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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC’s and PhD’s: Fragmented work
February 5, 2013 - 8:11pm

I have been feeling fragmented lately, and I’ve generated a hypothesis for why I feel this way that maybe others out there can relate to.  Let me start at the beginning.  Lo those many years ago my PhD was officially conferred, and I had a baby soon after.  At the time I decided to step away from the traditional academic route, since with a husband six years further along in an academic career I just didn’t have the desire to balance a second academic career track with our new family. 

As an at-home mom, I kept myself busy and engaged in my own academic projects for several years - wrote up some of my PhD data, researched and wrote a book I had long been thinking about and started thinking about PhD moms (in Mama, PhD and this blog). 

My kids grew older, started school, and the call to work outside my own realm grew stronger.  A neighbor-professor, who worked at the nearby university asked me if I could help with a research project in her computer science lab (they were looking for biology expertise) and I grabbed the opportunity.  When the project finished, another started up, and I continued on a project-to-project trajectory with them part-time for quite a while.  Over time, through contacts I made, I slowly became involved in a diversity of projects, and picked up this and that project as they came my way. Options continued to grow in this manner, and ever since, I have found a plethora of projects available to me, which I really enjoy contributing to, on contract-type bases.

It’s kind of like being a graduate student when a free lunch is served - even if you are full, it’s hard to turn down food (this is a learned behavior that is hard to shake - 10+ years out of grad school I still find myself wrapping up an extra roll or other tidbit to take with me). Those years of not working, and much self scrutiny over whether I had done the right thing by “dropping out” after grad school, perhaps, made an impact: I have a hard time saying no to offered projects.

Currently, I’m working on three major, fairly long-term (four month- two year contracts) projects which can add up to about 30 hours/week (my declared limit, as I did, after all, choose a lifestyle to give me time with my family).  I find them all rewarding and interesting.  One is teaching a class so my timing is constrained for the several hours a week I spend in class; the other projects have occasional meetings I need to attend, but otherwise I’m working from my home office with great flexibility, choosing which hours in the day I work.  As my working hours have expanded, I’m more and more stretched for time (but who isn’t stretched these days?). I’m able to prioritize being around after school and on days my kids have off, which makes me happy.

So I think it’s not really my constant frantic running around to get enough done in the day, rather, I’m realizing, the greater factor contributing to my feeling fragmented is that the projects I work on are extremely different from each other. With the three I have currently, I regularly go between science writing, science teaching, and science research - a combination entirely familiar to academics.  However, they span three different academic institutions on two coasts (yay for Skype!) There’s little overlap in the kinds of thinking that go into each.  The people are all different - no one sees me going to a meeting or carrying out research for one of my other projects, in general there’s enough separation that those I work with don’t know what I’m doing the rest of my time. Often it’s hard to prioritize what I work on other than purely by imminent deadline; even when I try to plan out blocks of time to focus on one thing, other projects bleed in and I find myself inefficiently changing gears frustratingly frequently.

I know many of you out there are doing similar balancing.  Academia really about this in so many ways: adjuncts who teach classes at multiple campuses, interdisciplinary researchers bridging disparate fields, those with multiple simultaneous contracts, like me, those with broad research agendas, those who can’t say no (not an uncommon phenomenon) and agree to advise an orphaned grad student with a completely different focus, or an administrative position.  Though I do enjoy the diversity, sometimes I long for a sustained time to focus on one project, and it may be time for me to try to better manage which projects I take on at one time (hopefully without breaking ties or limiting myself too much).  Part of it is having the confidence and practicality to turn away a project, even if it is very enticing. Also for me, part of it is luck, and what’s available.  Readers out there - how do you combat mental fragmentation?  (And do you also put a roll in your pocket when you leave a buffet?)



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