Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not the awesomest 7-Year postdoc.

When I was a postdoc, I read Radhika Nagpal's, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. I definitely appreciated many of the sentiments, and advice, especially that of focusing on life now, instead of delaying it on the hopes of achieving tenure. I think this sentiment should persist across academic ranks (trainees, faculty, staff). I think the advice in that post are all really important - re-reading it just now was a good reminder.

As a postdoc at the time, I couldn't yet say whether being a faculty member could be anything like being a postdoc or not, but equating a tenure-track faculty position with a postdoc didn't sit right with me. (It was also, in my opinion, easier to write about not caring about tenure *after* having gotten tenure.)

So, let me be on the record, writing publicly and openly about my thoughts about the tenure-track, in the thick of it. I've been an assistant professor for three years now, halfway through. I can say unequivocally, that my job is not like being a postdoc, nor should it be (with the side-note that certainly postdocs and graduate students have some of these responsibilities as well, but I'd argue to a different degree).

1. I am responsible to so many people.
I am a researcher, a supervisor, a mentor, a teacher, a writer, a role model, a boss, a collaborator, a PI, a grant writer, a grant manager (hopefully), a mediator, an editor, and an advocate. I manage people and projects. I need to think of projects that I think will be successful to work on together with the people in my lab, and contingency plans if those projects fail. I need to find ways to compensate these people. This includes startup (which ends at the end of this month - we get three years here), and writing applications for funding to so many different agencies (government, foundation, internal, inter-institution, you name it, I'll apply). I never appreciated how terrible it would feel to tell someone I can't afford to pay them to continue doing the great work they are doing. 

2. I am a gatekeeper. 
I am in a position of authority over others in a way that I wasn't as a postdoctoral fellow or a graduate student. I can affect the trajectory of trainees in so many ways: grades, admissions, recommendations, candidacy exams, thesis defenses, access to collaborations and professional opportunities. I have the power to intentionally harm an application by giving a bad recommendation. (Note that I won't agree to write anything but positive recommendations.)

More insidiously, I learned in my first year as a professor that I can unintentionally harm an application - not just in gendered language, I was aware of that - but in all the content that people expect in a letter of recommendation for different types of applications. I hadn't sat on these committees (I have sat on several now), to see how skillfully some professors deploy the letter of recommendation to really make a strong case for the applicant. Whoa. Happy to talk about this more later. 

3. It can be lonely.
The cohorts typically keep getting smaller, from the number of other people who are undergraduates that you can interact with, to the number of graduate students that you interact with, to a dwindling number of postdocs, to you, as a new professor. Depending on the size of your department or institution, there may be a a few other new professors, but likely not that many. That isn't to say that there aren't more established professors for one to interact with, but the interactions, in my experience, have been fewer and further between. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting the number of daily interactions to be this different (reduced) from being a postdoc. 

4. There are new expectations for interacting with the lab. 
Merging the three previous thoughts... one inclination I had/have is to treat members of my lab as peers. But, it's more complicated than that because of the power dynamics. The members of my lab are definitely colleagues. Per Wikipedia
"Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other's abilities to work toward that purpose."
While a peer is someone: 
"that is of equal standing with another"
I have the ability to shape letters of recommendation, open doors, close them, or otherwise influence the career trajectory of people who are in my lab. By virtue of that, I need to be especially careful to recognize that we are not on a level playing field. There is a power imbalance. The people in my lab are not complete free to speak their minds with no fear of potential retaliation. They can't decline my invitations without a twinge of concern that I might interpret it negatively, even subconsciously. Given how academic institutions and funding structures work, there are so many concerns for them, literally for their livelihoods. 

Sure, as a postdoc, I could, some day, have an effect on my peers, and on the graduate and undergraduate students in the lab. But I wasn't directly above them in the food-chain. If they didn't want to come hang out, it's no biggie.  More than anything, this transition has been the one that caught me off guard the most. 

Can I hang out with my lab? Of course. 

Do I have to be constantly aware of how there is a power differential that is tipped in my favor? Absolutely. 

