Saturday, December 24, 2005

Parenting (at the beginning of an academic career)

I'm reading the book "Parenting & Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career," Rachel Hile Bassett, Ed. (ISBN: 0-8265-1478-2). I recommend it for anyone in academia who is, or is considering becoming, a parent.

I'd wanted to be a father for as long as I can remember. But nothing of course could prepare me for the reality of it. Nothing. I wouldn't undo it, for sure, but I confess the challenge is far greater than I ever imagined. It's humbling, far more so than graduate school; and a constant presence in one's life, far more so than an unfinished dissertation.

Perhaps it is just me. Perhaps I simply wasn't around enough babies or child-rearing couples when I was younger. But I suspect that feeling overwhelmed is a common experience among first-time parents. I've heard it said that a first child raises the parents, before the parents can raise a second child. I've certainly learned a great deal from our oldest son, which has made raising the second one easier (or at least more predictable).

As a graduate student, I was the primary caregiver for number one for about nine months, after my wife's 6-week maternity leave ended. I had finished my classes, but I was an officer of the graduate students association, and active on several campus committees. For much of that time I took the baby with me to meetings, where at first he slept most of the time. It was in part necessity, but also a choice that I made to be visibly a father on campus. It was a two-part statement, first that it's okay to be a parent and a graduate student, and also that fathers really do exist, and can actually take an active role in their children's upbringing.

Ostensibly that time was spent working on my thesis, but to be honest, there was little work done in that regard, other than some reading, and time spent applying for grants and fellowships. Parenting is time-consuming and exhausting. I don't consider that time ill spent, nor unproductive. But it certainly slowed me down.

Eventually my wife decided she wanted to spend more time at home, and also to take a hiatus from her career, in order to reassess. It was good timing for us, as we had nothing to keep us near campus, and several reasons to move "back home". Among them: we owned a house in another state, where the cost of living was lower; my father (living in the basement apartment of our house) had been diagnosed with cancer. For about three months we shared parenting duties (and taking care of my dad), while I took a few hours each day to work on preparatory work on the diss.

After that, we spent nearly a year overseas on a Fulbright grant. She took over then as the primary caregiver, though my days were often short, since I was principally engaged in research and had no specified schedule to keep. (Living abroad with a young child is another story, which I'll recount in another post.)

Now we're back full circle to my graduate school campus. When we first returned, I was full-time caregiver for about 4 months or so, as my wife was once again employed full-time (in the same career she had). Since August I'm a post-doctoral Visiting Scholar in a department other than the one I graduated from. We now have help with watching the boys, so most days I can work 5-6 hours on campus (or at home, if I accept the interruptions and distractions of my two boys).

I'm not so critical of those whose choice it is to not have children. In ways I understand the choice better now than I did before I actually had them myself. I venture to respect their choices, as I hope they do mine. I just wish for a world where that choice is made fully on the basis of one's own convictions, rather than imposed by the dictates of one's career.

For now, I still seek the opportunity to join the faculty at a research school, where I will have doctoral students, an active research program, and engaging classes. I don't shy away from teaching undergrads, but I believe I'll be happiest and best suited to an environment where my research is as valued as my classroom performance. The challenge will be to land an appropriate post, and then be able to achieve tenurable stature, without neglecting my family.

I believe in a world where that is possible. And I am committed to doing my part to help make that world a reality. I hope many of you will join me in that.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Taking off

Getting ready to head to the airport. We're visiting the inlaws for a week. The three year old is most excited because daddy and mommy won't be going to work. There's not much else to say at the moment.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Yesterday I got little done, except spending the day with my 3-year-old. That was nice, but I'm one who has great difficulty taking time off. It's a strange psychological phenomenon, since often my time "on" is served wondering what I should be doing. Then again, that is my modus operandi, contemplating, cogitating, mulling, considering, then finally bam, I make some sort of link, and I'm off writing again.

