Thursday, March 20, 2014

Life Management

As faculty researchers, within work itself, you have a real balancing act as you manage your responsibilities in teaching, research, funding that research, and service. However, just focusing on that balancing act ignores the reality of life.

As a professional, student, and mom, I'm obsessed with work/life balance advice, although admittedly, the strategy I seem to maintain is seeing how much I can cram into each minute of each hour of each day. However, I wanted to focus this blog on life management, and share some great resources and strategies that are definitely not mine. :)

Last year, Dr. Jean Kutner, Professor in our School of Medicine, when asked about work/life balance in our seminars, said "There's no such thing as work/life balance, there is just life." She advocated that instead of trying segment work and life into neat compartments, we should instead think about the whole. In a related article (pg. 9), Dr. Kutner applies her "Black Shoe Phenomenon" to her professional and personal life. She talks about the rule she has for herself that for every new pair of black shoes she buys, she must get rid of a used pair. This rule is the result of her closet overflowing with black shoes. When she realized that the same thing was happening in her professional life that had happened to her closet, she applied the same rule - for every new responsibility she took on, she had to give a current responsibility up. She talks about how in the same way that donating used shoes to Goodwill provides shoes to someone who needs them, she realized that younger professionals could benefit from her handing off some of her commitments to them as they built their CV's, and maintain a balanced life of her own.

Setting your own rules
Last week, one of our faculty sent me a fantastic article in Scientific American by Dr. Radhika Nagpal, a Professor of Computer Science at Harvard. In the article, Dr. Nagpal, walks through how she survived the tenure process at Harvard as a mother with two young kids. A resonating theme in her piece is to make sure you are setting your own rules, and not letting others pressure you. Basically, early on, Dr. Nagpal stopped working on purely CV-building activities and instead focused on her research and her students. She also talks about ignoring advice she received from colleagues. She realized that the advice she was receiving was often in the form of laundry lists of things colleagues did, did not do but wish they'd done, and things they know that others did to get tenure. In the end, the list, although well-intended, was neither realistic nor helpful.

Being honest with yourself and others
One of my favorite articles on life management is Why Women Still Can't Have It All in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly the Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department and formerly a Dean at Princeton. Dr. Slaughter, also a parent, talks about honest choices that she and others in demanding professions have made to find ways to devote more time to their families yet still have a fulfilling career. Her premise is that professionals (especially, but not only, women) need to be honest with themselves about what sacrifices they are making in their career and in their family-life and make intentional choices about work and family that reflect what they want in life. Dr. Slaughter talks about US society and advocates for a shift in work culture where professionals can and are honest about their life commitments without being seen as less dedicated in their profession.

Certainly, family should not be seen as a burden to one's career. Support systems are crucial to the most successful researchers and professionals. A CU Denver faculty member recently told me that when she successfully defended her dissertation, her advisor hugged her partner before hugging her, saying, "He deserves a hug more that you."

So, as you seek to manage what certainly can feel like (and sometimes is) an unmanageable load, consider the advice from these highly successful researchers and academics who have also managed to be dedicated to their families and enjoy their lives, even if it meant giving up a really nice pair of black shoes once in awhile.

Balancing Competing Professional Commitments: Applying the "Black Shoe Phenomenon" to Professional Life by Dr. Jean Kutner

The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life by Radhika Nagpal

Why Women Still Can't Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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