Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Time out

One of my main priorities this year is finding a better balance between life and work. In a way this goal is completely and utterly against every other goal I might have about being more productive, but I seriously need to take better care of myself and get a life in this city. One thing I have been doing lately is make exercise a priority. I am not an athletic type and though I like some kinds of exercise it typically ends up last on my to-do list and at the end of the day it's the first thing to go. Instead of pushing it in at the end of the day I have tried to listen more to myself this time around. I have picked three classes at the gym I think might be fun (not sure I will keep it up with all of them, but at least I have a choice then) and chosen evening schedules so I can get home to unwind and cook dinner before I'm heading out again. So far it's works. I have more energy, I cook more often, eat better and feel better in general. Today I took this one step further. As I have talked about before, the time registration system we have at work does not suit me at all. But it has one loophole that I might actually enjoy if I could just make myself use it. We can take a set amount of time out each day for exercise. I have never used it before, because as I've said I am pretty lazy, but today I did. I left the computer, the piles, the articles, the manuscripts, the phone and everything behind for half an hour and went for a walk with my camera in my pocket. Just a short walk around the neighborhood, but what a difference it made. Now if I can only convince myself to make this a priority.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why I blog

As a way to think about my work, the way I do it and what I want to come from it. I don't think blogging adds directly to my scientific progress, but I do think my writing here helps me identify what is important for me and deal with the obstacles I meet along the road. I also benefit significantly from the inspiration I get from other bloggers, especially those who are further ahead in the game than I. Blogging allows me to take time to ponder on how I want my life to be, which direction I want my career to take and how to get to where I wish to be. Maybe being more aware of my wishes and goals also makes me a better scientist - eventually.

As a way to articulate unfinished or unpolished thoughts on the work I do, the career I have chosen and other aspects of life. Sometimes I say something in a meeting or to a person that I already talked about here and get surprised at how easily I manage to express my thoughts on the subject. I think the blog also works as a sort of trial run and helps me be more precise when I express my opinions on some thing or other.

As a way to share experiences with a community of equally-minded people. Most of my close friends are not academics, and there are many things I don't feel comfortable discussing with my colleagues (at least not as long as my long-term position is unsecured and some of us might be competitors for jobs). I also think that by letting my experiences become part of the information accessible to everyone, maybe they will come in handy for someone out there who is going through something similar.

And why pseudonymously?

To protect the innocent. This blog does not only offer a window into my life, but also to many other's who don't know they are appearing here and who have not chosen this kind of exposure.

To protect my workplace and everybody associated with it. The feeling one gets from reading blogs and other academic websites/ discussion forums is that the similarities between institutions are greater than the differences. Archetypical PIs, administrators, advisers, professors, students, postdocs and staff researchers seem to populate academia and research institutes around the globe. I don't think it would make any positive difference if the exact location of my workplace and the identities of the people I work with was known. I think blogs are interesting on a general level, not because I need to know exactly who the nice boss or the angry coworker is.

To keep the blog off a Google search on my real name. This is a personal space and not a part of my professional identity. I don't want this page to show up in Google if I apply for a grant or a job or is looking for collaborators for a research project. It is not so much about hiding the other way around. There are people reading this blog who know me in real life, and others I have never met, but who I have shared emails and pictures with previously. If you happen to find out who I am or where I am I don't mind all that much, but it would be nice if you let me know that you're reading.

This post will be moved to the sidebar as a permalink when it drops off the page.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

On networking

I am extremely slow, I know it, but I have been wanting to say something about this topic ever since Dr. Crazy wrote this excellent post about being in the network and how to get in there when you are young and junior and unimportant. A few days later flavia added her view on how networking has worked out for her as a naturally more introverted person. I have returned to these posts a few times in the past couple of weeks, but never found the right way to express my own thoughts on the topic. Yesterday when I was discussing student's grades on the phone with the external examiner I came to think of it again - that conversation in itself was an example of how I network and why I think my strategy works.

I am not an extroverted person. I think many people believe I am, because I speak loudly, have strong opinions and can be dominating in groups of people I know well and feel comfortable with. But I don't like introducing myself to new people or hosting big parties and I have few but important close friends rather than a large social circle of acquaintances. I value my alone time and get tired from too much interaction with other people, but cherish my time spent with close friends and family. Nevertheless I have a large and well-functioning professional network that has already proved valuable in finding work, grants, research projects and students along with semi-casual friendships and a feeling of belonging in my field.

This does not all come down to my networking skills. Like Dr. Crazy and probably many others with a good professional network someone helped me along in the beginning and the early start was merely luck on my part than anything else. The research topic for my PhD was part of a larger international research initiative, which had already been up and running for few years when I came into the picture. The international "cluster" worked in the way that each group would carry out the day to day work on their own, but everybody would meet at annual workshops to discuss results, the future of the project and catch up on all sorts of news. As a new PhD student who knew very few people in this field, being introduced to such a closely knit and quite informal network was invaluable. The people I met at the first project workshop I attended still forms the basis of the network today, especially since we have met regularly for many years now and after a while one gets to develop shared stories, shared experiences and shared references. Some are still very distant to me, but others I have met so often now, that they are, if not friends, at least people I care about on some level.

