Exhaustion, work, and the new normal?

At 2am Saturday morning, I turned off my computer. My day had started at 5:15am Friday morning, and I’d pretty much been going nonstop since then: teaching, meetings, a crazy workday; then home to wrangle dinner and baths and the kids, by myself; then, once the kids were in bed, back to work. For hours. Repeat the rest of the weekend, substituting a crazy full day of kid-wrangling by myself for the crazy workday.

This week is a bit extreme, and is the result of a perfect storm of sorts. A short turnaround between winter and spring terms (I still haven’t finished wrapping up stuff from winter term). Two major service deadlines back to back. Another big service thing I’ve had to ignore out of necessity (so that I can get at least a few hours of sleep a night). Some departmental drama that I’ve been drawn into as incoming chair next year. Sick kids (and sick me) and single parenting. A late invitation to submit a journal article, due at the end of the month. I started spring term behind and I’m still not caught up.

The problem is, this seems to be my new normal. This has been the craziest year professionally ever. I work all the damn time. All. The. Damn. Time. Well, when I’m not parenting, that is. And it’s starting to affect my life, beyond the sleep deprivation: I completely flaked on two kind of important personal life things last week. This is completely unlike me, Dr. Uber-Responsible, and while I’m trying not to beat myself up over these things, it’s hard not to.

(Another sign of the craziness: the unfinished puzzle currently sitting on my dining room table, that I’ve been working on since CHRISTMAS DAY, largely untouched since January.)

Here’s the thing: I love my job. Love love love it. But I love my family too, and I love having hobbies and free time and relaxing…you know, the things that normal people do. And lately my job does not allow for anything outside of my job. And this fundamentally bothers me.

Prioritize? I’m prioritizing up the wazoo. I’m queen of getting stuff done and pomodoros and to-do lists and zero inboxes and <insert your favorite productivity buzzword here>. There’s still too much work. Too many expectations. I drop so many balls it’s not funny. And it’s still too much. Way too much.

I’ve heard the same stories from many associate profs I know. We’re all burned out, overworked, overwhelmed. Next year I’m going to be chair. This terrifies me. If I can barely keep things together now, how the hell am I going to manage next year when my workload goes up exponentially?

I want to be an effective teacher, an engaged scholar, and a colleague who gives back. I also want a life. These things should not be mutually exclusive. I want work to be on my terms and not be in triage mode all the time. But the further I go down this tenured road, the less possible I think that is.

On tenure and promotion and associate professor-ness and “what now?”

I really enjoy the columns of Kerry Ann Rockquemore on Inside Higher Ed. Rockquemore writes about productivity, mentoring, tenure and promotion, and I find her advice always spot-on and honest.

Her latest column is specifically aimed towards my demographic: the disgruntled associate professor. (The link takes you to an article about a recent story receiving a lot of press: a study showing that associate professors are unhappier than assistant and full professors in almost all areas of professional life.) She moves beyond the usual reasons given for this angst—a large increase in service expectations, especially for women and faculty of color; inadequate support for research (travel, interdisciplinary work, time); unclear promotion expectations—and focuses on another cause:

The problem for many post-tenure faculty is that they have grown so accustomed to being in a position of external constraint from the tenure track that when they pass into the next stage of their careers (one in which the primary benefit is the ability to choose), they struggle in choosing a path.

Why? Because they: a) don’t know what they want, b) have been working so hard for so long they forgot what they love, or c) are genuinely interested in so many different things that they don’t know what to do first. No matter what the reason is, the outcome is the same: if you don’t choose a clear a path and focus your best energy in that direction, you get pulled in many different directions at once in support of other people’s agendas. And whenever your energy is spread out in lots of different directions, it’s difficult to achieve excellence in any one area.

Her key point is here (emphasis mine):

…[T]he challenge is no longer meeting externally imposed standards, but instead clarifying who you are as a professor, what you want from your work, and where you want to be five years from today.

