Tuesday, September 30, 2008


The young researcher down the hall had, in fact, committed suicide, but thankfully not in the office. The office was nonetheless a crime scene. Drug addiction was involved, but it wasn't an overdose. I wonder if they found signs of drugs in the office.

Unfortunately, the person I got this information from was their former officemate. Which made it slightly weird that someone who had never met this person was asking.

My glam single life

I feel like such a stereotype of an unmarried educated woman. I have been reading NYC glam-single lit lately, like Candace Bushnell's original Sex in the City book and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, so I've been conscious of the trade-off between career and family, and how jealous everyone is of the other.

With this set-up I went to dinner at a guy I knew from college, also a postdoc. Their 2 young kids were asleep, so it was just his MD wife and a couple of guests described as "another couple" who I assumed would be around the same age as us. I felt a little weird about being the fifth wheel, but that's not totally unusual that in a group of a few people over 30, lots of them are married. It turned out that the couple was engaged and still in college, so about 10 years younger, and I no longer felt strange about it: they're more of an outlier than I am!

I felt stereotypical in two ways. First, while we were catching up about our mutual college friends, when I asked about a guy who I'd hung out with a lot, his only comment was, "Well, he's still dating the same girl as before." The doorbell rang, and I didn't get a chance until much later to demonstrate that I was actually asking how the guy was doing, not whether he was single.

Second, as they asked me what I did for fun, I realized how little of the city they have gotten to experience in a few years here, compared with my month. They had kids shortly after moving to this city, and had never done much in the city other than the basic survival activities and a few restaurants.

And the dating update. When it rains, it pours.

Ones which aren't going anywhere first:

1. My date last week that I was nervous for was extremely likeable, and I would have loved to be friends. He was short and slightly built, and I'm sure women sometimes reject him for that, but conversation didn't feel like an equal exchange and I didn't feel the right kind of attraction.

2. An English professor from a local university who was a third generation academic (!). He had a fantastic voice, and I was especially excited to meet him because he lives much closer to me than anyone else, but nothing. It was one of the most intelligent conversations I've had on a date, though, and I really enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the conversation was so intelligent because it was not personal. Usually I get people talking about their past relationships or sex or something else very personal; that's how I discovered that one of my dates was an adulterer on the first date. I don't do this on purpose, but the conversation just goes there. And it just didn't go anywhere personal. At the end, he made me pay my $4 towards our coffee bill.

3. The adulterer. I had thought I'd mentioned him, but apparently not. His first sexual partner was a married woman, and within a year of his own marriage, he had sex with his boss's teenage daughter. And several more during his marriage. At least he was forthcoming. I hadn't been looking for any of this information, and somehow it all poured out.

Ones which continue now:

1. Alan, discussed in previous post. I am taking it as a good sign that he reminds me of the guy that I almost married, more than I could ever imagine two people resembling each other: physically, academic interests, personality. But he's better than the guy I almost married in the two reasons we didn't stay together. Completely uncanny how well things line up, especially with the coincidence of having gone to high school together.

2. Daniel, who is 7 years older than I. He's sharp, decisive, and assertive, and that's refreshing, but he also sounds like a loyal friend. Something else that is frankly refreshing is that he is not poor. I don't know how it is, but I've had so many relationships where with my TA/RA or postdoc salary, I earned more than the guy I was dating, and that's pretty hard to do. He goes slightly to the opposite extreme, and has a few expensive toys which make me a little uncomfortable. Just because people frequently want better than what they have, and consumption becomes a spiral. Definite sparks, but I don't exactly find him the most attractive guy to look at. Which would improve if he continues to lose weight. I looked back at his online profile, and I think he lied about his height. Which is understandable.

3. Maxim was a couple years younger, and the only person I've met so far who would seemingly fit in with all of my friends from all different eras of my life: smart, geeky, quirky, sweet-natured, loyal to his friends, science major. In fact, meeting him felt like I'd known him throughout college, as if we'd been doing problem sets together. Unfortunately he lives farther away than anyone else and is simultaneously working and going to school, so has less time than most. He would be a fantastic boyfriend, but is not the most attractive guy, either. Well-built enough that he could be outright hot if he lost 10 pounds, though.

