Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Things I learned as tenure-track faculty: Time is the new currency

When you are on tenure-track, time flies incredibly fast. It seems like yesterday that I started, and now, I am almost at the end of my second year. It has been an incredible few semesters of learning, failing, trying again, and succeeding, in an infinite loop. Being faculty is hard and being on tenure-track at a Research 01 institution, even more.

My most important learning is perhaps that time is the new currency. Although I had heard of “protected time,” it is only recently that I developed a full understanding and appreciation for the word. Although I have a 50% research position and my tenure and promotion will be primarily dependent on my research productivity, a hundred different things get in the way of me doing research. Committee meetings. Teaching. Advising. Keeping an eye on the students who have promised to do work for you but keep disappearing. Academic networking. IRB submissions. Accounting, budgeting and managing my research money. The constant buzz of emails. People randomly dropping by my office to chat. The list of interruptions is endless.

My best days are the ones when I can get to work and start doing research without interruption. But that’s utopia. Hence, I work on the weekends, because I am less likely to see another human being within a one-mile radius on the weekends. We are trained to see money as currency, but not time or energy. Time conservation as well as energy conservation are few of the many things I try to improve upon every day. As a PhD student, I spent a lot of time to earn some money. As a faculty, I spend a lot of money to earn some time. For example, I will spend research money to outsource some of my work to graduate students so that I can do the higher-level work. I outsource my interview transcribing to a transcription agency. I outsource my taxes to a tax consultant. Outsourcing my work frees up my time to focus on research.

Talking of time, I have only recently started being mindful of the difference between “urgent” and “important.” The urgent will camouflage as important and compete for time. For example, service committee meetings are urgent (which is why people will schedule them early). Signing paperwork every two weeks so that students can get paid is urgent. Completing IRB paperwork is urgent. Submitting my review for a potential PhD student’s application is urgent. Finishing a journal paper review is urgent. Preparing to teach a class every week is urgent. However, none of them are important (important being defined as anything that grants you tenure and/or helps you to live a healthy life). Going to the gym is important. Writing that grant is important. Submitting that research paper is important. Eating healthy is important. Sleeping and waking on time, irrespective of work, is important.

Talking of the different dimensions of time, it is also important to mention “structured time” and “unstructured time.” Structured time is everything that has been written down in your calendar. However, as a faculty, you will notice that most things written down in your calendar either constitute teaching or service, but not research. You make space for committee meetings in your calendar at the beginning of every semester. You make space for teaching courses and preparing for teaching. You make space for submitting your journal paper reviews on time. This is because a lot of these structured activities are where you are accountable to a group of people. You might sacrifice writing your paper over preparing for class, because you are accountable to your students to teach that class. However, as faculty, research is largely left to “unstructured time.” This is time we have not accounted for. As a result, unstructured time gives the wrong illusion that there is a lot of time. You think that you will be writing your manuscript for 20 hours in the weekend, and before you know, the weekend is gone and you have barely written a paragraph.

In summary, I have learned to be mindful of two concepts: urgent versus important and structured versus unstructured time. Getting invited to give a talk at Harvard University might seem exciting and ego boosting, but guess what? Even ten such talks every semester will not give you tenure. Yes, that talk you give at Harvard might indirectly help you by getting you connected with future collaborators and co-authors. But preparing for that talk should not occupy majority of your time. It might be urgent, but for a pre-tenure faculty, it is probably not important.

In any given day, I try to see whether each of my activity counts for research or non-research (teaching and service). What did I do today? I checked emails in the morning (not research). I replied to emails and scheduled some meetings (not research). I took a bus for an inter-campus visit (not research). I observed a class from 5-8 pm (not research). I had dinner with an old friend and colleague (not research). I booked my flight tickets for an upcoming conference and optimized my spending by getting a Sunday night flight back home instead of a Monday morning flight (flight research is definitely not research). I am writing this reflection post (not research). At the end of the day, I have a false sense of satisfaction that I have worked a lot. However, I haven’t done any research.

Moving on to a different kind of time, the need for downtime and quiet time has never been more important. A lot of the “doing” aspect of my job is based on “thinking.” It might sound odd, but I try to build some protected time in my daily routine just to think without distraction. This is the time without the distractions of popping emails, phone calls, Whatsapp messages, or looking for houses on Zillow. I usually make time to think when I am on the bus or walking back home. I know people who keep 2-3 hours of dedicated thinking time every day.  Those are some of the more successful people in the department. Also sleep time has never been more important. Because if I am not well-rested, I will be useless and non-functional the next day. A good night’s uninterrupted sleep is something to be thankful for. Naturally, if I have the luxury of some free time, I will disengage from the drama around me to either think or sleep. Being on tenure-track has helped me rethink my time as a finite, non-renewable and indispensable resource.