In the country where I did my PhD, doctoral students are strongly encouraged to spend some time abroad. I was the only PhD student in a very small university-unit and desperate to get out and meet other people and arranged a stay at my all time favorite institution in arctic outpost. The stay was arranged through one of the people in the international project network. I practically didn't know him at the time, besides having exchanged a few sentences at the first workshop I attended, but my advisor helped the contact along. It was supposed to be a two months stay to take some courses, but developed into first one semester and later several long-term visits at the institution that gave me the second foundation for my present network. Being located in Arctic outpost the key strategy of the school is to attract lots of external visitors thereby creating a very dynamic and subfield-focused environment. Practically everyone who matters in my subfield (at least in this part of the world) has had some sort of connection to this place over the years.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that I have had some good opportunities to network and to get to know people falling in my lap. But, it's one thing to get the chance to meet people as a student and another to keep those contacts and develop them into your own independent professional network after leaving your PhD institution and advisor behind. And that is what stroke me while being on the phone with the external examiner, who is someone I have been familiar with for years but haven't interacted much with until recently. We were talking about the grades, obviously, and about the students, and about some recent hires and departmental things at the institution and a little bit of this and a little bit of that, like you do when you talk to people you have known for a while. I talked about my ideas for teaching this class and things I would like to change if given the chance, and I told about my new department head responsibilities. While speaking I realized that what I was really doing was giving him an update of my CV, tooting my horn or preparing for a maybe-someday in the future-job talk. Not in an obsessive way, or at least I don't think so, but in a casual- part of a conversation we are having anyway - way.

I do this a lot actually. I tell people I meet about my ideas for research, for teaching and for re-organizing the world and I also tell people about my successes, but not so much about my failures (I whine about those to Fiance and write about them here). I think this is part of the reason why people remember me and do come back to me with job offers and invitations to take part in research projects. I also think that I am only comfortable doing this because most of the people I interact with are not perfect strangers, but people I have met several times and have known on some level for many years. I think this all boils down to that I suck up to people and that it works.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

On being a post doc in an unusual setting

I am hired on a four-year postdoc contract with my salary tied directly to a research project. My PI could have decided to use me as his personal assistant to get as many publications out as possible, but clearly he is a very different kind of person who has given me plenty of space, responsibility and room for career development. Most recently with adding this higher-up administrative position to my responsibilities, making me stand out as some odd freak-of-nature in the postdoc world. I think I am going to talk more about the background of this in a separate post at some point, but aside from my boss being the particular kind of character that he is, I also think it has to do with the character of my workplace. I am affiliated with a government research institute and not a university and though we have a high research profile now and some top of their field research departments this is all relatively new and the way of thinking in the administration is often closer to the public agency kind of institution than an academic one. The build-up of successful research groups in some departments has been driven by individuals who have had the interest, the guts and the research pedigree to make this happen, and I sometimes get the feeling that some of the other departments don't really get neither what we are doing and why we are doing it.

My own department has changed over the past five years ago from a few successful individuals who did most of their research activities with external partners into a fully fledged research department with six permanent positions on professor/ associate professor level, three post docs and two PhD students. This year we will have another post doc and some Master's students. Many are also affiliated with and teach at either the local or other universities and we do all our research in collaboration with universities and other research institutions. But this is all new. The whole idea of having post docs in a stopover position is new to most people here. The usual way of thinking has been that people who were originally hired in some sort of temporary position would usually stick around and with time get permanently employed if they were not completely hopeless. I was the second post doc hired in this department and it was strongly indicated by everyone that this would most likely develop into a permanent position. But, because there is always a but you know, my employment was also part of a hiring wave across all the research-heavy departments and now the administration is obviously waking up to the new order of the day. What are they going to do with all those new people hired in temporary positions? Can they really find permanent positions for all of us like they used to with the odd short-term employee in the past? And ironically because the research departments are doing so well now, there are more grants, with more postdocs and more PhDs and the whole thing is just growing and growing.

Obviously this is not a stable situation, especially since all of us new hires, are here for the research perspectives and with ambitions of getting our own grants and own post docs and PhDs. From the administrative perspective it is clear that future post docs and PhDs can not expect to stay here after their contracts have run out. For us who are already here, the situation is a bit trickier. On one hand we will most likely stay and it will most likely do us good to serve the department and the institution well in order to make the higher ups see why they should create the positions for us (that was also part of the game plan in offering me this administrative gig). On the other hand we need to keep up with publishing, teaching, grants, international collaborations and everything else that might add to give us a shot at the rare faculty positions in our field. At the same time we are walking on a very fine line between admitting that we are keeping our outside options open and requesting time for activities related to that (e.g. teaching) while at the same time conveying interest and effort in building up a future here.

