Monday, July 16, 2007

Quality of Excuses

A colleague of mine likes to quote: "You can't succeed by the quality of your excuses", and it is unfortunate that this quotation comes in handy as often as it does.

I'm quite willing and able to be sincerely sympathetic to a student or colleague with a complicated life that involves numerous consecutive problems with relationships, family, health, vehicles, computers, housing, and pets, but all of these excellent reasons for not making adequate progress in research add up to career destruction.

There are some life events that are clearly too terrible to allow life/work to continue normally, and I am not talking about that kind of event here. I think that it is, however, important to be able to work through the routine awful things that happen in life. For example, if I didn't submit my NSF proposal because I was too broken up about the recent death of my beloved 17 year old cat, my research program (including my students, postdocs, and colleagues) would be harmed. Aside from the fact that I would rather keep working than brood, it's just not an option to shut down.

Yet I work with some people who routinely do things like that. Perhaps I am less 'sensitive' and more of the stereotypical unfeeling scientist than they are, or perhaps they are less able to deal with life. I know which of those possibilities I prefer, but I think there is probably an element of truth in both.

I like to think, though, that working through bad/sad times is similar to how you have to keep yourself together and take care of your child even if you are stressed, sad, or anxious. I don't think this is something that I, as an advisor, can teach my students, even by example. Or, if it is possible, I have not yet figured out how to do it well.


Kristin said...

I think about all you can do is teach by example - if a student comes to you saying they are having a hard time keeping up with their work because their cat just died, you can tell them that you had a similar experience, and how you dealt with it.

A few years ago I managed to crack a rib the day before the semester started (I'm also a college professor). Despite doctor's orders I went to work the next day, and I told my students what had happened. I didn't have any students complaining of missing work or exams due to illness that entire semester!

Anonymous said...

I'm one to never take a day off. Then I spend months on end with a chronic sinus infection working suboptimally. Back to work at 5 days postpartum; then delirius with fever for 3 days.

I don't know where the line is. I also sometimes wonder if this time pressure is really based on something real, or more on ego.

Veo Claramente said...

I agree with you. This is something I think about a lot. In fact, you've triggered the blog-thought-process, so off I go.

For what its worth, I do think that grad students learn from the example their thesis advisor sets, and that is really important because that is the example they go on to set to their future students.

Flavia said...

Hi there--sent here by a chemist friend who thought your post was similar to one of my own recent ones.

I agree 100% about the importance of working through difficult times, and the way in which work can actually be soothing. However, I think it depends on the nature of the work that needs to get done, and the field one is in. My long-term partner broke up with me *immediately* after the academic year had ended, and I've had a hell of a time getting work done because my summers are so dependent on self-motivation (I'm a literary scholar); there's absolutely nowhere that I have to be for weeks at a time, and only a few deadlines, mostly for projects that were already near completion. Most of what I'd had planned were things like, "completely rethink and revise that chapter," "research and start writing that possible new article"--things that DO have to get done, but that don't have an actual deadline, instead relying on my own ability to keep an eye on the tenure clock (which won't ring for four more years). And work that requires that you be able to sit in front of a computer for hours, thinking deep but unguided thoughts, without letting your mind wander, is hard.

Many people said, "you're so lucky that it happened during the summer, so you have time to be good to yourself," but I don't see it that way at all. Had it happened during the school year, I'd have kept on top of all my classes and departmental obligations, no sweat, and if I lost some or all of the 8-10 hrs/week of independent research time that I try to get in during the semester, well, at least I'd still be performing at 90%.

lost clown said...

I'm always worried about getting out of school and into the field. I have a mental/mood disorder that has put me on disability and sometimes it hits really hard to where I end up missing weeks because of severe depression or severe anxiety. While my new medication is working great (last quarter was the first time I never missed a class, I usually average about 2 weeks a quarter which is very very bad), one can never forsee a breakdown.

That said, I think along the same lines you do, that sometimes you have to work through the bad. I'm just worried because my 'bads' fall into the category of 'unable to get out of bed' or 'unable to sleep and therefore unable to learn/concentrate.'

Female Science Professor said...

lost clown, that's a different order of magnitude of 'bad' than the situations I was discussing. Clearly you can't just 'work through' depression as easily as one might deal with a hard drive malfunction or a muffler repair crisis..

AngryMan said...

