Sunday, January 13, 2008

Revisiting priorities

I hope last week was a low point and that I'm on my way back up. As often before just writing about my worries makes them seem easier to handle. I don't think there is anything physically wrong with me, or put differently, I think if I could be less stressed, I would feel better. I don't think it's a matter of having more downtime each day, fresh air, exercise and eating healthily, though all that certainly helps. I don't think the pressure is really put on me by anyone else. I already got the next job despite my meager publication record and nobody will complain if I don't publish a lot now during the spring. I think the pressure is very much in my head which in a way makes it simpler because I can control that, and in another way makes it much worse because if I really could control my thoughts, I would have done so a long time ago.

It is not entirely true that I have forgotten what I am passionate about in my work. I haven't. My passion for my field is just becoming overshadowed by all the things I must do and haven't done. I am excited about the ideas I have for new papers and for the data collection I am working on. I am excited about developing new classes for next year, about working on a more field-based way of teaching and about new research ideas that can be carried out in my new location. I want to have time in my day to think about the projects and problems I am excited about, but the only way I can do that is by neglecting the endless revision projects that makes me feel useless and stupid and slow, but never ends unless I spend so much time on them.

The paper that tipped me over the edge before the holidays is one I have been working on for years practically. It was in my dissertation as a manuscript and I knew it needed some more work before submitting it. It connects with some of the things I have been working on since and after spending some time revising it last winter, it turned out that the better decision was to split it into two papers and incorporate some old and some new data into both. The first of these papers was due for a journal in early December and I started working on it in November thinking that it would be two-three weeks of revisions. So far I have spent 80 full working hours on it (yes, I've logged them and breaks are not included) and I'm still not done. Because I rarely have a full day to work on anything, it took me from early November to mid December by spending all evenings and weekends and all available work time. It makes me feel sick to think about that it's still not done. It makes me feel slow and hopeless that it takes me 80+ hours to finish a paper that was already half-way there, and to think about how long it will take me to complete the remaining maybe 20 or so hours. It makes me feel I should spend all my waking hours working on it, although I know I will feel bad again the moment I put myself on that kind of track.

This is what happens all the time. I set out after the field season or a vacation with all the best intentions of having a balanced work life with time for writing, reading, communal tasks and research group logistics each day and it goes fine for a little while until some deadline is approaching. Then I realise I am not working hard enough and need to speed up to meet it. The first thing to go is the new research, reading and development of ideas (all the things that make me want to do this in the first place). The second thing to go is exercise, dinner and social time and within no time I am back to working non-stop, feeling sick and having no life at all. Sometimes, as the case was in December, I don't even meet the deadline anyway, leading to further despair.

I really don't know how to deal with this in a better way. Obviously my current strategy is not working but each time I have tried to set up a more balanced schedule I fail at it, because I just don't have time for it. I hate that it is not "allowed" to talk about struggling with work in academia and that the mention of difficulties is the same as admitting to a weakness. I hate that not having kids is making it even less acceptable to struggle with work demands*. It makes me sad that I don't have any close friends here and that my only network is people who are also involved in my workplace.

I think it would help a lot if I had more time to work on new research, new ideas and time to read. It would also help if I had a much more flexible schedule and by that I mean if I could work from home significantly more than I do now. It seems that many of my colleagues thrive in the corporate style environment where they meet in the office in the morning, write happily on their papers all day and punch out after 8 hours of consistent work. Maybe I'm just more lazy, but my brain simply doesn't work like that. I need breaks, I need to get up and go outside and think and be creative. I want to be able to spend a break reading blogs without feeling guilty the moment my boss shows up in the office or go to a coffee shop to think or write if a change of scene is helpful. It may take me longer to finish something, but it is more inspiring for me. I have talked about this at length before, and I am not sure I can do much to change it in my current job, but I think I need to find a way of bringing more creativity with me to work, even within my current constraints. I also need some success experiences with the old research/ manuscripts. I don't even need to see them published right now, but I must at least submit something and get a feeling of making some progress. I really must a find a way to combine the two, because still not having published (or much worse, even submitted) the dissertation papers makes me feel awful.

The really difficult thing is to apply these thoughts to everyday life. I would love to hear what you all think and how you deal with the work pressure and publishing demands. We all talk a lot about balance between work and life, but what about balance between different work tasks. Do you ever feel overworked to the point where it seems worrying and if you do, what are you doing about it? Have you ever opened up to colleagues about such concerns and if you did, how did they react?

*I think this is the other side of the coin of the family friendly politics and society in Scandinavia. The acceptance for parents needing to leave work early, having constraints on traveling plans or just in general being pressed for time is high. This is good, and I might need this acceptance soon enough, but I think it strikes back at people without a family in an unintended way. Often it implies that people with kids are understandably stressed but single people or couples without children couldn't possibly have other demands in their life than work. I don't question the stresses that parents face, but I also think it is essentially more comforting and assuring to arrive home to a loving family who needs you than to an empty house where you can just as well start working again. I was at a seminar about stress in the fall and the psychologist giving the talk actually said that single people often got hit by stress in a different way than families with children because the family demands made the parents leave work earlier and forced them to spend less time and energy on work. This is probably not true in academia, though.


At 4:45 PM, Blogger post-doc said...

