Friday, September 30, 2016

On Avoiding Stress Culture

I've been at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor for a little over a month now, and the students tell me we're approaching "Deep Semester." The glow of summer vacation has worn off. People are skipping classes and skipping meals in pursuit of Excellence. A pall of Seriousness has descended upon the Gates Hillman Complex. (Many days this week, the Seriousness has physically manifested as heavy rain.)

Now is a good time to remind myself that I can stay out of it*. Jim Morris, the former Dean of CMU's School of Computer Science, once told me, "Stress culture is worst among junior faculty. Avoid it." Jim seems to live by this advice. He teaches a course called Campus Stress as a Wicked Problem**. My friend Chinmay, who is in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute with him, tells me Jim is one of the few professors on campus who isn't "so busy" all the time.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to avoid stress culture as a junior faculty member. After all, everyone knows that being junior faculty means working all the time, never sleeping, and having so little of a life outside of work that you can only keep plants alive if they are in the office. But people also seem to think being a PhD student means working all the time, and there are many examples of successful people who did not work all the time as PhD students. Thus I'd like to posit the hypothesis that the idea that one must work "all the time" as junior faculty comes more from a culture of stress than necessity for success.

But why, you might wonder, would this stress culture exist among junior faculty members if it were unnecessary? I speculate below:
  • Your responsibilities are much more divided than they were before and it's difficult to juggle. It's possible to spend all time doing any of the following: teaching, advising, writing grant proposals, and attending committee meetings. Also note that this list does not include the reason you presumably became faculty in the first place: doing research. The solution is not to implode, but to compromise.
  • The closer you get to the top of a hierarchy, the more intense people get. When I go out into the real world people find me to be a total megalomaniac. My academic peers don't seem to think the same thing about me.
  • A lot of people who made it all the way to becoming faculty did get there by working all the time. Though not the only way, this is a legitimate way of working.
  • As humans we're not engineered to say "no" too often, and there are infinite things to say no to as a faculty member. If I said yes to every meeting and answered every email I'd die of not eating and not sleeping very quickly. (This might be a harder thing for women because we're socialized to be agreeable.)

In support of my hypothesis that stress culture is something to be eschewed rather than embraced, I present a list of my role models when it comes to finding space and balance:
  • My undergraduate professor Radhika Nagpal. This recent excellent profile of her talks about how, as junior faculty, she avoided politics and made it a rule not to check email on weekends. She wrote the most-read post on Scientific American's website about her approach to the tenure track called "The Awesomest 7-year Postdoc."
  • Turing Award winning MIT professor Barbara Liskov, who famously worked only 9 to 5 on weekdays, working an evening here and there only if there was a deadline.
  • The aforementioned Jim Morris, and also my friend Chinmay, who seem to make time to do the things they want to do.
  • My postdoc advisor Walter Fontana, who lives by the Goethe quote "Do not hurry; do not rest." He seems to have always found the space to do the science he wants to do. He once told me it is important to have a "strong internal compass" and know when you believe your work to be good so you can avoid pressures to hire more and publish more.
Stress culture might not be bad for everyone***, but it certainly is not productive for me. (My friend Seth once observed that I seem to work best in the complete absence of pressure.) So though I could be doing more work, right now I'm going to go read a book. Good night.

* In Influence, Robert Cialdini says if you want to do something, tell the entire world. Then you'll feel more accountable and be more likely to do it.
** The course focuses on problems at CMU, but in terms of pressure CMU is not so different from the other elite higher-education institutions I've experienced.
*** A student once told me I needed to put more pressure on him so he would get more work done!

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