Sunday, October 08, 2017

Being faculty: End of year one

This week, I completed one year of being faculty. Exactly one year ago, I had moved back to the US and landed here. My landlady, whom I had never seen before, had come to pick me up. This time, I celebrated my first anniversary with a goat that lay on my dinner plate as mutton biryani. That is one thing I will never grow tired of eating.

So what does faculty life mean to me after one year? It means no longer being able to play the "I am a new faculty and I don't know what I am doing" card. To say that time flew would be an understatement. Talking of time, I was reading about the research on biological clock that won the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year. Other than conceiving time as what we know, the lifespan clock and the biological clock, I have also come to understand what the pre-tenure clock means. I could fill an entire book with my thoughts and realizations of life as a faculty, perhaps some day post-tenure.

New currency

I have learnt many new things over the past year. Some of them were skills and the others, deep realizations. However, if I had to point to that one thing that has been my most important learning this past year, it is the concept of currency. We are used to thinking of money as currency.  But for the first time, I learnt that time and energy (and not money) are my new currencies. Time is non-renewable and it surely depletes fast. As a student, I spent a lot of time trying to earn some money. Now, I will happily spend money to earn time, which is what all the grant writing and making graduate students do the work is about. It also means learning money management. I protect my research money much more fiercely than my personal money. I am always bargaining and looking for better deals to buy stuff for my research group. I could not even bargain a pair of earrings for ten rupees less.

The power of “No”

I have mastered the habit of saying no. No, I cannot be a part of this committee, it will take away my research time. No, I cannot visit Seattle this month, I have a conference deadline. No, you cannot visit me either, because of the same deadline. No, I cannot attend this potluck or cook for twenty people, and no, I cannot go on a dinner date, no, not even coffee. I use my work as a shield to bail out of a lot of things I do not want to do. If you plot time versus "no", I think I have said no maximum number of times this past year.

Weird moments

Being faculty to me also means sometimes hearing, "How far in your PhD are you?" And I don't think it has anything to do with my youthful looks (or the lack of it, especially given the crop of grey hair I sport now). It comes from something called unconscious bias where women (especially minority women) are usually designated stereotypical roles with less power. Male doctor, female patient. Male professor, female student. Rich guy, poor girl. Older guy, younger girl. Such stereotypes not only penetrate, but also deeply cut through reality to make up fairy tale stories and Harlequin romances.

Being faculty also means getting some very strange emails sometimes. So far, I saw random strangers emailing me their GRE scores and asking what they should study and what university they should apply to. However, I recently got an email from a complete stranger asking to be my friend (with a few smileys following) and wanting to know how to get a faculty position and to also help their spouse figure out how to do their PhD and what prospects await the spouse after their PhD. Complete strangers from completely strange fields asking me strange questions. I was tempted to ask if their children also needed help looking for schools and while doing so, if I could also visit their home to help them fold the laundry.

What else?

It means looking at a potentially interesting guy and thinking, "Hmm... I wonder what his h-index and his citation number is." It means little joys like free textbooks (ask the publisher and they will send you a copy) and free bus rides. It means three months of freedom every year to go and work in any part of the world I want to. It also means "technically" not having to show up at work unless I have a class or meeting. It is an unthinkable idea to many working in other industries. I could show up to work every day at 3 pm and no one would care.

And it means sometimes hearing, "Oh, you are at this university? What does your husband do there?" (The assumption being that my fictitious husband is a faculty, not me, I might be a trailing spouse). It also means being asked "What do you teach?" all the time. Not all faculty teach, and not all the time. Teaching is less than 50% of my job. I have only taught one course so far.

But all this aside, one of the best things about being faculty is being able to chat with some very smart people. Only today, I chatted for an hour each with a space researcher who works on galaxies, a cancer researcher, and a NASA scientist.


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