This article comes at a particularly apt time. At Carleton, all tenured and tenure-track faculty fill out biennial reports for the administration. The reports summarize what you’ve been doing in your teaching, research, and service over the past few years. While we complain about them as another hoop to jump through, they do provide an opportunity to reflect on where you are now and where you want to be next. Associate professors write an expanded version of this report at 2 and 4 years post-tenure; these reports are not only read by the administration, but by senior faculty in the department as well. The senior faculty and associate professor then meet to discuss the report and reevaluate the associate’s path to full professor. I’m currently putting together my 2 year post-tenure report.

Luckily for me, I’ve been thinking about Rockquemore’s key point for some time now. Right after my promotion to associate, I attended CRA-W’s CAPP-E workshop, a workshop for mid-career (mostly newly-promoted) women in CS academia. One of the first questions the organizers asked us was “So, do you know what the promotion process is at your school for full professor?” (I’ll admit, sheepishly, that I did not know.) The second question they asked was “How are you going to get to full professor?” The workshop provided us with some framework to help us navigate the post-tenure transition and to figure out how we wanted our careers to go. There was a ton of mentoring, a ton of advice, and a ton of strategies offered up. That workshop was incredibly useful, and I find myself thinking more critically about my career and about opportunities offered to me, in light of where I want to be. (I don’t always follow the advice and strategies I learned, but at least I’m aware of them.)

(As an aside, Rockquemore’s first question to ask yourself as you define your path is “who are your role models?” Essentially, she advises her readers to find someone(s) who is at the place for which you are aiming, and connect with that person. I was able to connect with one of my role models, someone who’s career path is very similar to the one I want, at this workshop, and she’s been a tremendous resource for me. Which reminds me—I need to send her a long-overdue email!)

So really, I’ve been in a sense writing my biennial report since I earned tenure. But it’s an interesting exercise, to put down in words what has been in my head: where I want to be, how I’m going to get there, and whether or not I’ve been doing things that get me there or whether I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from my path. I have to say that while I’ve accomplished a lot post-tenure and while many of those accomplishments contributed to my desired path, there are way more distractions than I’d like, and I can see things in my career that need to be streamlined—things that are interesting, and sometimes important with a small “i”, but not Important with a capital “I”. I’m certainly not alone (as the study results indicate) in this regard, but recognizing them is, hopefully, the first step in dealing with them appropriately.

One final point that Rockquemore makes is to give yourself permission to explore different paths. It’s so easy at the associate level to just move through your day-to-day, putting out various fires and operating in crisis mode. It’s hard to make time to dream and to think about alternate paths. The biennial report serves as a reminder that post-tenure, thinking about alternate paths is not only a luxury, but in a sense a requirement as well. With the freedom of tenure comes the freedom to branch out, AND the expectation that you will do so, for the good of your own career AND for the good of the institution.

The myth of being “on leave”

This weekend, I spent some time hanging out with some of my lovely neighbors. As we were chatting about our kids and work and such, someone asked “So when are you returning to work from parental leave?”

I gave my standard answer (spring term), of course. But mentally I was reviewing this week’s calendar and to-do list. The 2 job candidates coming in this week mean I have to be on campus 2 afternoons for 2 meetings and 2 job talks. (My spouse went back to work this week, which means we are juggling schedules to make this happen.) This also means I have to review the 2 candidates’ files before I meet with them (ideally!). I have 5 letters of recommendation for 4 different students that are due between now and next Monday. Which means 5 different web sites, formats, and sets of questions to deal with. I’ve only written for two of the students before, so I have to draft 2 letters from scratch. (Looking ahead, there are a bunch more letters due around mid-February, also for students for whom I haven’t previously written.)

Now, let me mention before I go further into this post that my department, and particularly my department chair, has been amazing, even though my last-minute change of leave is causing a fair amount of inconvenience. They are, I think, more protective of my time than I am, and have taken great pains to make sure that I am only involved in the most crucial things—things like the department review, and hiring, which were scheduled before my leave changed—and in the most minimal way possible. They have also largely let me decide how much I can contribute to the review and hiring, and have honored my choices. I’m very grateful to work in such a supportive environment.

