Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Change of (Research) Scenery


When it comes to routine, I am the best. I absolutely love getting into a daily groove and staying there for a long time. I also love going to the same restaurants on multiple occasions and watching my favorite movies and shows many times over. (Most recent case in point: I have watched the entire available-in-America catalog of The Great British Baking Show more times than I can count. I was on round five last time I checked and that was a while ago.)* There's something delightful about establishing a routine or revisiting something familiar. You know exactly what you'll get and you can look forward to enjoying it.

By best, I also mean worst. Not just because most people find this approach to life terribly dull for lacking in spontaneity. I see the value in changes and I do like to mix it up on occasion. (Mostly when a friend asks that we eat at not-the-same-restaurant-we-always-go-to.) I mean that sometimes routine can be detrimental to a research program. 

Fully immersing ourselves in a research project has plenty of advantages, as does regular/daily writing and setting a model of consistency for mentees. These practices can produce both more efficient and higher-quality work than repeatedly re-orienting to a project whenever opportunity arises. But even this can be taken too far. In my case, I get so engrossed that I don't leave my building for eight or nine hours at a time during winter and summer breaks. I get lots of work done, but my efficiency decreases after several days (or weeks) in a row of this approach. 

To combat my tendency to retread a very deep path, I've embraced two practices:

(1) The writing retreat, and 
(2) The collaborative research trip.

I've tweeted about the writing retreats I organize for our faculty writing group at my university (see below),** and others have written (very eloquently) about the benefits and how-tos of these events. There's something about a change of scenery for the purpose of writing that packs a punch. Faculty offices are associated with plenty of other kinds of work, and it's easy to get distracted or restless. Finding a peaceful location where the goal is to write gives us something extra to look forward to and the perfect justification for putting other work on hold.





Running on the BFP.
In contrast, the collaborative research trip is new for me. By "collaborative research trip," I mean an extended stay at a university where you have collaborators and intensive collaborative work during that stay. In my case, I've continued to work closely with my postdoc fellowship lab, which is 2+ hours away in Philadelphia. I've been back to visit several times in the past three years, but never for more than a day or two at a time. This summer, the lab set me up with a small office for a week in order to have more face time for papers and grant applications. This is my fourth day on campus - I've made considerable progress on a manuscript I started last month and specific plans for two more manuscripts on related topics, plus tentative plans for grant applications. I've also been able to run in my old haunts, like the Ben Franklin Parkway and Boathouse Row. Quite a productive week so far!

Office space for Philly visit.
But this trip has been great for my research and for me beyond the concrete productivity. It's reconnected me to a type of research (i.e., large clinical trials) that I have yet to implement at my institution, and it's given me the opportunity to spend both work and personal time with people I don't see very often. I've also loved having time to myself to read, focus on marathon training, and avoid any sort of routine. I had already planned to visit again during my Spring 2018 sabbatical, and now I know that I'll visit as often as they'll let me!

This is your life moment of the week: Busting out of a routine helps to establish balance. Looking forward to getting back to my usual, but also to my next break from it :)

*I'm a member of my local public broadcasting affiliate, obviously, so I've even binge-watched all of season 4 many times.
**Please ignore the typo in this one - Twitter really needs an EDIT button!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On Summer Reading

Like most academics, I really do love to read. And every time I get a break from the hectic pace of a semester, I remember how much I love it. I find it incredibly tough to make time for leisure or general staying-informed reading amidst teaching, grading, mentee supervision, committee work, conference prep, and event planning. During these times, most of the text that gets any sort of attention is on a syllabus reading list or in the form of a tweet.* But during long breaks, I (we) get to rediscover the long form.



Like what? I've read some incredible books during my last few breaks. I was utterly absorbed by Alice Dreger's Galileo's Middle Finger during winter break 2016. If you consider yourself a scientist (or generally a person who understands the importance of the scientific method), read this book. Likewise, Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: The True Story of Murder in America is a heartbreaking and eye-opening look into the reasons why so many murders of black people go unsolved in Los Angeles.** I was invited to read and discuss Pheobe Robinson's You Can't Touch My Hair with the student staff at our Women's Center. I was blown away by Robinson's ability to communicate her black, woman, and black woman identities as both distinct and integrated. And Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies was an engrossing mix of history, interviews, and personal stories that chronicled single women's contributions to US society. 

Women's Health Research panelists
The threads that connected these reading experiences were the marginalization, oppression, and intersectionality that motivate social activism and change. I didn't plan it that way - the universe just seemed to know what was good for me. Although I'm a clinical health psychologist with a particular interest in understanding and promoting women's health, I did not come to this topic with a background in feminism or women's/gender studies. A forward-thinking colleague at my university (who happens to be the director of our Women's and Gender Studies Program) heard about my interests and invited me to join the program two years ago. Participating in WGST as an associate faculty member, and now as a member of the program steering committee, I've seen my work in a different light. I've also been able to bring together faculty and students with women's health interests through programming, such as our recent Women's Health Research Panel.


