Working in academia is not always fun, and there are lots of opportunities where you are valued in a competition about getting published, or getting funded. Often you have put down lots of time on the thing that you are submitting. Often the submission is the result of many discussions, and creative ideas to present what you want to say. The writing process can really be inspiring and fun!
However, when submitting to the top conferences the reject rate is often around 85% and with funding organisations it is around the same. This means that it is very likely that you are not accepted, and that you are not successful in getting funded even though you did you best.
I know that grit and perseverance are the two most important success factors for anyone in computer science. And most probably in academia also. I even wrote a paper on that with Roger McDermott and Mats Daniels, you find the paper here: https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2742625.
I know that you need to keep fighting and not fall into imposter syndrome if you fail, but it is still tough. Even in teaching I run into this feeling of being a failure. I work a lot with teaching development, and that is not always a success either. Student centred learning is for example not at all valued by all students. I wrote a paper about one of our more recent failures there where we tried an idea with a presentation for a real client in a course based on a gaming idea. You can read the paper here if you are interested: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/8190466.
I remember thinking that I will leave academia around five years ago when it was fail, fail, fail and fail all the time and I didn’t get any funders to believe in any of my ideas. My feeling was that obviously I am not the right person for this job, and it is not worth it! I also had quite a stressful situation at work generally with lots of conflicts and lack of support from important people.
We need to be better at supporting each other in academia, and to find ways where positive feedback is at the core of our work and not the negative and critical feedback. I am lucky to have a few of those very supportive people in my live, and I really appreciate them being there. I know some of them are reading this blog and they give me good and positive feedback:
- Thank you for being such a support for me and always believing in me even when I fail, fail and fail!
In the spring we got funding for a gender mainstreaming and work environment project (WONDER), and we have been working with this at the division of Vi2. The project team consists of colleagues Robin Strand (head of division), Ginevra Castellano (the Equal Opportunities Officer at the Department) and excellent Giulia Perugia.
The project is called WONDER (WOrk eNvironment aND wEllbeing) and is an organisational development project. We will work with health promotion and work environment improvement measures for everyone and with particular focus on the group of doctoral students and young researchers at the unit from a gender perspective.
In October this year the project organises a retreat at Krusenbergs Herrgård with the help of an occupational health expert. We will be discussing and learning more about work environment issues in academia during two days. An unusual amount of people have signed up for the retreat, and I have been discussing the content with the expert from PREVIA that we got recommended. There will also be a follow up seminar from PREVIA in November, and the plan is that we will also have additional seminars about gender mainstreaming and the work environment at the division.
We will also look into and try to evaluate our work environment from a gender perspective as a part of the project. We will look into space, time allocation and resources. I would also very much like to look into the issue of Academic household work, that has recently been discussed in media https://www.tidningencurie.se/nyheter/2019/08/27/vem-star-for-hushallsarbetet-i-akademin/. However, I am not sure that there is room for that in this project, and perhaps we need additional funding to look into this part.
Many people suffer from stress and we need to improve wellbeing in academia – especially for women who are more likely to suffer from stress. This project is an attempt to move things one step in the right direction!
Sometimes I get the feeling that I should know everything about a research area when I supervise PhD students. For example: If I supervise someone who is in the “Design of the Moon Area”, I should be the expert of designing the moon. This idea of course also includes lots of imposter syndrome feelings, ie. I am a fake, I am not doing a good job, everyone will soon realize that I don’t know everying of the moon etc.
One of my post docs listened to me telling about this feeling – and he commented that if I would know everything it would instead be a great problem.
- The first problem he pointed to is that if I would know everything there is to know no more research would be needed about the moon. Hmm. He has a point.
- The second thing he pointed to was the core idea of independence and PhD work. As a PhD student you need to work independently of you supervisor. How would that be possible if the supervisor knew everything there is to know about the area?
Of course he has good points. I need to let go of the idea that I need to know everything because clearly I don’t. And it is not even a good idea to know everything due to the above.
However it is still a question how little you can know about an area and still be a good supervisor in that area?
Being the supervisor of PhD students is indeed a learning experience for me. All my PhD students move in different directions in the field of human computer interaction. At the same time the field is expanding enormously due to digitalization of every field of society. On some level my knowledge about methods, the writing process, publication processes and academia is still relevant. But I do not have the same time to reflect and think as they do. They spend a lot of time reading, going to seminars and reflecting. I feel like my calender is mostly full of meetings instead of reflections. Sigh.
Often I learn many interesting things through listening to their discussions and from reading what they write. I try to understand what they have learned, and often my role is to say: Explain more, tell me more, that is interesting – explore that a bit. But I still often have the feeling that me knowing more would be so much better. Hmmm.
To sum up: Dealing with imposture syndrom requires grit and perseverance. And also colleagues to discuss it with. And for me imposter syndrome never seems to end.
A few weeks ago I did a public seminar related to digitalisation and the work environment at Tierp library. I talked about the very techno positive culture that we have in Sweden, and that people seem to think that with digitalisation we solve all problems. We will be more efficient, human errors will disappear and work will be based on rational processes. Examples of very successful IT systems are for example Watson to support decisions in health care and robots for surgery.
However, there is also another very parallel story to this. A story about how seldom IT projects are successful, and how often large IT projects fail completely. And a story about how much money that costs every year (44 billion SEK in 2016 according to Unionen).
There is also a story about people in different organisations who feel frustrated over their jobs, who lose the feeling of satisfaction and joy from working and some even burn out. We need to digitalise with human beings in mind. Digitalisation of work needs to include ideas of how to create a good and motivating work situation.
I think that the small audience that listened were very interested and gave many good examples from their work situation.
