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!


Unknown said...

Hello! I'd like to let you know that after a long and time-consuming research, our experts were able to establish an exciting blog which reveals and explores recent studies related to stess. Here are 20 tips how to avoid stress and always keep calm!

term paper writing services reviews said...

We need to practice for good culture such that we can protect our society from different destroyed.So i hope this post should inspire the people to know more about this.

Juliana Kho said...

Thank you for your information, please visit:

GerryKerns said...

The post is absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need! Also like to Logo design admire the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer! I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often. Best medical marijuana dispensary

GerryKerns said...

Thank you a lot for providing individuals with a very spectacular possibility to read critical reviews from this site. cannabis business plan sample Canada

GerryKerns said...

Thanks for the great post. You have a well written and informative blog especially for us. cannabis business California

GerryKerns said...

The best, These articles written too informative, this will help to use it to learn and continue to maintain such a good job. τίτλους ειδήσεων της ημέρας

GerryKerns said...

The product was created which are giving parcel of chance for people groups. They are gaining gigantic % of profit every twofold item. The majority of valuable delicate product in your grasp here it is simple for our life. It need to particular choice are accessible that people groups can viewing and inform this application programming. hemp CBD vertically integrated business

GerryKerns said...

There is so much that you can get from this. Keep up the good work on this. The future is very bright here. vacation rentals pompano beach fl

GerryKerns said...

This is a nice web.. im so enjoying reading ni here.. I hope everybody love this site because all the post is so informative for me, every post is make me sure the writer is so good. jual pintu darurat

GerryKerns said...

This is really amazing. One of the best posts that I've read up till now. I would give this article a full star rating. This is just that great! Best online casino bonus uk

Term Paper Writing Services said...

There are many Online Coursework writing services and Help with Coursework Writing services to choose from for those stuck with their psychology coursework writing services and nursing coursework writing help services.