Monday, December 14, 2009

Department chairs

I used to hear faculty discussing department chairs as if they were another species, and I didn't understand how that could be: they came with the same training and did the same kind of research as normal faculty, so how could they be so different? But now that I have met so many of them, I understand.

They're academics, and yet they're politically conscious. They're cocky and excited, even if they're under-resourced and have a mediocre record. They're oh so nice, yet every discussion is a negotiation requiring some attention to strategic concerns. They promise a little as if it's a lot, and they promise something when they might not have anything.

The first times I saw these traits, I didn't realize it was part of a pattern, but now it's so clear.

The myth of the postdoc

In the midst of job season, we all have romantic ideas about what fellowships are like: you picture yourself in a different environment, doing different work, and you come home to a fulfilling social and personal life that is just like the one you have now. Obviously a complete fantasy.

Right now, I feel extremely productive. I am doing research that is interesting and relevant, and the projects are coming along at a fair clip: I have given or will give several distinct conference presentations this academic year, written a grant application and part of another, and have a few papers at a good stage of preparation, but virtually everything that I have accomplished has been this year.

In the first few months of my postdoc I felt disoriented to live in a new city and university with completely different patterns of life; distracted by moving and the endless tasks that have to be done, and the lack of money due to having moved; and overwhelmed by the need to make friends and professional contacts simultaneously in order not to be lonely. Meanwhile during all these adjustments, I felt lonely, scared, tired, and sluggish, and just plain non-resilient. Any setback was discouraging, and there were so many.

That's really not a good mood in which to take on new projects. Craving the familiar, I just finished old projects and got them published. That's precisely not what you're supposed to do, but it was hard to do otherwise. New projects have lots of unpredictable setbacks and at a time when every single part of my life was in upheaval, I didn't feel that I could handle setbacks well. The first time I went to a new project group and the first 5 minutes was two faculty members (one research-track and one tenured) dissing my advisor, and the remainder of the meeting was just boring. Between the awkwardness and lack of interest in the project, I didn't continue.

As I prepare job applications, the cost of moving and transition has been forgotten. And it really has to. New jobs require a leap into the unfamiliar and willingness to take the consequences, whatever they are. But I am pretty sure that even though right now everything feels so good and right that the loneliness and disorientation of moving seem so far away, I will have another lonely and disoriented and perhaps even depressed season as I move to my next position. I will forget all of that as I interview (thankfully I have gotten some), and will be nothing but sweet and light on the interviews.