Saturday, June 26, 2010

Can I achieve a balanced life and work 60 hrs/week?

During my Ph.D., like most people, I've worked a lot of long hours. At first, maybe I worked long hours because I felt pressure from my advisor. Later, I worked long hours because I wanted to get things done. In any case, I worked long hours. And I did not succeed at achieving the kind of balance I'd like in my life.

For a long time, I worked, played hard, and took reasonably good care of myself and my personal priorities. All, of course, at the expense of my sleep. As time passed and I got older, sleep became a bigger and bigger priority; 4-6 hours a night wasn't cutting it. Pretty soon, things started dropping out of my life so that I could get more sleep and continue to work those long hours. Soon, I was barely "playing" at all, I was never exercising, I was making quick, unhealthy food choices, and I was neglecting other personal priorities (family obligations, friends, hobbies). I started to physically and emotionally feel weak, fragile, tired, and eventually, depressed. The depression began to affect my work, and I realized I needed to back off, recover, and take better care of myself. Recently, I've done that, but definitely at the expense of those work hours.

As I look to the future and think about what kind of job to look for next, I think about those long hours, and I wonder, can I work those kind of hours and achieve balance? If I feel pressure to work 60 hours a week, that means 12 hours a day Monday thru Friday, or 10 hours a day Monday thru Saturday. I've always thought I preferred the 12 hours a day Monday thru Friday, so that Saturday can be a fun day, and Sunday can be a day to get stuff done (laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping).

So, if I work 12 hours a day, sleep 8 hours, eat 2 hours, spend 1 hour on personal hygiene, exercise 1 hour, and commute 1 hour, that adds up to 25 hours. Crap, I'm already over 24 hours. And that's without even adding a single moment for family and friends, hobbies, winding down before bed. And it's lumping all the daily chores into the eating and personal hygiene category. And still, I couldn't do it, not even theoretically. And I really don't want to cut any of that out. I could sleep 7 hours, or I could eat every meal but dinner at my desk (including breakfast). But you know what? I don't want to. I don't want to sleep less; I don't want to wolf down my breakfast and lunch at my desk. And I don't want to cut out every moment of possible time to spend on family, friends, hobbies, or winding down. So, working 12 hours a day is not something I want to do.

What about trying the 10 hours 6 days a week? Then I could actually fit my whole list into my day, with 1 hour to spare for family, friends, hobbies, or winding down. And I'd have 1 day left in my week to do everything else - anything fun, all cleaning, laundry, shopping, any family, friend, or hobby time that wouldn't fit into that spare hour I had during my week. You know what? That's shitty.

So do I want to work 60 hours a week? No. No matter how awesomely I am in love with my work, I don't want to do it at the expense of my health. And I've learned that my health depends on having that list of activities in my life. I need sleep; I need time to eat healthily; I need time to exercise; I need time for personal hygiene; and I need personal time for family, friends, fun, and chores. Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me uncommitted to my work? No. No, it doesn't.

It does make me question the supervisors demanding 60 hours a week. I honestly think they're demanding their employees live an unhealthy, unbalanced, unsustainable lifestyle. But hey, if people will do it, why not?

And it makes me wonder, how the heck do parents even begin to do everything I'm doing, plus take care of their kids? Obvious answer: they get no sleep. Sigh. My desire for kids is getting more and more hypothetical.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Student = Customer? Not really

My comment on a post at FSP.

Let's not forget that professors and universities are not only about teaching students, they are also about *evaluating* students. A few other commenters have touched on this point. Sure, students can go learn calculus on the internet and put a line on their resume that they can do calculus like a mo-fo, but do we just want to trust them on that? This discussion reminds me of the line in "Good Will Hunting" where Will makes fun of the Harvard guy for paying a half million dollars for an education he could've gotten for $1.99 at the public library.

And, as has been mentioned, the community and networking developed during college is perhaps just as important as the classroom education. The stats for getting a job definitely support the whole "it's who you know" adage. Not that you get hired by your buddies, but that people like to hire people who come with a recommendation they can trust.

