06 June 2012

Motivations for a Doctorate

People have asked me and I have asked others undertaking the road toward a doctorate: “What motivated you to do this?”

It’s a legitimate question. A doctorate is a gauntlet that you enter naively, regret while pursuing it, and with any luck at all, will think was worth it when you emerge from the other side. I can’t know yet whether that last part will be true, but I do hold out hope that I haven’t wasted my time.

But when asked directly about my motivations, I’ve always been tempted to give glib answers. I wanted to learn more. I wanted a better job. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But my motivations were real. I didn’t really enter this lightly. I was already out in the working world and could have remained there and made a decent living, probably a better living than I will end up with following all this education. Consider that I was making more money at my job that ended in 2000 than I made in my first year of teaching in 2012. I had better job security. I had lifestyle stability. I could have had a job for life. I gave it up.


The reasons are many and I’m going to try to give you a picture of what drove me back to graduate school.

My job was unsatisfying. Don’t get me wrong. I was good at my job. It was interesting and I was well paid. I was a writer and an editor for a variety of science organizations. I interviewed a lot of people about their work, about their specific knowledge, and then I interpreted that to the broader public. They had knowledge and skills. I had knowledge and skills. But, with each passing year it seemed to me that the work they did was real, and that somehow I was simply an observer on this train called life. Those I interviewed were saving species and traveling to spectacular locations, and making a difference in the world, and when they got back from their Indiana Jones lives I interviewed them and went back to my 1970s paneled office and wrote about their adventures. They were having all the fun. No one was ever going to pay me to go to Hawaii and study plants that grow on the slopes of volcanoes, or to South America to search for trees containing anti-cancer properties. I wanted adventure. I wanted to be more than a groupie for scientists.

I got a divorce. I married a lunatic and while we were divorcing he threatened me, harassed me, and generally made my life miserable. I knew if I stayed where I was, I’d never get any peace. I was unhappy and needed a clean break from the past. Starting a new career in a town where he couldn’t find me seemed like a great way to put it all behind me.

Which brings me to the next point.

I wanted to reinvent myself. When I left my job and got my divorce, I was unhappy. No. Not just unhappy. I was depressed. I had gained substantial weight during my marriage and I felt and looked awful. In that state, I simply could not tackle my physical issues, but I could begin to change my state of mind. In one defining moment, I decided to take control of my life. I decided that I was going to live my life for me. Not for my parents. Not for a husband. Not for my friends. Not to meet society’s expectations. For me. I found my passion and I went for it.

I wanted more control in my work life. One of the most attractive things I envisioned in an academic career was the elimination of shame and humiliation in the workplace. People make mistakes. I made mistakes. But there were times in my career when a boss would call me on the carpet. It wasn’t enough to point out my mistake and to ask me to work more carefully or to suggest methods of improvement. No. I was treated like a child. I was shamed and humiliated, sometimes in vast disproportion to the magnitude of the mistake. And I felt badly. I was shamed. I was humiliated. I was also distracted, unfocused, and unproductive. All the time spent feeling shame and humiliation, I was not being getting work done. So what place do shame and humiliation have in the workplace? I was not working with gross indifference to my performance. I was motivated to do a good job without shame and humiliation. People make mistakes. They make mistakes when they are stressed or hurried or overworked or tired. Compounding my dissatisfaction, I was expected to take responsibility for mistakes that weren’t my own. Not even mistakes made by my staff. Mistakes over which I had no input or control. As though I had a cloud of influence that radiated perfection in every direction. I had no respect for the bosses laying the guilt trips. I do not believe that shame and humiliation have any place in the workplace. In fact, I don’t believe they have any place in our lives. I wanted a job where very few people had the right to comment on my behavior. I wanted to be at the top of the heap. I wanted that feeling to be expelled from my life forever. Academia was the one place I thought it possible to reduce or eliminate the shame and humiliation from above.

