Career unhappiness

I’ve been reading a lot of “Quit Lit” recently and I am seriously contemplating quitting my own academic job.  This (hopefully still) anonymous blog is the only place I have written this down, or even admitted it beyond my immediate family members.

One piece of academic “quit lit” included this PhD comics cartoon:

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My life so far looks an awful lot like that top “Life plan”.  I met my husband in college, and we got married 1 year after I started grad school, when I was 22.  I finished my PhD at age 27, and had my first child at that same age (the only thing significantly off the timeline, it that I did it earlier).  I started my “academic dream job” (tenure track, R1 university) at age 29, and also bought a house at that time.  I haven’t published any books but I do have a few high-impact papers under my belt, and I could plausibly win a prestigious career award in my mid-to-late 30s.  Im well on my way to tenure, I have graduate students, and I’ve been fairly successful with grants and funding.  So why do I think about quitting nearly every day?

The reasons are many and varied, and it’s hard to point to just one thing.  I guess the best summation is a combination of exhaustion and loss of passion for my research and teaching.  When I sit down at my desk, I am not eager to begin working.  It’s hard to remember when I was last really interested in a research problem.  I think I’ve just been faking it for a number of years, at least since the end of my Ph.D.  I teach because I have to, not because I want to.  I am nervous in front of a classroom (though I hide it well – too well, because people don’t believe me when I say I am nervous) and I struggle with anxiety about all things large and small.  I worry constantly that students are judging my appearance and competence, and I am mortified when I make mistakes in front of the class (as I inevitably occasionally do).

The pressure of the job is high.  I am not publishing enough papers, and I feel constant pressure to publish more.  But I hate everything about the publishing processes.  I recently had a paper rejected, a paper that it took me over a year to write because I hated the work and could hardly bare to look at it.  It was rejected with an invitation to resubmit – essentially, I was told to start over on something I barely finished because I hated it so much.  I have another project that is ready to be written up – a task I hate doing – but I don’t have the time to do it even if I wanted to.  That’s because first I need to find and fix an issue with some code my graduate student needs to use, something I’ve already spent weeks trying to do and getting nowhere.  I also need to read and review over 20 proposals because I agreed to serve on a proposal review panel for a government agency, something that every other professor tells me I “should” do.  This fall, I’m scheduled to teach two very difficult courses simultaneously, while keeping up with research, publishing, and advising.  It’s just gotten to a point where the pressure and stress levels are quite high, the to-do list very long and never ending, and I no longer really enjoy any of it.  The exception is advising, which I actually do enjoy, but less and less with time.  I’m starting to feel like my advising might actually be harming students, because I am of course leading them down the same path I have followed that has made me so unhappy.

I still believe in the power of science to help society in a general sense.  I even still believe in the usefulness of my own research, and I love talking about the topic because it is pretty cool stuff.  But science is incremental, and I know that my entire branch of research (which is rather new) may turn out to be mostly useless.  It also might turn out to be a huge breakthrough, but scientists in my field are unlikely to know which is true for decades.  This is not a criticism of my field, or of science, because the reality is that promising research avenues often turn out to be duds, and it’s often impossible to know that without decades of research.  To stick with something that might be a bust, and is really really difficult to do, for decades requires a fierce love that I fear I just don’t have.

For now I am staying for a few reasons.  Yes, I am unhappy, but I know nothing else.  Will I be happier outside of academia?  Will I even find a job?  I have no idea.  My family relies in my income, and for now, my job is secure.  If I leave, I’ll be letting down a lot of people.  My colleagues will be rather upset, because in the current university climate, they know they will not be approved to do another search, so the faculty line will die with me (this is academic lingo which essentially means if I quit they won’t be allowed to replace me, and will have to get along with one less faculty member).  The person I feel the worst about letting down is my Ph.D. advisor.  I see him as a 3rd parent of sorts (he is about the age of my parents) and I know he’s proud and happy that I became a professor, which is what he wanted for me.  A handful of other students of his have also gone on to become professors, but I was the first in over a decade and still the most recent.

In 2 weeks, I’m traveling to serve on this proposal review panel.  The location happens to be just a few miles from where I did my Ph.D., and I plan to visit with my old advisor.  I will likely discuss my career issues with him at that time.  I hope that gives me more clarity.  For now I feel stressed out, confused, scared, and most of all, increasingly unhappy where I am.

