Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Brings You Down?

A few days ago, FCS posted a couple of Donald Knuth quotes that cheered me up quite a bit. I didn't know much about Knuth, except that he's one of the big names in computer science and the father of TeX (I am a faithful Latex user). The post prompted me to go look up Knuth and I ended up on his personal webpage at Stanford, where he's a retired faculty. According to his page, he no longer uses email (which he considers important for "people who like to stay on top of things", whereas he likes to be "at the bottom of things"). He seems to conduct most communication through his secretary and checks pertinent correspondence quite infrequently, every few months or so. Now that he is retired, he's apparently fully devoted to working on his book "The Art of Computer Programming", and needs large uninterrupted chunks of time.

This got me thinking about how I spend my busy days at work, how unfulfilling my job seems at times, and what the reasons may be. (Other bloggers often write about the challenges of PI-dom; a couple of recent posts are Drug Monkey's and Professor in Training's posts.)

Let me make one thing clear: I don't dislike the nontechnical parts of being a PI. I enjoy teaching and advising students, and I love writing in all forms (no, I don't really hate writing grants; I just hate it when they get rejected). Yet, the absence of technical work does leave a void inside. I am a theorist, so I don't do experiments/spend time at the bench, but the equivalent is doing calculations (analytical and numerical) myself. I don't have a lot of time to do them any more, and I miss that. And I think I am getting progressively stupider, as I think my technical skills are deteriorating. Since the time I can devote to technical work is so limited, it takes me a lot to focus, and when I do, I feel restless, impatient, because I know I only have the odd hour here and there and it's never enough to take a good bite of any problem, and there is always something else that needs to be done right after. These excursions into the technical feel like I am sneaking out to do something naughty and fun. It has been more than 2 years since I wrote my last single-author paper. I really miss that. I publish pretty prolifically with students and collaborators, but there is nothing quite like publishing a single-author paper. No coauthors to cushion the blow of rejection, but also no one to have to compromise with. It's a bit like having some alone time at home amidst having to take care of everyone else's needs.

There are other aspects of PI-dom that seem to really bring me down, but I don't know if you can both be a successful "manager" (which is what I am now) and not do them. One of them is being in touch with people: I get a ton of emails every day, as I am sure all faculty do. On an average workday, the number is likely around 50 or so. The lure of the infernal email is that is gives you the illusion of being productive without actually having to engage your brain. Also, when you have multiple collaborative grants due within two months and have all these students to advise and have a large undergrad class to teach, someone always has stuff they want to ask you and they typically need answers ASAP. It takes the willpower, which I typically don't have, to disengage, and I can never do it for a long stretch of time. I find myself really envious of Donald Knuth for successfully ditching the email habit. But I suppose that's a perk of being retired.

I think the size of my group is an issue (9 people, of which 1 postdoc), it's simply too big for me to have any time when someone isn't asking for something. (If none of the zillion grants I have pending gets funded, the group will eventually implode so I guess the size won't be an issue any more. Some silver lining, huh?) On the other hand, I think my students are much happier in a larger group than a smaller one. Group meetings are more meaningful to have with a larger group, and there are more projects altogether so the students see a variety of subfields, and they have more of a support group. This group morale is quite important and I think it's pretty high in the group I have now, and I think it has to do at least in part with the group size. Strength in numbers, if you will.

While good for students, the size of the group I have now may be detrimental to my own morale. I spend a lot of time on 1-on-1 meetings in addition to group meetings, which is all necessary for the students' steady progress, and when you superimpose on it all the teaching, office hours, and other meetings (for collaborations or committees), the day is easily eaten up by activities that don't necessarily engage one's cognitive abilities. Which brings me back to not being able to fully engage intellectually in any of the projects I am on, and thus not derive much pleasure from them, and thus end up unfulfilled and bored. with. everything. I. do. Even though other people think the work is all really cool, I feel superficial and unworthy.

Then there is recognition: being laser focused on a narrow area of research, which you milk for years for all it's worth, is way better if you want to make a name for yourself than being a jack of all trades. (After serving on several awards committees, there is no doubt in my mind that this is so.) Unfortunately, I am one who likes to work on lots of different projects, publish several cool papers on each topic, and then get bored and move on. There is no doubt I have research ADD. Still, it's quite demoralizing to know that the way I like to do science is not the way by which one maximizes recognition.

There are other aspects that bring stress and dissatisfaction (short or long term) to a professorial job, such as the uncertainty of grant funding, for TT faculty -- the uncertainty of getting tenure, poor quality of students, and I am sure many others. So, it makes sense to conclude with a poll: if you are a PI, what are the things that contribute most to you feeling down about your job? Since I know we would all pick each one of these at one time or another, I would like you to pick no more than three most demoralizing parts of your job. (If you check "other", please leave a comment specifying which aspect you have in mind.)

