A Career and a Life, Episode 2 : Career Strikes Back

Jul 30 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, Self

(This post is tagged for submission to the . I am sure there is a less obtrusive way to do this tagging... suggestions?)

A while back at this blog's former site, I wrote a post entitled A Career and a Life. Now that my career is on the precipice of undergoing a tremendous change, I thought it might be interesting to revisit that post.

First of all, everything I said before in there I still agree with.

But I want to go beyond that. As I described in that post, I willingly risked being seen as "not serious enough" by not allowing my faculty position to suck up all of my time, and continued spending time on things in my life, including hobbies that most would consider nothing but a waste of time.

However, as I increasingly realized in the last couple of years, I was allowing my career, to seriously and hugely impact the rest of my life in a very negative way. It is for this reason that in the title of this new post I put the career in the role of the Big Evil. I don't really think career is evil, of course, not like the Empire of Star Wars. But it was doing evil things.

In my post about leaving academia, not to mention a whole slew of posts about that, I've described the increasing feelings of desperation and despair I've felt over the last couple of years as I continued not to get funding, and received the message that not only did this mean that Vanderbilt would deny me tenure, but that this meant I was a failure as a professor. This was the stimulus that drove me into a deep and dark depression... and, at that point, my entire life became negatively affected by my career.

I only came to realize how bad it was fully this summer, when I crashed bigtime after learning in May that my NSF grant had been turned down yet again. I was almost entirely non-functional for a week or two after that. What really tipped me off, though, was when I learned from my wife how tremendously hard she had been hit by this. To which you will, of course, say, "Duh!". Several years ago I lived through my wife being in a deep and dark and crippling depression as the result of a very unfortunate medication side effect, so you'd really think I would know just how much it affects you when your spouse goes through something like that. The fact is that I've been making my wife's life that much harder because of the despair and overwhelming stress that academia has been driving me through.

Is any career worth that? Absolutely not.

We talk about how the pressures to do more force people to squeeze out their life. We talk about how people's careers suffer if they insist on having a life in the form of (say) kids, for then they are "not serious enough." But we should also be talking about the active damage that happens to our lives not just from career-induced neglect, but from the career-induced poisoning that happens when our career drives us to seriously unhealthy mental states. It was not good for me to go through what I'd gone through with the "not good enough" feedback I was implicitly getting from the astronomy community and from Vanderbilt, but it was brutally unfair of me to then make my wife put up with the version of me that arose from that stress.

If we are to balance our careers and our lives, at some point we need to recognize when a career is not only taking away too much attention from our life, but also when our career is actively harming our life. At that point, it is time to make a change.

"Not serious enough." Damning words, but their very use should make us suspicious. Several months ago, I was talking with a couple of professors from the medical school here. They were relating a story from the graduate admissions committee of their department. There was a student with a very good record, but this student had spent a couple of years after college with the Peace Corps instead of going straight to med school. And, some professors on the comittee were arguing that this student should not be admitted, for this was evidence that the student was "not serious enough" about studying medicine. Hello? This is yet another case of the "dreaded gap." When applying for a faculty position anywhere, if there is a gap or slowdown in your publication record, you're in trouble. Is it because you had kids, or because there was a medical issue in your family? No excuse. Hell, it's not even an excuse if you were working on a long-term project that didn't produce any papers until the end; astronomy is notorious for mistreating its instrumentalists who spend too much time building the infrastructure we all need instead of "doing science." What's the matter with all of us?

Some people who don't know the field ask me if I intend to go back to doing physics and astronomy after a few years of the computer gig I'm moving to. Those who know the field wouldn't even ask. When you're out, you're out. There's no way anybody will ever see me as serious enough to let me go back to a research University. It's conceivable that I might be able to go back to a heavily teaching-oriented institution, but even then there will be plenty of other people who are "more serious" (i.e. never left) competing for the jobs. Yes, people sometimes do move from industry to a faculty job in a physics department— but generally they were doing physics research or closely related things in industry. I will not be; I'm going to be working on computer net working and building a virtual world.

I hope I can get my astronomy jones out by writing lots of "descriptions for the intelligent lay person" on this blog.