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Why scientists have to work for free

Scientists are one of the only highly respected professions which society expects to work for free.  Not completely for free, of course, but any research scientist can tell you all about the work they do for no pay at all.

Take me for example.  I have a full-time, 9-month tenure track appointment at a research university.  This is pretty much the best case scenario for a 30-year-old scientist such as myself.  The 9-month part means that my university pays me a full time salary 9 months out of every year (the academic year).  I am not paid for the summer months.  This does not, however, mean I can just not work during the summer.  In order to get tenure, I need to obtain grants and publish papers.  The summer, during which I am not teaching, is my main block of time during which I can conduct research, develop grant proposals, and write and publish scientific papers.  If I was to not work over the summer, there is no way I would be able to earn tenure.  If I don’t earn tenure within 5 years, then I’m fired.

I can earn pay for some of the summer months, by obtaining research grants that include some summer salary.  But grant proposals are the most egregious example of how scientists are expected to work for free.  To put together a good grant proposal, with a reasonable chance of success, can take 2-4 weeks of full time work.  It usually takes much longer because I can’t dedicate 2-4 weeks to just writing a grant proposal.  A successful grant proposal requires a well thought out, well researched, novel and interesting idea.  It also generally requires some “preliminary results” to prove that the idea works.  So I have to do a large part of the science I’m proposing to do just to try to obtain the money to do it.  And grant proposals have a success rate of roughly 25%, so 75% of the time all that free work I did amounts to nothing.  Even if I do get that grant, a typical NSF grant pays for 1 month of summer pay for each of 3 summers, after which it ends.  So that means scientists are constantly writing grant proposals, usually 2-4 per year.

I know of many scientists who do not have the benefit of 9-month appointments like I do.  Some researchers are responsible for obtaining anywhere from 50-100% of their pay from grants.  That’s right, some scientists are hired into “jobs” that come with no pay whatsoever, and they then have to constantly apply for money to pay themselves.  These are called “soft money” positions.

I understand the importance of the grant proposal system.  It is a mechanism to direct limited public science funding to the projects deemed most promising by panels of experts, and it prevents scientists from becoming lazy and no longer pursuing new and promising ideas.  But we would be incentivized to participate in the grant proposal system even if we were paid year-round.  That’s because grants are also used to pay graduate student researchers, to purchase equipment, to pay for scientific conference travel, and to pay for publication fees and other research expenditures, in addition to being required for promotion and tenure.

Another example of how scientists are expected to work for free is peer review.  Every scientific paper and proposal goes through peer review, meaning it is critically read and evaluated by 2-5 other scientists.  Those peer reviewers typically spend anywhere from 2-8 hours reviewing a paper or proposal, completely for free.  In fact, in the case of a paper, the author pays the journal fees in the range of $2,000-$5,000, not one penny of which goes to the peer reviewers for their work.  And we can’t even take credit for peer review, because it’s meant to be anonymous and confidential.  So this is work we’re expected to do for free, out of professional ethical obligation, for no pay or recognition whatsoever.  If one refuses to participate in peer review, that person obtains a strongly negative reputation with journal editors and grant program managers, which can be professionally very damaging.

There is a saying in research science that no one chose this career for the pay.  And it’s true, the vast majority of researchers could make more money by applying their skills in a more lucrative industry.  Our salaries aren’t enormous, especially considering the number of years of education it requires to become a research scientist.  We’re here because we believe our work is important and valuable to society.  And I believe our time and work should be valued enough that we are paid for it.  For all of it, not just during the academic year.

Keeping it all going

No one expects that being a professor and a mom to an autistic toddler is easy.  It really isn’t, but not always in the ways people might expect.

Caring for the autistic kid is actually probably easier than most people think, at least in our case.  Our daughter is very high functioning, and other than some sensory related meltdowns, is a fairly happy kid.  She gets frustrated when she can’t communicate something she wants, but so does every toddler.  In fact, every weekday evening from 5:30-7:00 PM we have our ABA implementers around to help out.  Lately kiddo has wanted to do her ABA therapy in her basement playroom – which is wonderful.  She and the implementer stay down there and husband and I can make dinner and eat together in peace.  This is a recent development, it used to be that kiddo was constantly running away from therapy to me and demanding to be picked up.  So things on that front have gotten easier.

