Monthly Archives: June 2012

Creating professional distance

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I was in a bit of a conundrum when I was hired in my current position.  I stayed at the same university.  I also remained engaged in research with my former department where I earned my phd.  Now, this is not a negative conundrum, it has had many advantages which I’m very thankful for.  Not having to learn a totally new system, already being in the system, and having immediate colleagues are a few of the many advantageous things I’ve been enjoying.  The biggest downside: figuring out how to distance myself from my graduate students.  It has taken me a while to wrap my mind around this one, but professional distance is turning into a must for me.

I attended a colleagues defense last week and saw some of the other graduate students I had worked with.  This colleague defending is the ‘last’ one in the cohort that began with me and I felt compelled to attend. Upon seeing the other graduate students I was friendly and said hello, but skipped the other pleasantries.  I also made a point of going up to my old advisor and the other faculty members afterwards to say hello.  While it wasn’t meant to be an unfriendly gesture, I had made sure to exchange pleasantries, it was more for my benefit.  I am not a graduate student.  I find myself moving farther and farther away from them from a professional standpoint and it’s time to physically do that as well. Does it mean I think I have a higher ranking or am better?  Hell no. Quite to the contrary in fact.

I don’t know when the shift happened, it’s been over the last few months, but I find myself seeking out the camaraderie of other graduate students less and less and these were people who I considered friends.  Don’t get me wrong, I keep in touch with all kinds of folks and live with a graduate student, but it’s a different feeling.  For me, it’s been a psychological shift.  I still keep in regular communication with many of my former graduate student colleagues who have all graduated and gone onto various jobs/roles in their professional lives. Heck, I was even texting a former grad student who is also my editor now because she’s fantastic and runs her own business now.  She ‘hahahah’ed’ me and said, “isn’t it fun to analyze our own cognition?”  You know what? She’s right–it is fun and also necessary.  It just so happened that two nerds texting is also like two nerds talking.  😀

As I become ingrained in my current position and have started to mentor/advise undergrad researchers for summer work, I have found myself shifting from the role of ‘equal buddy’ to ‘mentor/advisor’ in a good way.  I think what tipped it over for me was mentoring summer researchers.  As we meet each week, they continue to look to me not only for answers, but for that mentoring role that I feel better about providing than I did a year ago. As I talk to them about theory and research and methods, it’s a solid base for them to start with and I feel confident discussing these things with them. It’s also a fine line in getting to know them to be able to mentor them but also keeping professional distance so we both know there are clear(er) lines of professionalism between us. As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes it is about being more forceful and reminding people of their responsibilities and that will ultimately move you from the ‘friend’ to ‘colleague’ zone.  Whatever the reasons, I’m ok with them.  I don’t need to be friends with these grad students, but friendly and professional with them.  I can take an interest in what they are doing and then separate myself from them because they will be just fine in life.

I know this will continue to evolve but as I examine my own cognitive shift from student to faculty, it’s been something I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on and will continue to muddle through.  PIC asked me why I wasn’t making more of an effort to spend time with a current grad student since we had worked at an informal relationship and my answer was simple, “I just don’t feel like it.”  It has nothing to do with the student and everything to do with my own introverted perspective.

As a new faculty, how do you handle students you mentor closely?  How do you draw boundaries with them versus other colleagues?

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The noise of academia

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The sounds of summer….crickets, peepers at night, bonfires, hearty laughter, and DRILLING. BEEPING. FIRE ALARMS. Fire alarms?  Yes, fire alarms. I love the summer schedule of academia and thanks to outstanding colleagues, I can work when I want, where I want, as long as it gets done.  I appreciate not being micro-managed and hopefully am still remaining productive.  The catch: the drilling, beeping, and what I’d like to call “low level explosions” that trigger the fire alarms…..It caught me off guard.  The campus folks had told our building they would be “making some repairs” this summer that were initially supposed to last four weeks.  Scratch that, now they’re scheduled until the students return in August.  Enter the ‘low level explosion’ and you’ll go back to the Monday one week after graduation.  I had come in to get some ‘good work’ done–the quiet, no students, no other faculty….nerd bliss….. Approximately 38 minutes into my zone of nerd came ****BOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM****** followed by the delightful chirp/harsh shrill of the building fire alarm system.  Then I hear the phrase that made me laugh and worry, “I guess we should have evacuated the building before.”  Yes engineers, you should have.  As pieces of the plaster ceiling fell on and around me I decided to go home until further notice.

