Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Sucky and Awesome of Academia

A recent portrait of GMP
I am feeling particularly down about my science these days, owing to a combination of professional events mixed with too little sleep and probably too much salt (darn you, Cheetos and beef jerky). So I am cranky and thinking nobody cares about any of this and it's been ages since I heard anything at a conference that makes me go "Wow! I wish I had thought of that." It's crushing boredom and disillusionment all around. But it's not like this blog has ever been all rainbows and unicorns, so no surprises there.

Here's an off-the-top-of-my-curmudgeony-head list of things that suck about being a professor as well as those I still realize are great despite my advanced grumpiness.

The sucky:

1) It is hard constantly facing criticism and rejection. Even acceptances don't come without criticism and a ton or work. Sure, we are all fighting the good fight for the accuracy of science, so sloppy or incomplete work should not get a pass, but, after what I have seen as an author, reviewer, and associate editor in the past month, I am finding it really, really hard not to start getting disillusioned by the peer review. There are a lot of douchebags with too much ego and too much time on their hands, ranging from obnoxiously nitpicky to downright malicious.

2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you "Good job." Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn't mean much, like your partner or your parents. The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. I used to have motivation in spades, but I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what's that, a pat on the back every few years? That's a lean affirmation diet.

3) You are not supposed to complain to anyone ever, because that is, as one of my colleagues says, "loser talk." Sure, colleagues are not friends, but there are not many non-academics who can understand the peculiar stresses of academic life, and even academics from remote fields may have a hard time relating to many of the discipline-specific issues. I can't remember the last time I have had a substantive chat with a colleague or collaborator, just small talk or very technical exchanges. Again, no signs of weakness or doubt are to be displayed -- loser talk alert! However, complaining as a vehicle for bragging is totally OK: "I had to work around the clock all week just to write reports for the 8 new grants I had received last year. And my wallet's too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight!" But mostly it's just "I am busy but of course I am on top of things and everything is just peachy. I am not even tired! I totally got this." Or maybe I am simply not accustomed to being a grownup. Nobody wants to hear your problems anywhere, amirite? That's what therapists are for.

2 and 3 are kind of the same thing, I guess. Isolation and competitiveness.

The awesome: 

1) Being a tenured professor in a physical science field is a well-paid, secure job, with great benefits (at least where I am). It enables me to pay for a spacious house, daycare for Smurf, and summer camps for my older kids. It allows me to afford 20 oz lattes with biscotti when I feel particularly naughty.

2) I am at a public major research university, and the pay in my field is good, although it would be much better at a private university and even better still in industry; however, nowhere else would I get to be my own boss. I really, REALLY like being my own boss. Also, I don't mind being the boss of others.

3) Teaching undergrads is a lot of fun. Many of my colleagues are afraid of undegrads and avoid teaching undergrad courses whenever possible; I really enjoy them. The key is to understand that undergrads just look big but are really kids inside; they are often completely terrified. Even though I may be teaching something for the umpteenth time, everything is new to them and that makes it fresh for me as well.

4) I love working with my grad students. They are smart and kind, and it's awesome watching them turn into professional scientists. Nothing brings my spirits up like talking science with a student on the board in my office.

What say you, blogosphere? What is sucky and what is awesome about being a professor? 


studyzone said...

I am totally with you on sucky #2 and #3. I am starting my second year in a TT position (at a primarily-undergrad university). Several times, I really needed the proverbial pat on the head, with none forthcoming (especially after I completed a major dept. service project). I've spent all summer encouraging my summer research students - don't I deserve some as well? I'm learning to deal and not complain (see sucky #3). One other thing I've found sucky is that my professional society doesn't really have a place for us PUI profs - we do research, but we're not at an R1, so we are not invited to serve on committees or run for board positions, for example. When I attend conferences, I don't feel part of the larger community. This is probably my own problem more than anything -maybe more a function of me being a junior faculty? I don't know. However, what trumps sucky is the awesome - I love my department and university, love the fact that I can both teach and do research with undergrads, and just feel incredibly fortunate to have an academic job, period.

inBetween said...