In many ways I like the university environment better. I miss the day to day contact with students and would like to be more involved in the education part, and in the beginning I was almost certain that I would try to switch to a university at some point. Now I don't know. I do want to keep my options open for faculty positions and do want to have some teaching and advising responsibilities, but I do also like the potential for development I see here. The financial resources are better, the support structure around research is better than I would expect at most universities and we have more time to do research (though I doubt this at the moment...). But I think this playing all games at the same time is very likely to get me down. I cannot put equal emphasis on a strong research record, a heavy administrative load, teaching, advising, service and being a good citizen in my department. This has been a source of major frustration but also for a lot of hope because I do feel I have the chance here to play on many strings and try my hand at responsibilities somewhat out of the ordinary for a post doc.

Submitted for the first carnival of postdocs hosted by Propter Doc at "What's up post doc?"

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

This is what I've been missing

All the time during the fall semester when I was professing in Arctic outpost, worked all the time on extremely time consuming courses and lived in a university apartment with very few personal belongings I missed having a real life. I am not sure why I never got a better after-work life there. I love the place so that's not it, but there was something about being away only for a few months and being so extremely busy , that made me not bother with anything besides eating, sleeping, reading the occasional novel and watching endless episodes of Gilmore Girls on DVD.

Since I got back getting a life at home and separate between the professional me and the private me has been a major priority. I go to the gym, I cook, I do spend time at home and I don't stay in the office until midnight, but often I am so exhausted when I get home that i don't really enjoy my downtime anyway.

Tonight has been one of those wonderful, relaxing evenings I remember having many more of years ago - before professing, before the first post doc year, before the dissertation and even before the Masters. I haven't done anything special - just been around the house, watering flowers, lighting candles, watching some TV, written a long email to Fiance on the other side of the globe, reading a bit, hanging out on the Internet, cooking super yummy Indian Puri bread and eggplant dip to bring to work for lunch tomorrow. What makes the difference is that I actually have the energy to take up some of my old hobbies like cooking and have the energy to be creative and think about things to do. I know, it hasn't really been ten years since I had an evening like this on a week day, but there is no doubt that things have change since last year when I collapsed on the couch after work practically every single day.


Gender equality 101

I live in a country where the political emphasis on gender equality is bordering on the extreme. We have rules for the percentage of women in executive comities and boards of large business and state institutions and rules for the percentage of female university employees, full professors, and top leaders in education. In spite of the good intentions the outcome is riddled with problems like why did she get that position, was she really qualified or was it just to fill the woman quota. On the other hand the awareness of the issue probably does give many (young) women chances we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Half a year ago when it was decided by the higher-ups that my institution should try something new and introduced an “assistant department head” position in each department, almost every single one of the new assistant heads were young and female – me included.

Today I went to my first leader-group meeting as a department head after my temporary promotion (while real department head is on sabbatical). Out of 21 people there, 18 were male and I was the only head of a research-heavy department (the other two women are both heads of organizational levels within the administration). My institution is very focused on the whole gender equality awareness business and has special gender equality committees to watch that hiring committees are taking this into consideration. They even have a special development programme from female employees, which is said to be boring and only focused towards the technical employees, so I’ve never attended any of the meetings, yet. However one of the points on today’s agenda was that we should encourage people in our departments to participate in this, apparently excellent, professional development programme.

The meeting itself was not particularly scary and the topics discussed were mainly things I’d already heard about and had an opinion on. I generally have opinions on lots of things and speaking my mind normally comes easily to me, and actually I am more worried about speaking up with the risk of sounding like a fool at a conference or scientific meeting than at the average “let’s talk about how things are going in general and give out some information” kind of meeting. So I spoke up and asked a few questions and did what I suppose anybody who is invited to a meeting like this is supposed to do.

After we were done and were hanging out and chatting a bit in the hallway the leader of the meeting (who is also the leader of this female employee development programme) came to me and said reassuringly “that she was happy to meet me, and how brave of me to even ask questions at the very first meeting”…… and I was like, HUH? Brave? That's what we are supposed to do here, remember? Somehow I cannot imagine that she was saying the same to the youngish male department heads when they were at their first meeting. In a way this entire meeting had me think that you can have all the quotas you want, but there is still a need for some fundamental changes in the way everybody are thinking.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

still snowing edition

Seriously. First we had no winter at all for months which is very strange and unusual in these parts (or so they say) and now it snows and snows and snows. It's been snowing more or less continuously for days and to tell you the truth it's a bit much now. I know, it's nice to see snow on the tree branches and this soft light all over town, but it's really OK if it stops here. I spend more time getting the car out from under it's blanket of snow than driving to work. The sidewalks are packed so it's practically impossible to walk anywhere, and now they are piling it up on the side of the road making it impossible to park anywhere. Now I am very happy that the landlords are in charge of shovelling snow around the house.


