Catching my breath

Today, for the first time in weeks, I am working at home, in my sun-drenched home office, with my work tunes playing, a steady supply of hot tea, and my feet propped up. Save for a few phone calls and a flurry of emails earlier, my day has been blissfully interruption-free. I’ve actually had time to think for more than 5 minutes! I tackled (and finished) a task that I knew would take me a while that I’ve been saving for a day like today. I’ve caught up on the million little things that have been piling up over the past month-plus, and will tackle a bunch more this afternoon. I may even finish the draft of the exam I’m giving in class on Friday. (Dare I dream that I’ll even get to “read a research article”, the last item on my list for today?)

The past month and a half has been a whirlwind of running from one thing to the next (sometimes literally). Service activities that I thought would be quite manageable morphed into time-suckers. Some unbloggable things happened that required more time and energy than I had to spare, but that had to be dealt with immediately. (If there’s a silver lining there, it’s that I now know an awful lot more about the existence of various campus resources, and that info will definitely come in handy in the future.) Then there’s scheduling, scheduling, and more scheduling—finalizing the spring term schedule, making the schedule for next year and the year beyond. At least the spring schedule was easy—a room change here and there, perhaps a change in the course capacity. I’m quickly learning that making a schedule and satisfying a million usually conflicting constraints is hard, hard, hard. And hiring, which has pretty much taken up all of my time for the past month and a half. (Logistics! Campus visits! Entertaining! And that’s after going through the amazingly challenging work of reading applications and narrowing down the strongest pool I’ve ever seen.) If it weren’t for my research student this term, there would be no research happening this term. And thank goodness I’m teaching one course that I’ve taught many times in the past, with an incredible group of students who has made my job as a teacher so much easier this term, because otherwise I’m sure I would not be sleeping at all.

I really, really, REALLY needed a day like today. When you’re in the midst of such craziness, you almost lose a sense of your surroundings—you’re so focused on getting something done in the moment so that you can move onto doing something else in the next moment, and you don’t dare stop to breathe because the sheer volume of what needs to be done may drown you. But that’s not healthy or sustainable. (In fact, the moment things calmed down a teeny bit? I got sick. Of course.) We need time to reflect, time to work carefully and deliberately, time to sit and stare out the window and think. Time to not be interrupted. Time to consciously decide what to do next. Time away from the tsunami of tasks and demands. Time to control the to-do list, instead of having it control you.

The next few weeks are still packed—our seniors present their Comps on Saturday, we’re still in the process of hiring, the term ends soon, and I’ll be at SIGCSE next week (yay!). So this respite is brief. On the other hand, these upcoming weeks are at least manageably packed, and you can bet I’ll be making time to, if not fully re-create today, at least partially re-create it, even if it’s just closing my door for an hour and consciously deciding how *I* want to spend that time.

Musings on learning a new (to me) subfield

The other day, a student left my office, beaming. She and I had just finished discussing some project ideas she might pursue, with me serving as a technical mentor (and mentor in general). I was also beaming—the projects and the potential collaborations sound exciting! There’s lots of stuff of interest to pursue!

Then I put my head on my desk and groaned, as the Impostor Syndrome and doubts started to creep in.

For much of my career, I have been a Networking Person. Not as in “someone who schmoozes and hands out business cards” or “one who is always on Facebook” (ok, maybe that latter one is true), but as in someone working in the field of computer/communications networks. I was a Networking Person when I was still an electrical engineer. I was a Networking Person in my Master’s project and PhD dissertation. I was a Networking Person in my post-doc. I am “the” Networking Person at Carleton. I do research in the broad areas of Computer Networks, publish most of the time in networks-related conferences, journals, and workshops. I always have, and continue to enjoy, networks as a field (other that the dismal percentage of women)—I find the field fascinating, the possibilities endless. I geek out on RFCs and traceroute; an afternoon playing with Wireshark is my idea of fun.

However, lately I’m finding that I have a new passion in an entirely different subfield. It started off as mainly a teaching interest: a module in a Software Design course, a dyad, and eventually an A&I (freshman) seminar. At some point I realized I was actually doing some of this stuff in my research. And then I started working on a project where this other subfield is as much a part of the project as the Networking part. And started getting excited about other projects—like the one at the start of this post—that are clearly and firmly in this subfield.

I think this means that I’m not just a Networking Person anymore. I’m well on my way to being a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Person.

When I was just “dabbling” in the field, or just teaching it, I felt more comfortable with this dual role—perhaps because Networking Persona was still the dominant persona. But as time goes on, that’s becoming less true. It’s definitely not half-and-half, but it’s getting close. HCI Persona is here to stay, and is growing. I’m just as fascinated, and sometimes more fascinated, with the HCI research questions in this project (and in general) as I am with the networking questions.

And this has me somewhat panicked. Philosophically, I’m thinking about the point of the PhD. Is the point more to make you an expert in a tiny corner of your chosen subfield? Or is it more to teach you the skills you need to become an expert in a tiny corner of any subfield? Some skills obviously do transfer—how to do a literature search, how to evaluate sources and conferences and journals, how to learn something quickly, how to envision further extensions and applications of a concept. But a lot of your time in graduate school is learning a particular piece of a particular subfield: what are the seminal works and ideas? what is the main corpus of knowledge and main skill set that everyone in this subfield should have and know? what are you going to be the expert in?

To what extent are you “stuck” in your subfield post-PhD? And how far afield can you go, successfully?

In some respects, this whole internal discussion and line of questioning is moot, because I’ve clearly already headed down the HCI Persona road and don’t particularly want to turn back. But it is something I continue to reflect on, as I work hard to catch up to speed on something I have never, ever formally studied.*

Have you gone far a(sub-)field of your dissertation subfield, or discipline? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

* The irony is not lost on me that I’m choosing to stress about switching subfields within the same discipline, when in fact I switched an entire FIELD and have never formally studied the field in which I now work.