On Being an Academic Nurse

When I began my PhD I felt the need to be cautious about telling people that I was doing it. Luckily I worked with super supportive colleagues and they never made me feel like I was weird or not a “real” nurse because of my interest in research. In fact, many of them were more than willing to share their experience, wisdom, and insights with me when we worked together. I may not have 20 years of nursing experience but I am a hard worker and a caring nurse who is willing to help others and pull my share. I absolutely loved my time working in geriatric rehab as a staff nurse. There were times when I considered quitting the PhD and staying on there instead. I didn’t leave direct care nursing because I didn’t like it. I didn’t leave because I’m afraid of hard work. Or shift work. Or working holidays.

I’m not quite sure what people think academic nurses do but I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an entire 24 hours off from work. I think it was in May? In addition to teaching, research, and service requirements of most faculty, nursing faculty at many schools (mine included) also teach clinical nursing courses. This term I’m teaching second year students in the hospital which means not only 2-3 full shifts in the hospital every week but tons and tons of prep, organizing, evaluation, and follow-up with students. This is not like a lab where they are practicing on mannequins; they are working with real-life patients who are sick. They are interacting with nurses and physicians. Expectations and anxiety are high. I feel like a mother hen trying to protect them while at the same time give them learning opportunities and reasonable autonomy. Teaching clinical is rewarding in many ways but it is one of the most stressful things I have ever done.

I am also a course assistant for the nursing research course and need to prepare to teach a new-to-me course next semester. On top of this I have also been trying to establish my program of research, attend the meetings I need to go to, and get to a stack of article revisions and new submissions. I took a day trip to Ottawa for a conference between clinical days and it was awesome but also exhausting. Somehow I have managed to still spend quality time with my son, work out at least 3 times/week (although Thursday’s “workout” mostly involved staring blankly at the barbell trying to convince myself that it was workout time), and always have some (mostly) healthy food and clean laundry. It’s the small wins, right?

This is not the life I envisioned 11 months ago when I accepted this job. After working and going to school for a million years I thought it would finally be different. I thought I’d have time to have a life but the reality is that I am working constantly. I thought I’d love being closer to home but it’s not really close enough that I can see my family and friends very often. It’s not super helpful when I want to go do something either (“Hey, dad, can you drive 5 hours and babysit while I go to a movie?”).

It’s not all bad of course; I really love a lot of things about my job. I’m just not sure that I want my life to be my job. I realize that the transition to new job in a new province and a new city is a huge adjustment and that it will get easier as time goes on. My first term has been full of many wonderful things and a couple of not-so-awesome things. Highlights include the joy of seeing nursing students grow and learn, interacting with patients and their families and the staff on the unit, and being part of some inspiring research projects. The best thing of all has been looking at the stars with my son on those early mornings before clinical. In the quiet darkness before sunrise we get to share the awe and peace of the night sky together before the busyness of the day begins. These are the moments I cherish most.

 

 

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Academic Conferences and Children

I’m excited and slightly overwhelmed by all of the planning currently going on in my life. I have been invited to present at two awesome conferences this summer and am preparing to move to a new city to start my first tenure-track job. Very exciting, but also extremely stressful because I am in charge of organizing everything and I am also getting ready to defend my dissertation at the end of the month (also amazing but stressful).

Regarding conference planning, the biggest stressor for me is figuring out the best plan for my child while I’m away. Sometimes it makes sense to bring him along but that requires an additional responsible adult to come with me so that I can actually present and attend some of the conference. It’s obviously more expensive to do that but it can also be more fun in the end, even if it requires more coordination to plan.

When it doesn’t make sense for him to come, I have the glorious fun time of organizing child care for him. I am fortunate to have lots of social support – in London. Now that I am moving to a new city it’s going to be a little trickier to navigate all this. I am closer to family but they are busy with their own lives and I feel guilty asking for help. I feel ALL the mom guilt – guilt for spending time alone/with other grown-ups. Guilt for having a career that is important to me. Guilt for not making my child the centre of my universe at all times. Guilt for not having a significant other. Guilt for not enjoying my time away as much as I could because I feel guilty about all these other things. Enough with the guilt already, right!