Monday, January 22, 2007

No wonder I never get anything done


9:10: Arrive late at work after spending 15 minutes thawing frozen lock on car door. Immediately go to PI's office for Monday morning hallway get-together and HOT coffee. Seriously cold hands after all the morning car trouble needed to hold something hot for a while to be functional.

9:30: Report results to co-workers from meeting on Friday with other department head, who does micro-managing all the way into our department….

9:35: Sit down in own office – open inbox. Yay! Email from Fiance who is working on the other side of the globe at the moment.

9:45: Not so yay! " Institution annual budget" for meeting later this week is also in inbox (I took economics for one year in high school and never understood how to make a professional budget… It hasn't gotten much better since. I still don't get it. I plan on being very quiet during this meeting)

10:00: Send agenda for department meeting tomorrow

10:15: Sign up for yoga class tonight. What I don't get is why one has to call this gym every single time to sign up for the classes. Why can't they just let people sign up when they are there anyway, even if it's for a class a few days away? Then I would at least feel obliged to go.

10:17: Add defrost-lock-solution to shopping list.

10:20: Transfer results from exam to office computer and my goodness! Every time I open this file I get so frustrated. How come that a group of students with otherwise pretty well functioning brains can't do better. What were they thinking!

10:30 Come to think of it – I also need magnets for metal wall in new office…..open bag, find shopping list again, add magnets.

10:30: Copy all new files from the fall semester from backup DVDs to office computer.

10:40: Pull hair out in frustration. How did my filing system become such a mess? I swear I am never going to switch computers again.

11:50: Stumbled across file called "department communication plan 2006", opened file and voila here is a template for the communication plan I am supposed to deliver in two weeks. I had no idea we had such a thing last year. Guess, I have not been reading my general information for department email very carefully.

13:40 Managed to update and sort downright chaotic folder with photos into actual work ones and private ones without deleting anything important….or at least I think I haven't deleted anything important.

13:50: oh, no – someone sent me a report for approval through weird internal no-paper file handling system, which I have absolutely no idea how to use.

13:55: Goodness!!! Managed to open said filing system and it turns out it's filled with things to do. What a horrible Pandora's box like thing to have installed. What on earth are all these projects? They seem to be registered in my name all of them. How scary! Hope it's only a formality as the department head and not because I am really responsible for all this at the drop of a hat.

13:57: What IS this thing? Turns out it is somehow connected to my inbox, which caused email from Fiance on the other side of the globe to suddenly turn up in inter-departmental, paper-less filing system, Geez….what's a girl to do? Decide to close the bastard and leave it behind for the time being. Still don't know how to approve the report.

14: 40 Still in the middle of organising last folder when alarm goes off to remind me of meeting with bank person in twenty minutes, and that’s the end of this work day.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

I'm not cut out for working 9-5

When I embarked on the PhD journey six years ago I had one resolution. I didn't want studies or work to take over my life. Ha! I am thinking today, how could I ever believe in that, but I did, and do you know what - it actually worked out just fine for at least the first two years. I don't think my advisor would have supported my strategy, since he is of the work till you drop school, but for the first couple of years I did actually leave the office at the end of the day and I didn't work evenings or weekends. It was such a relief after three years in a master's program where I worked most evenings and always during weekends and I know there is no way I would have continued for the PhD without a change of pace.

Somewhere during the second or third year of the PhD the first signs of will-I-ever-finish panic made me put in more hours including staying at the office long after regular working hours. But I still rarely worked at home or during weekends. Maybe I am lazy, maybe I am not serious enough, but I just couldn't make myself do it. I don't think I started working regularly around the clock including weekends until the last year when I was writing up. At that point I had moved most of my work stuff home and rarely went into the office. I did very few things besides working on the dissertation and only had to leave the apartment for grocery shopping and the occasional errand. While this was in many ways the most stressful period in all my grad school years it was also in many ways the best. I didn't have to go anywhere, so I work all the time if I wanted or not if I didn't. I could work in the morning or in the evening or whenever it suited me and take breaks and do errands whenever I felt for it. Not only did I get much more productive from staying at home, I also tended to work much more at odd hours.

I also got a tiny bit crazy and annoying and ignorant of other people's needs from living in this work-isolation....and it would not have been unreasonable for the people in my life to want the madness to stop. It did. Eventually. After getting the degree and moving here the set working hours at my current job seemed like the promised land. To leave work after eight hours knowing you have done what you had to do - what a bliss. But it didn't take long to realize that though we might have a time registration system of the kind invented for factory workers, eight hours a day is not enough - especially not now when all sorts of other obligations come on top of the research. At the moment I am dealing with all the administration, exams, new grad students, day to day things - all of which pretty much takes up my time ....and then, the research on top of this.