I found the subject interesting. When I returned to school, I found the more I learned about plants, the more I wanted to learn. I found I had an aptitude for this work. I found that I truly enjoyed it. I found that I liked being around others who enjoyed it. I thought it was a supportive, interesting, mentally stimulating career choice. For the most part, it has been.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now, for the rest of the story….”

Hindsight is 20/20 and with that I will now detail why I think academia may have been the wrong choice. Granted, my experiences are limited to my work as a graduate student under the mentoring of an academic, but I have seen a little of the inside as well when I was a Visiting Asst. Professor for a time.

The Scrabble Paradox. I’m not good at Scrabble. I have an extraordinarily large vocabulary, but it seems that people—regardless of their education, level of proficiency in the English language, or age—are able to thump me unceremoniously. I draw all vowels. I draw all consonants. Someone uses the space I had earmarked for an 8-letter word worth 4000 points. I lose and lose often. Luckily, my livelihood and my self worth are not tied to my Scrabble performance. Not so much with academia. My area of specialization is not in favor with funding agencies at the moment and, if I am honest with myself, is unlikely to be popular during the totality of my career. It’s considered marginal work at best. I find it extraordinarily fascinating and it has great potential to benefit the human condition, but pollination and reproductive biology isn’t sexy. And funding is the name of the game in academia. Promotions, tenure, bragging rights, stature…everything depends on your ability to attract research dollars and the bigger the payoff, the bigger the professional rewards. I don’t enjoy a game I can never win. My choices are to pursue research that doesn’t interest me but is fundable or to languish at the bottom of the food chain.

The profession creates assholes. University professors have an obligation to train the next generation of scientists. Training generally entails learn-on-your-own, on-the-job training with students doing the grunt work of their advisor’s research. Students are regularly abused from a legal standpoint. In return for this dedication to their advisor’s research, do they receive quality training and mentoring? Oh, hell no! I once pointed out to a professor that a student needed a particular class to qualify for the career he desired. The professor emphatically stated that the class in question did not support the student’s research project and would not result in publishable papers, so why should the professor support the student’s taking an unrelated class? As though the student’s career needs are solely defined by the parameters of a single research project! When I pointed out that the student was here to get training for his career, the professor seemed unfazed. I can only hope the professor advised the student to take the course.

Undergraduates are like face-eating zombies. More specifically, it’s those pre-med students who nickel and dime you for every point, eat up your time with their incessant need to discuss their grade. Most of these students are doing exceedingly well. Their problem is they are unable to accept anything less than perfection in themselves and they will gladly impose that impossible standard on you. They will gripe and complain about assignments, tests, grading, lectures, labs, and anything else that diverts attention away from them. Don’t’ get me wrong. I am willing to offer advice, help, assistance, and additional time so that a student can get up to speed, improve study habits, or learn something they don’t understand. However, I can’t fix a problem that doesn’t exist. I can advise students who don’t test well, don’t study, don’t want to come to class, wants something for nothing, or simply wishes to blame me for their poor performance. I will work with the folks trying. I can’t abide the folks complaining because their success isn’t successful enough. It’s a constant battle to keep the zombies from eating you alive.

The profession is your life. I hope you are already married and have a tolerant spouse. You’ll work long hours. Mostly alone. You have an impossible workload. You will submit subpar work because of outrageous deadlines. You will feel frazzled. You won’t have friends outside of work. You will panic a lot. No one can help you. They are feeling the same pressure. You better love it. This is your life.

Collegiality is absent. There. I said it. I don’t think academics are particularly friendly. There is no love lost between the old timers and the newbies. You are lucky to find one colleague you can tolerate and work on making that person your best friend for life. Good luck.

Overall, it would be a great profession if I could be excused from bringing in my own research dollars. If I could just go out and do research on the cheap (luckily, my research can be done cheaply). Because grant writing is a bitch and I’ve not been very successful.

29 January 2012

Who am I and where did I come from?

In my last post, Liv brought up an interesting point.