As I've mentioned before, I'm very excited for a lot of reasons to be making the move to Linden Labs. This isn't just me trying to find "any escape valve" to get out of academia, for there is an awful lot to like about that company. Among those is the fact that during my interview, a couple of people explicitly mentioned to me that Linden does not share the "work yourself into the ground" ethic that many computer companies and startup companies have (see E.A. Spouse's "The Human Story" for the most egregious take I've seen). One person told me that there isn't any sense of competition between employees to make sure that they're seen staying very late, that they stay later than anybody else. (This person herself actually stays well past midnight, I am told, but also doesn't show up until after noon.) They told me that they like people to have lives, and that they are very understanding that people are people, not machines that "produce" for the company . The fact that the average age of people working at Linden tends to be a bit higher than the average age at a lot of companies may have something to do with this.

Interestingly, I was also told that the female/male ratio at Linden is higher than at the typical computer company. One could speculate all day about the direction of the causation arrow between this and Linden being, evidently, more friendly about people with families.

Now, I don't doubt that there are some people out there— particularly people who like to whine constantly that Linden never bothers to fix the bugs and problems that have been around for some time— will take a cynical view on this and say that, well, hell, they're too nice to their employees, they aren't serious enough. I think that is very wrong. I take this as evidence that the company just thinks farther. They recognize that people can have a life that includes a lot of energy and creativity spent outside of the workplace, and that those people still can be very serious about their career. The recognize that while in the next 6 months they will probably get more out of people with a "death march," long term they will do better with creative people if they allow those creative people to be human beings.

I fully expect to work hard at my new job. Especially as I get started, I expect to be pretty tired out as I'm learning a whole lot of things in a very short period of time. But I also expect that I will be able to be taken seriously there, that I will be able to make real progress and contributions, while still maintaining my life, and without burdening my life with my unbearable career stress. I am looking forward to it.

I am happy to be shuffling away from academia. There is a lot of awareness in academia that this is a problem. Indeed, few (or, at least, some) people would not say that somebody who has kids "isn't serious enough." But the pressures are all still there. As long as we have this gigantic Sword of Damocles known as "tenure denial" hanging over our heads, there is tremendous pressure to sacrifice all on the altar of career, no matter how many scientific "status of women" committee proclamations we read about the importance of balance. There are deep and systemic problems to the way the whole thing is structured that we need to at the very least recognize if we really want to make a difference.

10 responses so far

  • The last company I worked for had the death-march attitude. I'm too old for that crap. I have a family and many outside interests. I worked harder at that job than I have at any other but their unrealistic expectations eventually led to my getting fired.
    The company I work for now understands that I do not equal my job. They expect me to meet my deadlines but they don't expect me to kill myself in the process. And you know what? They are getting a much higher quality of work than the last company did because I don't come to the office every day with a fight-or-flight response.
    Congratulations on the new gig! You deserve to be treated like a human rather than a production module.

  • Chris' Wills says:

    The part I always like is when you leave these types of companies ask "Why?" and seemingly don't understand why people are annoyed at the working conditions.
    It is even worse when you have people who are so used to being treated badly and don't realise their own worth and so are scared of leaving their uncomfortable rut.
    I'm guessing that most science/maths PhDs would be in the top 20% by IQ. So the love of the adventure and discovery in Science/Maths must outweigh their rationality on this issue.
    I'm starting a new job this Saturday.
    New country, new employer, newish type of work.
    Am I scared? Well yes a little (I was very comfortable working in Saudi, nice people, pleasant working environment and the Saudi companies I worked for realised that life doesn't equal job and that family comes first).
    Why am I moving you may ask?
    Well, new country (Qatar), meet new people and hopefully stretch my brain and do some engineering again.
    Oh yes, being woken at 6am by the call to pray was a bit annoying as well; though that may still occur :o)
    I can vaguely understand the problem of leaving a job you love, but I do wonder at the belief amongst some Scientists that academia is the only way.

