Monday, January 19, 2009

Career Reflections: did I accomplish what I wanted last year?

Now that my grant and manuscript deadlines are past and my class is under control, I'm finally feeling like I have enough time to reflect on life. Usually every January, either consciously or subconsciously, I reflect on the current status of my life and assess whether or not I'm happy with things. For most of my career, this has been done mainly subconsciously as I had been very pleased with my productivity, work experiences, and career track. Last year was different. I was very unhappy. I was beginning to realize that I was pulling a much higher service load than any of my colleagues. By colleagues, I don't mean the other assistant professors (who had no service requirements), I mean the tenured faculty. I had tried politely to point this out to the powers that be, but just when I negotiated my way out of one thing, suddenly I was being committed to several more. The extreme university service, plus the ordinary service of proposal and manuscript reviews, on top of prepping new classes and submitting proposals, all without a postdoc because my university in its "infinite wisdom" does not believe in funding postdocs from start-up funds, had started to weigh on my paper productivity. I was starting to pull up my publication record in Web of Science and snivel sadly. Now, my research productivity was still much higher than many of our tenured faculty, but it was starting to slip behind the people I considered my peers in my field. This left me starting last spring semester feeling something like this:

image Figure 1. How River Tam looked walking around her department halls last January

Something had to change. So I made several plans: 1) ratchet up the "outlandish service loads makes Tam angry" pressure, 2) become ruthless with my time commitments (thus the "Fridays are for research and you can just fuck off" plan), and 3) publish,publish,publish. I had a ton of papers that I was lead on that just couldn't get out the door because too much other shit was in the way. Goals 2 and 3 were relatively easy because they were completely in my control. Goal 1 proved harder. At heart, I'm a nice person and I hate saying no to people. But it all came together one afternoon when I was shanghai'd into giving a presentation to a university board on something I had no experience/knowledge/interest in while I was prepping and teaching a new class and already on two other time intensive committees.  I pointed out the numerous other people better qualified (with non-existent service loads) who could give the presentation and was told that they needed a woman and the other women did not have a good presentation presence. And that's when I looked more like this:


And just in having to say it, the person in power realized just how ridiculously awful that sounded. And whether that has affected their behavior, I cannot say, but it sure had an impact on mine. I now flat out refuse piddly-shit service (no more high school presentations on 'Biology Day', no more undergraduate recruitment tours of my lab) and every time they want to add a committee, I must be taken off a committee. I play the "untenured assistant professor" card every time someone opens their mouth ("you know I'm coming up for tenure soon and I really need to focus on my research"). After all, I already have more than enough service to prove that I "contribute to the department and university". And you know what? My productivity is back up where I want it to be and I am happy again with my career path. But I learned a valuable lesson from last year: its never too early to think strategically about what you need to do to make sure your career is going the direction that makes you happy and not sniveling at your desk. So, to keep this new tradition going: for my next post "River Tam's plans for the coming year".


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Sounds like your ruthlessness is necessary.

my university in its "infinite wisdom" does not believe in funding postdocs from start-up funds

I know we discussed this before, but who the fuck are the shitforbrains coming up with this cockamamie garbage!?!? They can't possibly have been people who every actually worked in a laboratory.

Anonymous said...

Good on you River Tam. And another disadvantage is that if you are in an underrepresented group, the powers that be seem to want you on each and every frigging committee or whatever-so even more pressure to keep up with your peers. I'm in the process of learning the same lessons. Hard to say no to worthy causes, but ultimately, it boils down to success in your career or a boring alternative eternity crying in your tea and thinking of what might have been.

Candid Engineer said...

Good for you.

I'm glad you've figured out how to say no and get shit done.