Thursday, March 29, 2012

Repost: What Brings You Down?

(The original post and comments are here.)

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 professor. 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
don't get along with department colleagues
inadequate recognition from your professional community
uncertainty of promotion or other advancement
other free polls


Anonymous said...

Knuth never picked up the e-mail habit. Back in the 80s, when e-mail was still new, he decided he didn't want the interruptions, and stopped dealing with e-mail.

Sinead said...

As an undergrad, I always assumed continuing in academia meant needing to become laser focused on one particular topic.

Interesting to know that doesn't have to be the case. The idea of doing one thing forever puts me off continuing past a masters.

Anonymous said...

Other: doing administrative tasks that should be done by administrative/accounting staff, but they are too overworked/undertrained/irresponsible to do themselves.

I am basically my own admin assistant and accountant, in addition to my real job as PI/professor.

inBetween said...

live this -- thanks for the post. For me, lately, all of the administrative crap has been getting me down. Chemical inventories, biologicial use applications, endless EH&S inspections all with the tone of "we know you are doing something really horrible and trying to hide it from us..", 2 hour online sexual harrassment training (only to learn the next week that a mid-level-ish admin person violated all of the rules but won't be fired because she "should have known better and has many years of experience with the university" and makes twice my salary), trying to figure out how to buy an airline ticket under the new purchasing program, trying to figure out who to ask for information on how to work within the new travel-purchase site now that we no longer have our own dept staff, trying to figure out how to get accounting for my various fund sources for the first time in about ten months (and then figure out why I got accounting for someone else's account)... etc.