I think that the problem becomes when people bury themselves in work and don't balance the need to deal with the pain. That's really the key, finding the balance between healing and between maintaining.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a somewhat similar boat with lostclown (generally willing to work through hard times, but suffer from some debilitating depression every now and then) and worry about this quite a bit. I feel like I spend my life reading the blogs of scientists with the career I want and the blogs of people whose mental health is similar to mine and their daily struggles and wondering how it's possible to combine the two--IF it's even possible to have a successful career when sometimes just getting to work and "working through the hard times" is impossible.

The question is, how do I decide what I can excuse myself for because it's my illness, and what's me just not being able to cope with a real career? And what's appropriate for other people to work around because I have a chronic illness/disability, and what is just too much to have to deal with in a colleague?

I've been lucky that others have been very understanding, that I've been able to be up front with people and make arrangements for things to work out when I am nonfunctional or make it look like it's really just me overreacting to bad things in my life rather than having an illness, that I am good at what I do when I am together and together enough of the time that I average out to a pretty good employee to have around. But the whole thing scares me, especially when I think about it in terms of this post. I wonder if I'll ever NOT make people think this way about me.

Anonymous said...

"Clearly you can't just 'work through' depression as easily as one might deal with a hard drive malfunction or a muffler repair crisis."

The thing is, you really cannot tell when a person who seems to be overwhlemed by something like a muffler repair (and an endless string of similarly mild catastrophes) is actually dealing with crippling depression. It is much harder to deal with life's little setbacks when one is depressed, and it is not always possible for a person to identify their own depression, especially when it is relatively minor and only evident in their inability to deal with the kind of troubles that would make other chin up and move on.

It is also easier to tell people, "My dog is sick." or "My car broke down." than it is to say, "I can't get out of bed for now apparent reason." or "I've been sitting at my desk for 5hrs with nothing to show for it"

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, that's a really good point. I wonder sometimes if the serial-excuse people have some deeper problems. I think it is very likely in some cases. In others, it seems to be more related to not wanting to do the work and finding endless reasons to focus on other things.

Anonymous said...

Great quote. I think that part of what your saying (it doesn't really matter if they're more sensitive or you're more capable of coping) is that there are people who arrange their life (psychologically & physically) so that they can get the job done, and those who don't. You're statement that you'd rather work than brood is a great example: successful people often make this choice, because working is part of how they cope.

I don't think you're celebrating the person who is able to come back to work the day after their c-section (or a cracked rib -- even if that works for some, it certainly won't work for everyone), just pointing out that that's going to have an effect on your work, if it's not a rare event (and design work to deal with the rare events).

And yes, I see how the inability to arrange your life so that the work gets done could be the result of a disability (for example, perhaps you need repeated "c-sections" for a chronic medical condition, or have life altering depression). The fact that a disability is the cause might change the moral judgment, but it doesn't change the fact that the job doesn't get done, and that will have consequences. And, in the case of depression, it's difficult to tell where the line gets drawn from not being able to work, and not wanting to do the work necessary (without necessarily realizing that yourself).


Anonymous said...

bj, I don't disagree with you. It's just that sometimes I wonder, if it is worth it. Especially in academia (I know other careers are similar), where people often work 70+hrs/week. What to make of a person who needs to work 40hrs/week regularly and only rarely more than that in order to maintain good mental and physical health. Are they just not cut out for academia? Is this the only way to play the game? Is it even the best way to play it?

EcoGeoFemme said...

bj, I worry that you are close to sounding like people who say that women shouldn't be allowed maternity leave because they aren't getting the job done while they are off with the baby.

It seems like successful people work with their strengths and create situations where their weaknesses don't matter so much. For instance, someone who is not phsically strong may pursue research that does not require heavy field work. So perhaps a person with sporadic depression can work in a subfield of a science doesn't require consistent, time-intensive experiments but rather do work that can be stopped during flare ups.

But it also seems like really successful people are not full of excuses.

scarlettscion said...

I do think Americans have a tendency to take this to the point of sheer idiocy, though. It makes NO sense to go back to work the day after a hysteorectomy (my mother did this) and then wind up in the hospital for a month with a pulmonary embolism. It even doesn't make sense to work through a flu--you make the rest of your lab sick, and what does that do for your research productivity?

Female Science Professor said...

I hope it was clear in the original post that I was not advocating returning to work the day after major surgery.

Quantum Moxie said...

