Ask the grumpies: long term thinking and a mushy brain

Mushy brain asks:

I am a social science PhD who has been out for 10 years now.  I was on the tenure track and am now off it and location-locked in a big city, and unlikely to go back on the tenure track.  I’m currently on the first year of a 3 year contract in a soft-money research-only position.  This job is a mix of research and administration, without a lot of room for publications for me on the current project for the next year as we’re in the start up phase.  I currently have no papers under review and nothing in my pipeline other than this project that has just begun, which is an unusual situation for me.

I’m trying to think about some slightly bigger thoughts than just my current job on the current project.  My boss is supportive of my thinking long-term and thinking about what will come next after this grant.  Also, in a few weeks there may start to be time to work on more variety of things while the data roll in (over 14 months).

But all the ideas I think of sound hard and, while some seem very cool and interesting, they mostly require other people’s help.  I don’t know if I should pursue them.  Also I have other ideas that seem more doable but less interesting.

I suspect I would be kind of a sucky co-author this year, and motivation is very hard.  I currently don’t have any co-authors on anything I’m working on.  The question is whether I should start something and if so, what.  I sort of want to, but I’m not sure I’m able to be a great co-author right now.

Am trying to overcome the thing where my brain feels super mushy all the time.  Mush mush mush.  I wonder if there is a medication for mushy brains.

I dunno.  Do you have wise thoughts?  I would like to keep publishing more papers, but I don’t know how long it’ll be until I feel more capable of focusing on things.

Dear Mushy,

Whether or not you should start new projects is a question only you can answer.  Logically it makes little sense for many academics to work as hard as we do.  Once tenure has been gotten or the tenure-track has been side-stepped, what are the rewards, other than fame, knowing the answers to interesting questions, and an internal sense of well-being?  These are things only you can decide whether or not to care about.

We would encourage you to think about what your end goals are.  Are there interesting questions that you want to know the answers to?  Will more publications help you get your next grant or your next job?  Are there specific people you miss working with?  Does your cv feel neglected?  What is it that is driving this sense of unease?  Once you figure that out you’ll be better able to do a cost-benefit analysis and maybe find some motivation.

As to mushy brain, one of us finds that vit D helps her (her husband needs B-complex).  A friend needs the appropriate levels of thyroid medication.  Sleep is also incredibly important.  Caffeine, chocolate, etc.  If this isn’t a new thing, then perhaps you could get screened for adult ADHD.  Outside of physiological reasons that a doctor can test with some bloodwork, questionnaires, or maybe a sleep study, we don’t really know.  I mean, some people use prescription drugs for conditions like ADHD off-label, but we can’t recommend that in good conscience unless and until those drugs are on-label or your doctor recommends them.

Perhaps our grumpy readership has better suggestions?  Help?

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My New Mantra

There are many reasons why I quit my previous job.  Among them: teaching was eating at my soul.  Eventually, the job made me physically sick and I hated it, and it made me be a mean person.  Even now I am still purging toxicity from my soul and come off as angry when I talk about that place.  (gotta work on that!)

There was nothing wrong with GrumpyMe 1.0, but it’s time for patches and upgrades.  One reason that I put off leaving for so long was that there are things I love about academia and didn’t want to give up.  My wonderful partner, though, pointed out that I could actually improve on the job situation by finding a job with more of the things I like and less of the stuff I don’t like.  He pointed out that, instead of giving up my academic identity, I could actually become the thing that is now my new mantra:

A BETTER VERSION OF MY WORKING SELF.

Some of the ideas about how to be a better working Me come from when I thought about my ideal workday.  (Awesome side note: in that post I said that at last year’s conference I had met a new friend/collaborator and talked with her about what we could do together.  At this year’s conference, we presented that research!  Our paper is under review.  Hurrah.)

I don’t know yet what kind of bug patches and upgrades I will eventually find.  (I do know that it involves never ever teaching ever again.)  I do know the things that give me energy, those that make me lose track of time (learning something new!  reading books!).  I know that I can’t stand cubicles.  I have optimism about finding something decent.

In working towards a new, research-based career, I have been networking pretty hard.  Recently I had the pleasant surprise that, when asked to list up to 5 references in a web application, I found myself with 9 or 10 people I could list as references who would all say excitedly good things about me, and I could choose among them.  Go me.  Only … uh… 9 years post-PhD and I’m getting good at my career!

Do you have a work-related mantra?

Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.

#2

I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?

Why do I do this to myself? A research rant!

Why do I put projects down and not pick them up forever?

I spend so much fricking time trying to figure out what I was doing a year, two years, five years ago.

A lot of this is my coauthors’ fault.  I hate nagging and other coauthors don’t, so I’m often low on the queue.  And sometimes there will be something they have to do that I can’t do.  And months will pass.

But… that doesn’t explain why I do this to myself on single-authored papers too.

And I always swear to myself that this time I will leave myself better notes.  More complete files with better comments.   Ugh.  Unfortunately whatever it was that caused me to put something down often keeps me from putting it away neatly too.

One benefit of having to figure out what the heck it was I was doing– I often find mistakes.  But really, I’d prefer to find those mistakes in a faster way.

#2 chimes in:

Cripes, I do that too!  I have so many things that are around 85% done.  All the hard part is done!  If I just put in a few hours, fewer than 10, I can send this stuff out for publication by the end of this month.  But yet, I don’t do it!

There are various reasons for this.  Sometimes, I stall out when I don’t know what to do next.  Instead of asking for help like a reasonable being, I try to pretend nothing’s wrong.  I have some fear that the project somehow isn’t right, in some way (not rigorous enough?  stats not correct?), and that reviewers will, I don’t know, laugh at me.  This is silly because peer review, whether through a journal submission or  just asking colleagues for informal feedback, will catch existing problems and make the paper better.  Maybe those problems aren’t even there and I’m just imagining them!

Maybe I have a fear of success.  If this article is great, I have to keep producing great things!  What if the next one isn’t as good, or I can’t get the next one done?  I better hold on to this one in case I need a submission for next year.  (??!!?!?!?!?)

Sometimes, I get distracted.  For example, I have to get my RAs started on data collection for the next project, and that takes a lot of time and energy, and I don’t make it a priority to finish writing the previous paper.  I’m dumb like that.

Sometimes, it’s just hard work and I’m tired.  In my head, I have found great results and know what they mean.  Or found not-great results and I’m already working on a follow-up study that fixes this one’s limitations.  Taking the extra time to explain complex results for an audience can be tedious.

Sometimes, I can’t face the thought of all the work still to come.  I can submit for publication and forget about the paper for a while… yay!  But then I might get a revise-and-resubmit, and have to do YET MORE work on this project that I am mentally done with, and that would be tedious.  Or I could not do the revisions, and send it somewhere else.  This works a surprising number of times.

On the upside: A pre-tenure push to clear the backlog has really paid off for me.  But I need to try not to get such a backlog in the first place.

Grumpy readers, please smack us upside the head and tell us to stop being dorks, ok?  Also, send cookies. (Do you do this kind of stuff too?)