So, life is good. I’m working from home.  Thanks to modern technology life is good.  I get a lot done at home.  It also puts me in closer proximity to my refrigerator, which may or may not be a good thing.  I like working in the office. I like getting in the zone.  I’ve tried to sneak in a few times to the same consequences–loud drilling, beeping, but thankfully no more fire alarms.  It’s the pace of business.  My building needs a much needed face-lift and from what I understand, to fix some major leaking. It’s a nerds version of a stay-cation.  I get some work done, I do my thing, I go into the ‘danger zone’ of an office when I have meetings, but have tried to schedule off campus or other places as much as possible.  So far, no one is bothered by meeting at the local coffee shops or going to lunch.

There’s something to be said for the flexibility of the academic life.  As a new faculty, I’m learning that it is something to be appreciated but not taken advantage of.  I sometimes struggle with focus just like the best of them, but the ability to choose where I want to work is something that I’ve taken to heart.  I read a bit about it in Cain’s book, Quiet, and it got me thinking.  I am more productive when I choose where I work.  Why aren’t more companies doing this?  Why aren’t we embracing this in our students?  I realize there’s a boat load of politics and institutional constraints, but hey–why aren’t we stretching those boundaries?

When I teach a class, I might try out the model.  Let’s say the class is supposed to meet 3x/week. I’d knock it down to one and offer up the other two as ‘office hours’ or ‘think tank’ hours.  Insert your own witty phrase in there. The expectations of the students would remain just as high.  I would still be available during all of the allocated time, but instead of being constrained by a clock, why not work with the clocks and creative windows of your students?  Sound a bit too idealistic?  Maybe. But, that’s just my brain cooking up a thought. I work well in the mornings, most of my students do not.  I refuse to read their emails at midnight, they only check their email once a day anyway. So, why aren’t we working to find that balance in academia?  Call me crazy (no, not the song) but who says we HAVE to sit in lecture 3x/week?  Who says we HAVE to just conform to ALLLLL of the endless rules?  My dept. head?  Oh, I would run this by him/her first.  The self-motivators would continue to excel and the ones who lacked motivation would be given a good lesson in what the real world is truly like.  Our millennial students don’t want to be confined by clocks and walls, neither do I.  I don’t want miserable pouty pants students in my class, I want students who fulfill minimum expectations after choosing their attitude. Beyond teaching them lessons, we as faculty teach them other things as well.  As a middle/high school teacher and now as a new faculty, it’s just part of the process.

Ahhh….summer, the noise outside my window and the noise in my head.  Neither are getting a break and that’s ok.  I’m mostly happy to be able to think about these things for longer than 12 seconds….before some beeping, drilling, or low level blasting commences.

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The value of mentoring

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As I looked through the previous posts on the blog, the last few were a bit stressful so I thought I’d lighten it up with a less cynical post about something I really enjoy and have learned so much about over the past year: mentoring.  I have grown to see mentoring as a positive and very necessary thing for both undergraduate and graduate students.  From prior work in research to actual mentoring with both sectors of students, mentoring is something that is near and dear to my heart.  It helps my students understand themselves and what they want to be when they leave the comfortable walls of the university and it shows me what I am and reaffirms my passion for working with students.

Mentoring is truly a harmonious balance between people.  I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my life and career and have worked hard to model these people and find balance in that task.  I attended an all-day mentoring workshop a few weeks ago and the keynote speaker did an excellent job of working through the process of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences.  He used a nice mix of humor throughout his presentation and I found myself nodding in agreement when he was speaking.  I was truly engaged in what he was saying, not just because I agreed with it, but because I knew how to implement the words of wisdom he was sharing.

As I stated earlier, I’ve had some great mentors and role models.  My first role models were my parents.  No two people could have given me a better combination of love and discipline.  My mom assumed the main role and my (step) dad was the supporting cast.  This taught me that in mentoring, you need balance.  Never being the ‘heavy’ all of the time and sometimes only speaking up when it most important is a tightrope walk in mentoring.  I have found myself holding back with my students to see how things play out and then choosing what is hopefully a key moment to speak up.