Daniel and Maxim are similar to me in so many ways, and are much more like the type of people I am used to hanging out with, and I really like spending time with them. I had to tear myself away from our meetings, and stayed with them much later than I'd originally planned. Alan might be a better complement, though; he has patience, empathy, sweetness, calmness beyond most people I've ever met. I'm not going to make any predictions because I don't have enough information, but I find the range of intelligence, assertiveness, quirkiness, sweetness to be really interesting. Coincidentally, they're all in law of some stripe, though I'd guess there's a factor of two difference between their salaries (x, 2x, 4x).

Needless to say, I'm not going on the job market this year, except in the same rough metro area.

5 weeks into my new postdoc

0. Good news! I got a paper accepted, after two rejections. The impact factor for the current journal is actually higher than the second journal I sent it to.

1. A commenter remarked on the importance of seeing other people, and oh my gosh, that's so right! Yesterday I left my office in the middle of the day for the first time in ages --- I headed to the gym around 3 pm, passing hundreds of people through hallways and streets, and it literally felt weird to be seeing more than a dozen people at a time. Wonderfully weird! I am going to try to work more often in common areas. Groups of people don't make loneliness go away, but wow it helps a lot.

2. Dating is wonderful beyond my wildest imagination. That's another post so the academically-inclined can skip it, but it definitely helps my mood.

3. Boice's Tips for New Faculty Members is a life-saver. I have not been very productive, but I am following his advice to do something every day, even if it feels small, and I am making progress on projects where previously I had no progress at all. It is incredibly difficult to just sit there, not doing anything other than thinking mindfully before starting work, but it reassured me that he says it's okay if it's a struggle.

4. Knowing to expect a struggle makes work easier. I remember from the memorial service a couple years ago for a famous academic in my field, someone said that he kept a list of his projects and their current status on a notepad. Right away, I made such a list, which was not short, and to my embarrassment, so little about the list changed over a one year period that it was clear that the list was completely pointless. Perhaps a famous academic was not a reasonable model for me. Part of me wants to keep up with my list. Making progress on multiple items seems theoretically possible, and yet I've never done it. So I am taking a small step every day on just one project, and only working on two projects concurrently. I'm trying not to look too far into the future or think about the fact that the two projects I am working on are still from my dissertation, and nothing new from here.

5. Knowing to expect a struggle makes practicalities easier too. After a month here, I know my regular routes well enough that I'm surprised that I still need to spend time with a map each time I go to a new place, even just on campus. The gym took me 20 minutes to locate. It turns out it is accessible only through an unmarked series of tunnels under scaffolding. Of course!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Being new

It occurs to me that one of the hardest things about being new is that everything is an effort, and it stays an effort for maybe 3 months. Every conversation is with a stranger. As much as I long to be with people, the meeting with this new research group listening them talk about projects I'm not going to be involved with was hardly satisfying social contact because I felt like I was totally on stage, and maybe even had to overcome some kind of barrier because a few of them hate my advisor. And my research group never ever has any meetings at all, as far as I can tell. Just a monthly seminar, which is the kind of monthly that is "every month, except when it's inconvenient." which really means six times a year.


I went through a period of high energy, meeting with lots of people, and then suddenly started slowing down. It's incredibly hard to maintain 1 1/2 to 2 hours per day of commuting, even if I do get to read the paper. I introduced myself to everyone that I have met on my corridor, although most people leave their doors closed or ajar just a millimeter so I haven't encountered more than half the people on my hallway. In the subsequent days, I didn't see them again or have an opening to have a conversation. Someone I introduced myself to who has her door open just 3 inches isn't exactly soliciting conversation. The woman directly across the hall from me suggested we have coffee sometime. I should take her up on that. But I haven't seen her since that first time we met. And she is directly across the hall from me! Maybe I should put a big sign on my door which says, "Please interrupt!"

The most demoralizing part of being a postdoc is going to an office and go an entire day without even a single 60 second conversation, and realize that no one cares if I am there or what I do. Of course I care about the research that I do, and I want to do my research, but out of the social context, that's like asking if I am willing to sit by myself in a room for 2000 hours a year, and I'm really not. I got a paper accepted to a top journal, and I'm pleased, but most of all I am happy that its acceptance gives me an excuse to talk with people. There's some clear follow-up work to do on this, but when it's just me and me, I don't feel all that interested.

