Choosing things

Here is something that I appreciate about my new colleagues: They affirm the choices that I’m making.

“You decided to have your office painted in such a nice color!”

“You should totally apply for that grant you’re thinking about applying for!”

“You made a great decision about where to live; that is a really nice area/building!”

Getting set up in a new place required a LOT of choices, and I’ve heard many new faculty (especially those setting up labs) talk about choice fatigue. I tried to avoid this by mentally categorizing decisions as “really important, need to think about this for a while” and “everything else,” and then being selective about what I put in the first category. When something went into the “everything else” category, I spent a few minutes thinking about what I wanted, picked that thing, and then moved on with my life. And sometimes I reminded myself that I was doing this so that I would have enough energy to deliberate about decisions that actually mattered to me.

Examples of things that went in the first “think about this for a while” category were decisions about hiring personnel for my lab and decisions about how to lay out my lab space (how many rooms, what types of rooms they should be, etc.). Examples of things that went in the second category were decisions like the following:
What color I should have my office painted (I *love* how it turned out, but ultimately, if it hadn’t turned out well, it wouldn’t have been the biggest deal in the world for me)
What kind of office chair I should get
What kind of dividers should go between the desks in my grad student office
Whether the seats and backs of the chairs in my lab should be the same color or different colors
Where on my desk the technician should drill a hole for my computer wires

(These are all actual decisions that I was asked to make at some point. Luckily I was also working with a fabulous architect, and many times I asked her to make a suggestion or two from a number of options, so instead of picking the best option out of 3.25 trillion I just had to decide whether or not I liked her suggestion. I did this because I trusted her judgment and because this made things infinitely easier for me; fortunately for me, research on decision-making also suggests that people are happier with their choices when they choose out of a few options rather than many options.)

There are also some decisions I spent too much time agonizing about before firmly escorting them from the first category, where I had mistakenly let them wander, into the second category, which is where they actually belong. Examples include things like whether a particular piece of floor space should contain a bookshelf or a filing cabinet, how many shelves tall the bookshelves should be, and how many phones my lab space should have.

This strategy of categorizing things and then deliberately spending most of my decision-making time thinking about only one of the categories may not be for everyone, but it’s worked well for me. And the way that I divided things up between the categories may not work for everyone, but so far it’s seemed to work out okay in most ways for me. Nevertheless, after making approximately 1.37 gazillion choices, it’s reassuring when my colleagues affirm that they think I have made a good choice. It makes me feel like I’m doing an okay job at something that’s brand new to me.

 

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Things that help

Today was a day of me feeling incredibly overwhelmed, both by old projects that I’m trying to finish and new projects that I’m trying to get off the ground. I’ve done a great job so far this summer of getting my post-doc projects out the door (though I anticipate that they will soon come back to me with rejections, or at best revisions, so I don’t feel quite done with them yet), but then I hit on a snag on one paper that is slowing me down. At the same time that this is happening, I’m trying to get a new research program off the ground — a research program that is conceptually related to the work I’ve done before but is logistically extremely complicated to set up. And I’ve never done anything like this new project before, so it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed and like I just can’t do it.

I’ve found a couple of things that help with that feeling, like (silly as this sounds) breathing through it and remembering that tomorrow is a brand new day when I won’t feel like this anymore. But today I also got some unexpected, and quite welcome, help.

I saw my first paycheck from my new institution. My new institution thinks I can do it. They think that so much that they’re willing to bet their money on it. What a necessary vote of confidence that was for me today!

Milestones toward tenure

One of the things I’ve been appreciating so far this summer is that the milestones for tenure are much more clear to me than the milestones for getting a job. When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time worrying that I would never get a job — in part, I think, because I didn’t have a clear set of goals to follow. All I knew was that to get a job I needed to publish “a lot,” but I didn’t know what “a lot” was, and all of my papers took a long time to get accepted. So I spent a long time feeling like I had a big goal (get a TT job) and not a clear sense of what specific things to accomplish to reach that goal.

I know that most institutions don’t spell out their tenure guidelines very clearly, either. My institution, like most, doesn’t say anything like “publish X papers and get Y dollars in grants, and you’re good for tenure.” But for some reason, I feel like I have a much better sense of the smaller goals I need to reach in order to be a strong tenure candidate down the line. In part, that comes from having conversations with mentors who gave me some sense of what a reasonable tenure case might look like, even though the formal guidelines don’t include any concrete numbers. Even more than that, it might also come from being more familiar with academia in general and from speeding up my own trajectory. I’ve produced more papers as a post-doc than as a graduate student, even though I spent more time being a graduate student than being a post-doc. So I feel like I have some kind of sense of what I can reasonably produce, and that amount seems to approach “a lot,” so I end up feeling like I have a better sense of how to make “a lot” of publications happen.

I might change my mind about all of this when I’m closer to going up for tenure, but for now, it’s nice to feel like I have a clearer path instead of wandering around in an amorphous mass of soup. (Not sure why a mass of soup was the image that came into my head just now, but it was quite the vivid image!)