True, online courses are a different beast from simply teaching yourself from a book or the internet. An online course does have exams and means of evaluating the student. And I think it's wonderful that these courses have become available for people who may need a more flexible learning environment because they're working and/or dealing with family commitments. But, I don't think you can replace the learning community and networking opportunities available at a real, physical college campus.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hilarity. And an excellent point.

This is too awesome to not repost:

A comment from steph on a post at FSP

steph said...
Instead of obsessing about this kind of stuff, science should be thinking about how it can KEEP the women who can compete with the oh so wonderfully smart men, but leave science for OTHER reasons. Yeah, we should do something at all levels, but there are tons of women who have proven their skills at the BS or PhD level who still end up leaving science. Why not focus more on keeping them?

Oh, because "real" scientists if devote 80 hours a week to it and give up on the idea of having a family and a life outside of science. So, women are just "choosing" to not be scientists....AS SCIENTISTS ARE CURRENTLY DEFINED. If you broadened your definitions and made the scientific culture more accepting of all people who love science and are good at it and put in an effort to succeed, I bet you'd catch more flies/women/minorities/men who aren't crazy aspergers.

Sure that is just my opinion from my experience, but tell me you all haven't seen the same thing?

I can't tell you how hard I was laughing by the end of the "aspergers" paragraph. Awesome.

What should I be when I grow up?

When I fall asleep at night, I like to fantasize about my future, usually at least 3 years down the road. It has to be multiple years into the future, or else I get stressed about something I should be doing right now to make that future happen. But I find 3 years is far enough to feel like lots can change, and I can feel free to get a good nights sleep.

In undergrad, I remember fantasizing about grad school. I fantasized about teaching a classroom full of cool students who all loved me (haha :) and I fantasized about brief periods of staying up all night to push through an important aspect of a project. The fantasy included the super-tired but accomplished feeling I would have afterwards as I finally got to fall into bed, exhausted. Turned out, I never taught in grad school, and I'm still waiting for that final accomplishment of a submitted 1st author paper.

As a young grad student, I fantasized about my talents finally being recognized and my hard work finally paying off. I fantasized about giving talks and publishing papers that wowed people, and finally made my advisor think I was smart and good.

As a slightly older grad student, I gave up that dream and fantasized about going to be a post doc somewhere, where my new advisor would appreciate me and my talents, and my hard work would pay off with fantastic papers and talks. And my new advisor would run into my old advisor at a conference, and talk about how amazing I was, and my old advisor wouldn't know what to say.

I also like to fantasize about further down the road, sometimes with more fantastical scenarios. The most common fantasy involves me being an award-winning, best-selling author. In this fantasy, I write amazing fiction novels as well as non-fiction pieces about science and education. I write in my home office with my 2 golden retrievers loyally at my side. And I make boatloads of money because I'm an award-winning and best-selling author, obviously. Ahhh....Lately I've been combining the author fantasy with a teaching fantasy where I also teach at a respected undergrad institution. Sometimes I can get excited about doing a little experimental research on the side in this fantasy, but sometimes I can't.

One of my more hilarious fantasies involved me being recruited as a spy after my Ph.D. graduation. In this fantasy, I'm whipped into shape by government gurus who recognize my potential and somehow my biophysicsy background is perfect for their spying needs. I also get paid boatloads of money, with tons of benefits such as excellent health-care, paid travel, a huge wardrobe budget, and amazing housing provided via the government. That was a very fun and hilarious fantasy.

But in seriousness, I'm trying to think about these fantasies and what they might mean in regards to what I should actually try to do after I graduate. I recognize the common thread of wanting boatloads of money, but I think that's more about security than anything else. So I really just need to make enough money to be relatively financially secure. I recognize a teaching thread, and I really think I should pursue that. Trouble is, teaching is one of the worst paid jobs out there. The writing fantasy is great, but unless it's combined with an actual paid job, it does not grant financial security. (The whole best-selling, award-winning thing is a little hard to guarantee.) And I wonder about the experimental research aversion. Is it just because it's been soooooo hard in grad school? I keep thinking maybe it will be better in a different lab with a different group and different project. I do like problem solving...But I worry any pull I feel toward experimental research is more because of expectations. I'm expected to go do experimental research because that's what I've been trained in for the last several years. I'm expected to do experimental research because that's much higher paid than teaching. I'm expected to do experimental research because that's what people do after a science Ph.D.