So I have started again on the bad habits of getting immersed in stupid irrelevant things. E.g., I cancelled the new cheap sofa order and spent forever shopping for a sofa on Craig's List, and found one saving myself about $300 over the cost of the new sofa. And then decided I needed to look for something else. And then watch all the episodes of the Daily Show and Colbert Report online. And get distracted and miss things I'd kind-of planned on going to, but no one cares if I go. And not getting exercise. And going to the public library and checking out all kinds of hobby-related books and fun things just so I can get out of the house. And somehow the time passes. It's such an embarrassing struggle, though I was relieved to read someone else's tips on exactly this kind of torpor.

Obviously something needs to change. I figure if I get involved in a regular exercise pattern, I will feel less restless about working alone for the rest of the day. And find some activities to do. And introduce myself to still more people so that maybe I can have at least 5 minutes of in-person conversation every day. But I really get lonely not seeing anyone and feeling like no one cares where I am or what I do during work hours.

. . .

Dating-wise, things are smashing. In fact, I have reached dating nirvana. In my last city, it felt like I was meeting people who aren't that smart or interesting, although later on I did start to meet them. Here I am meeting more people than I can possibly fit in my schedule. It's kind-of embarrassing, actually. They're not better educated. Maybe I am less picky.

Things are so spread out, so everything has to be scheduled for weekends, and sometimes just one weekend day, so that's easy for first dates: 2 hour coffee dates is plenty, and you can have 3 in one day. Once you get past the first date and you want to do something interesting, it gets to be harder. But that's the worst of my dating problems, so I'm extremely grateful.

Something that I have noticed is that I am fairly unambitious for dating. The only date so far that I am nervous for is coming up this weekend. He's an ambitious energetic confident guy. And so I suspect he won't like me. Whereas the guys who showed glimmers of awkwardness or lack of confidence, I was fairly confident that we would either get along or I wouldn't care. I know that's sad.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wow, that paper really sucked!

My advisor runs research center A, and I thought it might be helpful if I had ties to another research center, so I wrote to the head of research center B. She invited me to their group meeting. One of the topics of discussion was a paper they had just submitted to two journals and had rejected.

It's a fairly obscure area - obscure in that most people think it's unimportant, not that it's hard - so it happens that the literature in the area is not so large, and I wrote one of the few papers which they cited. I said I'd be happy to read it. I had some hesitation after volunteering because I realized that I would be a logical referee, so I would miss the chance to put a new journal on my CV. It turns out it's a good thing that I volunteered because I would have almost definitely recommended the paper for rejection.

How demoralizing to read a paper co-authored by several people including a couple really prominent people which is so completely inferior to research done before. In fact, as a final project in an undergraduate course, I would give it a solid B. Reading the paper made me rethink joining their group.

Not to mention that the first thing they discussed at the meeting was how much they hated my advisor. Who had apparently committed two felonies: 1) criticized one of their papers too much and 2) while giving a presentation to new students to help them find research, he listed a handful of the many collaborators who worked with his center and didn't mention this particular senior faculty member. After 3 minutes of this carping, the center B director said, "That's New Postdoc's advisor." And then followed an awkward silence.

Plus they had the kind of meeting where they set aside 2 hours every single week, and the topics to discuss expand to fill the allotted time. And people just sit there for all 2 hours while so many topics are only relevant to a few people.

I wrote my response to their paper fairly quickly and narrowed my criticism down to 6 points. If they seriously followed my advice, it would be another month before the paper would be ready to send out, and the author had wanted to send it out next week.

Seeing research from this point of view really makes me understand more how important it is to be thick-skinned about criticism. Most criticism is well-intentioned, and it is incredibly difficult to phrase criticism in a palatable way. I rephrased almost every sentence of my review, and I'm afraid it still comes across as overly blunt. But, and I don't mean to be immodest, they should really listen to me: I am one of very few people who knows the literature of this tiny obscure area, and this paper as currently written adds nothing to the area, and I gave some suggestions that if they follow even some of it, their paper could add to the area. I just hope that they listen and don't start grouse about me as they groused about my advisor. And that I have more thick-skinned attitude towards criticism than they apparently are.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Watch out for service!