Last week was a busy week with reviews of applications, feedback on PhD theses, three sick kids with stomach flu, and two media appearances. I did a TV interview on Monday, and Friday I was interviewed in the radio. The reporter was really friendly and perhaps I talked a bit too much. Hm. But at least I was relaxed and able to think ok. When doing this kind of interview you really don’t know what they’ll ask in advance, and that makes it a bit nervous.
The interview is found here 2 hours and 45 min into the program
There was also a discussion on Facebook related to the program. Some of the comments on Facebook were really super funny!
How do you balance important deadlines with family life including kids who need support and are sick? This is something I have struggled with the past months. The plan with this blog post is as much about reminding myself of how to find the balance as it is to contribute to the discussion around this. We need to help each other cope without burning out.
This weekend I had to spend the whole days working. I had one deadline on Tuesday and one on Thursday. It it very seldom I end up in this situation. That is good. And I had made a New Years’ resolution NOT to end up in this situation at all. Four weeks later I am completely swamped with work and all kinds of things have happened at home with the kids. And of course that means I need to prioritise my fours kids. But it stresses me out completely.
So what can you (I) do in this situation:
- Prioritise the things in your calendar into the grid of important and urgent. I found this blog post that really describes the method well:
- Set asked time to prioritize and reflect on what you do on a regular basis to keep track of how you prioritize.
- Ask people for help when possible. Both with family things and at work.
- Set asked time to exercise to get rid of stress.
- Use the pomodoro technique when you focus on the important things. This means set an alarm Clock and do nothing but the things you planned to do.
- See to it that you get enough sleep.
The magazine Publikt did a survey study with public authorities. The results showed that there are enormous work environment problems related to the IT systems. Many of the union elected representatives who responded to Publik’s survey indicate that employees are stressed and frustrated due to the shortcomings of IT tools. In their presenteation of the survey, I was asked to comments on the results:
“Most people I interview now have 15 to 20 different systems, including smaller systems like phones and other. If you go back ten years in time, nobody could know or suspect that this development could happen. The situation has just arisen, and this has contributed to this enormous problem.”
Some of the problems experienced by users can be linked to the difficulty of meeting the needs of the business with standardized systems.
“Standard system fits no one,” says Åsa Cajander. There are too long distances between those who use the systems and those who develop them. Even if you have user groups or the like, it’s very hard to make it work.
Developing and managing your own system is of course much more expensive than buying a standard system, she states.
“But you start counting the costs in a big organization, then maybe it would pay off. This could be a research study.”
The full article in Swedish is found here:
I have four kids, and I have frequently attended conferences when they have come along. Perhaps it is not always optional to bring them, but the alternative would be to stay at home – and I don’t want that. Then I think it is better for me to go and try to balance work-life as good as I can and I adapt the trip to the kid so that they get a nice experience too.
When my youngest son was one years old he had been to many countries (nine?), and one result from us travelling so much with him is that he speaks OK English at the age of six. This is many years before he starts English at school.
The picture below is from Gothenburg and ICSE 2018 where I did a key note, and my husband attended one of the workshops on computer science education. We also met our very good colleague Tony Clear who helped Sixten try the conference T-shirt.
Some tips for making it work to bring kids:
- Perhaps grand-parents have the possibility to travel with you to the conference with you? It could be a nice experience for them and for the kid
- If it doesn’t work 100% as expected that is quite normal. Having kids is often a bit like leaving the planning to someone else… 🙂
- If you go to the conference as a couple you can share responsibility for the kid. We often try to share the responsibility
- Plan something that the kid likes to do so that the trio becomes a positive experience for everyone
- Be prepared to replan things, and make up a plan B if plan A fails.
Sometimes academia is not so great, and now and then I run into periods of lots of failure. Impostor syndrome doesn’t help either and hits me straight away when things are not going my way: “Do I really belong?”
This past week I got five papers rejected in 48 hours. Gah!! This was really tough! A personal record indeed. I thought that the papers were really OK, and some of them well written – but reviewers (completely) disagreed.
So far, I haven’t really had the energy to read the reviews either so I can’t really proudly say that I failed and learned lots of things through the failures. So far I have just failed and felt like a failure.
Perhaps you didn’t know, but I have a full-time job as a senior lecturer with a research group, and I also have a family with four kids who live at home and a husband. As you can imagine this work-life balance puzzle doesn’t always work well. Sometimes it is really not fun at all. And sometimes I feel simply like such an imposture both at home and at work. There simply isn’t energy enough to be a good mom, and a good researcher and taking time for everyone and everyting.
How do I then manage stress and not burning out? Well, I think that these are my personal experiences that have helped me:
- I am perfectly convinced that I could burn out. It is not something that just happens to everyone else and not me. I pay close attention to stress signals, and as a researcher on digitalization and the work environment I have read up on what those symptoms could be. When, and not IF, it gets too much I try to be kind to myself and reschedule.
- I force myself to log off completely now and then. No “pica boo” use of the mail in my phone during (some) evenings, and in some weekends. This doesn’t always work though…
- I have friends and colleagues who keep an eye on me and help me. Thanks Christiane, Rose-Mharie, Virginia et al.!. We discuss academia a lot, and also choices we make in life, and they are always there to support me.
- I make appointments with an excellent career coach, Rabbe Hedengren, when I end up too far outside my comfort zone, as for example when I attracted three research grants in one week, or when the DOME consortium was starting up.
- I am married to an excellent listener, who helps me sort things out when I end up having too much in my calendar. He has such great patience with me. ‘
- I go for long walks. Or jogging in periods of my life.
- Try to see the kids as mindfulness exercises. Reading for them, doing homework etc focusing on them only.
- I see to it that I sleep well at night. And I sleep intil I wake up feeling OK. I never sleep less than 7,5 hours per night.
- No work after eight o’clock at night since this affects my sleep.
What do you do that helps you handle stress in academia?