Monday, January 29, 2018


Graduate-level students do not follow basic directions, write 8 pages when asked to write a 15-page paper, cite popular websites instead of peer-reviewed research papers (or do not cite at all), write twisted sentences like "Of the previously mentioned topics, the latter of the five has by far the most implication ......" and on being graded accordingly, write me emails like, "Professor, I am really disappointed with your grading." (Technically, they are addressing me incorrectly too, but I'll let that pass. I am doctor, not professor, not yet).

Many native English speakers struggle with basic grammar and punctuation, messing their commas and apostrophes, using colloquial language as if they were chatting with their buddies, using words like "cool" in an academic paper and writing "student's" instead of "students" repeatedly. It makes me think, "You only had to learn one language, and you messed that up too?" I won’t even talk about how bad some of their handwriting is. They most likely haven’t done a single day of cursive writing practice.

And for those who got a zero on their assignment for plagiarizing (I used a plagiarism tracker software to show them objective evidence of their plagiarism too), they write me emails like, "I am both shocked and appalled at your plagiarism allegations" and "I am offended at the language used in your email by saying that I plagiarized. This leaves no room for error on your part." Error on my part?

And then, a student wrote half the minimum required length for a final paper, and when graded accordingly, wrote me an aggressive email about how the student was extremely disappointed with my grading (My grading? Not their own writing, or the lack of it?). The student also played the "I am an international student, I was not able to follow directions" card. Understanding how students push your buttons has been a learning experience. I wrote an objective reply, addressing all the concerns with a compassionate stance, letting them know that I understand it is hurtful to get a low grade. However, I could not resist asking one question:

"Can you explain what aspect of you being international contributed to you not following directions or not asking me for clarification?" When a British talks about not following directions written in English, I am not sure what language I should use to give direction.  

I don’t know if they do this with everyone, or just me.

Teaching graduate-level classes here has given me a first-hand picture of what entitlement looks like. I wonder how I can break this pattern and encourage the students to learn from feedback rather than challenge my grading.

There is an extreme end in India where many teachers are treated like gods. And here, when students do not get the grades they expected (their expectations being asynchronous with reality), students will not think twice before treating you like you don’t know your shit. If a few points less (because of their own fault) disappoints them so much, I wonder how they will handle the stress due to constant rejections that is so characteristic of life in academia. The bigger question here is: Is our education merely training us to ace standardized tests like robots, or is it teaching us real life skills, like handling rejections and disappointments in life?


Thursday, January 25, 2018

A forking big problem

A fork that was stolen from the office kitchen recently was the reason for a lot of hullabaloo. The owner of the fork was inconsolable, being very attached to personal things. An impromptu committee was set up to brainstorm the solution. Should the kitchen door be locked at all times henceforth? Should someone immediately remove plates and cutlery after rinsing? Should one put up a sign outside saying access to the kitchen is for office employees only and not for students? Should one mark one’s personal things with a nail polish to deter anyone from stealing? My guess is that a student during evening class was looking for a microwave to heat up food, conveniently took the fork nearby and forgot to return it. In any case, the victim got into an emotional outburst and said,

“This is unforgivable. This is the second time my fork has been stolen!”

“In how much time?” I was so proud that my long training as a researcher was showing results and I was finally asking the right questions in life.

The victim looked up at the ceiling, made some calculations and said, “In 5 years.”

I wonder if this would be considered a statistically significant problem anymore.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Your adviser is the driving instructor

In a previous post, “working for myself,” I drew an analogy between driving and doing research as faculty. The next obvious question would be “How do I know as a faculty where I should drive to?” It is not easy to know that, it takes years to figure that out (I am still figuring out, maybe some do it sooner). A PhD training plays an invaluable role in this.