I volunteered to chair a session at a conference this summer at the last minute, and got an email from the same guy asking if I wanted to be "local chair" for another conference in 2010. I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded like the previous "chair" responsibility, maybe reviewing abstracts or something, so instead of asking what it was, I said yes.

He wrote back,

"Given your proximity to the area and your interests in the section, we thought you would be ideal for the role of local chair.

Local chair’s responsibility usually includes physically reviewing the local venue (if possible), advertising the conference to the local community including government organizations, universities and private companies, working with the chairs and [professional organization] staff to organizing the local logistical details for the days of the conference and also organizing the social event on the second day of the conference. We hope you will be able to accomplish this by committing not more than a day per month over 12 months preceding the conference.

We will set up a conference call soon to kick off the planning sessions."

Is he joking? No way!

I wrote back right away and said that I had misunderstood the role of local chair, apologized profusely, and would be happy to review abstracts or do something academic for the conference.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Impostor syndrome: email version

I am supposed to be finding a research project now. The only constraint is that my research has to relate to the training grant, and I think they want me to do a little work with some people in the research center, but otherwise I can go around the department finding people to work with. I have a whole list, and I have carried around that list of people to speak with for several days before I got up the courage to write to any of them. Classic impostor syndrome: I think they wouldn't want to work with me either right now or later after getting to know me.

The funny thing is that it doesn't get any easier the more I write to. I wrote to the three directly suggested to me, no problem. And to the department chair. But now I have 3 or 4 more left, and each one feels difficult.

My insecurity was made slightly worse that my (very sweet but straight-talking) advisor said that the department chair was a good person to speak with as long as I don't ask him about nonsense. I should let that roll off my back. I know I should. I just feel like I should take some lesson from it.

Also, one of the 3 I have to write to, made some sarcastic remark to me in a phone conversation before I came, which made me feel like he thought I wasn't smart. And everyone tells me this guy is so nice.

Just have to do it. Three two one and then it's the weekend. And I will have accomplished all week is attending a class and sending some emails. Well, and getting more settled. And reading more Boice.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


The current balance in my bank account is $1.71. I've never in my life seen a bank balance like that.

Somehow the moving expenses this time have been thousands of dollars.

I do not get reimbursed any moving expenses, and my first 6 weeks of pay go entirely to moving. I am detailing my expenses so people can see what it goes to, even for someone who is very careful about money. I shopped around a lot for things like moving and car shipping companies where there were many estimates, and chose the cheapest options by far in each category. I packed lots of things that people tend to throw out and buy new in each new place, like bathroom and bedroom trash cans and silverware trays, and I got these things free in the first place. Much of my furniture comes from Craig's list and Goodwill, but I also didn't have time to do Craig's list for everything or ability to (e.g.) move a couch by myself.

Here is the list of expenses:

- $1100 moving
- $600 to transport a car.
- $150 one-way plane fare
- $100 to rent a car to shop during first 3 days because my car's shipment was delayed by 10 days.
- $900 in new furniture: kitchen had no counter space and little storage- $125 for countertop/storage (on clearance); my roommate owned our couch and I can't move a couch from Craig's list in my car - $400 for new couch that arrives by UPS and can be assembled and disassembled for moving; twin bed for guest bedroom + extra mattress + sheets: $240, new armchair $90.
- $500 in other set-up expenses: food, lightbulbs, lamps, cleaning supplies.
Total: 3450. And there's more beyond that, I'm sure.

Some of these expenses could have been less if I spent more time --- e.g., the gas estimate was $300 to drive the car instead of $850 to ship car + fly + rent car due to late car shipment --- but there is a time and practicality trade-off, and the car is more than a decade old and not necessarily reliable. I could have found a couch for free and rented a UHaul and found someone to help me move the couch, instead of spending $400 on a new one shipped to me.

This way, I was done with all moving activities in a few days and was able to move everything by myself since I don't have anyone to help me.

It does seem inadvisable that someone should spend more than 10% of their annual post-tax income on moving. And yet that's how it fell out.