Tuesday, October 25, 2005

James Spader's divorce

I changed the settings on my blog so I won't get any more blogspam comments about James Spader's divorce. Like I care. I can barely keep my own, unfamous, marriage together. It's no wonder celebrities can't stay married with reporters constantly writing about their problems. I try to imagine how I would feel if, after I had a huge fight with my husband, I stopped by the grocery store on the way home from work and found that pictures of us fighting were all over the tabloids. I remember when we were trying to get pregnant (the first time) and were having a lot of trouble. It was so emotionally difficult to be constantly wondering, at every little pang and burp, whether "this is it!" Then to have your fertility problems broadcast to the world on some idiotic tabloid show would have been devastating to me. This is just one of the many reasons I have virtually stopped watching TV. Now I only watch a little with my kids (Teen Titans, Go!).

I have my mentoring committee meeting on Monday, and I had to turn in my package for our pay-for-performance review, so I was forced to take stock of my situation. By the numbers:

Peer-reviewed publications: 15
Book chapters: 3
Total Grants: 16 ($3.4 million including the whopper last week)
Grants with me as PI: 6 ($1.19 million)
Students currently: 5 (4 PhD, 1 MS)
Students graduated: 2 (both MS)
Courses taught: 2 per year
Courses developed: 1
Courses significantly overhauled: 1

On paper it looks pretty good, doesn't it? But then when I talk to my mentors they say I need to get an NSF grant, chair some sessions (which means more travel), and start sucking up to the bigwigs who may someday write letters for my tenure package. ugh. I'm trying to think of something less fun . . . my mind's a blank.

Today my "little" sister called me today to ask for advice on applying to grad school. (Although 15 years younger than me, she is 6 feet tall). Her GPA is not so hot because she is going to an extremely tough school, and her GRE verbal score was marginal (490). Her professors are telling her not to bother applying to grad school. I told her not to give up and give it her best shot. If she doesn't get in the first time around, take some grad courses as an non-matriculated student, get good grades in them, and try again next year. I think she will find grad school a breeze after the college she is at. It's so strange to have people asking me for advice. It's almost as though they think I know what I am doing. Why? Do I look like I do?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Another big fat notch in the belt

Yesterday we drove down to DC for the day to present our proposed research in front of the Science Advisory Board. And, miracle of miracles, they voted to fund out proposal to the tune of $1,880,000 over four years. Yay! Much rejoicing and drinking of beer followed as all 5 PIs celebrated. In some circles, $1.8 million may not be a lot, but for us it is huge, quite possibly the biggest grant the entire department brought in this year. I'm still in shock. And this happened just in time for my mentoring committee meeting (on Halloween) and in time for me to add it to my package for this year's pay-for-performance adjustments. Life is good.

Also today I submitted my re-worked Career proprosal to the NSF unsolicited category. I'm asking for about $500,000 over three years for me and one co-PI. I feel that this is one of the best proposals I have ever written, and I will be crushed if (when?) it doesn't get funded. I got lots of good advice from my senior co-PIs on the way down to DC yesterday about the "broader impacts" part of the proposal, so I re-wrote that section and took it to one of my designated mentors to look at this morning. He gave me even more good advice (list the undergrads and high school students you have mentored by name and give a sentence explaining their projects). And I even remembered to include the mentoring I did for Chem 200, which is a new class run by the Chemistry Department with funds from NSF for their "Undergraduate Research Center." That ought to help, right? I never really understood that "broader impacts" stuff before. Now I'm finally starting to get it.

I have two PhD students who are trying to finish by Christmas. I doubt that both of them will make it, in fact I think the odds are high that both will miss the deadline and have to pay tuition for next semester. They are both sending me new drafts of their papers every week, which is a little overwhelming for me. But I'm eager to get them out and get their papers published.

My student centered learning experiment in my lab class is going really well. The students turned in their lab reports last week, and then they turned in their grades of each other's lab reports this week. I still have to do the final tallies, but they frequently gave out lower grades than I did for the same lab reports. At least they are taking their grading responsibilities very seriously, and I think they are learning A LOT. Not enjoying it much, but learning a lot. And after all, isn't that what it's all about?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Doctor is In

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog was dispense useful advice, and having nothing better to write about today, here goes.