I think stepping outside of the box you grew up in has to be one of the toughest but most rewarding things that a person can do--it takes a bit of courage most of us don't even possess... and a way of thinking that feels unnatural.

I don't know who you were when you first lived in Kentucky, but you've made me curious to know which 'roots' you've hung on to... The person you have chosen to become has to have in some way emerged from the person you were, no? Your lust for adventure and experience... is that from your dad? Your upbringing? Your community? What about your intuition for how to make food taste good? Your sense of humor? My vote for your next post: You suggest that who you are now is a result of rejecting all that you were then... But my gut tells me that if I met you 25 years ago, there would be elements of the same Liz that I see now... What HASN'T changed (other than your wonderful accent)? That's my question.

I do suggest that I rejected everything from my past and have carved out this new and improved D from a fresh block of marble. We all know that ain't exactly so. So I'll attempt some context if only to make Liv happy. But I want you to understand, Liv. You haven't asked an easy, short-blog-post question.

In my family, I am most like my oldest brother. The one in jail. My mother, a trained therapist today, has labeled my brother and I narcissists. The way she hisses it, there is no doubt that I should somehow be ashamed of myself. With all the people I know who are crippled by a lack of self-esteem, I'll take narcissism over self-doubt any day. According to my mother, the difference between my brother and myself today is that I am "just" a narcissist, but my brother has narcissistic personality disorder. I have to disagree. I don't believe my brother has fragile self-esteem. It doesn't matter what label you put on it, it was obvious very early that as as opinionated, vocal children and teenagers, our personalities weren't highly valued.

My brother is actually quite entertaining. He is a master storyteller. He can captivate your attention for hours. I think he would have made a compelling actor. Or comedian. He does great impressions of famous people. I can't tell a story to save my life, but I like to discuss ideas. I like to bounce around alternative explanations. I like to explore concepts, turn them over, see what's buried in the dirt beneath them. But to this day, if either my brother or I try to discuss something among our family we are regularly chastised for "getting on our soapboxes", which was simply a polite way of wishing we'd shut up. It didn't matter (and still doesn't) that I did my homework before I spoke, that I wasn't reciting opinion, but rather basing my discussion on an educated perspective. According to my sister, my sole objective was to be "right". It became obvious to me that I was talking to the wrong people.

So part of who I am and who my brother is arises from the unstoppable overlay of our rather strong personalities--a personality type not inherited from either of our parents.

My father was practical. Reserved. Methodical. Calculating. Thoughtful. He did nothing spontaneously. We didn't go on vacations because we were saving for college educations. We didn't get new shoes until the old ones had holes in them. We didn't get fashionable clothing. His favorite store was K Mart. I don't recall going out to dinner with my family unless we were traveling and mealtime came when we were on the road. I don't recall eating at McDonald's until I was in junior high school. My father's mark on our family was restraint. He thought yellow mustard was an exotic spice. I probably needed restraint more than most. So I credit my father with the lack of interest I take in fashion and the trappings of status. I place no value on designer names. I shop at Goodwill. I buy generic. To me a car is a tool that gets me from point A to point B and a home is place where I hang my hat at night. The one thing my father did value was his home. He valued it even more so than I do.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She cooked all our meals, did our laundry, kept the house in reasonable shape. She stayed out of way for the most part. My mother was, and remains, a terrible cook. She makes, no kidding, the same 4 dishes every week. The spices in her cabinet have been there more than 20 years. The vanilla extract has solids on the bottom of the jar. You can't get the lid off the cinnamon. I didn't grow up in a household that valued flavor. So to answer that question, Liv, I learned to cook when I first moved to Chicago and began to sample the world's cuisines. I instantly fell in love. With everything. And I wanted it more than just when my pocketbook would allow an evening out. I cannot credit anyone in my family for my love of culinary adventure.

