Things they don’t tell you: Professor edition

My route into an academic career was fairly straightforward.  I got a bachelor’s degree (3.5 years).  I went to graduate school and got a PhD (5.25 years).  I did a postdoc (2 years).  Total years of post-high school training: 10.75.  And yet, almost all of that training focused on either learning new things, and/or performing research to discover new things.

It turns out of course that a professor’s job is a lot more than learning new things and doing research.  In fact, the large majority of a professor’s time is spent doing neither of these things.  So what are we doing?  The obvious answer is teaching, and during the academic year, teaching and preparing to teach does take up a lot of time.  Other duties include writing grant proposals to obtain research funds, advising graduate students, providing peer review services for journals and funding agencies, and lots of administrative and related duties (such as various types of committee service).  With the exception of a tiny amount of grant writing experience, and 2 quarters of TA experience (mainly grading), none of my training prepared me for all these job duties that actually comprise the majority of my job.  Certainly I have next to no training in managing all these competing duties.

Lots of people have written about how the transition into an assistant professorship is hard, and it is.  More than being difficult though, it’s bewildering.  I constantly have a million questions that people don’t realize I don’t know the answers to.  Like, how do I give my TA the ability to put grades into Blackboard?  How do I access the university’s online purchasing system?  What are the specific rules regarding how I can spend my start-up funds?  What’s a reasonable about of time to sacrifice to reviewing others’ work?  How do I use the department copier?  How do I order computers? How do I recruit decent graduate applicants?  What should I look for when reading graduate applications?  It’s not fun admitting ignorance about all things large and small to to all of your colleagues, so I have figured out a group of 3ish professors in the department I feel comfortable asking potentially stupid questions.  I try to rotate through them so that no one sees the complete scope of my ignorance or is annoyed with constant questions.  I’m probably overthinking this.

I recently got my first grant funded (woo hoo!).  While that’s great news, it gives me even more questions.  When and how will I get my grant money?  Will the money match what I asked for in my budget? What are the rules regarding reallocating funds from one line item to another?  What are the rules regarding when money must be spent by?

The main point I’m trying to make here is that if my experience is any guide, new professors are very confused people!  There is so much that was just taken care of for us when we were students and postdocs, but now we’re thrown head first into the machine that is a large university, and just trying to figure it all out.


Things they don’t tell you: Autism edition

One of the hardest parts of being a parent of an autistic child is navigating the various systems in order to obtain care and therapies.  It is so confusing, it’s a wonder anyone gets anything done at all with autism intervention in the U.S.  For a long time, I’ve thought that a “single-payer” healthcare system, like the ones in Canada or the U.K. or Australia is just plain better than our system, and my experiences as a parent of a special needs kid have only solidified this opinion.

When we got the autism diagnosis, we got a bunch of reading materials like the first 100 days kit for Autism Speaks.  While that’s useful in understanding the diagnosis and general information about types of therapies, it’s not very useful in terms of practical information about how to obtain care and therapy.  That’s because this sort of practical information, while it’s arguably the most important thing you need, varies so much from family to family and location to location.  Still, we got the autism diagnosis at a local specialty center for autism and related disorders.  It would be logical then to give parents something that outlines all the local resources.

What I’d really like to see is a table of information, where each row is a service provider or agency, and the columns include things like: Contact information, services provided, cost, payments and insurance accepted, who they serve, whether there is a waitlist and how long it is, and what requirements need to be met in order to obtain services.  Here’s what a useful table might look like:

Name   Services Cost Payments and


Who is served Waitlist? Requirements to

obtain services

State Early Intervention program   Coordinates and pays for therapies, including ABA, ST, OT.  Does not provide services directly. up to $100 monthly, depending on income Takes insurance and private payments Children under age 3 with an ASD diagnosis or with other developmental delays No, but it generally takes ~2 months to begin services obtain a referral (can self-refer), provide medical documentation, meet with service coordinator, possibly evaluations to qualify for services
Easter Seals   Provides in-home and/or in-school ABA and other therapies.  Provides parent training as well. varies Take insurance and accepts funding through various state sources including State Early Intervention program Anyone with a developmental disability, including adults usually no diagnosis of developmental delay or disorder
Autism Specialty Center   Provides evaluations, and various in clinic therapies and services.  Pediatric focused. varies part of University hospital system; takes insurance anyone with Autism or a related developmental disorder.  Pediatric focus. Yes, usually 1-12 months depending on specific service and age of child Must be referred by doctor or school professional.  Cannot self-refer.  Must fill out unbelievable amounts of paperwork before they will even schedule an appointment or put you on a waitlist.

The above example was written quickly by me and written to anonymize our location.  It also lists only 3 of the (so far) 5 service providers/organizations we have dealt with.  It would help me so much to have had something like this 3 weeks ago to answer questions like: OK, I want ABA therapy for my child, but who provides this therapy and where do they provide it?  How can I pay for it?

Yes, a table like this would have to be specific to each state or even each metro area.  But really, it’s not that hard to make, and having this information handy would greatly help overwhelmed families navigate this crazy American system that we have.  I’ve been spending about 10 hours per week for the last 3 weeks just trying to figure all this stuff out (which is a lot when you work full time already and have to care for the autistic toddler) and I still don’t have it all straight.

Telling people my daughter has autism

My husband and I feel that our daughter having autism is nothing to be embarrassed about.  Sure, it’s not good news, in the sense that our daughter’s life will be more difficult, and our lives as her parents are going to be more stressful than if she was neurotypical.  We need to figure out how to get her the best care and therapy possible, to give her the best life we can, while keeping our own lives (and incomes).  But this isn’t the end of the world, and she’s still our daughter, and she’s the same person she was before the “autism” label was applied.  With the diagnosis, we now have a better understanding of her differences, and more information about how to best help her.

So, when we got the diagnosis, we started slowly telling people.  Starting with immediate family, as well as close friends, then a few coworkers, or even acquaintances if it came up.  We don’t announce it to everyone we meet, but it’s a fact about our family and we’re not embarrassed about it.

The reactions have been varied.  Some people just say “oh” and don’t know what else to say.  Others tell me about a friend or relative with autism.  Some have reacted as if I just told them my daughter has cancer and might not make it.  Things like a huge gasp, a shocked expression and “oh no” or “I’m so, so sorry for her” over and over.  Of all the reactions, these are the ones I like the least.  I know the person is just trying to be sympathetic, but my daughter isn’t dying.  These reactions make me think I should feel worse about the diagnosis than I do.  But I know they come from a place of good intentions.

I have been debating with myself whether to make a facebook post about the diagnosis.  My facebook friends are a varied bunch, including professors at a universities in the U.S. and abroad, friends from high school/college/grad school, extended family, neighbors, my former marching band director, etc. etc.  I only post on facebook maybe once a month, and I consider anything I post there to be public information.  I do post occasional happy family photos or family updates.  On the one hand, if I want to treat the diagnosis as normal, and not something to seek sympathy over then it probably shouldn’t merit a post.  On the other hand, if I don’t post something about this, am I treating it as something to be hidden, disguised, not talked about?  I did already join a closed group for local parents of autistic kids, so maybe that makes this info public already.

I’d appreciate any comments with advice or experience on how to approach “coming out” on facebook as autistic or the parent of an autistic person.  If I want to be able to discuss treatments or experiences, I need to come out with it eventually, but I want to avoid the “like she’s dying” type of reactions as much as possible.