  • Theorist says:

    Dear Rob,
    I've been reading your blog for a while, and I applaud your brave decision to take steps to increase your personal happiness, even though I'm sure it was a very difficult decision to leave astronomy.
    As someone who has suffered from depression (it seems to be an occupational hazard of our profession) I recognize and sympathize with many things you have been going through. And I'd like to offer a word of advice. While I'm sure that working at Linden labs will be a tremendous improvement over your current situation, it is not a panacea. I suspect that you are, as I am, a person who suffers from chronic depression, a disease which can be successfully managed over the course of one's life, but is rarely cured. I also suspect that, had you gotten tenure, you would still have episodes of depression, although the proximate cause would be different.
    So: be happy about your new step in life, but don't expect miracles. In all likelihood you will still go through periods of depression, much like the one you've recently experienced. And you should be prepared to deal with them. And the things that have helped you in the past will help you in the future: your family, friends, hobbies, and a good therapist/medication if that is your way.
    I hope you don't find this message offensive - and perhaps I am not telling you anything you don't already know - but I don't want you to be disappointed.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I do wonder at the belief amongst some Scientists that academia is the only way.
    As you note, in your comment, this probably transcends academia. I think that part of the reason people think academia is The Way is that there is a huge investment involved in getting there in the first place. You can't get to a tenure track position without 5-6 years of grad school and 3-6 years of a post-doc. If you then get tenure, it was another 7 years as an assistant professor. After all of that, it had damn well better be something pretty special that you've got....
    Zuska's recent article on balance says some very familiar things about leaving academia.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Theorist -- yes, I know, I'm fully aware that this is something I have to be careful about. And, indeed, I am also aware of the dangers of the "grass is greener" syndrome, in thinking that making some change will be all that's needed.
    On the other hand, I've used that before as a reason not to make a change-- if the problem is just that I've got some chemical inbalances that are hard to figure out, then perhaps things aren't as bad as I think. In my case, the fact is that the situation I've been in has been increasingly untenable because of the tenure stress. No, moving away from academia certainly won't be a panacea, not moving had become something that would make it impossible for me to have a chance of succesfully dealing with the depression.

  • Rolfe says:

    It is always exciting to start a new job -- especially one that is so different from what you've been doing. I've had my ups and downs in the software business but over all it has been a great thing.
    In academics I felt like I had dozens of masters -- anyone who could help me get a job or a grant or a publication somewhere down the road had some power over me. I never did anything very interesting because I was trying to be safe and build a career more than I was trying to explore. And I was just a Ph.D. student!
    Now I can easily walk away from any situation I don't like and I don't have to worry about it. I have (and demand) a great work environment and I actually have more time to think about things I find interesting than I did back at the academy.
    I still miss academics sometimes. But then I remember what my life was really like there, or I hear stories like yours, and I'm very happy I took the less serious path. Good luck!

  • mollishka says:

    If the recent weeks are any indication, the new job also means more time for blog posts?

  • David Harmon says:

    Amen... that "death-march" attitude amounts to exploitation, and it's become regrettably more common, a trend ongoing since at least the 80s.
    Something like 12 years ago, I crashed out of a supportive job due to depression. I then took the first job offer I got, down in NYC. Big mistake! They were so exploitative and unsupportive that not only did my depression worsen to the point where I crashed out of that job too, but the experience combined with other traumas, and the environment of NYC, to leave me completely fried for years. Now I've moved down to Charlottesville (VA) -- I'm not working yet, but I'm feeling a helluva lot better already, even with the heat wave!

  • Zuska says:

    Rob, I think you will find there is a lot to love about working in industry, and there will be things you don't miss at all about academia. There are things you will miss but I think what you get in exchange compensates a great deal for it. One of those things is the expansive sense of where your career can go - there are SO many pathways open to you in industry, so many choices, not just one linear path. The pay ain't bad, either. 🙂
    About the strain career crap puts on your spouse: to some extant, that's what you sign up for when you enter into a relationship with someone. You agree to be there for the bad times just as much as the good. It's not your fault your career gave you health issues any more than it's my fault I had a stroke and got chronic migraines. Mr. Zuska has had to deal with those for 4+ years. It's what you do when you love someone. It's harder with things like depression because we tend to think somehow you ought to just, by strength of will, "get over it". But it takes time to heal just like any other injury. Be gentle with yourself.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Zuska -- thank you.
    I would say that as with everything in a relationship, it's a tradeoff. Is the stress I'm putting on my spouse worth it for the career? It's not just me any more....
    In this case, though, the biggest problem was that I didn't realize quickly enough just how much strain I was putting Alyson through.
    In any event, after 2 weeks, the Linden job is fun, but I've still got a lot to learn about how everything is put together there!