But other hints of me were present in my childhood. When I was growing up, I saw myself bigger than the dreams my parents laid out for me. I was going to be an Olympic swimmer. A famous author. An actor on television. I was going to be BIG. I don't think that anymore. I do think that teaching gives me an outlet that is useful for my personality. I like talking about ideas. I am something of a performer. I suppose in my classroom, I'm big. I think a lot of people might be uncomfortable admitting that they want to be the center of attention. I'm not really. Why hide the obvious? If I told you I was a humble, reluctant teacher and that I didn't like being the center of attention, no one who knows me would believe me anyway. I believe it is simply good sense to use one's strengths to their best advantage. Teaching allows me to make good use of the strengths of a "narcissist" personality.

The town I grew up in was tired. It was grey. The streets were dirty with soot that fell from the stacks of the coke plant. Never once in the dreams of my childhood did I think of staying in that town and settling down. I wanted to live in the wilderness of Colorado, somewhere so far out they had to air drop in toilet paper. I wanted to live off my wits. I wanted adventure. I wanted to learn to surf. I wanted to ride dune buggies in big sand. I wanted to go to Europe and see the Eiffel Tower. I wanted do things that no one could possibly do in eastern Kentucky. I didn't want to live a small life. I wanted out and the sooner the better.

I'm honestly not sure what my parents thought of my dreams. They listened politely. They didn't discourage me. They didn't encourage me either. They would say generic things like, "You can be anything you want to be" but they never seemed to tell me that I had to plan to do those things. I think they assumed I'd quit dreaming one day and face reality. Maybe they didn't know what to say.

I had great parents. Don't get me wrong. My father made me proud. My mother worked hard to make us good people. But I simply think they didn't know how to deal with someone like me (and maybe my brother, too) who were so different from themselves. I didn't bother to ask to do most things I really, really wanted to do because I knew the answer was no. No, I wouldn't be allowed to get a mini-bike. I wouldn't be allowed to order sea monkeys from the back of the comic book. I wouldn't be encouraged to try out for cheerleader. Just because.

I was actually amazed when I was allowed to join the swim team. And it was my mother who encouraged that. Maybe she knew I needed a way to channel my energy. Maybe she was just too tired to say no. But I became a swimmer and from the fourth grade into high school, swimming was my life. My adventure was planning for how I was going to win Olympic medals. I read books about Donna de Varona. I watched Mark Spitz and dreamed. Oh, how I dreamed.

I credit swimming for teaching me loads that I've brought with me to adulthood. In swimming I learned self-discipline. I learned to entertain myself. I learned the value of hard work. I learned how to win humbly and lose with grace. I learned to push myself. I learned to accept my limits. I credit my parents for schlepping me to meets in towns two hours away on weekends when I'm sure they'd rather be relaxing. For laying out the money on suits and goggles and warmups so I could pursue all this. I credit them for not being too involved. They stayed out of my way. They didn't micromanage. They were just as supportive as I needed them to be and that was honestly very little.

I once asked my mother why they doted so on my sister. I asked her why I never seemed to elicit that sense of concern in them. My mother told me frankly, "You never seemed to need any help." My parents largely left me alone.

To this day, it is difficult for me to look at who I am and say I got this from my dad and that from my mom. As adverse as my parents were to risk taking, I do thank them for guiding me into activities that worked well for me. Were a good fit. Taught me life lessons. I thank them for not belittling my dreams. I think I am a better, more practical, more charitable person because of the role models they were.

The adventurer in my family was my great-grandfather and that I will save for another post.

28 January 2012

On Not Getting the Job (aka On Why I Can't Go Home Again)

For the past 7 months, I've been living with my sister in Kentucky. I got a nice professional position at a local university about two hours from the town where I grew up. I am closer to my family. I should be happy, right?

Wrong. I'm miserable.

Well, maybe that's overstating it. I'm not miserable. I'm uncomfortable. I'm uneasy here. And the reason for this generalized ajada? I feel oppressed. I feel this intense pressure that I haven't felt since I was 17 and bursting at the seams to get the hell out.