To be successful as a woman with children on the tenure track, I advise you do three things:
1. Do not be a perfectionist. If you are a perfectionist by nature you should immediately quit your job and stay home with your children, because just keeping your house clean and your children clothed with take all of your time.
2. Delegate, delegate, delegate. Find a graduate student to do most of your work for you.
3. Say no to every request from professors (they can get along fine without you) and other adults. Say yes to students only on rare occasions. Say yes to your children only about 70% of the time. Before agreeing to do anything for professors or students, ask yourself, "how is this going to help me get tenure?" If the answer isn't obvious, say no. Before saying yes to your children, verify that their request complies with all local and federal statutes and is covered by your health insurance and/or homeowners policy.

Following these three simple rules will ensure that you do not end up overburdened.

Rule #3 tends to be the hardest for people, so as a companion, here is a list of things NOT to do.

1. do not read anything that might be educational.
2. do not write progress reports (students should be doing this).
3. do not prepare for class.
4. do not clean up after your children if they are 3 or older.
5. do not clean up after your husband.
6. do not cook meals with more than 4 ingredients.
7. do not answer the telephone.
8. do not check your email more than twice an hour.
9. do not watch television.
10. do not throw parties.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

My embarrassing CAREER story

Here's a lovely story to prove to y'all that people with PhDs are occasionally idiotic, too. I wrote a CAREER proposal. Had it all ready to go. Clicked the "allow SRO access" button in Fastlane and everything. Then things went horribly wrong.

But let me back up for a moment. The CAREER proposal (for me) was due on a Wednesday. I had been invited to a planning workshop for a funding agency on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I carefully planned my time so that the proposal would be finished by Monday afternoon (since, as you all know, I almost never work past 4:30). This is how I manage to work only 40 hours a week and to keep my life sane. By planning ahead. So Monday afternoon I clicked the "allow SRO access" button, and thought I was finished.

Then, on Tuesday during the workshop in another city, my cell phone rings. It's Mary (name changed to protect the guilty) from my university's SRO. She tells me I can't list another professor as senior personnel on a CAREER proposal. Okay, so maybe I should have read the program announcement a little more closely. So I tell her to take him off. That's okay, right? He knows he can't be a PI, and he won't mind having his name disappear as long as he gets some money if the grant is awarded. Plus, this is the CAREER award, people! My odds of being funded are approximately one in a gajillion. Crisis averted, right?

Later that day, my cell phone rings again. It's Mary from SRO. My font size is too small. Okay, so maybe I should have read the program announcement a little more carefully. It is pushing the page limit as it is, and an increase in font size will require some cutting. Okay, don't panic, I tell myself. I can leave the workshop, go back to my office, edit the proposal down to size and still get it in by the deadline. I leave the workshop at 7 pm, get back to my office at around 9, to find that the air conditioning in the building is broken. My office is 85 degrees. I increase the font size from 10 to 12. The proposal goes from 15 to 22 pages. I must now cut one third of my proposal away. By 10 pm I realize that this is hopeless. I'm hot and tired, and I have to leave the house at the crack of dawn Wednesday morning to return to my workshop. I decide to retreat and live to fight another day. I can submit the same proposal (without the educational component, which will allow me to meet the page limit) to the unsolicited RFP in my NSF section (which is due in October). That way my "senior personnel" can be the co-PI that he deserves to be. I leave a voice mail for Mary at ORSP telling her to scuttle the whole thing.

I e-mail by senior person and explain what happen and apologize for putting him through weeks of editing for nothing. He is older and wiser and writes back that Mary has her head up her ass, and NSF accepts 10-point font all the time. I am embarrassed, but I soothe my ego by thinking that the unsolicited section has a better funding rate (10%) than the CAREER award (like 0.000001%) and is more fair to my collaborator.

Last week I got a newsletter from one of my professional organizations informing me that the CAREER program in my area got about 40 proposals and expects to fund 15-20% of them. Mary in SRO, how I curse thee!

So today I am re-opening that sealed document, the proposal I haven't looked at since July, to edit it for submission to the unsolicited program. Sigh. I am an idiot.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Happy Anniversary

Today is my 13th wedding anniversary, and so I thought this would be a good time to explain why my marriage is a mess. I have been seeing a marriage counselor for about 3 years, since shortly after my second child was born. In retrospect, it is clear to me that our problems began when we had our first child, and that I glossed over them shamelessly in order to convince myself that our relationship was stable enough to handle a second child, which I wanted very badly. Three years of marriage counseling has taught me so much about marriage and life (and, as we shall see, about alcoholism) that I feel totally removed from the woman who was afraid to pick up the phone three years ago and seek help. In fact counseling has been good for me in many ways that go way beyond my marriage. I highly recommend it. One of the best things I learned in marriage counseling is that my marriage isn't as bad as I thought. So go figure.