On the work front, it’s summer, so that means no teaching at the moment.  But stress levels are still very high.  As my mother keeps reminding me, I have a proposal deadline coming up. Seriously, when do parents stop nagging you about homework?  Apparently not when you become a professor, at least in my case.  Note to other profs: Do not tell your parents about impending proposal deadlines.  I don’t know why I ever did.

Of course I also have to prep my fall class, get a paper out, advise a student, and a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve recently had my own health scare that is most likely nothing, but has resulted in me having a TON of doctor’s appointments and tests.  Last week I had a cardiologist appointment, a kidney ultrasound, and a cardiac MRI, all of which showed me to be perfectly healthy.  But it’s an extra drain on my time and stress levels, and the docs want me to do more tests, ugh.

So with all this, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some things slip through the cracks occasionally.  This week, I managed to annoy the front office staff of my department because I was supposed to sign a form by a specific date and I went to sign it the day after the deadline.  The deadline was pretty much the same day we got the forms because of the end of the fiscal year.  Apparently they were looking for me on Tuesday to get this signature, but I had some other stuff to take care of on Tuesday and wasn’t around.  So when I talked to them on Wednesday I got comments like “No one ever knows where you are, you’re not around.”  And other annoyed comments.  At first I was embarrassed but then I realized a few things: 1) I’m a professor.  I don’t work for or report to the office staff.  and 2) It’s summer, which means the university isn’t paying me for my time.  Many people may not know this, but professors actually aren’t paid for the summer months unless we find our own money through grants.  So I feel like they can’t really fault me for not being around for a day, after all, I’m still working for the university over the summer without pay from them.  (I did have 1 month of pay from a grant, but 2 months are completely unpaid for me).

Perhaps part of the problem is imposter syndrome, and I certainly have some of that.  It probably doesn’t help that I am female and younger than both of our front office employees, by a decent margin.  In fact I’m younger than some of the graduate students, which can make it a bit awkward if I try to exercise my professorial authority.  Also, I am someone who is very easily embarrassed and I suffer from a high level of anxiety, for which I take medication but it’s still a problem for me.  So for now, as silly as it is, I’m avoiding the front office completely.

 

First Summer as Faculty!

I’ve been making mostly Autism related posts at this blog, so it’s time for an academia oriented post.

The academic year ended officially about two week ago.  That’s when I turned in final grades for my class, and the summer finally began.  I took off a few days to decompress and switch gears.  My final exam was given at the end of finals week, leaving me not much time to grade all 47 exams by hand, including a few math problems and short answer questions.  It was brutal and I needed a break afterward!

Now I’m trying to pivot into “summer mode.”  The first thing on my summer docket was a proposal deadline, and now that’s done.  Next I have a paper draft from my postdoc work that I need to revise, add some figures to, and send to co-authors so we can hopefully submit it.  I also need to conduct some new research and prep for next fall, when I’ll be teaching a more advanced class I have never taught before.  So I have a lot to do, but so far, I’m having trouble being motivated to do it.  Partially the lack of a set schedule revolving around teaching is weird getting used to again, and also partially just being in my office all day alone is lonely!

Despite those complaints, I am happy summer is here.  Stress levels are lower, parking on campus is easier, the weather is warmer, and I can concentrate on more interesting science.  And, I am lucky in that I actually have a funded grant which will give me 1 month of summer pay.  That does mean that officially, I’m “unpaid” for two months this summer, although obviously I will still need to work during that time.  I have chosen to take my 9-month salary over 12 months, so getting that 1 month of summer pay feels like a “bonus.”  It also means that at least in theory, for the designated month I am supposed to work on nothing but that project.  In practice, I suspect I will need to work on other things a bit during that time, and I suspect I will work on the paid project during other summer months.

Having just submitted one grant proposal, I am now debating with myself whether to try to submit another for an early July deadline.  That isn’t a ton of time, and the program I am thinking of (NSF’s CAREER program) has a low probability of funding me on my first round, but a high payoff it I am funded (roughly $500,000 over 5 years).  Ordinarily I would tell myself to do it and not expect to get the money, on the argument that I could use the feedback to make my application better next time.  But as far as I know, this year is the last year for the CAREER program, meaning there won’t be a second shot.  So I’m debating whether the effort is worth it or not.  Any advice welcome.