My former FFA Advisor taught me that sometimes speaking up is important and that confrontation is a necessary evil in life.  I reserve this as a last ditch effort and am working on the art of confrontation because it’s never fun and I have yet to meet anyone who thrives on it.  He also taught me the art of peanut M&M’s and a soda.  While food is not the way to fill an emotional void, there were times when it was a comfort to sit down and snack.  This also allowed us to be more informal.  Today, I try to take each of my students to lunch or coffee early on in our mentoring partnership.  It helps break the ice, chat about less formal things, and get to know each other.

Finally, my phd advisor.  I have known this woman since I was in high school and she showed me that it’s important to let people get to know you. This helps build rapport and sets the stage for expectations.  By showing others that you are indeed human and that every day might not be good but there is good in every day, you can be a better person.  My phd advisor also has a great amount of empathy towards others, something I hope to be able to find more of in the future.  The unique combination of care and support are necessary to the completion of any grad student.

As a new faculty, it’s tough to find students that are interested in your research, are willing to put in the time and work, and see a project through. A good mentoring relationship is an excellent way to recruit and retain students for the long haul.  As I have been taught, I try to balance my time with my students, form a good rapport with them, and am working to give that unique combination of support and care that they require.  Whether it’s an undergrad or a grad student, they each require a similar and different skill set.  How do you mentor students?

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Puttin’ on the big girl pants

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Sometimes, you have to change your diaper, put on your big girl pants, and be more forceful.

I know the saying, “you catch more flies with honey.”  Believe me, it’s one I use more often than not and know that by being polite and professional, you can get a long way.  But, everyone has their limits.  Sometimes, it’s time to put on the big girl pants and be a bit more forceful.  I try to avoid this tactic because quite frankly, it’s really not my style.  I am opinionated and from the north, making me an odd duck in the south, but being independent and strong minded are two of the qualities I would attribute to be my ‘strong points’ so I’m going to keep going with those things.  Yes, I am also more introvert than extrovert so being forceful isn’t something that comes easy or naturally.

I engaged with a group of graduate students during the last academic year.  All year, requests for research were met with minimal fanfare and almost minimal cooperation.  Upon having a piece of research accepted for presentation, the research team knew we needed to collect some more data.  Frequent requests were met with silence, crickets, and otherwise deafening white noise.  Hhmm, I know they were all reading their email, I know most of them had those handy, dandy smart phones, but still nothing, not even a professional or haphazard response.  It’s crunch time for this presentation and this researcher had enough.  Besides consenting via the IRB process, these students also accepted other kind favors throughout the year that gave them advantages that others in their peer group did not have, (no, not money, please–) but other things that would help them out, besides the research.  As a former graduate student, I know how important getting data, particularly from humans is and how difficult it can be.  All of my graduate students are also into social science research and they also understand this plight.

So, I did what any good professor would do, I stopped being so damn nice. No, I didn’t call anyone, track them down, or embarrass them in public, but I did tug on some strings with this group.  Come on, you’re a professional. If you were an undergraduate student, I would have known to get this data by May 1st before classes ended and moved on.  All of these students are funded during the summer by the very dept. they are studying in and their dept. head and advisors are in on this–so why the lack of cooperation?

It could come back to a few things.  They don’t like me. They don’t see the value and diminish by saying they’re too ‘busy.’ They want something for nothing (who doesn’t?)

If they don’t like me, too bad.  They consented, time to ante up and hold up their end of the bargain.  If they don’t like someone else on the research team, too bad.

They don’t see the value.  Just because it’s not important to them personally, doesn’t mean it’s not important to us.  They consented. No one formally dropped out. I’m running out of patience with this one already.

They want something for nothing.  I get excited when I get a free drink card at Starbucks, only to realize I had to buy 15 other drinks for this card to appear in my mail box. You can’t always get something for nothing, even if it is finding a penny heads up on the sidewalk, it’s dirty.  Now, my glass isn’t half empty today at all, but my point is this: rarely do we get something for nothing.  We could even argue that unconditional love from someone comes at a cost so it’s no different in the game of academic research.  Be accountable.  Be professional.