Here's what is wrong with my marriage: My husband's father is an alcoholic. He was a salesman in the days of the three-martini lunch, and regardless of what he did during the day, in the evenings he would come home from work and begin drinking his vodka martinis until, by dinnertime, he was smashed. Then he would sit down to dinner and survey his family: his enabler wife, his eldest son (my husband), his middle son, and his youngest daughter. For complicated reasons, having to do with the fact that he himslef was an oldest child, he focused his displeasure on his eldest son, spouting verbal abuse nightly that was all the more difficult for my husband to bear because, when sober, he was such a nice guy and good father. And my mother in law watched it happen and did little to stop it. She did make some attempts to control her husband but they were ineffective. To make up for her shortcomings in that crucial area, she mothered all of her children, but especially my husband, with fervor. As a stay-at-home mom, she did everything for her children, except teach her sons to iron or cook or clean up after themselves. She baked cookies and sewed Halloween costumes and paid their bills and washed their laundry even when they were old enough to do it themselves. She was especially protective of my husband and tried to shield him from all of the shocks of life, except, of course, her own husband's destructive tirades.

I'm not angry at my husband's parents. My father in law's own mother apparently drank herself to death when he was 16, so it's easy to see the issues that drove him to drink. And my mother in law is a thoughtful, kind woman who has been wonderful to me. But they both failed what was probably the biggest test of their lives. And they continue to fail every day as my father in law continues to drink, grows morbidly obese, and won't leave the house without his wife. He won't visit us (we live about 4 hours away), nor will he visit his other son, whose wife just had their first child (they live 2 hrs away). And he certainly won't visit his daughter and her four kids, who are far enough away to require a plane ride. He can't walk through the airport, and can't fit in an airline seat. As a result, my mother in law won't visit us either, unless she can drive down and back in a day, and even that she does rarely. I could really use her help (see recent Boston trip as exhibit A), but she is not available.

All this has left my beloved husband as the classic adult child of an alcoholic. He is a perfectionist, yet also a procrastinator. He complains but does nothing. He expects me to fix everything. He is the most psychosomatic person I have ever met.

But, happily, all I have to do is completely ignore his bad parts and our marriage is actually quite harmonious.

Top ten things I have learned from marriage counseling:
1. he will never, ever, in a million years, leave me.
2. even though he wants me to be perfect, I don't have to be perfect because he will never, ever, in a million years, leave me.
3. no matter how long you have been married, you probably don't know your spouse as well as you think you do. Especially in alcoholic families, who don't talk about the problem, you can be married for a decade (as I was) and still have no clue about your spouse.
4. your spouse does not have go with you to marriage counseling. It can work just fine without him/her.
5. no one talks about their marital problems. we all pretend to be blissfully married to a perfect mate. we may complain about small things, like who does the dishes, but people rarely admit that they are having problems, until one day, all of a sudden, they are divorced. in this sense, having a troubled marriage is more difficult and more damaging than stuff you are "allowed" to talk about, like major illness, or a death in the family.
6. as soon as you tell someone that you are having marital problems, you find out that they are, too. it's extraordinarily cathartic.
7. putting 5 and 6 together means that anyone who tells you that s/he is having marital problems is much less likely to get divorced than all those other people who pretend to be fine.
8. http://www.babeland.com/
9. often we marry the person we need, not the person we want. My husband wanted Martha Stewart/Stepford Wife. Instead he got me. I will never decorate our house to his satisfaction or cook a pot roast, or bake 30 different kinds of cookies at Christmas, but I also will not let him become an alcoholic like his father.
10. there are many ways to be married. some married couples live in different countries. some dads stay at home, some moms get thrown in jail for not revealing their sources. everyone is different. and hey, if it works for you, go with it.

I was watching something on the Discovery Channel about the evolution of the brain, and they pointed out that animals that live in packs invariably have larger brains than those that fly solo. This is because managing social relationships is the most intellectually challenging thing living creatures do. And the hardest relationship of all is the one with your spouse, because it is voluntary, and therefore easily (too easily) dissolved. Thus when I die, I think the proudest accomplishment of my life will not be that I got a PhD or got tenure or raised two kids. It will be that I kept my marriage together.

Happy anniversary, honey.