Monday, June 15, 2015

Professors Don't Sleep

When I was a 3rd year graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, the state of California plunged into financial chaos. One of the results was that UC tuition went up as support from the state for higher education took a hit.

One Friday afternoon at our departmental happy hour, a senior professor and I were discussing the state budget cuts and the tuition hikes. He leaned in a little closer, and confided,

I stay awake all night wondering how I'll pay for my students. 

And I said, "You literally cannot sleep because of this?"


And so I spent the rest of my days at UCSB wondering why this particular professor worried so much, and how on earth it was possible to be so upset by your work life that it actually affected your quality of sleep. 

Looking back, I am glad there was a time in my life when my "normal" was falling asleep each night within five minutes of hitting the pillow. I'm not sure exactly when that changed, but I suspect it started around the time I was interviewing for TT jobs, and it has only become increasingly pronounced since then.

Nowadays, you can find me reading the news on Flipboard, compulsively clicking on any of the articles that pop up under the category "Sleep Self Help for Professors and Other Type A Personalities". Yes, that category actually exists. My problem is that no amount of hot frickin' chamomile tea before bed is going to quiet the approximately 942 things tumbling around in my brain.

I realize that you may have some questions regarding the Professors Don't Sleep phenomenon, as I once did.

So what does a professor think about while being unable to fall asleep at night?
  1. Everything. 
  2. Lack of grant money. 
  3. See number 1.
What do you think are the underlying causes of your sleeplessness?
  1. The stakes are higher than they ever used to be.
  2. My work involves so many more people than it used to (e.g. my PI and me). Sometimes, I have to make serious decisions that affect people's lives.
  3. My work involves so many more elements than it used to - instead of thinking only about the projects a single person can accomplish, I now think about all of my trainee's projects.
Can you give me an example of a time you couldn't sleep?
Yes. Two weeks ago, I was vacationing in Iceland, and the night before we left, I couldn't fall asleep. I was tossing and turning, and my husband couldn't sleep either. He asked me what was on my mind. I told him that I couldn't stop thinking about a manuscript I needed to write. This was absolutely absurd. My mind, at that moment, was obsessed with writing the manuscript, but I couldn't have written it right then, right there, even if I wanted to. After all, I was in Iceland, a foreign country, lying in bed with no computer, no data, in the middle of the night. There was absolutely no good that could come of me staying awake ruminating about this half-finished manuscript.
So what strategies do you use to fall asleep?
  1. Chamomile tea
  2. Counting backwards from 200 by 7
  3. Focused breathing: inhale for 4s, hold for 6s, exhale for 7s
  4. Barrel rolls in the sheets
  5. Singing
Channeling my inner Madonna:

Papa, don't preach,
I've been losing sleep, 
Professors count sheep, 
I'm in trouble deep,
But I've made up my mind, 
I'm keeping my career. 
Oooh, I'm gonna keep my ca-reer, yeah.

1 comment:

  1. And again you hit dead on what's going on in my household too. We were camping in Sequoia the other day. I couldn't sleep. While my husband apologized about the thin sleeping mats, I rambled: what is my NSF career proposal is rejected again?