My summer 2017 reading list
Coming to a humanities-based program from a science background has wonderful advantages, but I've realized that my knowledge base has some serious gaps. So this summer, I'm giving myself a crash course in the women's/gender studies and activism. As you'll see from my reading list (right), there are some second-wave feminism classics, two histories of the women's movement, and a set of recommendations to help faculty and students maximize a WGST education. Oh, and some leisure reading - one of my favorite pastimes is reading about academic writing and productivity :)

Working on balance. As I described in my last post, I love writing, and I miss it when I let the craziness of an academic semester keep me away from it. Same with reading! So how can I (we) be better about reading what's not on our syllabi during the semester? I do try to take one day off each weekend, and I could be a lot better about making time to read on those days. I've also discovered the incredible world of audiobooks (via Audible) and I've "read" more than ever by listening while running. I got to experience Girl on the Train (incredible narration), Stephen King's The Stand (almost 50 fantastic hours!), and Katherine (an 
historical fiction classic) this way. I also LOVE listening to people talk about running while I run, so I listen to books about running (Eat and Run, Ultramarathon Man, Running Man***) and the new-ish Runner's World Show podcast - so motivating! I'm engaging in many hours of running each week this summer as I train for the Steamtown Marathon, so I have plenty of time to multitask.****

This is your life moment of the week: There's a lot to do, all the time. Taking a few minutes (or hours) to immerse myself in the original long form enables me to be better informed about and engaged with other aspects of my life.

So what's on your summer reading list? 

*To be fair, I get a lot of research-related notices and I find out about relevant papers via tweets. But I only get to skim them and save them in a too-big-to-describe Windows folder called TO READ.

**I read this very close to the time that I watched The People vs. OJ Simpson. What an education.
***I need to get some running audio by women!
****More on this later.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Where On Earth Did Year 3 Go? And Other Mysteries

It's been almost a year since I wrote a blog post. I bet you can guess what happened! The short version is that I thoroughly enjoyed my summer (while still being productive) and then was quickly swept away in what often seems like a complete blur of a year. Oh I remember every agonizing moment (and some positive moments), but it went by FAST, and there was always something pressing that needed attention. That should have been my first clue - an entire year with no lulls in the pace of work? Bad news. And bad planning. I admit that I emerged as a person I don't want to be: irritable, negative, overtired. Generally not my best self, and I committed to addressing that as soon as grades were submitted.

What did I learn from this unpleasant experience? Probably nothing that I didn't know already, but apparently I needed a harsh reminder. First, it's not as easy as "learn to say no." That's excellent advice and academics should follow it. But I said no, often. I turned down manuscript review and guest lecture invitations and I let students know that the lab couldn't support anyone new. I passed on some opportunities to participate in professional society and university committee activities and was relieved when someone else was selected for a particularly time-consuming position. Despite multiple requests, I said no to a large set of responsibilities that required summer work. In fact, I might have said no more than I said yes, but the pace was worse than ever. And it wasn't as though the opportunities I said yes to were just the wrong ones to choose. 

Me, giving the keynote address
at my university's Wellness Day
for faculty and staff.
I'm not certain about what went wrong. My hypothesis is that the balance was off - that there were too many recurring, long-term, or ongoing commitments (e.g., regular meetings, being available/not writing during RAs' work hours, organizing and promoting upcoming events) and not enough one-off/short-term tasks, or too many of the latter interspersed with the former. Definitely too many commitments that required me to corral other people; great service if you do it one at a time, but more than one at any given time is a recipe for frustration. And definitely not enough scheduled, protected writing time.

Why was the lack of writing time particularly harmful? Probably not for the reason(s) you'd guess. Sure, not sitting down and "slapping my mitts" against a keyboard (as Paul Silvia would say) made me a bit anxious about my productivity level, and the anxiety was warranted; I submitted fewer manuscripts this year than last, and thus, have fewer acceptances to date. But the difference really isn't that big, and the manuscripts I did produce had some important consequences for me. (For example, one of them got me a consultant position with a fantastic research institute.) Plus, I gave lots of talks (at professional conferences and invited talks on campus/in the community), got highly involved with my primary professional society (which has been great fun and has introduced me to wonderful people), and did A LOT of service. All of this is expected and needs to get done, and I still managed to get a few papers out. 

The problem wasn't just that I wasn't as productive as I wanted to be. It was that I genuinely missed writing. I have to work hard at it to generate high-quality products, as most of us do, and of course, that process isn't always enjoyable. Neither is the review process, most of the time. But the process of sitting down with a cup of coffee, putting ideas to paper, finding new published research that informs what I'm writing/finding ways to integrate it, and coming up with new, exciting hypotheses as I go - I really, really missed it. I didn't realize how important that is to me, or how happy it makes me, until I came back to it at the start of the summer. The difference was startling.

I have lots of ideas about how to address this problem, and I've already put some of them into action. First, absolutely no email or other work-related activities on weekends or after 5:00pm on weekdays (except for true emergencies, which are rare). I'm increasingly intolerant of the expectation that I'll respond during these times, even during active semesters, but especially in the summer. Second, I committed to a personal goal of completing my 7th marathon in the fall, and I'm training correctly by taking extra time to cross-train, build muscle, eat well, and keep a log. (Much more on this later.) Third, I make space for "quiet time" every day - reading, logging, and/or just thinking about the things I enjoy. The latter can include work, if I choose, but it doesn't have to. 

Finally, keeping up with this blog. I don't pretend to have sage advice or answers to life's most pressing problems. But writing these posts keeps me organized and accountable, and it fits well with item #3 above. As a preview, here are some topics you can expect to read about this summer:
- Summer lab management at an undergraduate institution
- My faculty summer writing retreats
- Running and research, Parts 2-X (see here for Part 1)
- Organizing the personal (in a healthy way)
- Reading as downtime

Stay tuned!

This is your life moment of the year: "Whatever we pay attention to is what we become." - Alanna Kaivalya. For me, this means paying more attention to aspects of my life other than work, and being fully present during these times. And when working, giving it my full awareness. Otherwise, I become that person I really don't want to be.