I do need to write and publish papers. There is no other way to succeed in the system, and though I've been fairly lucky so far and gotten some good opportunities they simply don't count if I don't publish. I realize that I need to put in more time on evenings or during weekends and every Monday that sounds doable. I dream about going back to this work-isolation life style and get a lot of work done at my own pace one or two days a week. But what I completely forget until another weekend comes around is that I can't do that. There is always grocery shopping and things around the house to be done and maybe most importantly I need to catch up on sleep and me-time or us-time, and it turns out I don't want to live without a significant amount of that. I get so exhausted from spending every day in the office and then still finding the energy to keep working when I am home. I wish my work place had a more positive attitude towards working from home. I wish I could spend one or more days away from the office where there are always someone else demanding my time, but I don't think this is going to happen anytime soon. I guess I need to figure out how to trick myself into considering working at home during weekends sort of a spare time activity.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Years on grad school budget ruined my spending gene

I went shopping today....Not such an unusual pastime, I know, but I so rarely do this that I hardly know how to go about it anymore. Sure, I buy groceries, occasional clothing, gifts, books, items for the home or anything else I need or want for a relatively comfortable life style, but I almost never go shopping in the sense of just walking around visiting random shops, buying random things just for the sake of it. I used to go shopping like that with my girl friends when I was a teenager and we'd rather spend a day together in town out of the reach of our parents than at home, but like other activities from that period of my life (sneaking into clubs - or going to clubs altogether, drinking till you get sick and partying two or more days in a row) I just got fed up with it and stopped doing it.

Maybe I was never really fed up with shopping, but ever since I left home to go to university at 18, I never really had any money, and without money shopping is not so fun. Now 14 years down the road, after years of undergraduate education, many more years of grad school and one year in a decently paid real job I finally have a bit of money to spare. I was almost shocked when i realized that I will actually be able to put some money away for savings and still have some left to play with. I am aware that this wouldn't come as a surprise to most thirty somethings with a good job, but since the academic life style has been so intimately related with cheap food, bargains, overdrafts, loans and credit for so long I still feel nervous every time I open the bank statement or sign in to pay the bills online - but now for no reason.

So I decided to walk down to the city centre today to check out the sales since I wanted to do something else than just hang out at home and had promised myself a day off. My excuse was that I was going to look for a pair of winter boots, but I didn't find the kind I was looking for, so I ended up going into random shops, looking at random things and finding lots of things I suddenly wanted like scented candles, brightly coloured napkins, books I don't have the time to read, sparkly pens, cute flower patterned tank top, DVDs, bath salts....and lots and lots of other things.

My typical shopping pattern when I look at "stuff I don't really need and didn't even know I wanted" is: spend a looong time in a shop, touch and turn all nice items, pick one up I really like, walk around with it in hand while checking out the rest of the shop, put back really nice thing because I realize I don't really need it after all and leave shop empty-handed. But today I decided to give it a go and go shopping for real. So five hours later I arrived home with bath salts enough for a mini spa from super delicious all natural products (I got the bath soak grain jar with essential oils of orange, lemon, geranium and seaweed and bath bubbles with tangerine, peppermint, vanila and thyme), travel size organic bath soaps (shower gel with bergamot and ginger) and vanila body butter, shoes, four books (I might have gotten those anyway), four DVDs, two kinds of napkins, a magazine, cash card for the cell phone (which I also needed anyway) and a mixed feeling of wanting to pamper myself this way more often and irrational fear of the next bank statement.

It's weird how letting go of the need to control even the smallest expenses can be so difficult. It's like I am afraid that if I allow myself to buy little things to brighten up my life that i can actually afford now, I will suddenly overnight start buying designers bags and furniture and order expensive cruises and run myself straight into debt again.

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The snows keeps falling these days and it finally looks like winter is here to stay - for better or worse. Actually I like this time of the year. I love how the snow lightens everything up and the feeling of fresh, crisp and cold air. I love to watch the kids playing in the snow at the local ski slope across the road and how much prettier the city is when covered in white fluffiness.