As a new faculty, I’m sure this is not the first or last time I will have trouble with research participants.  Perhaps my surprise stems from the fact that these are supposed  to be professionals, but like I’m learning quickly, I continue to be disappointed.  I need to manage my own expectations for research and student conduct. I will not apologize to any of these students for sending them a message that called them out.  I refuse to. Call me stubborn, too independent or too strong minded, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to grovel to someone who couldn’t be responsible enough to be held accountable for the last nine months.  No way. Incidentally, after sending this message to them individually, I received very quick  responses, both sent via smart phones as both had the tag of “sent from…..” so, perhaps the urgency finally resonated.

How do you handle research participants who are less than participatory? Is it better to be more passive or find the balance?  What happens when the balance isn’t working?

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Exhaustion 101

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There was a time I was sleeping eight hours a night, enjoying coffee, and generally enjoying a leisurely pace. That lasted 2.8 days. It’s gone. Like a distant memory, my ‘vacation’ ended abruptly when I signed up to get on a plane and fly away for academic business.  Two easy commuter flights turned into NINE boarding passes.  I’m not the only person in the world traveling, trust me, I’ve seen some travelers who have a much harder time getting from point A to point B than I have.

I’m sitting on a plane waiting on engine trouble and I’m in road warrior hell. This is just part of the game right?  I see hundreds of thousands of other professionals traveling in these airports-most are dressed much more professionally than I am.  That leads me to  my next question: how in the HELL does one stay erect, put together, and looking extra fashionable in a full suit and italian loafers or three-inch stillettos and a dress straight off of the runway?  I have trouble keeping it business casual in my khaki’s and (hopefully) clean blazer to meet colleagues at the terminal.  Perhaps it’s experience, perhaps those people don’t have over active (or active at all) sweat glands, perhaps my road warrior status needs to be revoked until further notice.

Whatever it is, here I am.  Now, (two hours later) I’m sitting in a large terminal that thankfully has free wi-fi.  I should be reviewing grants or editing an article, instead I’m blogging.  My brain hurts.  My backside is sore from the merry-go-round of beds I’ve been sleeping on or the lack of sleep my whole body has been getting. What is it about academic traveling that is so great yet so exhausting?  It is the stuff that book-ends it?  The flights? The lines? The “disney world” like atmostphere?

Whatever it is, this is what I know right now: I can’t wait to be home.  PIC is clearly lonely, his comments were hilarious yesterday, “I’ve been alone almost all week! Of course I need someone to talk to!” I feel the same way. Not that I wasn’t in good company all week, but I could go for a shower that didn’t result in a nervous sweat, a meal that’s home cooked, and conversation with someone who understands my gibberish (or is it jibberish?) without me having to detail every nuance of my latest thought in my tiny brain.

Which leads me to my other point on this post: freaking EGO.  Holy hell people.  CALM DOWN!!!  Your ego is large enough for everyone.  You’re not smarter, cooler, hipper, or let me repeat SMARTER than anyone else in the room. When you engage with me in a ‘scholarly debate’ and at a certain point I tell you, “we’re just going to have to agree to disagree” that isn’t code for, ‘yell at me louder to get your point across’ because I shut down.  We’re done. Peace out sucker. Peace the f&%k out…..It’s not just academics.  It’s people in airports too.  What happened to common courtesy?  Line cutting.  Rude college kids heading on trips to Aruba paid for by a magic piece of plastic. Moms breastfeeding next to the TSA security check.  I’m all about the feminist movement, young people heading out on a summer vacation, and everyone needing to get re-booked, but HELLO!!!!  Stop being so dang rude.

While probably not helpful, I made a point to thank all of the folks who line cut last night after one of my flights was cancelled.  You know what? The flight was still cancelled and no one was going anywhere.  I hope they feel better!

Road warrior status in academia is a stripe we’ll all earn as new faculty.  Much of the pressure is self-inflicted because we want to prove ourselves and no matter what anyone says or how they dismiss it, they don’t show up to look like a schmuck.  They show up with their ‘game face’ on ready to try and out-smart you. Whether it’s academics or line cutters, new faculty (and every human being) are subject to different types of exhaustion.  Earning road warrior status is just an imaginary badge/medal, but you know what? I’d take a medal right now and probably sleep with it tonight.  Provided I can sleep with it in my own bed.

As a new faculty, how do you prepare for the gauntlet of academic travel?  How do you manage to keep everything moving when travel plans halt?

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