Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Awesomest 7-Year Post-Doc

This week a Scientific American Blog Post by Radhika Nagpal, professor of Computer Science at Harvard made a circulation among my academic Facebook friends, and I thought I'd share it with this community.

Her advice on how she "Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life" can be summarized in the below seven things she did in her first seven years of her faculty appointment at Harvard:

          • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
          • I stopped taking advice.
          • I created a “feel-good” 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”.

While I am not sure if her mindset is as easy to adopt in other subject areas (like astronomy) where the alternative/industry options are less plentiful and the transition out of academia is less obvious, I am happy to hear that someone who only works 50 hours a week was able to obtain tenure at Harvard.

I took a similar approach to my PhD program.  I was slightly older when I started graduate school at Berkeley, and decided that my days of pulling all-nighters, working weekends, not having a social life, and abusing my body were over.  I told my advisor from the beginning that I wanted to enjoy my PhD work and have a full and balanced life.  Luckily, he was supportive of this plan and had very realistic demands on my time and energy.  However, my desire to have this balance meant that I didn't publish as much, took longer (7 years) to finish my PhD, and ultimately felt less successful than my peers throughout most of my time at Berkeley (although that could have just been impostor syndrome, who knows).

To read more about Professor Nagpal's approach to tenure-track life check out Scientific American's Blog.


  1. Jessica,

    I really admire this view point. Going slow and at pace where equilibrium of our self is maintained is very important.

    I truly discourage the idea of Field medalist be under the age of 40 as this drives people crazy to publish more and discover more.

    - Working for fixed hours
    - Spending enough time on health schedule

    These are two tenets which I see are missing in most people daily lives.


  2. It took having another person in my life to start putting my workaholic tendencies aside. I still always feel "surprised" that the people I work with accept this: it turns out that somehow I felt like I was supposed to work all the time even though people don't actually expect to have their emails returned at all hours.
    Ironically, perhaps, medicine is not known for it's "healthy balance" of care-for-others and self-care, but I think much of that is driven from within ourselves. Patients don't want you to not get sleep, and neither do other doctors. So go home and get some sleep!

  3. Sharing a story and an important lesson here:

    An excellent life reminder... When things in your life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the 2 Beers.
    A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him.
    When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.
    He then asked the students if the jar was full.
    They agreed that it was.
    The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly.
    The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls.
    He then asked the students again if the jar was Full.
    They agreed it was.
    The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.
    Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
    He asked once more if the jar was full..
    The students responded with a unanimous 'yes.'
    The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand.
    The students laughed..
    'Now,' said the professor as the laughter subsided, 'I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.
    The golf balls are the important things---your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions---and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
    The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car..
    The sand is everything else---the small stuff.
    'If you put The sand into the jar first,' he continued, 'there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.
    The same goes for life.
    If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.
    Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
    Spend time with your children.
    Spend time with your parents.
    Visit with grandparents.
    Take your spouse out to dinner.
    Play another 18.
    There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn.
    Take care of the golf balls first---the things that really matter.
    Set your priorities.
    The rest is just sand.
    One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented.
    The professor smiled and said, 'I'm glad you asked.'
    The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.