If you are a PI, which 3 aspects of your job are the most demoralizing?
low funding rates
having to write grants
having to teach
having to do service
not having time to do technical work (e.g. experiments) yourself
no time for personal life
poor quality of students
writing papers
collaborations
don't get along with department colleagues
inadequate recognition from your professional community
uncertainty of promotion or other advancement
other
  
pollcode.com free polls

21 comments:

NonUS FSP said...

As a theoretician, I understand feeling superficial when not being involved in the very details of a paper.

Consider reducing the size of your group by a bit (from 9 say to 6) or delegating some of the supervision (1-on-1) to the post-doc.
Then, allocate a window (one morning, for example) to think on your own---do calculations, prove theorems, etc---and write up those single-authored papers.

I am sure this will have a positive impact on your intellectual abilities in the context of other projects.
An additional benefit is in setting a personal example, and showing to your students that you can do it too.
(Because all too many trainees feel that their profs cannot do research themselves, see around the blogs.)

Psycgirl said...

You're missing "spending time in useless meetings" - that is by far the most annoying and demoralizing part of my job

Anonymous said...

I voted "other" - having crap facilities and crap support from the university.

I suspect that a lot of the intellectual slow down of senior faculty, the deadwoodification, is due to over-commitment to all of the gajillion service, teaching, administrative, supervisory, etc etc etc tasks. How on earth are we supposed to stay on top of our respective fields when we can't even have a single 4 hour chunk of time to think and/or do experiments? It really does make you stupid.

(That was actually my new year's resolution - to set aside two mornings a week for this kind of work. Hasn't happened yet.)

GMP said...

NonUS FSP, thanks for your thoughts! I used to be able to carve out half a day or a full day for uninterrupted work; this has become harder in recent years, but I agree it's a very good thing. I am trying again this semester. And I do have to reduce the group size some...

Psychgirl, I agree about the meetings. It's just that I personally don't think of all meetings as beeing the same so I didn't fell like I should cluster them (e.g. faculty meetings, committee meetings and PhD defenses fall under service, while group meetings and meetings with collaborators rather fall under advising and research, respectively...)

Anonymous, I completely agree with what you said: How on earth are we supposed to stay on top of our respective fields when we can't even have a single 4 hour chunk of time to think and/or do experiments? It really does make you stupid.

Meadow said...

I agree PI-dom brings too much busy work. I found this post useful http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/01/misjudging-risk-and-bad-decisions.html

Namnezia said...

9 people seem unfathomable to me, although that was the size of my postdoc lab. That lab pretty much ran itself independently, and my PI was surprisingly accessible.

As a PI I just couldn't keep so many projects straight in my head. I've been targeting my lab to 4-5 postdocs and/or grad students. The rest is a tech and undergrads, which typically work under someone.

p.s. BTW your blogroll is showing the outdated address of my blog.

Mordecai said...

I'm sure this isn't news, but there are books on time management that speak to very similar scenarios: e.g., Lakein's "How to Get Control..." pp. 89-95. Not sure his suggestions are applicable, but it might be worth a reread.

Bashir said...

Since I am not yet lucky enough to even be a PI my main thing is the state of the job market.

Adam said...

I have been TT faculty for 11 years, became full prof recently. This post captured perfectly the core existential struggle of my academic career since getting this job. I'm also a theorist/modeler, group size similar, not that I think those really matter to the essential issue which I think is chronic in academia, or STEM at least.

I have tried to always keep some project of my own (I do the actual work) going at any given time, even if it has to be slowly and in fits and starts. But it is difficult, for all the reasons given; technical skills atrophy, getting stupider, takes most of the time available just to get started again and then the time is up, etc. I try the one or two mornings/afternoons a week thing, that's good but not enough. My first (and so far only) sabbatical was very helpful, and summers used to be good too but now I seem to be traveling more which makes them less so.

But I do think it's important to keep that struggle up even when it's difficult. I do think it's better to do it, even if very imperfectly, than not to do it, both for myself and, yes, to be a role model to students/postdocs, so that they don't think real work is just something to get out of the way so you can become a highly paid but useless old fart.

So yeah, in the poll I put not enough time to do technical work #1.

Ianqui said...

I voted one of my answers as other. It's not that I don't like teaching, it's that my U makes it very hard for me to be good at it because research is so much more important to them. So I resent having to teach less well that I would like.

Alex said...

Unfortunately, I am one who likes to work on lots of different projects, publish several cool papers on each topic, and then get bored and move on. There is no doubt I have research ADD. Still, it's quite demoralizing to know that the way I like to do science is not the way by which one maximizes recognition.