Role of your adviser

Consider your doctoral program a well-known driving school and your PhD adviser a renowned driving instructor. Their main and perhaps only duty is to teach you how to drive (do research). Sure, you can learn driving from your parents, neighbors, or the distant cousin who is visiting from Canada. But learning from a good driving school prepares you for real driving on the bumpy roads of life (getting your hands dirty with real data) and not just in the parking lot or in simulated roads on video games (made-up data we sometimes use to practice statistics in class). Sometimes, your adviser is a big-shot training instructor. In that case, other lab members such as senior PhD students and postdocs take you out for a ride to teach you those driving skills. So it is important that you have a good relationship with everyone in the lab. Your adviser doesn’t just teach you how to drive. They let you go to conferences where you showcase your driving skills in front of an audience. They write grants and get you funding so that you always have fuel in your car. They write you good recommendation letters so that other places can hire you as drivers. They advise you when your car isn’t running well or your engine is making a funny sound and you need to troubleshoot. They give you a pep talk on days when it is snowing outside and you don’t feel motivated enough to drive. They teach you life-saving skills such as changing lanes, looking at your blind spot, racing, parking on mountains, parking downhill, and avoiding drunk drivers on the freeway.

Couple of other things that happen in your PhD training

1. You take coursework. Consider courses as the tools that help you to be able to do research. If you are training as a driver, it will help to know a little bit about the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, where the engine is, how the brakes operate, how the radiator works, how to change a flat tire, and why driving in a certain way may be better than driving another way. Coursework just doesn’t teach you the skills to drive, but also the knowhow to stop, park, check engine oil or maintain the car.

2. You build collaborations with your peers and other professors. In the world of research, carpooling is way more fun than driving singly. Sometimes, you get more gas/petrol (funding) if you are able to show that if you are carpooling (collaborating), rather than taking a lonely trip from Seattle to Boston and not being fuel-efficient. Gas stations most certainly frown upon single drivers. But how do you ensure that you get along with the other carpoolers and don’t end up going for each other’s throats on the freeway? Graduate school lets you find other drivers you might get along with. Big gas stations (funding agencies) like the NIH and NSF will not even give you any fuel if you are young and applying singly or as the main driver. That’s when established professors will be on the driving seat and you in the passenger seat.

3. You identify mentors in other professors. Remember, you have the closest relationship with your own driving instructor. But sometimes, they are too busy or gone. Sometimes, you don’t get along with them. Sometimes, they do not know a skill that you need to know because driving regulations have changed in your generation. That is when the other mentors ensure that you continue to do well and your car(eer) doesn’t stall in the middle of the freeway.

Your research agenda

Your primary research agenda is usually an offshoot of your adviser’s research agenda (it could be different, but I am speaking from my experience). You spend maximum time with your dissertation data that is based on your adviser’s project and research interest. Let’s say for my PhD, my adviser trained me to figure out the shortest, safest, and the most fuel-efficient way to drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park. I demonstrated to my dissertation committee that my car runs fine, I can check blind spots, I don’t get killed while driving on I-5, don’t run out of fuel, and can apply the proper gears and brakes depending on road or weather conditions. Now the fruit doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. So after this, perhaps my own independent research could look into how to find an optimal route that connects all three national parks in Washington State in the most efficient way. I create that knowledge for other people to use. Or maybe now, I base my research on a real-life problem, for example, why do most people who take a particular smaller state freeway from Mount Rainier to Mount St. Helens after sunset get killed. If I never took that Seattle to Mount Rainier training for my PhD, I would have never figured out how to move ahead in life from Mount Rainier. I would not even have reached Mount Rainier.

And the convocation ceremony? Consider it as a public event where your adviser officially gives you your driving license. He comes wearing his driver’s uniform and you wear yours. The world rejoices, your parents fly to attend the ceremony beaming with pride and wiping tears of happiness, and some big-shot celebrity driver comes to give the convocation speech.    

I am waiting for the day I will be sitting in the main driving seat as the principal investigator (PI), my adviser and other colleagues in the passenger seat as co-PIs, and together, we will drive around the world with tons of fuel supplied by the NIH or NSF looking at interesting research problems.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

No kidding

I overheard two women in a conversation, telling each other how many training sessions they have done over the summer. “Two,” said each. Then, one of them added, “Person so-and-so has done nine.” She paused briefly before adding, “She has no children, she has all the time to travel for these trainings.”