But... what I really don't like about it is that the roads looks like this, and that below a thin layer of snow it's ice.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good:

I have been to the gym today and yesterday! I don't do real New Year's resolutions, but I do think about areas of my life I want to improve now and then. Typically it is some sort of outside change that makes me think about new goals. This time it was leaving my temporary teaching position in the Arctic and returning to postdoc city that made me think about what I wanted to change in my life. I have been pretty sloppy with my health for the past six-seven months - ever since I embarked on the teaching experience - and in the end I almost couldn't stand the couch potato life anymore. I am normally the kind of person who can live well for a long time without much physical activity and I'd much rather relax in front of a DVD after a long day at work than run around in the streets, so when I feel an urge to exercise it is really about time to do so. I already had a gym membership, but I haven't been there for at least seven months, and I was almost embarrassed to come back in case somebody would comment on this (they scan the membership card at the counter, so you need to be face to face with an actual person). But severe need to do something other than work and lie around below the blankets at home made me go yesterday and it was great. It was so nice to work out and also really good to do something after work. I got so worked up about the whole thing that I signed up for a dance class already today, so now I feel like every muscle in my body has been stretched to its limit and beyond, not unlike if I'd been run over by something heavy. But the dance class was fun, and I will come back when my achy limbs feel better. I hope I can at least get back in reasonable shape before leaving for the Argentina trip in early March and I hope I can get rid of some of the pounds I have piled on when I was in the throes of professorhood.

The bad:

First we had no winter for a loooong time and everybody complained about the lack of skiing conditions (this country must be on ski-loving nation's top three). Then we had three, maybe four beautiful winter days when everything was covered in powder snow and all the neighborhood kids were gathering at the small hill just outside our house to play in the snow, and everybody finally went skiing and stopped talking about green fields and rain and flowers. Now it looks like Mr. Frost has decided to stick around for a while, but not at the -5 degrees celsius romantic prettiness kind of way, but in the +0.5 degrees celsius sleet, ice and wet slush everywhere kind of way. The road was so slippery this morning that I hardly made it up the nearest hill in the car and on my way home I had to take a detour to turn the car since I got stuck in the snow practically outside the house the first time around. I was seriously tempted to go outside and take a picture of the road for the blog, but considering the wind and the sleet and the wetness outside and the fact that it is dark now I opted out of it.

The ugly:

Well, ugly is an exaggeration, but this is my least favorite item on the list nevertheless. I am supposed to be grading exams and now I haven't done it because I have been to the gym, cooked a nutritious dinner and written all this. I tell you, these exams are haunting me. I have been dragging them around for a month now and I MUST finish the remaining ones tomorrow. Not only do I have to finish grading the ones I have already got, I also have to write a whole new one for ONE student who was sick when the original exam was given. It doesn't help that the average grade is not going to be high. It was not a difficult exam and the students were not too shabby brain-wise, but oh, such miserable answers. I don't know where they are keeping their heads, not on top of their shoulders one might think. I should try to get through at least one or two more tonight or get into work early tomorrow morning (none of which seems attractive at all).

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Monday, January 15, 2007

My students are growing up

At the conference last week I met one of the students from the first class I TA'ed. She just got her Master's degree and was at her first professional conference. She was from the first class I ever taught at university level during the first year of my PhD. I remember thinking a lot about how to be a convincing teacher when I felt so insecure myself and the age gap between me and the students was so small. I taught lab classes and a field course in my primary subject and some of the students were learning fast and I was afraid their interpretations were actually better than mine. This particular woman was one of the fast learning ones and she continued her studies within more or less the same field, meaning we're colleagues now. She did remember me and introduced me to people as "this is saxifraga, she used to be my teacher" and still meeting her as a colleague at a professional fuction made me act completely different towards her. More friendly, more collegial, sharing jokes about former professor and former advisors. It still makes me smile. I know being a TA does not count for much, but somehow I felt proud of her, if I had somehow contributed a teeny-tiny bit to what she is doing now.

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Thinking as an administrator

So, today was the first day as an administrator where I was not away, sick or feeling terrible. So what was it like? Not bad and not particularly fun either, I'd say. It seems less frightening and more doable than I felt last week, it also seems like a lot of work and much of it seems to be rather boring. But it does still feel like a challenge, just not a completely overwhelming one.

My first task of the day was to say hello to a new staff member. I did not hire her and had nothing to do with that process, but she happened to have her first day at work last week. At least welcoming new people is a nice and meaningful thing to do. My second task was to sort through all the emails related to this new position and figure out which ones I need to take care of one way or another and which ones go straight to the archive. Maybe I am not a very good employee since I normally don't send copies of all sorts of stuff to my boss, but apparently that's what people do. At least I get lots of emails now about topics that are not even remotely related to my work or my interests and when I open them, they are "for your information" copies about all sorts of things my colleagues are doing or planning to do. So far they go straight to the archive since I don't really know what to do with them. But maybe I should start sending those too, when I take a step down the ladder again in six months.

Actually most of the day was spent filing things, organizing my calender, filling in all the dates for meetings, activities, deadlines etc from the email pile, responding to suggestions for meetings and answering questions. Some of the meetings are obviously important like the ones related to research projects or financial questions or an invitation to a seminar about staying healthy at work (where the offer fruit....according to the invite). Others are weird, but takes time like showing up in costume related to my field to have my picture taken....errrr, what is that? The only "real" thingI have done today (that is not related to administrating myself and my life) was propose a meeting for the department and provide an agenda for this.