I had reservations about accepting this job. Not because of the job itself. It represented a great opportunity for me. It has been a great opportunity for me. I had reservations about moving back to Kentucky. Who are we kidding? For years now, I've had reservations about visiting Kentucky.

Forget for the moment that I moved in with my sister with whom I have an uneasy relationship. Despite our major differences, we have managed fairly well living together.

So what really is the problem? People know me here. People who haven't seen me in 30 years. People who remember me only from how I was in high school. People, most often, who never moved away. People who haven't had the same breadth of life experiences that I have. People who never lived outside the box they were born into. They haven't tried new things. They settled into predictable patterns. They found no need to explore themselves, to examine their beliefs, or to even just try something new for the sheer enjoyment of it. When I look at some of those lives, I think how grossly inappropriate it would have been for me to have settled for that.

If there is a truth in my life it is this: I was not meant for the ordinary.

And because I didn't settle and I braved the world outside Kentucky, I have grown into the adult I am today. And I'm not a damn thing like I was back in high school. I can't even remember who that girl was. The most unfortunate part about it is this. Even if you managed to break free, the vision that your family and friends had of you remains intact. They still have these expectations. They still think they maintain this power to shape me. They think, quite honestly, that by trying to shame me, I'll behave in a manner they find acceptable. It seems harsh to say that, but that is how families work. At least, that is how my family works. My family wasn't there to see me grow and they refuse to acknowledge my growth. They are stuck with this vision of someone who doesn't exist.

I'm not going to argue this point, really, because while some might disagree, what I have just described is a truth in my life. Your's may be different. But my family exerted a lot of pressure to conform to their ideals, and those ideals were involved avoiding risk in any aspect of life. Whether it was socially speaking, financially speaking. Hell, as a family, we didn't even try new recipes. My family taught me strict adherence to community standards. In a word, that environment was oppressive. It was perhaps even more oppressive than high school, where the pressure to conform is intense.

So my family continues to attempt to apply guilt, shame, and overt pressure to force me to be someone I'm not. Do they do it maliciously? Of course not. But they do it. To the rest of the world in my home town, I'm still that high school person. They liked that person. They want that person back. I have lived in distant contact with those friends and my family for 30 years. We talk on the phone. We've seen each other 2-3 times a year. At holidays. On the occasional trip home. But for the most part, my adult life has been lived independent of my early influences and their influence waned long ago.

I think one of the reasons that being young is so hard is that we are awakening to the possibilities that life offers, but living in a situation where other people have more power over what we are, what we do, what ideas we feel comfortable expressing, what things we see, who we are exposed to than we do ourselves. When like to say that the young are discovering themselves, but they are doing so cloaked in the morality of their families. What kid hasn't heard that standard parental phrase, "Not while you're living under my roof"? Who we become is shaped, to a large extent, by the expectations of our families. If we remain in close contact with our families, that vision of who we are becomes ingrained. And that was true for me, right up until the moment that my ex-husband tried to kill me.

All bets were off after that. I decided that every day was a gift, and I was living for me and no one else.

I celebrate the day of my divorce each year. I call it my Independence Day. It was a day that changed my life forever.

I think I am extraordinarily lucky then to have moved away from my family early. I think had I not moved away early, I might have sought my refuge in them. I might have found comfort in becoming that person they expected. Thankfully, I didn't. Instead, I questioned everything that my life had become. I asked myself whether or not it fit my vision of myself. Did it fit the way I wanted to live my life?

Those were questions that were extraordinarily foreign to me at the time, and I became drunk with the possibilities. If I was really free, then the whole world was open to me. Since I was 39 years old, I began to put my own mark on my life.

And I will not look back. I will not allow others to influence who I am and who I want to become.

If Kentucky makes me uneasy, I will not live in Kentucky.

They will not offer me a permanent position here. They may have done me one of the greatest favors of my life.