I flinched at the multiple assumptions being made here, not to mention the snarky, sarcastic tone. How many times have people assumed that I will do something because I do not have children? How many times have people seen me neck-deep in work and flippantly attributed it to childlessness? I work seven days a week, I go to work on the weekends too, and I have no hesitation or guilt about that. When people are traveling or entertaining friends, I spend my weekend conducting research. I do it because I treat my work as a passion, as my identity, and not as a 9-to-5 engagement. I take ownership of my work, treat my work as a means to a better, independent and intellectual lifestyle. I watched exactly one movie at a theater last year, I have not made any friends in the new city, and I am okay with that (I have other things to do with my time now). I don’t put in the extra hours merely because I do not have children. I could be pursuing a dozen different things, including sleeping, if I did not feel so strongly about my work.

I have often witnessed people looking down on others who haven’t prioritized procreation as their vocation. I pick on these implicit biases a little better than the next person, having been at the receiving end of it many times. Notice how an ambitious woman will be shamed because she has no children (often by other women), but not an ambitious man. A man who undertook nine trainings in a summer, children or no children, will be revered, treated as a role model, and depicted as an exemplary professional. Only a woman is a childless freak if she has enough energy to pursue the same amount of work.

There is more to observe and learn from the world around us than there is from fictitious, unrealistic movies. See if your married friends who once hung out with you are treating you differently, do not invite you home anymore, but are still hanging out with other married friends. You need to get better friends in that case. See how advertisements around you are sharing implicit messages about only one kind of life as an ideal, happy life, the one where you have a spouse, a pet and multiple children. Insurance ads. Home ads. Toothpaste ads will often show large, happy families smiling together, and so will cooking oil ads (with often the woman cooking). It looks like single people do not brush their teeth and do not cook for themselves. My two cents- don’t put your money where you are being marginalized.

See if your workplace is giving you job duties they are not giving your peers who have families. See if you are repeatedly being made a victim of micro aggression. When your boss asks you to stay in office till 9 pm, but not your peer who has children, there is a problem. When you are asked to travel at odd hours but your peers are not, you need to step back and voice your concerns. It is easy to assume that women who do not have children have all the time in the world and are hence available to take on extra responsibility at work (often without adequate compensation). Keep your eyes and ears open for such discrimination. You do not owe anyone an explanation about how you spend your time at home, why you spend your weekends working (or not working), or how lucky you are to have all the extra time in the world (an ill-conceived assumption at the least). You could be caring for the elderly, you could be grappling with a personal setback, and even if you are not, you do not owe anyone an explanation.

If people are talking about you in a different, derogatory way because you do not have children (or telling you that you will not understand because you do not have a child), if people at work are taking liberties and giving you extra work at odd hours because you do not have children, if your friends are making less of you or your interests because you do not have children, we have a problem.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

The best experience of 2017

New year is a time of checks and balances. Planning for the year ahead while reflecting on memories from the past year. Earlier today, I was wondering what is the best thing that has happened to me in 2017. There are many good things, but if I had to choose one, I would pick traveling with my father for the first time.  

Traveling together did much more than show us the sights of South Asia. It undid the parent-child relationship that often manifests as worrying, obsessing or controlling long after the child has grown up and no longer needs parenting. That parents do not have to parent all their lives is a concept many do not understand. Traveling together unshackled those chains and made us equal. We were two adults, both with almost no prior exposure to traveling in South Asia, traveling together for the first time. We figured things out together, we figured out maps and meals, we negotiated our way without knowing the native language, we figured out visas and new currencies, and we picked a travel pace that is comfortable to both of us (My father is sometimes too full of energy, too restless, too eager to see everything while I enjoy sitting at a spot and taking in things more). He made dinner for me every night and I cooked breakfast for him every day. There were no assumed gender roles or parental roles. And that was the best thing this trip did to us.

Ever since we broke out of the parent-child care-giving chains, we have become closer. We talk more on the phone, and those are long, engaging conversations about our individual life aspiration and goals, and not the usual script of lists and directions like "Eat on time and don't catch a cold." I have learnt things about his childhood I did not know, and he discovered aspects of me not known to him. For example, I could clearly see the discomfort on his face when I bought a handful of fried grasshoppers (he is vegetarian and has only seen me eat chicken and mutton), but he did not stop me or preach me. Ever since the trip, he has resumed painting after years, I have gone back to learning a language, and we often exchange what he recently painted or what words I recently learnt. He was the cultural secretary of the Durga Pujo committee in our neighborhood this year and shared pictures of all the cultural events he organized with pride while I shared pictures of my talks at conferences. And there is no more " সাবধানে থাকিস " or "Be careful, live carefully" at the end of the conversation. Only, "talk to you next week" and "Where shall we go for our next trip?"