So far none of this requires any higher education and anybody who knows how to do Outlook could do it, but I do know that more complicated tasks are looming on the horizon. I am also aware that to deal with those I will probably need a whole different set of skills than the ones I need to do research. I do think there is a reason why people study management of people, of projects, of money and the like, but academics are just supposed to walk in there and start managing. I am not frightened at the prospect of the job itself anymore, but I do feel that I don't know much about how to do this job in a good way and that irritates me and will very likely be a source of frustation in the coming months. Like most academics I like to do things well, but I also think this group of people deserves that I am not completely screwed up and actually make some good decisions. We have a very open atmosphere and flat hierarchical structure, and I expect everybody to be involved in most decisions, since that's the way things are done here, but some one has to lead the discussion and make the final decisions and I think that is going to be the difficult part.


Saturday, January 13, 2007


After a couple of days off work I seem to finally be recovering from the endless row of illnesses I have been visited by for the past two weeks. Nothing serious - just cold-related annoyances and lately some stomach bug and I have been going to the office more or less sick since I came back from christmas break. But now my energy is returning. We are also done re-decorating the house after Fiancé moved in and though it's been fun shopping for furniture, decluttering and rearranging the rooms, it has also been quite a lot of work. But now it's done and it's beatiful and every time we walk into a room we are talking about how great our place is and how nice we've made it. I suppose the novelty will wear off at some point, but I like that we actually do appreciate a nice home both of us. It doesn't hurt that we have the most fantastic view over a snow clad city at the moment.

Maybe it's the improved health, maybe it's the improved living conditions, maybe it's the forty-something hours I must have been sleeping since Thursday - anyway, I do feel energized and like it possible, if not even attractive to face a new work week soon. I do still think I will have too much to do and have a strange position in the hierarchy (as I talked about here), but I do feel better prepared to handle it this week.

Today I:

  • took down the christmas decorations (about time one might say)
  • bought colourful tulips for the living room and the kitchen
  • shopped lots of yummy vegetables for cooking lots of healthy meals next weeks
  • planned to finally reappear at the gym (after six months hiatus) on Monday

Now, I am going to cook African food from Côte d'Ivoire (Ginger - Avocado salad) and Congo (Vegetables in coconut milk) for dinner. I got this cookbook as a christmas gift with vegetarian recipes from around the world and it looks like I am going to use it frequently.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

One big jump up the academic ladder

As some of you might remember I was asked a couple of months ago if I was interested in taking on a more administrative post on top of my research for a while. I agreed because I thought it would be a good thing to put on my CV in any case and a particularly good thing when the question comes up whether my present position should be changed to a permanent position. I do think it is important for youngish academics to play the cards right and jump at the best opportunities, and honestly the selfish satisfaction of seeing the list of achievements grow is a major motivation for me, BUT I might really have jumped a bit too high this time.

This new position means that I will be head of the group of people I work closest with every day, including people much older than me, people in permanent positions and my own PI....and I am hired on a postdoc contract. I know my colleagues are supporting the decision, and while I am flattered that they want me in such a position and that they want me in such a position at such an early stage, I don't really understand why. Maybe my competitive gene is more dominant than usual (but not so sure about that), but I particularly don't understand if this doesn't annoy the other recently hired and I suppose equally promising young people in my department. So far they have been really supportive, but it does somehow feel very strange that an senior scientist or full professor with a mile long publication list has to send me an email and explain if he/she is planning to go to a conference next year.

It is not only my role in the hierarchy that creeps me out a little. I am also getting very afraid that I will never be able to keep up with the work load - at least not if I have any ambitions of getting any research done. Having research time now is really important to me as I already spent the entire fall semester on teaching and nothing else. I started out really well after christmas break trying to incorporate some good routines for writing serious academic stuff every day (which also partly explains the lack of blog posts recently), but now I see how easily these routines can fall apart again. Already on my first day as "new administrative title" my inbox was filled with papers to sign, forms to fill out, people requesting meetings and I don't know what and I have a very strong feeling that this is not going to stop right now. I also have the feeling that I will be more relieved than sad when handing this position back to the person on sabattical in six months time.

On my first day with the new responsibilities I felt literally sick to my stomach and thought all day that now the stress level had really gotten to me. Later the same day it developed into some evil stomach bug and I had to leave early. I went home and slept for twenty hours or something like that and had to take the next day off work. Now two days later I am finally recovering. I hope this is not my typical response to my new work load.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Yes, I was going to do it too

sum up 2006, that is. I wanted to do this new years meme since I saw it at
Dr. Crazy's days ago, but something kept getting in the way. I am struggling a bit at the moment to figure out how to fit in blogging when i am super busy at work (and in a relatively controlled work environmenent compared to where I was this fall). But here it is:

1.What did you do in 2006 that you'd never done before?

Got an article published, learned cross-country skiing, created and taught my own course, got engaged.