But I get irritable when I've been distracted by things outside of my private world, when I haven't been able to get a mental reading on where I am and where I'm going. It's funny, most people think of me as an extrovert. But there is another side of me that thrives on quiet and solitude. I need both to feel whole. Having a three year old and a one year old around make it difficult to find that quiet space. This is compounded by my status as a Visiting Scholar, which in this particular situation means I have no office space to myself. I work most of the time in a shared computer lab, and other times at the library or another shared work space mostly occupied by graduate students.

Right now I have quiet. The boys are at the zoo with someone else, and I'm alone at home. The first task is to "decompress". Hopefully I'll be up and running before they get back.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

An exhausting day

Exhausting, yes. Work related, no. I spent the day getting some warranty work done on (and a new battery installed in) my car. The dealership is about an hour away. So I took the three year old with me. We went miniature golfing, then wasted another 2 or so hours, because the dealership was bad at estimating time.

Life is sometimes rather mundane. But you know, I really enjoyed spending the day with my son. Being a parent is many things (both pleasant and unpleasant) but it is almost never mundane. And I didn't really miss the work that much. Frankly, my work is completely self-directed, meaning I could go in any of a dozen directions with it. It's difficult at times to decide which path to work on. Mostly, I'm hoping and waiting for a job interview, so I have a better sense of what kind of department would be interested in my work, which would sure help me decide which path to follow.

That's not to say that I don't do any "work" most days. I just have about four projects going concurrently, and I make piecemeal progress on each of them. Sometimes taking a break from all of them is just what I need to get some better perspective. And that was my day.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The job search

Just reading "Barbie goes to math class", which mentions the academic job search. Yech! You know, I used to be a performer... but I wanted to get away from the competition and gut-wrenching of auditions. Lotaluck, eh? Silly me.

Last year I applied to 40+ faculty and post-doc opportunities. I hear it was quite a feat that I got three phone interviews, and even one campus visit, before I finished my diss. But I'm not so easily impressed. At the end of the day, I've got little to show for it. Most especially, I don't have a job.

So, this season has been moving along slowly. I've applied to about 30 or so jobs, almost entirely faculty posts. I'm spending a year as a post-doc right now. After moving back to California, where my wife has a good gig (in industry not academia), we're disinclined to move again (with two kids and three cats) for me to take another one- or two-year post some where. That's not to say I wouldn't consider commuting if I could be home about three days a week to be a family man. But the possible locations for a commutable post are rather small. So, we're back to the two-body problem, trying to find locations where we can both pursue careers. For now, I'm the trailing spouse. Ideally, the next stop will be good for both of us.

Meantime, I guess no news is good news. At least it means I'm not out of the running for any of them yet. Though, after a month (in some cases two months!) one suspects I would have heard if I were ON the short list. But some of the searches just closed, so I won't expect to know anything on those until the new year.

Productivity in spurts

I'm out here searching the ether. Trying to make some connections to other people. Mostly, trying desperately to not feel so alone. That's a funny thing I realize, for someone who is happily married, and father of two wonderful (albeit exhausting) boys.

I just read "Quitting time" and the latest posting on The PhD Explosion. Yeah, others are dealing with similar things.

It strikes me how things do change. Getting older does that to us, and being in a relationship (for my part, being married), and now having children. God, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep seems a distant memory.

But, we can be productive. I know how I work, and it's in spurts. Very, very productive spurts. It's just all that time in between, when I wonder what the point of it all is, when I feel like a leech on society. After I penned the first 100 pages of my dissertation, and sent it off to my committee for commentary, I was struck dumb by the response. Silence from three of the four. The fourth was not so kind. He wrote that I should put aside the "theoretical" stuff, do something substantial, then get back to them.

The blood rushed from my head. Here I was across the ocean, hoping to use my Fulbright year to finish the dissertation. And, I was shot down. But, he was right of course. I was spinning yarns, spouting off about my pet theories, and the prospects of my research, rather than doing the research at hand. So, I got dirty with the work, in my case archival work, looking through the notebooks and library marginalia of my protagonist.

