Monday, March 24, 2014

MathEmperor Mobius provides advice for the new and naive, part 1

If I could turn back time...

Yeah, Cher. You and me both.

Actually, if I could travel back in time, say ten years ago, I would have one serious sit-down conversation with my younger self.

Ten years ago, I was young(er), newly established in a FT teaching position, and was excited to be in the academic environment.
(Oh, you poor naive young lad.)
I finally achieved the career that I had always envisioned for myself.

But then it all changed.
This once peaceful work environment began to transform into one of nightmarish despair and hopelessness.

Circumstances and events in the college's history during that period brought out the worst in people. Our work family irrevocably went from happy to dysfunctional in the blink of an eye. I couldn't have imagined that these colleagues, these professionals, could act and behave like children. The people politics became so toxic, and the scheming and back-stabbing so sinister, that even Machiavelli would have cringed. There was so much Kool-aid on tap, that I thought the area that housed the administrative offices was going to be renamed the Jim Jones wing. The Kool-aid pitcher was even made a Dean. Oh yeah.

I stuck it out for a while thinking it would get better. I mean, it couldn't really get worse, could it? (Oh, you poor naive young lad.) Well, it did, with each year being progressively more vile than the last, and I let it churn me up until I quit.

I imagine that the conversation with my younger self would be very one-sided, as I impart my experiences and wisdom to him.

Me_at_37:  Who are you?
Me_at_47:  I'm you from the future.

Me_at_37:  Holy crap....
Me_at_47:  Yeah, no shut up and listen.....

If you are new in your position, and your paradise is starting to go sour, then for what it is worth, I give you the following advice:

Don't take on everything. You have nothing to prove.  Are you faster than a course overload, more powerful than an extra set of advisees, able to leap four committees in a single bound?  I found out the hard way that the answer was 'no'. By all means, cultivate a good reputation for doing your job well, but don't burn yourself out doing it. If administration sees that 'S' on your chest, they figure that is where the shit goes, and they will likely give you more. That 'S' stands for sucker.  It also stands for stress.

Find your voice. I know this is tough when you are new. You aren't quite sure when you can play a 'no' card, or what you can express a concern about. Don't complain about mouse-nuts stuff. (Yeah, it sucks when the copier is out of toner, boo hoo.) But, on the other hand, don't suffer in silence, as that can make you a pushover target. During my first year, administration strongly suggested that I teach an online course. (as that was new at the time) I sheepishly agreed, without having had a clue about it, and it bit me in the ass. You will find your vocal balance, in time. It is an important task and worthy of your effort.

Overburdened? Ask to have your work prioritized. Or if something isn't working out, give your boss suggestions or alternatives to work with. Never go in empty-handed. You know, do all that sappy stuff that makes your boss feel valued, labels you a team-player, moves things along giving the illusion of progress and accomplishment, and spins things into a win-win for both parties. It doesn't always work everywhere or all the time, but it does help you find your voice.

It is okay to be selfish. You can be selfish without being an a-hole.  It is possible. It definitely is healthy. Maybe you can't participate in an activity or attend an event. You can make people understand that some of your scheduled time needs to be blocked for your work. Your stuff comes first. The good people will get it. The ones who don't understand, don't matter.  


  1. Love the Superman stuff here. Yup. That "S" lets them know where to put the shit. And it stands for SUCKER.

    Still, if you like the project, do it well and work like a crazy person on it.

  2. As Ed Nather wrote in his essay, "Advice to the Young Astronomer":

    "Committee assignments: the theory here is that everybody should share in the burden of administration, taking time away from their research work in the process. If you are very good and conscientious about this stuff you will be given more and more of it, since you get things done, to the lasting benefit of the department administrators. On the other hand if you thoroughly neglect it, fail to call or attend any committee meetings, and generally do a lousy job, you will get fewer and fewer committee assignments, and you can get on with your research. You should not be too blatant, though. When pressed, have a meeting by email - just send each committee member a copy of the topic to be considered (obscurity here is a virtue) and ask them to respond. Make a single file of all the individual responses and send it back to all of them, and a copy to the department chairman. This should create enough dissention and warring messages that you can tell the chairman you are uncomfortable making a decision without a consensus, and that he had better do it. You won't be assigned to that committee again."

