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 🙂

 

Sitting is the New Smoking…

sitting-is-killing-you

So apparently, sitting is the new smoking…and therefore, I am probably going to die.  Not really (I hope), but there has been a whole lot of attention to the “sitting epidemic” recently, highlighting how much time most of us spend sitting during a regular work day.  (Clearly, they have not spent any time with a staff nurse lately!).  The solution? A standing desk, of course.  Or a treadmill desk. Or taking frequent breaks. Making sure that you have an ergonomically designed work station….

On perhaps, we need to start asking different questions about how our work is designed. For example, in academe, we do spend a lot of time sitting at our computer working on all kinds of things from research grants to articles, powerpoints, data analysis, etc.  Some of this work is unavoidable I think but I also wonder if some of this time could be used more effectively. For example, do we really need to write 20 research articles using one dataset?  Do we really need another book chapter on such and such that a handful of people will read?  What if we publish one really strong paper and then talk to people about our ideas instead?  How much more fun (and time effective) is it to interview people, record a podcast, or share a conference presentation on YouTube?  Obviously, none of these things completely eliminates computer time but I am guessing that the impact of one really great Ted Talk is much broader and valuable than a research article buried in an academic journal that mostly only other researchers are going to read.  Unless of course, more research articles = more tenure points.

Sometimes collecting tenure points feels a bit like being Mario trying to get all the gold coins within reach (and apparently research activities that require copious sitting are as likely to kill you as sitting on your butt playing too many video games).

mario coins.jpg

So let’s assume that you just have to accept that your job requires some sitting.  What can you do to make it less bad?

  1. Take care of your body. Exercise. Eat nutrition food. Go easy-ish on the coffee (mostly). Get enough sleep.
  2. Plan ahead for the ebbs and flows of the school year. Midterms? Exam period? Research grant deadlines?  These are busy times, but they are not unexpected!  Get a calendar and plan ahead. I like to make extra healthy meals and stick them in the freezer to reduce cooking time. Having some exercise equipment in the basement is also really awesome for saving time when I am busy.  There have also been times when I have had to hire my babysitter to give me an extra morning or afternoon to do work on the weekend. (Fingers crossed that being a professor is more awesome than being a grad student working full time!).  Do I always get to do a full workout? No. But sometimes 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing 😉
  3. Be super organized. You can waste a lot of time trying to simply locate documents, references, and sort through different versions of things.  Having a logical way to organize files and name documents will save you a ton of time. I even get my students to name their documents in specific ways so that I don’t end up with 25 versions of “Assignment 1”.  Using a reference management software program is also a really great way to save time with citing and reference lists, especially when you need to use different referencing styles for different journals. No more wasted time seeking and downloading the same reference articles over and over!  Lastly, using tags and folders in your email inbox is another strategy that saves oodles of time. If you can use the same main categories as your main files on your computer, that is even better!  I like to use gmail and get all of my other emails forwarded to that one account.
  4. Be reasonable. Sometimes I struggle with this. (e.g. “Of course I can have a baby and do my PhD and publish and compete in powerlifting and work at the hospital and teach, etc. at the same time…).  I like to set big goals and have a tendency to say yes to everything but I have learned that this usually leads to burnout. A better strategy is to take on a few things that you can really focus on. Reading (and re-reading) the Power of Less  is a helpful place to start.  Academia seems to reward people who work hard and do a lot but I think another point to consider is that learning and teaching is exciting!  Research and teaching are (should be) both about learning new things and understanding more about the world around us, as well as sharing that knowledge and excitement about learning.  It is hard to say no when you are excited about learning and sharing ideas!   Is it reasonable to spend 20 hours a week preparing for a class you are teaching for the first time?  Maybe not if you are teaching 3 courses and have other things on your plate.
  5. Aim for excellence, rather than perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect”. The pareto principle, or 80:20 rule comes in handy here too. It states that 80% of your outcomes/effects will come from 20% of your work. Do you really need to make 50 slides for a 10 minute presentation?  Or, would 10-12 slides, well-designed, be more captivating and effective in getting your point across?  How much time are you spending sitting, working on things that have little to no impact?  After all, sitting is the new smoking….

Grant Writing Success

In late November I was offered my dream job as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick in the Faculty of Nursing (I enthusiastically accepted!).  I am getting ready to board the train on the tenure track and plunged right into writing my first CIHR grant as a PI. Not for the reasons you might think either. While I do understand that obtaining funding is valued as a performance outcome for faculty members, having money to do your research allows you to – wait for it – do your research 🙂  That being said, being awarded the money which allows you to accomplish valuable work is not the only reason to write a grant proposal and it is not the only measure of success (although, again, it is super helpful and makes it easier to do what you are trying to do).

So what else defines a successful grant application?  For me, success includes learning more about the research problems that I am interested in examining, learning more about what other researchers have done, and thinking about what we need to know and/or do to solve these problems (ultimately contributing to a healthier health care system and society I hope!). Building connections with other researchers, health care providers, and policy makers can also be a lot of fun!  Over the last few months I have been able to connect with others who share common interests and also have unique expertise and experience to bring to the project that I initiated. Regardless of whether or not we get funded for the project, we now have developed a plan, a budget, and have a good handle on what we want to accomplish through our research.

As a new kid on the block in New Brunswick it has also been really helpful for me to start meeting people and getting a better understanding of my new province. I grew up in Nova Scotia but each province has a different approach to health care delivery and my training and experience in nursing has been in Ontario in an urban centre which is quite different than Fredericton.  Making connections now will make it easier to fit in when I get there and I feel like it is a very welcoming place.

I do think our project is important and worth funding but I also recognize that there are limited funds and lots of great ideas worth funding.  It also depends on who ends up reviewing our application and the other projects that are being submitted.  At this point I’m not sure if you get “tenure points” for submitting applications that don’t get funded but it’s not like a straight-forward sport like track and field where there is a clear winner. Train hard, eat right, be the best, win, right?  Research grant competitions are more like artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics where judges (reviewers) assess the relative value of competitors/applications and assess whether or not you will be able to successfully do the proposed research. Comparing research projects and teams that are qualitatively diverse makes it harder to decide which projects should be funded.approved

For these reasons, I think it is important to define success not just in terms of getting funded or not. As a novice PI, I am uncertain whether that will go in my favour or not.  After 4 degrees, 3 theses, and being able to balance all the demands of school, work, residence life, teaching, research, and being a single parent while also staying fit, I am 110% confident that I will be a good team leader and that we will be able to carry out the project as a team.  Of course, when you submit a research grant application you can’t put “single mom/time management ninja” or “worked 10 part-time jobs including running a residence hall while completing my undergrad” as part of your accomplishments/skills (and if you did, it would probably count against you).  Again, another reason why I think it is important to always do your best and see the process and the development of the proposal as an accomplishment and an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer and researcher.

Of course, if we do get the grant, it will be icing on the cake and I will be literally jumping for joy because we can start putting our research plan into action.  There is absolutely no denying that actually getting the grant is a successful outcome too!  And a very sweet one at that! However, if it is the only outcome that you focus on, I think that you miss out on a lot of other great things about writing research grants.