For better or worse, research dissemination and staying current is part of my job. It’s not like you finish your PhD and that’s the end of learning and scholarly work. I feel very fortunate that travel is part of my job but it’s not like it’s an all-expenses paid free-for-all! Unless you are a well-funded researcher (which is the exception rather than the rule), there is little funding to assist with the expenses of conferences. It also takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to prepare an abstract and a good presentation, a fact that often goes unacknowledged.

Sure, you could go to one conference a year but that might be a career-limiting move because fewer people will see your work. It also limits your exposure to interesting research across disciplines which may provide valuable insights and generate new ideas. I value the professional memberships that I have in nursing and management and conferences are an important part of these organizations. Increasingly, there are more and more conferences to go to as well! For example, APA puts on an excellent Work and Stress conference where every presentation is something I am interested in. Obviously you can’t go to everything, but it is not easy to choose or to say no.

So I’m left asking myself the question: “what’s a sane number of conferences to attend each year?”

Not sure that I have an answer yet but I will figure it out 🙂

 

I want an academic career. When’s the BEST time to have a baby?

The short answer is that there is no best time and that really, anytime is the best time. Nothing can ever prepare you for the challenges and joys of parenting – regardless of whether or not you are a grad student, a practising nurse, or a stay-at-home mom.

That being said, it helps if you have a committed partner and some sort of plan.  Personally, I did not have that experience. Let’s just say that the pill is not 100% effective.  I stuck with my life plan (sort of) and worked at the hospital as an RN until September and started my PhD 9 months pregnant (against all good sense I think) and took one week off from classes (because my supervisor made me). The “birth plan” involved my wonderful friend driving me and my roommate to the hospital where we streamed episodes of New Girl while I waited for my son to decide to make his grand entrance. My sister and her boyfriend flew in and met us there (he stayed outside).

Lucky for me, in Canada we get a year of paid maternity leave and you can be in school during that time – I didn’t plan this out at all but it definitely made life a lot less stressful. For the first semester we didn’t have a car so we got up early to catch the bus so I could take him to the wonderful home daycare we found, then back on the bus to school. After school I would go back on the bus to get him, and again on the bus to go home or sometimes to the Y and then home.  It was exhausting!  On the plus side, it really made me appreciate the amount of time and energy it takes to coordinate life when you don’t have a car.  Before my son was born I rode my bike a lot and it was hard to not be able to do that anymore.

One of the best things about being a single parent and a nurse was how much support I received from others. The nurses at work threw me a baby shower, offered support and advice, and even offered me lifts to and from work when they could.  My former roommate lived with us for a year until she finished her nursing degree (God bless her) and friends have helped take care of my son so that I could go to work, school, and conferences (one even road-tripped with us to Indianapolis!).  Their love and support made me realize how important relationships are in life and sparked my interest in workplace social capital (my dissertation topic).  In many ways, our lives have been richer because it was obvious to others that we needed them.  I’m not sure that it is always the same when people are married and it is assumed that they have all the support and help they need (I’m sure that it is different for everyone).

I think you can balance a demanding PhD program with being a parent but it requires focus, discipline, and support. The balance is always changing too! The time you get to do homework when you have a baby who sleeps a lot is different from the time you get when you have a busy 3 year old who wants to play all the time.  You have to learn to be more flexible and adapt to what your child (or children) need as they grow up.  My son has helped me slow down and reminds me daily to play and enjoy life.  Not that I didn’t before but children have such an awesome way of looking at the world.

At times I have had to make tough choices about work because of being the only parent – for example, this past fall I chose a day job as a research coordinator (which I find rather stressful) because it had regular hours – but because of that I had to give up my part-time staff nurse position at the hospital (which I love) and go casual. It’s straight-up difficult to find daycare for shift work – especially when you are part-time and don’t have a consistent schedule.  I miss seeing my co-workers and my patients. Research is rewarding and I have learned a lot this year but it’s different.

Ultimately, I think being a parent has made me a better person and has made me more efficient with my time. When I am home, I don’t want to be thinking about work so I work hard at work to be organized and focus on things that are important. I have one dedicated day a week to work on my thesis and try to keep it contained in that time frame. I think one of the big problems with academic culture is this idea that working longer hours makes you a better, more productive member of the academy.  Numerous studies show that overworking people actually makes people less effective, less happy, and has very damaging effects on their health.  That, however, is a topic for another post I think…