    1. What I do is that, if the committee work is important, such as letters of recommendation for junior faculty who are teaching well and involving students in their research well, I'll do it, and do it well. I will, however, make sure to torment my department Chair, so he'll think twice about asking me again, particularly about doing anything frivolous, such as writing strategic plans that no one will ever read. How do I torment him? Psychology works fine, and of course I always have my STAPLE GUN (TWITCH! TWITCH!) at the ready. Did I mention that I have tenure, and have served as Chair myself? If I therefore tormented the Chair so much he flipped his lid, I could always step in, or step in something, at least.

  3. I like this "advice to younger self" format (though I'm not quite sure which younger self I would, if given a chance, address, or exactly what I'd say, other than perhaps "run like hell in the other direction!" -- or, alternatively, "finish the stupid diss. already!", though there were already plenty of people saying the latter, and it didn't help much. "Run like hell" is probably better advice, though I'm still not sure *where* I'd tell her to run. Sad fact -- I still want to be a writer/researcher, and I kind of like having a Ph.D., worthless as it may be in any material sense.) Maybe somebody less confused than I could do a follow-up worthy of Mobius' example?

  4. I would tell myself to stop at an MS, get an industry job and live happily ever after. Okay maybe not quite that, because for all of the pain there is something I love about academia. Perhaps, I would say get that MS, get a job in industry and adjunct at night a few times a week for the teaching fix. Hell were adjuncts "a thing" 13 years ago? I had no idea what an adjunct was until I was one. Oh, and I guess I would tell myself about adjucts!

  5. I'd tell my younger self (probably in my freshman or sophomore year) that I would never beat the odds. The jobs that were exciting and "cutting edge" were few and far between, even in fields such as "high tech". Actually getting one like that was more a case of being lucky and knowing the right people rather than having talent, intelligence, and education. That's in complete contrast to what I was told even as far back as high school, namely that if one worked hard and did things right, one would be amply rewarded for it.

    I'd also tell that younger self to prepare for a career that was filled with boredom and frustration. With all the education I had, much of what I did, particularly in industry, could have been done by someone with a diploma from a 2-year tech school--one wouldn't need a graduate degree for it. I would also tell him that he'd have to deal with idiotic managers and nasty colleagues. He'd also know that he would actually teach at a post-secondary institution with the same types of managers and colleagues as well as stupid, lazy, and obnoxious students.

    Unfortunately, my younger self wouldn't know what other field to go into or what else to do with his life.

  6. If I could tell my younger self anything, my younger self wouldn't have listened.

    1. Good thing, too, since I beat the odds, and now I am an astronomer, with tenure, and that's even better than being a cowboy! Yippie-i-o-ki-yay! The sad part is that I may be the last astronomer to get tenure in America, but despite anything I say, all my students think they'll get it, too.

  7. Math guy, hey! We're supposed to be able to compartmentalize and focus ruthlessly, and to isolate the people and interactions that annoy us (and have no long-term impact) from our consciousness altogether. If it looks "unfriendly", or downright weird, so be it.

    What I would have told my younger self: research, research, research. And then some research. Never stop riding that bicycle, don't let your research contacts go fallow, pursue them like a needy newbie, especially if you're in a backwater. Teaching: this isn't Harvard anymore; statistically none of the majors you're teaching will go on to grad school. For most students it's a technical school (or a pro sports franchise) calling itself a "university". Deal with it, let all but the most committed studentflake get by with a C. Service: as little as possible; it doesn't matter anyway, the local culture, older colleagues and student population are immutable constraints that will make any "new ideas" you might bring from your "elitist background" unworkable.