But the fact is, I’m tenured faculty, and there’s a limit to how much “on leave” I can be. Sure, I could refuse all requests to write letters for students, but I’ve worked closely with all of the students for whom I’m writing letters and in some cases can write the strongest letters for them. I suppose I could refuse, on principle, to participate in our department review, and not meet with the external reviewers—but as a tenured member of the department, I have a deeply vested interest in making sure our department is headed in the right direction. Ditto with hiring. And I haven’t even talked about research, which again theoretically could stop for a few months. But we just got a paper weakly rejected from a conference that can and should be turned around quickly. If I stopped paying attention to my research for a few months, the startup costs to get back into the swing of things would be heavy. So ideally I need to be thinking about research, finding a new venue for the paper and fixing its (minor) flaws, etc.

So I’ll continue to spend my days chasing around an active toddler, my nights hoping that said toddler will sleep through the night, and squeezing in work during naptime and that little sliver of time between the kiddos’ bedtime and my bedtime. Even though some days I’d rather be playing video games or napping or reading or cleaning up the playroom that now perpetually looks like it was hit by a tornado. And when someone comments on how nice it must be to be on leave from my job, I’ll just grit my teeth and grin and say “Yes, isn’t it?”.

Owning my seniority

When I got the invitation a few months ago to attend the Senior Women Summit at Grace Hopper, I’ll admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Surely there was some mistake! I’ve only been officially tenured for just over a year, so how could I possibly be a senior woman in tech? And besides, doesn’t “senior” imply that I’m accomplished, that I’ve done something Really Important in my career? I’m just a lowly associate prof! I haven’t really done anything important yet!

But I was intrigued and curious, and thought “What the hell, I’ll just go and see what this is all about.”

I spent the entire first hour or so of today’s summit dealing with a serious case of impostor syndrome. I ended up sitting at a table of women who are very senior and are very much powerhouses of accomplishment. By chance I’d met all but one of them before. Oddly, even the ones I’d only briefly met in the past remembered me, which really threw me for a loop—why would these powerful women, who meet lots of people every day, remember little old me? They were all very warm and welcoming, but I was seriously fighting the urge to run out of the room screaming “I don’t belong here! There’s been a horrible mistake!”

Eventually I was able to get over my impostor syndrome enough to relax. And it was a really incredible opportunity. I had some great conversations with senior women, I identified some new mentors potential sponsors, and got to meet and converse with some of my personal heroes.

I find it interesting that I have such a hard time “owning” the fact that I am a senior woman. What I realized today is that, like it or not, I do have experience and I do make a difference and that others do see me as senior. This means that I have some power and control over things in my department, institution, and larger technical community. And that I can and should capitalize on this to make the changes and impact I want to see to my department, institution, and larger technical community. I forget sometimes that I’ve finished fighting the tenure battle—I still think of myself as “junior” and “of limited power”. It’s hard to switch that off once you get tenure. It’s hard to lean into and embrace that new role.

Today’s summit gave me permission to own my seniority and to embrace the benefits and responsibilities that come with that. My challenge will be figuring out how exactly I want to translate that into meaningful and sustainable action.

Summer in the lab, 2011 edition

June has been a busy, busy month so far, so I haven’t had time to note that summer here at Carleton has indeed begun.  Summer means I can finally concentrate on research for extended blocks of time—unlike during the school year, when I’m doing research every day but most of the time it’s a half hour here or, on the really decadent days, an hour there.  Summer is when I take stock of where I am, tackle some of the thornier or less well-defined aspects of my work (the places we’ve gotten stuck), start new lines of inquiry, and write write write.  It’s also when I try to do my strategic planning for the year ahead, so that I can maximize my efficiency during those small blocks of research time during the terms.

My main hope in earning tenure was that it would give me the time, space, and freedom to figure out where I wanted my research to go in the next 5-10 years.  I love the research that I’m doing, on improving computer networks to better support video.  It’s personally fulfilling, because it’s exciting to me, has so many possible applications, and attempts to answer crucially important questions (in my opinion, anyway) about how networks work.  But I’ve been working on this problem for 10 years (!!) now, and I can see that this work, in its current form, is reaching its natural end.  So the big question is, what’s next?