Not a postdoc, but still a person.
I have responsibilities to the students in my class, to the members of my lab, to my peers, my colleagues, my administration, and to the public.  I feel the weight of this responsibility. As a professor, there are so many more ways for me to fail. There are so many more people for me to fail. Being a professor on the tenure track is not like being a postdoc in many ways. But, maybe in the ones that matter most, it is: this is my life. I'm living it right now. It isn't on hold. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I'm not blogging

I have five minutes. That's all I'll take for this. 
  • There are all the things to write: papers, grants, letters of recommendation, evaluations of the students in the program I'm co-chairing, more papers, more grants, annual evaluations.
  • I have trainees to mentor - it takes time to actually sit down with everyone, listen, and try to respond.
  • I like to see my family. 
  • I am giving seminars and conference presentations
  • I'm doing research - I've been so excited to be coding lately! It's really great to be doing hands-on research.
  • I'm teaching, grading, reading, meeting with students.
  • Sometimes (often?) the things I'm thinking are much better said by other people.
  • I'm sitting on committees at my University.
  • I'm a council member.
  • I'm peer-reviewing.
  • I'm editing papers for journals. 
  • I'm packing lunches, walking dogs, cleaning the house, grocery shopping...
  • Sometimes, I make it to the gym.
  • I bought a book I might get to read.
I love blogging. I love reading other people's blogs. So, maybe I can give myself five minutes here and there to do it more. 

Time's up. Back to work. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Being nominated

A little over a week ago I found out I was nominated as a BadAss woman of ASU.

I was totally (pleasantly) surprised by it.

Yesterday Shantel Mareka wrote an article about it that made me tear up (happy tears):

Science is full of many challenges and constant rejections. There are the things that go wrong that we don't have any control over, and then there are the mistakes we make ourselves. There are external and internal pressures. There is self-doubt, and questioning. There are successes, too, but somehow I don't hold on to good news as much as I do the criticisms.

I don't know how to express how much it means to me that students and colleagues would share such kind words. That other people would spend their precious time, for me. I will hold this so close. I will treasure your sentiments. I will take them to heart. I appreciate you all.

Thank you for reminding me of the value of all that we do together, because surely we do this together. We learn together. We research together. We help each other see our errors and move past them. We commiserate in our losses. We celebrate our discoveries and successes together. We move science forward. We move each other forward.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


It would be an understatement to say I was moved by the broadcast of Allegiance today. I was, like many other people in the theatre, softly sobbing at many parts of the performance.

The show today was, as is every performance of Allegiance, a tribute to the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were wrongfully detained 75 years ago today in internment camps during WWII.

I learned about internment camps during WWII, but as a side-note. There's a song near the end of the musical that sums it up so well, and illustrates how I learned about these, as a "whoops, we thought you were the enemy but we were wrong." No acknowledgement of wrong-doing. No apologies.

It was easy to connect and empathize with so many of the characters, but the one that drew me in the most, was that of Greg Watanabe's Mike Masoaka. His role is curious in both being immensely influential at the time, and only a side-character in the show. He has a book that he co-published (presumably about himself) in 1987, They Call Me Moses Masoaka: An American Saga. But, I didn't see another biography of him on Amazon. I did find his obituary in the New York Times from 1991, which is surprisingly brief:

Perhaps it's primarily because of Watanabe's performance, or the way the character was written, but I'm so curious about how he really felt about the reports he gave on the news, his stance on the camps, and the 442nd Regimental combat team. For whatever his motivations, after the war, it seems he was instrumental in the passing of, among other things, an act (that took until 1998) to compensate the 60,000 surviving Americans who were interned.

Most of the people portrayed in Allegiance were invented for the musical. The portrayal of the pain, humiliation, and anxiety that we put our fellow human beings through, and their joy and resilience is palpable throughout the show.

I don't need to see someone's hurt to know I should care for them or that they deserve respect. That said, historical dramas, to me, are a constant reminder of the history I've neglected, and a renewed motivation to be proactive to not repeat our shameful past.