Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On the Year That I Will Never Have Again

I'm ready to give up on 2014. The time is right, after all.

It was a utilitarian year. I did what I had to do. Mentally, it was a difficult year, entrenched in the responsibilities of professorhood. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it's easy.

December 1st marked my two-year anniversary at CMU, so I've now embarked into the Land of Third Year Faculty. The scary thing is that when I talk to more senior faculty about their beginnings, 90% of them say, "You think the second year is hard? Wait until year three. Then the money will really be running out, and you may lose your mind".

But here's the thing: my year three will not be worse. I will not let it. Fundamentally, I am a hopeful person. I fought through year two, I suffered through parts, and I've emerged tired but better equipped and far more determined on the other side. I have a vibrant group of five Ph.D. students, 3 M.S. students and a handful of undergrads that are enthusiastic about their work and looking forward to the years ahead. I'm here to take care of them, but they take care of me, too. They carry me on their backs when I'm feeling overwhelmed. My enterprise has become so much bigger than just me.  

Year Two, in Review

On Research. I started the year with 3 Ph.D. students (2 first years) and not much progress in the lab since I had moved to CMU (starting up can teach patience). I still felt a need to keep my research pursuits close to home. I felt confident, but I didn't feel adventurous. And then, slowly, things started working. My students started bringing me graphs and reports and beautiful productions of their minds that had never before flitted through my own. And this was the evidence I needed to support what I had always known - that the research is about the students, it is their product, it is not really mine.

This acknowledgement freed me. It's allowed me to entertain exotic ideas, ones not grounded in the comfort of my past efforts. When I was assigned two Ph.D. students this fall, I gave them projects that are exciting and novel and all of those things that make people say wut?! I'm going to sit in the passenger seat while these students drive to the Grand Canyon and to the glaciers of northern Montana. I've never been there before, but I know how to use a map. I can't wait.

On Grants. In my first two years at CMU, I submitted ten external grant proposals (7 declined, 3 pending), four internal proposals (3 awarded, 1 declined), and seven letters of intent that were not invited for full submissions. I suffered through these submissions. They were painful. They felt like a snarled and jagged rite of  passage that I am still trying to forget. Helping me forget was a grant that I was awarded without having applied for it (!!) from the Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology (CNAST). I got the news by email one Saturday night at 7:30 when I was sitting at the dining room table eating cereal for dinner. Almost fell out of my chair. CNAST is the hero of my year and returned to me a piece of the sanity I had lost several months prior.

The external funding situation will improve. It has to. My proposals are scored well, they just haven't hit yet. "Patience obtains all things" is the quote that has been sitting at the top of my office whiteboard since June.

On Teaching. A year ago, I had not taught a class by myself. I didn't know how this would go, and I was afraid of it. Once I started, I was surprised at how much time it took, even when I limited prep time to 3 hours per class. And in thinking about the time it was taking away from proposal writing, the next stage was one of resentment. How was I supposed to be successful if I didn't have ALL OF THE HOURS to write proposals?

Then came the fall and yet another new class that neither I nor anyone else had taught before, and I almost died from the stress of not planning the course until the week before the semester started. Why? Because I wrote proposals all summer. But I got through it, and it all went exceedingly well. With the success of that elective course, and the pleasant ongoing interactions I was having with the students I had taught in the spring, I entered a new and what I hope to be more permanent phase: appreciation.

Fear - resentment - appreciation

I've come to realize (and accept) that I don't have control over many aspects of my job as a professor. I can submit proposals - but it's not up to me as to whether or not they'll be funded. I can write papers and shoot for the moon - but peer review is subjective and sometimes downright strange, and outcomes are often not as we had imagined they would be. So what would that leave me to control?* I've realized, with delight, that I control my teaching. All students, no matter where they are on the spectrum of Excellence, can benefit from good instruction. And that is something I can give. Now, finally, gladly.

On All of the Rest. I wish that research, grant writing, and teaching is all there is to consider. I've finished some work from my postdoc. I've molded and shaped and have been trying to write up research in my current lab, in some cases from students that have moved on - and the onus is on me. I've been working hard to understand how Carnegie Mellon works, how the money works, how the machine ticks (or who ticks the machine). I've been sitting on committees and going to meetings that are so boring they make me want to staple my eyelids closed. The fact that I've resisted is further evidence of my potential.

If you've made it through this post, I think you'd agree with me that I've made progress. In large part because I've tried to be honest about the challenges I've encountered and to learn from them. We can only ask so much of ourselves, and there are enough critics in our lives! And on that note, I can say with confidence: in 2014, I did enough.

Happy new year to you from Pittsburgh!

*The need for the typical Type A Professor to control is a topic for another discussion...

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