OTOH, some day you're going to see something that nobody else sees, because you've done several different things in a combination that nobody else has done, so you see puzzle pieces fitting together in ways that nobody imagined. And then you're going to act on that insight, and you'll do something so great that you'll be recognized as the originator of something important.

I also have research ADD, and I think I have my own Holy Grail in sight, something that I see because I'm the only person in my subfield (to my knowledge) who approaches things the way I do. The big challenge, as you highlight, is to clear enough time this summer to work on it uninterrupted. And once I do that, well, then I will be beyond caring about the California state budget for higher education. Partly because I might be famous (or I might not, maybe I over-estimate the importance of this problem), but mostly because if I solve it I will be able to look at my career and say that I did something worthy with it. Whatever I do after that, however far I go or don't go, at least I will be able to stand with pride in the presence of those I learned from.

academicgrinch said...

I don't have a lot of time to do them any more, and I miss that. And I think I am getting progressively stupider, as I think my technical skills are deteriorating. Since the time I can devote to technical work is so limited, it takes me a lot to focus, and when I do, I feel restless, impatient, because I know I only have the odd hour here and there and it's never enough to take a good bite of any problem, and there is always something else that needs to be done right after.

This is the exact feeling I get as I am beginning to start my career. Could not have said better...

9 people? Oh my that is a big group! My grad-school advisor—a computational physicist himself—used to actively keep the group down to 5-6 peeps at a time by "loaning" a person or two to some collaborator. But yeah, 9 is a big number to manage. Perhaps this group size is ok for an experimentalist PI, but for computations, people tend bring in data quicker and more often (but not necessarily trustworthy) thereby making it quite difficult to manage.

Then there is recognition: being laser focused on a narrow area of research, which you milk for years for all it's worth, is way better if you want to make a name for yourself than being a jack of all trades. (After serving on several awards committees, there is no doubt in my mind that this is so.)

I do have a bit research ADD myself, but I always thought it keeps me fresh and nimble. I never realized this particular downside. Are you sure these awards are worth going for, when it means you will have to do tonnes of work in a field that you no longer enjoy?

Anonymous said...

I voted other because I like teaching, but I wish I could do less of it. I chose to come to a SLAC, and the official 3/2 teaching load, with research students counting as 0.5 each semester, would be fine. My actual 6/6 load this year really does not leave enough time for research.

Anonymous said...

Same poster as above. Sigh... I meant actual 3/3 load. It just feels like 6/6 right now because I'm prepping a new course!

Anonymous said...

I am a newish TT assistant prof with research ADD. Occasionally I get a random email and comment sometimes from people saying things like I was looking up ABC and I found that you have 2 papers on this - you work is so diverse! That makes me happy. I think my department appreciates me but out there in the bigger world I usually exist in spheres where only a fraction of my work is known. Most of the time it's stressful. I tried to change my work style but have not succeeded.

I find most grantwriting very gut-wrenching as I have seen over and over the laser focused is what they're mostly looking for.

I also wish I could do less teaching. I do enjoy meetings with students. Faculty meetings and similar are annoying but not the end of the world...

So the funding rates and the grantwriting style for most grants (esp NIH) not meshing with my big think, very broad approach are the main factors making me unhappy right now.

a. b. said...

Too bad professors can't have an underling to handle supervising, scheduling, all the little stuff. I am the supervisor for one library faculty member, and not to toot my own horn, but she would implode without me to take care of piddling details. I would not want to be in y'all's shoes!

prodigal academic said...

9 people! My group has 4 and I feel overwhelmed with keeping up with them all. I am in awe of your stamina and organization, GMP!

Seriously, the thing I find most annoying about my job is my inability to have large blocks of time to get stuff done. I have come to terms with the fact that I won't be doing benchwork again, but I struggle with finding enough time to just sit and think about science, let alone stay on top of the literature in my field.

This month, I have been pretty good about setting aside a writing day, but that still leaves me with no other major time blocks for other things.

Hermitage said...

I wonder about that too, I will admit I'm less enamored of bench work than I once was, but the thought of leaving it forevah made me sadfaces. Then I heard of a female PI who runs a teeny group (4-5 people) and still gets to work at the bench. Her work is interesting and highly cited, so it gives me hope I can (maybe) find a balance.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Egads, it was Knuth that cheered you up? Clearly I have to work harder. :-)

How's the nausea and the bean?

Anonymous said...

Bad students, bad collaborations, and not enough time for technical work.

Actually, I just wish my students were more independent. I'm sure there are things I could do to help them get there, but I'm not sure what those things are.

As for collaborations, I have one ongoing one that I really enjoy, and a number that I only entered into for the funding possibilities. I don't enjoy those. Lesson learned?

Dr. Sneetch said...

Good to read about your work. I tend towards being a Jill of all trades too. Must focus more.