I barely wrote a thing for about a year. I came home earlier than planned. I had a three-month extension on my Fulbright, but my father was dying, and I thought that took precedence. So, I returned to help take care of him. My second son was born a month after my father passed. Then, I got back to writing in earnest.

After spending about a year reading, and contemplating, I did my analysis, and wrote. The final 150 pages of the dissertation were written in about two weeks. The hard part was getting to the point when I felt like I really had something worthy to say, that I had sufficiently mastered the materials and the existing literature. Then, I just pulled it all together. I'm just waiting for the next spurt to come.

A dreary day in paradise

So, this is paradise? To hear some of the locals talk, this town couldn't be any more perfect. I recall the advice I got a few years ago, from an older colleague (who had just landed a tenure-track job in Canada). I was trying to decide where to go back to school for my PhD. It came down to a decision between a school in Toronto, and this one in California. He said "you know, grad school is probably the last chance you get to decide where you're going to live." Not that that settled the choice, but it was a factor.

Not that it isn't beautiful here. Some mornings, the view is breathtakingly gorgeous. There is a perfect (albeit brief) view of the islands (if the weather is clear). And it takes your breath away.

But just now, I'm sitting in an otherwise abandoned departmental computer lab, tapping away on my laptop, looking out at the drab grayness. Sure, it's not cold and blustery, at least not snowy cold. But to be honest, I'll take some real dreary weather any day, if only I can land a tenure-track job at the end of the day. For now, I am a post-doctoral "visiting scholar" in a department other than the one I graduated from. A nice title.

And the hospitality of my colleagues is nice. But, they're like cousins I'm staying with for a time, whom I don't really know well. We like each other enough. Yet, we both suspect that this closeness is a short-lived thing. It's like being an independent consultant, only I don't have any clients yet. I'm keeping up on the field (in my case fields), and trying to get some research and writing done. But there is this ever present sense that I'm not really a part of things, just a hanger-on.

Maybe the holidays will give me a good break from the daily worries. And who knows, maybe the calls will start coming in after the new year. Here's hoping.

Monday, December 19, 2005

It begins... ho hum

What's this all about? You'd think that after putting in the effort to get a PhD, there'd be something at the end of the tunnel, besides a handshake and a diploma. But mostly what I get is waiting...

Okay, that's a bit whiny. But that's what motivates me to muse out here in public. To get it all out. I think perhaps there are others dealing with this same frustration. Maybe by feeling part of a community we can all lighten our loads a bit.

No one said the PhD was a ticket to the fast lane, or the easy life. But it's exhausting everyday to check the hit count on my professional website, to see that yes, indeed, one or two or three more people have checked out what I do. But the phone still hasn't rung. Not this year in any case.

It's a long haul, and sometimes I wonder if it's all worth it. I finished the diss in March. It took more than three months to gather all the signatures from my committee, just in time to file in June, and graduate. Then, I waited for the job postings to start to appear. A couple early ones over the summer. A gig in New Zealand was the first. Of course, their Fall term begins in February. That remains the only rejection letter I've received so far this season.

Not a peep from anywhere else. It makes you wonder, will I go through yet another job season (this time with the PhD in hand) with nothing? I'm lucky though. My wife can support us. We've got two boys, ages three and one. We're comfortable, but we're not living the high life. But each day that goes by is a struggle with the blues or depression.

Not that I haven't had any interviews. I got three calls last year (while I was still writing the dissertation). One even landed me a campus visit. But no job. Real close. As luck would have it, the job went to a friend of mine. That's always a risk.

For me, with terribly interdisciplinary research, it feels like I'm in the middle of a vast ocean, and I'm not sure which direction to swim. I'm surrounded by possible boats or shores, but which one is the most promising? Until I get a phone call, and an interview, I just won't know. I've applied for jobs in two subdisciplines of my home field, as well for a few jobs in two related disciplines.

But for now... I just sits and waits.