A slap in the face

I had a good conversation today with one of my colleagues. He gave me a bit of a slap in the face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. (I think.) He had noticed that I had been more stressed than usual lately, and that I was defending my personal boundaries a bit more fiercely than I used to. This also has been a topic of the past couple of sessions with my therapist. Setting boundaries. Saying no. Realizing when enough is enough. Apparently the first part is showing some results, but I may struggle with the last.

My colleague made me question my own reasoning in a profound way. I know he didn’t mean to give me advice per se, but the conversations put my own reasoning about career choices and work ethic in quite a different perspective. He asked me a couple of questions, that were boiling down to 1) why are you so stressed? 2) why do you need to do everything? And 3) why do you do this to yourself?

The answer to 1) is easy. The reason I am currently stressed is because I’m trying to finish everything on my desk, before I go on parental leave. These things include experiments, grants and some manuscript revisions. Frequent readers will know, as I have shared them a couple of times over the past week or two.

The answer to 2) is maybe less straightforward. Why do I need to do all the things? My answer was something like “well, I have a bunch of deadlines, I need to finish these things because, well, deadlines”. I also mentioned something like “I owe it to my co-authors that also invested a lot of their precious time”. He was not very convinced. He pointed out that maybe I don’t owe anyone anything. More importantly, he pointed out that deadlines are just guidelines anyway. I never thought of it that way. I feel super guilty when I finish a review late (and so I rarely do). I also feel guilty for resubmitting close to a deadline (but mostly for my colleagues on the work). I never even considered asking for an extension of the deadline. Apparently that’s an option? The things you learn… Perhaps the most important slap in the face is that he made me realize that many of my deadlines are self-imposed. Like my grant proposal. There is no deadline. I set the deadline to 2 August (roughly). The main reason for this was that reviewers could use the two month parental leave as part of the reviewing process, so I would not be waiting during ‘work time’. I guess it was the efficiency freak in me that wanted it so. Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much if I submit a grant proposal a bit later…

The answer to 3) I still don’t know. Why do I do it to myself? I almost feel like the system expects it from me, and if I don’t I will never get a permanent position. I was never that stressed about this, but now that I have a family, the need for permanence (even if I’m safe for a couple more years here) is becoming more prominent in my life. I have seen many friends and colleagues around me get tenure tracks. Almost without exception they are more productive than me, and I don’t have a clue how they do it. This almost creates the atmosphere where it seems that you have to be hyper-productive in order to succeed. I sometimes wish I could get somewhere permanent just on my love for natural history alone, but I’m afraid that is a rather utopian wish.

A more important question that I asked myself just now is how do I slow the fuck down? I sometimes feel like I can hardly opt out of existing collaborations, co-authorships, supervision, student projects, teaching, or administrative work. The first few are a matter of sunk cost, the latter more of an obligatory part of the job description. All of them contribute to my career, one way or another. But sometimes I wish I could just say no to all of it, and take a three week writing holiday to write a paper that I want to work on and that not only contributes to my career, but also contributes to some ‘direction’ in my own research for the next couple of years.

I feel like I couldn’t slow down, even if I wanted to – unless I’d quit and wave goodbye to academia.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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