2.Did you keep your New Year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I don’t really do New Years resolutions, but I did settle down in a new country, find my place in my new job and pay off most of my debt – all high priorities last year. My priorities for this year more time with Fiancé, get out more, exercise again and loose a bit of weight (I know, not unlike the goals of many other people).

3.Did anyone close to you give birth?

My sister gave birth to my third nephew and one of my best friends had twins

4.Did anyone close to you die?

No, everybody’s still alive as far as I know

5.What countries did you visit?

Russia (several times), Finland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway

6.What would you like to have in 2007 that you lacked in 2006?

Friends who live where I live

7.What date from 2006 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

March 30 and October 22 for professional and personal milestones and one of them for the birth of my nephew.

8.What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Professionally: creating a very successful course at my favorite university and establishing future professional contact with said institution. I am also happy and proud to have grown from a newcomer in my department a year ago to head of the group (even if it’s just temporarily)

Personally: I could say getting engaged, but I am not sure that can be considered an achievement. Actually 2006 has been very much about professional development and my personal life has been quite a bit neglected

9.What was your biggest failure?

I don’t like the word failure. It seems too dramatic to describe my relatively mundane existence. If I rephrase the question to “What could you have done differently” I’d say spend more time making friends and socialising.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, I have been very lucky in that respect

11. What were the best things you bought?

Skies, a ticket to Argentina for spring 2007, new laptop and lots of plane tickets when Fiancé and I were still living apart.

12. Where did most of your money go?

Pay off loans, ridiculously high heating bills, plane tickets

13. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Professionally: My job and all the possibilities it brings
Personally: Getting engaged and moving in with Fiancé

14. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a. happier or sadder? Happier
b. thinner or fatter? The same (dieting in spring was worth nothing after chocaholic fall)
c. richer or poorer? Richer

15. What do you wish you'd done more of?

Socialising and having fun

16. What do you wish you'd done less of?

errr….nothing I can think of

17. How did you spending Christmas?

In my home country with my family

18. Did you fall in love in 2006?

I have been in love for years

19. How many one-night stands?


20. What was your favorite TV program?

After six months without TV I love any TV program. If people move on a screen I like it! But I did watch the first three seasons of Gilmore Girls on DVD obsessively during the TV-free months away.

21. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?

No, I don’t think I hate anybody – not now and not last year.

22. What was the best book you read?

I know I am a geek but I guess the book I have been talking most about (while reading) was a book about medieval European history written in a wonderful language and focusing on the average people rather than kings and queens. I don’t remember the name of the author, but it is written in a Scandinavian language and is the first book in a series of five about the history of Europe.

I also liked Umberto Eco: On literature

23. What did you want and get?


A teaching position, a home, enough money to stop worrying about how to pay off loans, a grant

24. What did you want and not get?


25. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 32 and spent the morning getting vaccinations for never-ending series of trips to Russia. I was also treated to lunch by my colleagues/vaccination buddies, Fiancé made me birthday cakes and my dad was visiting.

26. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfied?

Nothing: 2006 has been a truly extraordinary year and I cannot imagine how one thing could have made it much better.

27. What kept you sane?

My Fiancé. Without him I have no idea how I would have dealt with everything.

28. What political issue stirred you the most?

The government in my home country

29. Who did you miss?

My friends and my family

30. Who was the best new person you met?

Many. I have met at least a handful of new people who I think will be in my professional network for many years to come.

31. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2006:

Everything is possible


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Blogging resumed

What started out as an unwanted lack of internet access during the holidays turned out to be a welcome break from my online life. As much as I like posting here and reading all your blogs it was actually really nice to do something else. Though, I do think it is strange that my parents got wireless internet that doesn't reach outside the living room.

So what have I been up to since I left. I have given up on composing a long and thoughtful post about everything that happened the past three weeks, so a quick bulleted update will have to do.

I visited grad school city and and enjoyed it so much that I couldn't believe it when all my friends were talking about buying houses and moving away. I do remember feeling the same way before I left little more than a year ago, but seen from my sugar-coated point of view now, I just didn't get why anybody would voluntarily leave such a fantastic city - ever. I also visited both of my former advisors and if the city itself made my home sickness grow enourmously the visit to my former university definitely did not. It was great to see the advisors and they were both really sweet and happy to see me, but I am so thankful that I have managed to move on from the academic environment I came from.

I went to see my family for an entire week. I talked to my sisters, spent an entire day doing christmas shopping in very-prettyly chistmas decorated Medieval town nearby with my mom, had lots of food (I say LOTS), talked to my dad about my work and my mom about my life and to my sisters about everything. I played with my nephew and baked christmas cookies with my mom and prepared a lot of food and cleaned a lot of tables. It was absolutely wonderful and I am very happy I took the time off to be with them for more than a few days.

The last few days Fiancé and I drove all the way back home to relax and move into our first shared home before the real world started spinning again.

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