I become exhausted with work and I am 100% focused on research. I don't teach, serve on zero committees, have no students to mentor, no field work to do. So I'm hugely sympathetic and wish I had some brilliant suggestion for feeling more balanced and less overwhelmed.

Writing does require time and creativity. Even the most important and senior professors admit that it's sometimes really tough and requires a great deal of time and energy. But given that I feel compelled to chase publications with near-obsessive devotion, I can relate to how difficult it might be to put that aside for a bit. The only thing I will say is that there's absolutely no shame in putting in time on a paper. Some things take hours and hours and finding time to focus on that when you're pulled in so many directions and not feeling well is really hard. So please don't beat yourself up about it - that makes me sad.

Hang in there. And if I think of any good suggestions, I'll let you know. I just think your current situation is tough, poor thing.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

You're clearly not lazy! Just because your ideal work routine is different from your coworkers' doesn't mean you're lazy.

What do you think would happen if you talked to your boss about this? The worst case scenario? the best case scenario? Your coworkers probably don't know how much you're struggling and they probably want you to succeed. If you approach them about how you feel a little stiffled and tell them it would help to have more flexibility for a while whilst you are writing, how would they react? Maybe removing the pressure of writing straight through 8 hour workdays would help, even if nothing else changes.

The struggle to finish projects is such a source of anxiety. Ecogeoman feels forever guilty/regretful that he hasn't published the papers from his master's thesis (he's now in the 5th year of his PhD). And the first PhD paper he started on, which was supposed to be small and tidy, is still not finished after 5 years. And I'm feeling like if I don't finish something soon, I'm going to start to lose interest entirely. So we have the conversation you've just written for us ALL of the time. Having a job where everything (motivation, reward/gratification, sense of importance) comes from within is so difficult.

It does really suck that we can't talk opening about these problems at work. I'm glad the blogs exist as a safe place to have this kind of discussion. We don't judge you. We think you're great and that you're doing a great job.

Sorry I've hogged the comments. And that I'm writing sort of personal thoughts without a long history of commenting on this blog.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Post-doc and ecogeofemme, I love your replies. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your thoughts here and ecogeofemme, I love long replies, so don't worry at all. Thank you for providing some perspective. I am also very relieved to hear that I am not the only one having year-old manuscripts lying around still unfinished. One of the manuscripts I have been struggling with during the fall is actually also from my Masters.

Ecogeofemme, you really hit the nail on the head with your question of whether I could talk to my boss about this. I have been trying to work up the courage to do so for a while, but haven't actually gotten my act together yet. The PI on my main projects is generally a lovely person and would probably listen to me. I don't think he would really understand, but if it was entirely up to him he would probably grant me some freedom. The department head/ group leader on the other hand is more problematic as he has a stronger belief in formalities. He would surely grant me a day or two at home, but that is not really what I am talking about. A very real problem is also that I am still the assistant department head/group leader, so I have to attend various admin meetings and be present to answer questions, sign off on various documents and generally be available. I would let this additional job go in a heartbeat if it wasn't that various people had convinced me that it would look bad on my CV to leave prematurely (and that we really need the extra money).

I do need to talk to someone about the whole situation, though. I don't want to involve the HR/ personell as they are only two people who know and talk to everyone and I don't trust them not making a big case out of it. I'm thinking of maybe approaching my closest colleague, who is more senior than me and is on good terms with PI as well as department head boss.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger fruchtzwerg said...

dear saxifraga!
i'm a phd student and at the moment, i try to get my first phd paper written up. and it's taking forever. it's not my first paper but it's the one that i have most problems with. i find writing the most demanding part of research, the part i'm struggling most with. and it makes me want to run away and hide.
i totally understand that you can't work as your colleagues seem to do, showing up in the morning and then work straight through till it's time to go home. i also need those breaks when you can jsut let your brain juggle with ideas somewhere in the background while you have a cup of tea or go for a walk or do some mindless task.
i really really think you just talk about your struggles with your colleagues. i'm sure they have similar experiences! also, i find that being honest and open with your problems makes it easier for colleagues/seniors/supervisors to understand wants going on, and usually they want you to be comfortable and would try to help. when i worked at a scandinavian research institute above the arctic circle, it was no problem at all to work weird hours, it was more a matter of keeping your boss informed. give it a try, talk to people! and don't feel alone with your struggles, we're out here with the same problems!

At 5:19 AM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

I was thinking more about your situation and have two points to make:

1. I can empathize with that the fact that your personal work strategy differs from your coworkers' causes you grief. I am like your coworkers -- I like to work solidly for 8 hours and then leave and not work anymore. But sometimes I feel bad because I know other people work from home a lot, or like to have long conversations about science when I just want to get my work done. I can imagine that it would be even worse to be in your shoes, feeling like you can't take the breaks you need to maintain your creativity.

2. If there's really not much you can do to change the situation now, how much longer do you have to live with it? You're starting a new job in the fall, right? Can you stick it out until then, knowing that you'll have the chance to change things at that time? And can you learn something from this? I don't mean that in a condescending, maternal way, but in a specific sense. Like, what made you take on all this stuff, and how can you avoid it in the future?

I hope you find a way to cope. Your last couple of posts have made me feel so bad for you.


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