Thursday, February 15, 2007

Surviving Academia: Skill #1

Skill #1: Acquire temporary amnesia.
Lately I cannot shake the feeling that I'm always forgetting something. Today I realized its because I am always forgetting something!

The transition from Ph.D.-land to a "real-job" in academia is a traumatic one. A part of the trauma is that everyone outside of academia thinks your job is so cush: "How many classes are you teaching? Only one? Wow, what do you do with all your free time? And you get the summer off too? How many years did you have to be a student to get this gig?"

Another trauma is going from being virtually independent (assuming a functional relationship with your advisor) to hostile take-over of all minutae of your work by a innundation of bureaucratic administrative crap, especially when you are starting out with a beater computer, email that doesn't work, accounts that aren't set up, furniture that isn't there (filing cabinets are so last century) and total lack of equipment to do your specialized work.

And then there is the transition from being in Ph.D. land, with the luxury of thinking about one goal, all the time, giving it undivided attention, and that being your lovely pet: research.
Before starting as a prof, I would have said that research actually was multi-faceted and that there were different projects and they all had exciting avenues for discovery that varied substantially, that thinking about research wasn't really thinking about just one thing because it all required different aspects of your attention. O, how cute that sounds now!

I've read in the geo-blogosphere (blog on, you crazy diamonds) of others "A-day-as-a-scientist" and thought oh, how cool, I should do that too. Then I realized that lately science has had very little to do with the make up of my day. There's always a class to prepare for, start-up to spend, seminars to attend, another class to prepare for, grant opportunities to pursue, a lab to prepare for, email to read, faculty meetings to go to, justification for start-up spending...and of course, class again. And this is after I've accepted the relentless pursuit of mediocrity when it comes to class prep.

A fellow faculty kindly offered some sage advice she had been given, and the actual wording of which went something like this:
The trick to hauling 2 tons of canaries in a 1 ton truck is to keep half of them in the air.
Gotta love the southern flair to that description of multi-tasking!

But I think there is more to it than that. You actually have to forget those canaries (or juggling balls, or chain-saws on fire, whatever it is you have to toss up for a while) are even there. Because if you know what is hanging over you, its rather frightening and actually can induce a sort of paralysis. In this environment, research does become a sort of haven, where the din and smoke of those flaming chain-saws fades away as you reunite with your lovely pet, if only for an always too-brief Baywatch-esque musical interlude.

Hence, the evolution of the absent-minded professor. I thought it was just a stereotype, and one some people (especially the ever amazing He-who-does-all-my-laundry-and-picks-up-all-my-crap-at-home-all-the-time) would say I fit. But it's actually a necessary survival skill and defense mechanism to protect sanity and actually get to do the work that let's you keep this "cush" job. Maybe I was just predisposed and that this natural inclination led me toward the Ivory Tower... The best part is, I hear that after 3 or 4 years, this temporary amnesia just feels normal.

Oh boy.


Brian said...

perhaps not cushy...but hopefully rewarding?

Lab Lemming said...

Ah ha! My cunning ploy to expose the time spent in lab by professors has been foiled.