You no doubt remember the advice of Scott Kern and that of Mu-ming Poo with respect to what it takes to survive and thrive in an academic career.

It boils down to “work harder, no I don’t care how much you are already working, you need to work more. and baby’s are dying of cancer and something, something growth cones. so there”

One Radhika Nagpal has written a counter argument from her current position as Full Professor at Harvard.

Go read

The-Awesomest-7-Year-Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-track-faculty-life

So with some humor to balance my fear, here’s goes my confession:

Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

right now. I can wait.

Here’s what I think about

Work Life balance

The paradox of the poles of the work-life balance discussion in Nature News is this.

Nobody who succeeds at work and then claims balance really knows if they just got very, very lucky in their career.

Nobody who works around the clock and drives their lab to similar performance knows that this was *required*.

The hidden side is that both balanced and St Kern/Poo’d types also fail in their careers.

UPDATE 09/06/11: Plus also, StKern/Poo’d types can also succeed in their careers really, really well….and still fail to cure cancer.

And about Protecting Your Time

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

And one of my accidental mentors taught me this:

There were several areas in which I picked up either positive (“gee, that seems useful”) or negative (“not gonna go there”) PI patterns from this person. One of the former was this guy’s role as father and scientist. Whenever one had to find this PI, if he wasn’t around because of father duties his whole lab knew about it. “Oh, he’s at Opening Day.” or “He had a sick kid today, he’ll be back later”. or “He’s taking his kid to [SportingActivityX]”. This guy has a perfectly viable career with nice pubs, great NIH grant support, always seems to have at least 4-5 postdocs and a similar number of techs, serves study sections, organizes symposia, etc. In short, he’s well respected and does not appear to have paid any obvious sort of career price to date. This had a great impact on YHN as I was transitioning both as PI and father.
The power of this example for me was basically “Screw it, if he doesn’t worry about being known at work as a guy who takes his role as father seriously then I’m not going to worry about it either”.

The interesting thing, which is emerging on the Twitters, is that Professor Nagpal’s advice is really no different from a host of women who write “You can’t have it all” screeds and lament the fact “You have to be twice as good as a man to succeed”. The ones that describe not being their enough for their kids or the ones describing being their too much and failing. The men too, although their career advice is thinner. See Kern and Poo links at the top–they describe how “it has to be” because this is how it was for them.

And you know what? It is ALL true. All of it. Because these are personal anecdotes tied to the career history and success of the person giving the advice or reciting their life-story in academics (or other professional life).

My advice, scattered throughout this blog, is no different.

And just as the winners of global social politics write the histories of what happened and for what reason, likewise those who have succeeded in academic science tend to write the prescriptions for our careers.

I don’t think Professor Nagpal has written some amazing revelation here. It is not hugely different than arguments that I make myself on this very blog.

It is true that she has been very, very successful by appearance.

But there are also, I would wager, tons of people who made the choices she made and were denied tenure. Many who washed out of academic professordom entirely. And that is the point about this advice which runs from Nagpal’s 50 hrs max to the Kern/Poo maxim of “always more”.

It is no guarantee.