The Seven-Year Postdoc

I'm starting to think that maybe I need to add "Work-life Balance" to the tagline of this blog, given all the recent posting about such things (but then, one of the benefits of having done this blogging thing for eleven years is that I know this is just a phase, and I'll drift on to the next obsession soon). Anyway, the genre of work-life blogging generally just picked up a new must-read post from Radhika Nagpal at Scientific American: The-Awesomest-7-Year-Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-track-faculty-life:

I’ve enjoyed my seven years as junior faculty tremendously, quietly playing the game the only way I knew how to. But recently I’ve seen several of my very talented friends become miserable in this job, and many more talented friends opt out. I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance. I’ve decided that I do not want to participate in encouraging such a world. In fact, I have to openly oppose it.

So with some humor to balance my fear, here’s goes my confession:

Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

This is really excellent, refreshing advice from somebody who got tenure at the rat-raciest of institutions. This ought to be required reading for everybody on the tenure track. Go thou and Read the Whole Thing.

I wish there had been something this clear-headed around back before I got tenure. I independently worked a lot of this stuff out on my own, in a less coherent fashion. I particularly agree with the second item-- around the time I was advised through unofficial channels that I needed to "be less visible" (that is, not go to lectures and other events on campus because people might think I wasn't working as hard as I could be), I made more or less the same decision to stop trying to follow official advice. I didn't pursue this job because I felt a burning need to drive myself insane trying to follow contradictory checklists-- I went to grad school and sought a professorship because I liked the atmosphere of a small liberal arts college campus, and wanted to work there. I decided that if I couldn't get tenure while being a part of the sort of community that I was seeking when I set out on this path, then it wasn't worth getting tenure. And I felt a lot better for it.

And while there are significant differences between our institutions, the "real friends" item also resonates with me-- one of the essential factors that helped me maintain sanity during my tenure-track years was lunchtime pick-up basketball. On the one hand, that was time away from the classroom and lab, but after a couple of stretches where I stopped playing to spend more time on work, I realized that I was actually less productive when I didn't play, because I was grumpy and irritable and out of shape without the stress relief and exercise. (It also got me a very nice letter in my tenure file from one of the student affairs folks who played with us; I doubt it carried much weight, but it was definitely something for the feel-good email folder (not that I had one of those, but I might create one...)). They weren't as professionally useful in terms of grant-reading and that kind of thing, but on a personal level, the friends I made through basketball helped keep me sane. And it's even more important to me these days.

A couple of these items I also discovered relatively late-- we waited to have SteelyKid and The Pip until after I got tenure (one of the harder sacrifices for the job), so I didn't need to be quite as strict about time management until recently. I'm taking a somewhat similar approach now, though-- I basically write the weekends off completely, and do my best to accept that nothing work related will get done between 5 and 10 pm. I do try to get some blog/book stuff done in night and weekend hours, but I've also blocked out whole days during the week when I refuse to deal with administrative stuff at work. And, of course, the family balance stuff wasn't necessary until very recently, but Kate and I have done some negotiation of who's responsible for what, when, in a manner that's sort of similar to what she describes.

I'll also say, since I have more years since tenure than she does, that very little has changed since tenure on these points, other than having more drains on my time. Ironically, I'm actually "less visible" on campus now, because of the kids-- I bring them to some home sporting events and concerts in the evening after day care, but they're not generally up for lectures and dinner discussions, so I've mostly stopped going to those except under exceptional circumstances. But I've mostly stuck to my goal of doing things on and around campus only when I find them personally worthwhile, not because they conform with somebody else's idea of what I ought to be doing. I suspect that there are some costs to this-- in particular, I'm not sure how writing popular-audience books will be considered when I come up for full professor, and that will likely delay my application for promotion a bit. But again, I went into this business because there were certain kinds of things I wanted to do, and I don't see the point in avoiding doing those kinds of things, or taking on unpleasant stuff that I don't want to or need to do, simply because it would better fit somebody else's idea of what I ought to be doing.

(This is not a totally absolutist position, by the way, as I'm more than willing to consider ways to shift the things I want to be doing anyway into channels that are more professionally valued, when/if I can find some. I'm not enough of a Zen master to avoid being irritated when the stuff I pour blood and sweat into gets looked at askance as not "serious" enough.)

Anyway, again, I wholeheartedly endorse Nagpal's post and the advice therein. Including the anti-advice bits, for what it's worth-- if you read that and recoil in horror, feel free to disregard it and go in another direction. The important thing is to do what works for you, not throw away whatever drew you to the job in the first place in order to follow somebody else's advice.

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Of course conditions will vary by department, but Harvard has a reputation for not awarding tenure to their junior faculty. So it is particularly impressive that Prof. Nagpal got tenure at Harvard. There is a lesson here: often, trying too hard at something can be counterproductive.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jul 2013 #permalink

Conversely, since Harvard has a reputation for not awarding tenure to their junior faculty, an academic will very likely be able to find a tenured or at least tenure-track job somewhere else after being turned down there. This is not true many places.