There are some natural ways to extend this work within my wheelhouse of expertise, and those sound interesting to me.  But tenure brings the academic freedom to explore new, possibly slow-developing, lines of inquiry, ones that aren’t necessarily going to pay off with publications or results in the short term.  And the truth is, there are some peripherally-related areas that have interested me for a while—HCI and security, specifically.  I’m not an “expert” in either.  Pre-tenure, it was too risky to branch out.  But now, I could.  The question is, how badly do I want to take that risk now?  Can I better define the problems in these areas that interest me, and perhaps find a way to bridge my current work into either or both of these areas?  I’m excited about the possibilities here, but frankly a bit terrified too about leaving the safety of my current subfields.

This summer, I’ll take some much-needed time to explore some questions, to read a lot of recent scholarship, and to see if I can define a further-looking path forward.

In the meantime, I have 3 awesome undergrads working in my lab this summer.  This is actually their third week—it was interesting trying to juggle ending the term and grading with getting them set up and working productively in the lab, but we made it happen.  One of the key differences between this summer’s group and last summer’s group is that these students have been working with me for a term now (one has worked with me for 2 terms).  We spent spring term doing the background work on the project—reading papers, learning about networks and streaming video, practicing using the tools they’d be using this summer—so that they could start doing actual research on Day 1.  As a result, I’ve had to spend less time in the lab with them up front—although this is now changing since they’re starting to hit the really thorny problems and questions.

We have three main goals this summer:

  1. Migrate some of our data collection and analysis to the web, so that we’re not tied to one particular media player and all of its headaches
  2. Actually build and test the video quality assessment system that we’ve hinted at for years now
  3. Come up with heuristics:  basically, what should networks/media servers/etc do when all signs point to future degraded quality for a stream?  what are the rules of thumb that network operators, service providers, etc. should follow in these circumstances?

I’m excited because what we’re really doing is attempting to put into practice all of the things we’ve spent the last 10 years proving conceptually.  This is what we’ve been working towards, and as a former engineer I’m excited that we can finally build this thing and see what happens!  It’s been a while since I’ve done any systems-related work, and I expect there to be many roadblocks, but it will be fun to get back to that part of my work.

Like last summer, I hope to update you on how things are going, and specifically how this group of students is progressing.  I’m sure I’ll have some new thoughts on the care and feeding of undergraduate researchers as well.

Publishing calculus

For those of you reading this blog who are not academic computer scientists:  In CS, most of the publishing is done through conference proceedings.  Conference submissions, unlike in many other fields, consists of full-fledged papers which undergo a single cycle of peer review with an up-or-down decision at the end; these full papers are then published as such in the conference proceedings.  The conference paper cycle is preferred because the time-to-publish is much, much faster than journals—which is much better suited towards the fast-paced nature of CS research. However, journal publications are still required and necessary for tenure and promotion at most places.  And, at least according to conventional wisdom, journal articles are seen as more “complete” records of research results (often a journal article will combine and build upon results from several conference papers).

Because the journal review and publication cycle can be so slow compared to the conference review and publication schedule, conferences have become highly competitive—in fact, the top conferences in CS, most would argue, are more selective and more prestigious than most CS journals.  The slow journal publication timeline, some argue, has led to the proliferation of CS conferences (and the reduced value of attending conferences, which in many cases these days consist mostly of those presenting papers), which, some argue, leads to even slower timelines for journal publishing.  (There was a lot of discussion around the blogosphere and in the Communications of the ACM about this very issue last year [see these editorials]—John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian has a great set of posts summarizing the discussion here and here.)

This leads to some interesting calculus when it comes time to publish and submit some results.  If something is brand-new and never published, clearly it goes to a conference.  Conventional wisdom might say that if it’s building upon something you’ve published at a conference, or building upon several other papers, then send it in to a journal.  Or should you, particularly if you know it might be years before your paper sees the light of day, if at all?  Should a journal still get your best and most complete work, or is it worth instead sending it to a highly competitive conference?

