going to a better school, my husband has a good job here and he is not keen on moving. Also, my collaborations may bore me, but the collaborators are really nice people who appreciate me, so that aspect I would miss if I moved.

But every 3 years there is a conference in Europe where I go geek out among my fellow theorists and I feel great.

Thanks for the other suggestions (Pika, CPP, a few Anons) -- starting a smaller side project and cutting back on the number of students. That was my plan but will take time (graduate a few and not hire replacements, get a few new and exciting grants on my own)...

Heh. That's life. Thanks everyone again!

Anonymous said...

I hear you loud and clear. When I got tenure, everybody asked, "doesn't it feel great?". Of course it was nice. But basically my life as a tenured faculty member with young children at home is soul sucking. No one at home ever feels like they get enough of my time. I really love the science we are doing in the lab and I have some terrific students and postdocs, so not too many complaints there. However, since we all have to be grant whores now and figure out how our research is "translational" as well as doing the piles of bureaucratic bullshit paperwork required to actually do research these days, I hardly ever get to think about science. Mostly, I just think about funding. I. HATE. THAT.

Isis the Scientist said...

Wow. I find this version of GMP fascinating and endearing. I like her quite a bit.

The occasional "fuck" can be extremely therapeutic.

Meadow said...

GMP I like your blog. I don't have tenure so can't really say much. But one thing I can say. It is not easy taking care of children. I also do everything. I'm tired and I never have any fun, always doing something for someone else. Sigh.
Hope you feel better.

Becca said...

Some thoughts:
1) On babysitters: my SO got one of the folks from daycare, but *I* lucked out. I have an 11 year old neighbor who is AWESOME with my little guy. She's a bit too young for this to help me get out *without* baby, but it's fine for taking them both *with* me. I have a Toastmasters group, we meet in a windowed room inside a larger facility. I take them both, park them outside the room, and get to do my thing- baby interruptions minimized.
It is *hard* to trust random babysitters, but you can grow your own talent- start with situations where you are there and see how it goes. It could at least work for getting you a chance to cook in peace (Oh My, does that problem sound familiar...).
Also, my gym has childcare (in fact, the chief reason I have a gym membership- instead of using the free uni fitness center- is for childcare).

*Students benefit in many ways from multiple mentors. Figure out other people to send them to whenever possible.

Kate said...

Actually, this was the most refreshing post I've seen you write. I like this a lot better than the know-it-all (your words, not mine).

I offer only commiseration. This is a great job in a lot of ways, but the neverending neediness of work and family gets to me too.

Gerty-Z said...

GMP, I'm new to the TT, so I'm not going to offer advice. But forfucksake, I can't imagine doing this job if you think the science is boring. I know that you have to pay the bills, but gah!

In any event, it is your blog. Rant at will.

RahRahGrl said...

Wow, that was fun to read. We've all been there (or will be at some point). And, as you know, it's a phase. Do I sense a sabbatical in your future?

namnezia said...

Feel free to tell me to fuck off, but here's my two-cents.

I agree with ProdigalAcademic, just say no to stuff. What's going to happen if you drop a few collaborations? And delegate - let people in your lab struggle a bit more and they will become more independent.

Whenever we go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant we usually order various dishes and share. My sister in-law is the kind of person who takes it upon herself to make sure that what we order is carefully balanced and sufficient and unduplicated. She gets very stressed by this role and never enjoys her meal. What would happen if she didn't do this? The meal would not be quite as diverse, maybe we'd have too much food which we can then bring home or too little, in which case we can order more. Maybe some of the kids wouldn't eat, but then they can have a little snack at home. But its all fine. Most things do work themselves out on their own if you give them a chance.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Have you been feeling like this for a while? Or just since May?

I ask because I've realized that in the summers I get these horrible, crushing moments of resenting my work and home lives because I have more open time to ponder my many hats. During the academic year, I am worked to the bone, so I never have a spare moment for self-reflection. When the fall picks back up, I always feel better, but only because I don't have any time to think about how sucky things are.

God, it really sounds awful, huh?

Ferlie Woman said...

Teetering on the edge of that cliff, wondering how much longer till you tip over...?

I hear you re: being the only one in your institution who can do what you do. It's a marvellous opportunity, but so easy to turn into a facilitator of other people's research. Time to get a decent postdoc who can take over some of the supervising and give you some thinking space, and a housekeeper to do the cooking and cleaning so you can have fun with the family! It's the ideal world.

Oh, look - those pigs are flying again...

Anonymous said...

I hear you - I often feel the exact same way (without tenure, yet). But, at least for me, things are cyclical. I'll be as bored as hell and feel completely drained for a while, then things will pick up and I'll be excited about my work and feel like I can manage everything. Hang in there! I just got back from two back-to-back conferences and feel great. The second conference in particular was excellent and revitalizing. And things did not fall apart at home as much as I expected.

JaneB said...

Just catching up on my reading after being away - and I am feeling just. like. this. Completely understand - and the whole 'this is my dream job, but sometimes it SUCKS' feeling is far too familiar. Even without the family demands!

One of the best things I've got from blogging is a place to have these sorts of rants and get some sympathetic responses. I hope you enjoyed writing it, at least a little!

Kea said...

I'm with MsPhD. It's up to you to stop being mediocre ... and to stop whining.

GMP said...

@ Kea

I'm with MsPhD.

:) No surprise there.

It's up to you to stop being mediocre ... and to stop whining.

I suppose it takes a whiner to know a whiner.