It is amazing how few people these days can work through even moderately bad/sad times. On the one hand, I had a student who lost both his parents at different times during his four year career. If ever there was a reason to slack off a bit, this was it. And he wasn't exactly the best student and he did slack off now and then, but at least he showed up most of the time which is more than I can say for some other students who then complained because they got drunk and had a hangover.

There's such a fine line between what's a legitimate excuse and what isn't, though, that I wonder sometimes...

scarlettscion said...

I wasn't thinking you advocated it, just noting that people in academia and other high-performing areas seem to value this sort of behavior, which confuses me.

I am familiar with the serial excuse people-- several of the people I work with do have mental illness--but I have to admit they still try my patience. Severely.

scarlettscion said...

Your kitty didn't just die, did he? I was hoping you were just using him as an example..
Sorry if so!

Anonymous said...

Well, having your 17 year old kitty die might be something that you can manage and work through, and it might be something that would cause someone else to be non-functional for a day or two. I don't have kids; my cats are my "children"; when one died a few years ago I was physically ill from the grief - developed severe migraine.

I tend to get annoyed myself by the "serial excuse" folks...but then there have been times when I've found out something about a person that explained a lot going on in their life. I might still be annoyed at how their behavior affects my life or things I need to get done, but I might be more understanding of them. As someone mentioned above, people don't always know themselves when they are depressed, and why they are unable to meet obligations and thus make excuses.

I guess I've just always been very wary of imposing my idea of an appropriate work ethic on anybody else, ever since my grad school experience of having trouble keeping up with my classes after my father died and having my advisor tell me "Sometimes when you think you can't work anymore, you just have to work harder". I hated him at the time for that. Still do, for his lack of empathy. But looking back, I suspect his modus operandi would have been to sublimate grief through work and he was giving me the best advice he knew. It just wasn't good advice for me. It's much easier for us to model what we think is appropriate behavior for others to emulate, and much harder to take time to figure out what is going on with someone and what might work best for them. Which is why we have psychologists...and if you really have a problem with a serial excuser in your lab, you might suggest gently that they take a course in time management from campus health services, which could lead them to open up to someone if they have a deeper problem, or to solve their time management problem if that's all it is.

lost clown said...

Yeah I understand and in school I'm really forthcoming with my profs about my disability (and I work with disAbility Resources on campus, which probably helps), but I worry about bringing that up when going into the field. I know it's illegal to discriminate because of a disability, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, they just find some other excuse.

I don't want to be a serial excuse person, and it has to be a really bad day (or several days) for me to disappear for a time and I don't know how forthcoming I should be with that information outside of school.

Female Science Professor said...

That's great that you communicate with your professors. That is very important. I know if can be hard to do when things are really bad or if you are worried they will think less of you, but if at all possible, communication is the way to go.

Wanna Be Mother said...

This post makes you sound like you have no soul. Don't you love your cat? Maybe many years of having to be as much like a man as possible in order to survive have turned you into one, thus stripping you of all empathy for other living beings and their suffering.

I realize that some men have empathy, I was just being dramatic :)

You will never know what it is like to live in someone else's life, body, situation, physiochemical state so I would recommend keeping the judging down. I know that is what you do all the time on this blog, but it is usually directed at people who are judging you for being female, so I'm ok with it. What goes around comes around. But this is different.

Just because you were able to work 90 million hours a week while your beloved fish was slowly dying of cancer, doesn't mean everyone should live up to that standard. This also doesn't mean these folks are not fit to be professors. We are are trying to expand on the typical professor stereotype, not narrow it, remember? If they are good at science, can't they have feelings too? Do you want them working when they are unable to deal, thus possibly making mistakes and screwing things up worse than if they had stayed home? I have done that, though usually out of tiredness.

Is your point to say that people who are emotional shouldn't go into science? What about people that have emotional problems on a 1 month cycle that happens to be related to their hormones? Is that ok with you? Are you going to write a list of possible disasters and put them into columns, determining for your students how much emotional reaction they can have to these events?

I don't mean to soapbox you, I just get annoyed with judgmentalness in general. All the comments seem to just say, hooray to this whole let's sell our souls away for a tenured professorship mentality Let yourself grieve if needed and let your students grieve if needed, which only they can determine. Otherwise we may as well design and build cylons to do science for us. They would be so much more efficient.

Wow, I'm very ranty for some reason.