I currently have a journal article under submission.  I originally submitted it in 2008.  It has already gone through three cycles of review (original submission plus 2 revisions), and yet it is no closer to being published today than it was 2 years ago.  The main contributions of the work have already been disseminated via a couple of conference publications, but there is still substantial new work represented too—although this work is now more than 2 years old.  The project has moved well beyond what’s represented in that journal article.  And yet, it continues to live in that special purgatory—not rejected, yet refusing to be accepted.

At this point, I will probably submit it for one more round of review.  I could submit it to another journal, but there are problems there, too.  I’d probably be looking at another couple of years to a decision, and I have no idea if another journal would be more or less likely to accept this article for publication.  Plus I’d have to deal with a whole new set of reviewers and editors, some or all of whom might have much different ideas about how I should present and frame my work for their journal.  Also complicating things is the fact that my work straddles just enough subfields, and is unconventional enough, that finding an appropriate journal is tricky.  (Since my research falls into subfields X, Y, Z, and a bit of Q, X journals often say “this is really Y work”, Y journals say “nope, this is Z work”, etc.)

So the thought has crossed my mind, more than once, that perhaps I should forget about publishing this work in a journal and just repurpose it into one or more conference papers, and target highly selective conferences.  That way I still get “credit” for publishing in a top location without the super-long peer review cycle.  The fact that I’m even considering this shows you how weird and messed up the whole publishing model in CS has become.

The problem is that even though I have tenure, I still do need the journal pubs if I want to be promoted to full professor.  So most likely I’ll continue to jump through the hoops to get my work published in a journal—even though by the time that happens, if it happens, the work will be out-of-date.

The question is:  will this article be published before I’m ready to send out my next journal article?  I wish I had a more definitive answer than “maybe”.

A (belated) anniversary, of sorts

With all the excitement and busyness that was December, I missed an anniversary:  the 10-year anniversary of earning my PhD.

Wow.  Was it really 10 *years* ago?  Seriously?

It’s funny, because some days I feel as green as a new PhD.  It’s sometimes hard to picture myself, or take myself seriously, as someone who Has Experience, who Knows Her Stuff, who is a Real Professional.  I sometimes feel like that grad student who doesn’t know anything, who needs guidance, and who’s the least experienced in any group.  (Um, impostor syndrome, anyone?)  Maybe this is because I went straight from grad school to a post-doc in a different subfield, so not only was I the most junior person by far, I was also the most inexperienced, at least in that subfield.  And then I went from there to an academic position, and again to being the most junior and most inexperienced person in my department.  Our self-perceptions die hard, apparently.

A lot changed in those 10 years.

When I graduated, I was not very confident in my own abilities.  I was a decent researcher, but not very good at publishing, or publicizing, my work.  I was good at finding interesting problems, but not very good at figuring out how to narrow those problems down—and I didn’t have a strong clue as to the type of problems I wanted to work on.

Now?  I am solo-authoring papers (and if all goes according to plan, I might have a solo-authored journal paper later this year) as well as publishing *with students*, and running *my own lab*.  I keep finding interesting and innovative problems to solve.  I’m mentoring people.  I’m teaching classes in subjects I formerly knew next to nothing about (like Computer Security).  I now feel like I Know Stuff (although I also more keenly realize how much I do not know!) and that perhaps I might have accidentally become a Real Professional.  And oddly, other people seem to think that I Know Stuff too, and apparently that I know what I’m doing/talking about.

So maybe I’ll celebrate by breaking out the old dissertation and giving it a read-through (hopefully without too much cringing).  Or maybe I’ll get in touch with my dissertation advisor and express my appreciation for his guidance (although I’m not sure how much he’ll like being reminded of it—if it’s making me feel old*, it will probably make him feel ancient 🙂 ).  But I will enjoy the sense of accomplishment that the last 10 years have ultimately brought.

* Case in point:  some of the applicants for our job opening started college *after* I finished my PhD.  How’s that for making one feel old?