Amen. I so often feel the same. The constant criticism is the one big thing that I hadn't anticipated, and that does get to me on a somewhat regular basis. I had envisioned that getting a paper published would have some moment of "yippee!" associated with it. But honestly, that just never is the case. The process is drawn-out by reviews and revisions and maybe second reviews and second revisions, and by the time you get the final acceptance, I am exhausted by the process and sick of the paper and just want it off my desk. Rarely do I feel great about something by the time it is all said and done, rather I end up feeling like managed to convince some editor to publish my paper or some grants officer to give me a grant. While that's great and all, it lacks the "yippee!" feel that would provide some pat on the back.

I won't ever forget how amazing it felt to read the redacted letters of evaluation that had been procured for my tenure case. Due to the horrid nature of my "colleagues", my department had actually gotten 15 outside letters (apparently assuming that if you get that many, you'll get a negative one). They were wrong on that, and all 15 were amazingly positive. The feeling of validation... wow. I used to go back to those letters from time to time when I needed a boost. But now it's been so long since those reviewers commented on my worth as a professional that my doubt creeps in with fears that I fell off the trajectory and not done all that I could have.

Critical thinking has its pros and cons, that's for sure.

All in all, I have come back to the realization that this is the best job ever, assuming you are willing to do what it takes to get here and stay here. But the CONSTANT criticism is tough. It really is.

Anonymous said...

I guess the thing is, sucky thing #2 (no praise) is the flip side of awesome thing #2 (being your own boss). Praise and external validation in the workplace are generally management tools that bosses use to get you to do what they want (like when you praise your students for doing a good job or taking initiative on a project or whatever). The flip side of no one telling you what to do is that there's no one to tell you "good job" for doing what they told you to do. Maybe that's one way to deal with the lack of praise: to interpret it as the price of independence.

EngineeringProf said...

I agree 100% with every point. What's hard for me is not letting my grad students see my disappointment and frustration, since that would absolutely kill the groups morale and productivity. No other job has so little validation. Management in industry gets a big bonus if their group does well. Start-ups get bought out.

pyrope said...

*You* are awesome and I love reading your blog.

Funny Researcher said...

You should contemplate making a "feel good" folder and put everything that had been said/validated/implied awesome about YOU. When you feel blue and want a pat on a back that folder will be your friend.

I read this idea somewhere and I like it. I haven't really done it though ;D

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I came in to my job not knowing about #3, so I complained a lot. Apparently that didn't win me any popularity contests with my dept. chair. But then, some of those complaints actually were worthwhile and got some things done. Maybe it's a discipline-specific thing, and you're not supposed to complain as much in sciences? But then, who knows. I kind of am what I am, complaints and all. Perhaps that will be bad for my career.

Alex said...

That trully makes me sad. I am to-be-undergratuate-student starting this year in science subject. I have always thought that being a scientist was about something else (delusion that, I think, every student experience) - about trying to solve current problems, making new discoveries, etc. With time, I found out that the reality is completely different. As I see it now, is that scientist working in academia is someone who is constantly trying to:(very often without any results)
a) get some grants/money, etc.
b) publish a paper, which most probably won't be read by anyone, perhaps cite in a similar publication.
There is no thrill of discovery, no brainstorming with colleagues from your group/department (especially if you are a women - I have never thought that there still exists the "gender inequality" thing), only NeverEnding criticism and rejection.
Also, the fact that the best things in academia for many of you (scientist/professors)are relitively high earnings, independence and teaching is discouraging for me. Where in all this is a place for passion or discovery. Unfortunaletly, it seems that this is how the reality looks like. I am wondering whether this is what I want to do in my life.
Nvertheless, thank you very much for this blog - it really helps me get to know "academia-world" better.
Best Regards.

julie said...

THANK YOU for mentioning #1. i just got a downright malicious review/rejection that was clearly done with the intent to suppress my results which contradict those of some 'big names'. i thought i was crazy, or the only one. it's been really hard to recover from, just because it was such an unscientific, irrational review--my faith in the scientific process and in the morality of some of my peers has been shaken.

J said...

A simple, "nice work", from my PI lets me know I'm on the right track, and is an excellent motivator. When someone confirms that our work matters, we feel that we matter. Should you expect constant praise? No. But expecting none probably means that you're surrounded by hostile, self-centered assholes.