But what if I hate banging my head against a wall?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Some things I love about my job

I love sitting down to hash out, clean up, modify, or troubleshoot code. I do a lot of coding in Labview and Igor, and I really enjoy it. I love coming up with the framework for how to accomplish my goal; I love sticking in all the odds and ends needed to do the calculations; I love testing to see if it works. I love it, until I don't. I suppose I get fed up when I realize something is far more complicated that I thought, when I think I might need to scrap days of work and start over, or when I start to feel like the solution is soooo un-elegant. But in general, I really enjoy coding.

I love the days when I'm working on an experiment that will really reveal something. Even if I'm still trouble-shooting, and it's not yet "real" science, I love when I've devised an experiment that will give me an answer, one way or another. Either I will see a statistically significant change in this measurable due to this variable, or I won't, and it will mean something. It will mean something because the important signal is somehow guaranteed to be above the noise level. I wish all my experiments had been this way, but they weren't, and they drove me crazy when they weren't. So often in my grad school experience, I did experiments with one desirable outcome, that depended on so many assumptions, and with a million alternative outcomes that would only leave me clueless about which assumption was incorrect.

I love the days when I've reached the experiments that are actually scientifically relevant. These days can only happen once I know I've fixed all the annoying, time-sucking problems that are merely obstacles along the path to real science. I wish more days had been like this in my grad school experience. I would have been happier, and I would have accomplished so much more.

I love instrumentation design. Sitting down to devise the relevant specs, and seeking out the components and composing a design that will satisfy those specifications. I love ordering those components and assembling them into a working instrument. I love testing that instrument. And I suppose I hate troubleshooting that instrument. Because that means the design or a component is flawed. Because I did so much frustrating troubleshooting as a grad student, and it was such a barrier to doing real, publishable work.

I love when I find a problem and realize the solution is easier than I feared. So many of my testing and troubleshooting days were filled with dread at what mysterious new problem I might find, and how many months it might take to fix. I loved when I found a super-obvious culprit, with a super-easy fix.

I love teaching other people the stuff that I know. I love sitting down to a problem I already know how to solve, telling and showing and leading an interested person through the process, and always learning and solidifying my knowledge along the way.

I love discussing science with interested, knowledgeable parties, who aren't combative or judging me. I love arguing out complicated problems, being right or wrong at the start, and settling it in the end (or even not settling it, but keeping it as a problem in progress).

I enjoy giving talks, although I'm still working on being less nervous in front of larger groups.

I enjoy quantifying my results, in plots, in tables, in text. Except when I feel too much pressure for the answer to fit some preconceived notion.

I don't mind doing repetitive, mind-disengaged tasks every-so-often, when I know the product is necessary and useful, and it will be used to make progress.

I enjoy speculating about the biological meaning behind experiments. I like thinking about how the experiments I'm doing now may mean this or that, and may allow other experiments to be done later that could be a window into this process or that process.

I enjoy reading relevant literature, going to relevant talks.

I love feeling like I'm contributing to progress. I love helping other people, as long as they appreciate it and it doesn't get me into trouble for lack of my own progress.

So much to love about my job. Now, to take these things, and try to figure out what I want my next job to be. Post doc? Industry? Teaching? Journalism? Science museum? Educational other?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On advice...take it or leave it?

my comment on a cool post over at candid engineer

I still struggle with this very issue. How do you know when to take advice, and when to ignore it? I do think it's an essential part of the learning process to at least have the decision be up to you, and to learn that there is no single answer. Sometimes other people are right, and sometimes they are wrong. Some people are more likely to be right than others, and if you can figure out who the more-often-right people are, and get some insight on their decision making process, then you're golden.