Sunday, March 27, 2011

The end is nigh

Andrew will only be living in Maryland for one more month and his landlady wanted to take some pictures of the room to post in an advertisement for a new boarder. This meant he had to clean up a bit. I think this may have been the first time he had vacuumed since he moved in, because his landlady was so astounded that she sent me a picture of the blessed event.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Studying happy people

Today's another working weekend for me. I'm headed to a conference in early April and I must have a poster and paper ready to present there. I make it a high priority to limit my working hours; in academia (like being self-employed), it's easy for your work to expand to fill all possible time. This weekend is one of those times it can't be avoided,but I think it all evens out. I don't complain too much about academia's flexible working hours when I'm using them to take a three-day weekend...

I am very happy to be doing the work I'm doing right now, and not just because it pays better than graduate school. In graduate school I spent four years studying people (teaching assistants) who often weren't very happy about what they were doing. They had good, often valid reasons for why they were unhappy, so I'm not blaming them. And I know that studying ineffective situations and unhappy people can lead to effective remedies. Nonetheless, it was often wearing to analyze mainly negative interviews. At my new university many things are going well, and my job centers on reporting on and explaining why they're going well. So I've spent the last few weeks talking to people who tell me how much they like their class and how much they're learning in it. It's an absoute joy to be using the thesaurus to find synonyms for "enthusiasm" and "friendship" instead of "concern" and "worries."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning to be a more effective woman in physics

Where I have been? To Dallas. Only for the weekend, but I'm using it as an excuse for the lack of posting in the past few weeks. I was in Dallas for the American Physical Society Convention. The APS is big enough that it has two big conventions every year (and many small ones); I've never been before, because I hang out with the physics teachers more often. But 8000 physicists were converging on Dallas, and this year I had to experience it. One evening we played "Spot the Nerds" which involved identifying physicist clusters from the general population of downtown Dallas. It too easy when they left on the badges, but there were also clues like gender ratios (Ten men and one women? Physicists.) or not-quite-right fashion choices.

I was really there for a workshop being held before the conference. Because of the aforementioned gender ratios, some women scientists can use a little extra help negotiating the predominantly male culture of their workplace, and the APS offers workshops to train women in physics in communication and negotiation skills. And boy did I learn a lot.

Before I go any further, let me make a few disclaimers: I don't think poor communication or negotiation skills are special to women, and I bet many men could benefit from lessons like these. I'm equally sure there are women who wouldn't need a workshop like this. But I will say that the advice and techniques resonated with most every woman in the room.

First off, I was surprised in that women needed to be convinced that negotiation was important. I heard women say, "I trust my employer; he's a nice guy." and "I don't care about money" and "I should be grateful for a good job and not ask for too much money." The organizers' (terrific) answer to this was: you need to ask for the money and resources that you need to do a great job, because that benefits your university as much as it benefits you. (This was particularly meaningful to women raised in countries where it's not acceptable to ask for things for yourself, but it is encouraged to work toward the greater good of a group.) Next, we learned the important mantra, "Thanks for telling me that. I'll think about it and get back to you." This is for when someone tears you down, suggests something unexpected or inappropriate, or otherwise engages your emotions in a way that you can no longer function effectively. Get out, get a break, and then you can restrategize. I learned how to stride into a room, look someone in the eye, and avoid prefacing what I say with "I think" or "just". I learned how to sit at a table and take up space so that when I speak, I'm noticed. (Can you tell that an acting professor was one of the instructors?).

Most importantly, I learned two lessons. One is, go into a meeting and have a clear understanding of one thing (and only one thing) that you want that person to do for you. Second, when I go to negotiate or argue a point with someone, it's not simply enough to have my list of reasons why it's a good idea to do it my way. Reasons are good, but there are dozens of other tactics: appealing to morals, establishing common interests, bribing, begging, threatening, etc. Many of them won't be appropriate in your setting, but you have choices (effective choices!) beyond simply restating your reasons and hoping someone will eventually see the wisdom in them.

Now, if only I had some conflicts to resolve at work...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Strawberry season here lasts from December to about April. So today, after work, I headed to the you-pick place to get some very fresh berries. I should have brought strawberry-picking clothes. It's surprisingly difficult to navigate a strawberry patch in heels and stockings.
When we eat crepes tomorrow for dinner (to belatedly celebrate pancake day), you can bet that a great number will contain Nutella and these berries.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The gleaming skyline of Miami

I survived the DC trip. I learned lots, I was exhausted when it was over, and I will be taking a break from that research for a bit to recover and assimilate all the feedback I got on my research.

This trip was my first time back to DC since I left. I found myself trying to think carefully about my love for DC and my growing appreciation for Miami. I lived in DC for ten years (split into two different periods, mind you) and I love it. I appreciate the diversity of people, the culture, the museums, the public transportation, and the food. However, it is unlikely that Andrew and I will end up living there, because of our particular career choices. In comparison, Miami is currently a temporary stop: a post-doc position generally lasts two to three years. But it's not completely impossible that such a job turns into a permanent relocation.

So I often think about what it would be like to live in Miami all the time. If I quantified my feelings (is this something everybody does? Or just scientists?), I would say I'm about 85% happy with Miami. Many universities are located is small, or small-ish towns, and I am much happier in a city. I like living in a city large enough to have a gleaming skyline, and one that has good restaurants (even if they feature meat-heavy menus). I love seeing sunshine almost every single day of the year and living in a diverse community. However, I miss two things, and I miss them quite a bit: usable public transportation and the changing of the seasons. Miami does have public transportation, but not much of it goes to my university, which is far inland from Miami proper. As a result, I had to choose between living in a neighborhood I liked, near to the heart of the city, and living in a more suburban-y area, near the university. I chose the walkable neighborhood and the car commute.

I know that some people (my father and uncle, ahem) mock me for missing winter. But the changing of seasons is an integral part of my culture as I know it. The changing seasons tell me to eat different foods, wear different clothes, and engage in different activities. You picnic in the park in the summer, and you curl up with a good book in the winter. But in southern Florida nothing changes. It's a little sad to imagine planting a garden without any of the plants I love from my childhood - lilacs, irises, and daffodils, for example. And it's equally hard to wrap my mind around a life where I'll never want to eat stew or mulled wine, because it always feels like August.

I love my work here, though, and (as I mentioned) I'm 85% happy. Research shows that humans tend to rationalize things so that their likes and dislikes align with the decisions they've already made. So I'm pretty likely to only get happier with Miami as time goes on.

P.S. Tomorrow is Pancake Tuesday! Don't forget to make yourself some pancakes and live it up before Lent. (Regardless of your religion, everybody can get behind eating pancakes, can't they?)