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

50 shades of patriarchy

There is a uniformed cop at the gate of CCU (Kolkata's international airport) who checks each person's passport and airplane ticket before letting them inside the airport. Since my father is standing ahead of me, the cop checks my father's passport and ticket first and nods an approval. Then the cop looks at my passport and ticket, looks visibly confused for a few seconds, looks at my father and then me, and turns around again and hands my passport to my father. In a split second, I know exactly what is happening. I grab my passport back from my father and say loud enough for the cop to hear, "My passport needs to be with me, not anyone else."

I wonder what you will call it. My father thought that it was misjudgment and confusion on the cop's part. Same last name and same destination is usually for married partners (especially if the destination is Bangkok), but I am not sure one gets to see many father-daughter duos headed there (without a mother or a son-in-law in picture). However, I am convinced that if this scenario was randomly repeated, say, a thousand times, one would observe a binary trend one could confidently predict given the power of numbers. That trend is not confusion or misjudgment, as my father thinks. It is called patriarchy. It happens when I take my father to a vacation, yet my passport is handed back to him because he is assumed to be my caregiver. It happens when I treat a male friend to lunch, yet the waiter comes and confidently hands over the check/bill to my male friend.

Patriarchy is not necessarily always practiced by men. This cop happened to be a woman. 


Sunday, January 07, 2018

New Year 2018

New year is a time when many people make resolutions. One of my new year resolutions was to take one nice, well-framed picture of something every day. But in the first six hours of my new year, I learnt two important things. One, those resolutions do not matter (for me). And two, when it comes to basic survival, my crazy, weird, eccentric ways of being and doing things do not matter either.

I did not book my airplane ticket to Seattle until the very last minute. Even then, I made a deal with myself. I had a writing project I had delayed for more than a year now. If I did not finish that by December 31st, I will not take the plane on January 1st. I will sit at home and feel bad for missing my trip, but finish my project first. So I worked diligently for the past two weeks to finish it.

Looks like the flight was delayed by many hours. Rather than arriving close to midnight, it would now arrive very early in the morning. I was exhausted to the core from finishing work last-minute. I half-packed my bags, set the alarm at 4 am and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was horrified to see that it was 5:45 am. Somehow shaking off a gripping, paralyzing fear, in 15 minutes, I had brushed, packed whatever I could, and left the house. In my mad rush to not miss the plane, I left without taking a shower, still wearing my sleeping pajamas and woolen socks, I had forgotten to pack many essentials, I had not taken a blanket or pillow, but I had miraculously managed to catch the plane just on time.

What is the big deal, you were able to take the plane after all, one would rightly say. Well, I am the OCD kind who reaches the airport two hours before required, diligently packs everything, checks the cooking stove and the heater twice before leaving home every day, packs enough dry food during travels to last any crisis for 24 hours, stores quarters (25 cent coins) at two different places in the bag, boards a bus with exact change in hand, and so on. I am quite mental that way, I like to have things figured out beforehand.

This time, I forgot my pillow and blanket and shivered through the long plane ride (and ended up with neck cramps too). I let people see me in mismatched pajama and blinding red woolen socks with a rip in one of the toes. I forgot my entire camera bag home, something that has never happened before (so much for my new year resolution!). I forgot to put things away in the freezer (but I checked the cooking stove and the heater, only once though). But it did not matter. My constant need to micromanage things around me and feel like I am in control of the environment did not matter. Taking those DSLR shots every day did not matter. What mattered is that I was able to hop onto the plane just in time, spend part of the new year with the kids, inhale deeply Seattle's warmer air when I arrived, eat pongal from Thiruvadarai pujo that G had cooked, eat mutton biryani, and leave behind all my work, worries, writing projects and new year resolutions for the time being. This house, my room, this bed has so many memories for me that spans over years.

Baby Kalyani (who is a baby no more) excitedly told me the names of all the country capitals that she has recently memorized rote (and I asked her to memorize all the countries that constituted former USSR before 1991). Her baby sister spotted me from afar and screamed in delight, squeezing some more toothpaste on the bathroom counter top. G taught me funny new Tamil words like Thiruttuthanam while I sat on the hardwood floor in the kitchen (my favorite place) and ate hungrily. And finally, I hopped onto my bed at the end of the day and slept peacefully without the worry of alarm clocks and missing airplanes.