Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Professional vs. Personal

I’ve actually been thinking about professional development lately. Updated my CV for my “annual review” which involved signing a paper for a nice raise and agreeing to stay for another year.

“How nice.” I said to one of the administrative assistants when I turned in my meager paperwork and signed the forms she offered. “Quick and easy.”

“We try.” She said with a smile. “It’s really just a formality.”

It’s a bit how I view the academic world in my field. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t find a job after grad school. After a period of panic where I was terrified everyone had realized I suck, I had a nice batch of interviews, followed by a good group of offers, and picked what was clearly the best one in the right area. I make enough money, work with delightful people, and can pretty much do what I want with my time.

Not a bad deal.

And so it generally goes. Yes, parts of this life suck. But it goes my way eventually. My biggest problem is that I don’t know what I want. But the plan for life in general is to do well in the present and trust that something will work out. Professionally, that’s worked just fine. Personally? Well, I’ll have to let you know.

Anyway, whenever I update my CV, add a little “summer 2006” to file of old CVs, I simultaneously feel proud and abashed. It’s a bit of a personal annual review, I guess. What happened that’s important enough to write down? And what more should have happened to add lines to this document?

Publications and grants are my current focus. Teaching isn’t a real issue for me at this point – partly due to lack of opportunity, partly due to terror that I’d be terrible at it – and I’m in an interesting position of being relatively isolated within the department. My clinical focus keeps me working with various medical collaborators more than people who do what I do. Plus, the level of productivity has been, well, less than impressive.

Finally published a couple grad school papers? Yay! Still working on one last one well into a year later? Boo. Have one recent paper coming together at long last and another forgotten project that’s generated interest? Yay! Have nothing else on the horizon – facing another 9 months or so without the hope of writing anything? Boo. A lot. And I start to nibble on my lip because I'm worried.

My way of coping with these moments is to contact Carrie. In fact, we typically get in touch at this time of year simply because I’m updating my CV. But we’ve already been in contact lately. We talked after Winnie died – I sat on the patio at my parents’ house and got weepy while she soothed. I got a card a few days later that said, among other things, “I would be endlessly sad if you got hit by a bus and died. It would matter.” It made me smile – I need to matter to people lately. And Carrie matches me in terms of being pitiful and/or selfish, so she gets it.

The problem I have with research (notice how I tuck this into a long post) is that – in my experience – your fate depends on your friendships. People who are friendly and fun tend to end up on many publications because they are afforded the opportunity to offer ideas, answer questions, do a bit of peripheral work. Just because people like to have them around. As I spent time with people in grad school, we talked about research. Those little chances to work together were more often generated over lunch or drinks rather than at group meetings. The problem is that I didn’t get invited to lunches and drinks with the boys. So they’d all write papers together – help each other out – and I’d be pitiful.

But I had Carrie. And she was militant about us working together, being co-authors, sharing contacts. We provided a valuable support system and are good friends, but I think a big part of what keeps us together are the random questions on projects, asking if my institution gets certain journal subscriptions and having her run code on software I don’t have. We use each other, but in a good way. Part of my list of publications comes from her and I play a moderate role in her CV as well.

We’re taking a trip together in about a month. I’m excited about it after some initial hesitation. We sometimes argue like little terriers. Yip at each other a bit. We also giggle and tell jokes about television shows and grad school and conferences. We’re a bit like how I picture sisters, to be honest. A bit competitive and snarky, but with an underlying love that compels us to hope for the absolute best for the other woman. It’s a complex relationship though – one I’m not adequately explaining, I’m sure.

Anyway, when I accepted her invitation for the trip, I said I didn’t really have that much vacation time and we should do some work while we were there.

“Ah,” she replied, “need publications, do you?”

I ducked my head sheepishly, and said, “I just updated my CV.”

“OK!” She replied cheerfully, and I pictured her unfolding her wing and tucking me underneath, much as she did when I started grad school. I battle my way out most of the time – glare with immature irritation and let her know that I’m more than adequate as a scientist. Flap my own wings just to prove that I help her as much as she helps me! But then sometimes I’m lame and huddle underneath, pleased that someone will take care of me. So we’ll go hang out at the beach and visit that mouse and talk about work. Add each other to papers that will eventually end up as lines on the CV.

It’s rather nice, I decided. That someday I’ll look back on my list and think, “He came over for dinner and we drank mediocre wine when we sketched out this project.” Or “We figured out the introduction for that paper while waiting in line for Space Mountain.” Tuck little memories of friendships into professional development. It’s lovely, but not completely fair.

What if you don’t get along well with people? Tend toward offending people accidentally? Talk endlessly about how smart you are then screw projects up quite badly? Like η.

So as I’m planning this trip and happily anticipating adding to my CV, I thought briefly of her. Carrie:me as I:η. So I feel badly for η. I’ve tried – added her to some abstracts, offered decent advice, took the irritating comments without a glare or rude reply. But I’m comparing her progress to my own at that time and she’s behind. Not for a real lack of effort or ability, but because she doesn’t click with people. Can’t sneak into those collaborations that make her CV look all nice and shiny. So I shopped for a swimsuit and marveled at my good fortune with Carrie, then felt guilty over not helping η more.

It’s not the type of person I try to be. So I sent email and asked how things were going. If she had more publications than I knew. She doesn’t. So I offered up a 4th authorship on one of my papers. She’s familiar with the work, was around when I acquired some of the data, could have discussed it with me extensively had I been more friendly rather than settling on tolerant.

I’m not sure it’s the fair or right thing to do - Carrie helping me or me helping η. But it seems that friendships often develop from graduate school research – you spend so very much time together that it’s easy to find something in common. You know the same people, share some common interests, pick up basic details on personal issues. But my demanding professional benefit from a personal relationship seems a bit wrong. And withholding those same benefits from someone – even unintentionally – just because we’re not overly friendly – seems wrong too.

I haven’t reached a satisfactory conclusion for myself. Perhaps this is one of those times I say, “It is what it is.”

Who wants to know what I had for dinner instead?


DRD said...

Interesting take on personal/professional relationships. As someone on the periphery of science, I can't say I completely get it. I think that might be due to my social science roots: there are collaborations, but rarely articles with 3 or more co-authors. That said, my mentor here at soon to be past job is certainliy a close friend. He looks out for me opprotunity and article authorship-wise.

CharlieAmra said...

Congrats on the nice raise!!! Just b/c the process is smooth and easy, doesn't mean that you did not earn it.

ScienceWoman said...

It's taken me a while to get around on commenting on this...I think there are a lot of collaborations born out of friendships and vice versa. And there's nothing wrong with that (as long as you are willing to also collaborate with people who aren't already your friends - which obviously you are). But I am bothered by the idea of offering someone authorship because they "could have discussed it with me extensively" and were around when you took the data. To me someone who is an author is someone who was crucially involved in at least one aspect of the project (planning, data collecting, data analysis, or writing) and at least peripherally involved in another aspect. For less involvement than that they, they deserve an acknowledgement and a beer. At least that's the ethic my advisor has instilled in me - and it's why he is not an author on one of my thesis papers.

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