(This post is tagged for submission to the scientiae-carnival. 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.