Evan Peck on making choices, accepting trade-offs, and liberal arts as a great middle way

Evan Peck is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Bucknell University in the US. Evan has a passion for teaching and also wants to do good research but when he was looking around for a faculty position, he decided he didn’t want to trade off family life and life quality to do it all, as he considered he might have to at a top-rated school. He also wasn’t sure about industry where he could have better life quality but would miss teaching. He is now an evangelist for Liberal Arts Colleges, like Bucknell, as a middle way for PhD students to include when considering career options. Evan talks about his decision processes getting there and his current experiences as a new faculty in learning to be deliberate about his use of time so that he can include teaching, research and time for family. He also has a great blog post written on this topic.

"It's all trade-offs."

“Put on the calendar, this is when I am done for the day and this is the amount of time I have to get work done and if it doesn’t get done it happens tomorrow and not through dinner”

“So have to be deliberate about how you use your time.”

“In Grad School it’s really easy to fall into this trap that your identity is the work you are doing and that’s why these rejections feel so much more personal”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 Start

02:15 Background starting out at a Liberal Arts College and having a broad education, teaching focus, courses capped at 30 students

04:30 Path getting to Bucknell  via an UG degree at a Liberal Arts College and a PhD at Tufts Uni with Rob Jacob on Brain Computer Interaction, having a child during Grad School and starting to think about what measures of success and impact means and what he wanted

06:00 Up to then a typical grad student perspective re rankings and top school as measures of success; realised “even if I were to be productive at the rate of someone at a top school, I think I would be miserable doing it” – something about the pace, can fit others beautifully but grants and away from teaching not how he wanted to spend his time, or emotionally or the stress of the tenure process

08:20 “They say, here are the things that are valuable to us and if those don’t align with the things that are valuable to you ... things you don’t want to do are more taxing … if you are at a university where the benchmarks involve things that you don’t what to spend all your time doing… then it can seem very overwhelming”

09:00 Thought he was going into industry because he thought academic was two pillars, either research or teaching focussed. Loves doing research but not all the time. Had industry internship and saw good work life balance, didn’t consume them, not their entire identity and this aspect appealed to him. And getting to end of grad school was a grind so it seemed attractive.

11:15 After having a kid, shifting own work habits. If he continued his old schedule he would lonely see his son half hour a day. So getting up early and trying to set boundaries on the upper limit.

12:42 How to put up boundaries – scheduling wise, almost “put on the calendar, this is when I am done for the day and this is the amount of time I have to get work done and if it doesn’t get done it happens tomorrow and not through dinner”. Priorities becoming much more important and industry seemed more appealing as could see structure in industry. And in appealing places to live. Factors line up.

14:15 Very lucky in lab culture and advisor who was very sensitive to family issues, told him to go be with his family; the only he can figure out how to do 3 CHI papers is to work 15 hrs a day, may be different for others.

Challenges when you set these boundaries – could be more productive without boundaries but “It’s all trade-offs”. “First level says I’m missing out on something, second level says would I trade it” and no he wouldn’t, helps come to terms with those decisions

16:20 Role of supervisor in setting culture, and previous grad students who had children so wasn’t breaking new ground

17:15 Comparing self to others – very challenging, easy to compare yourself to the best teacher and the best researcher, very tempting – but remembering they only take one of the jobs

18:15 Heading back to liberal arts via advice to apply everywhere, supervisor a wealth of good advice, can always decide you don’t like it later; hoping grad students think about this more in advance; having options and opportunity to figure out priorities on the fly; “I really like my job. Many ways I could have missed it. How could I mitigate this for other people coming on?”

20:35 Being more deliberate? Written about in blog post. Perception that things fit cleanly into categories of academia vs industry, research vs teaching school but not does not fit reality. Representation of academia at conferences most visible but not representative. Muddied when you visit these places. Careful to say this is about him, he wouldn’t be able to do all, others he knows can.

22:20 “What are the things that I take joy doing?” Knew wherever he went he would want to spend significant time in teaching, loves getting students excited about computer science. “The question was, if I’m spending time in this [teaching] is it going to be rewarded or not? Will the people around me say this is part of you excelling in your job or is it something…that’s an obstruction to your research?”

Told at one place the way to succeed was to make sure students don’t hate you but don’t do too much more. Feels like he is doing fewer hours because it is investing in things he wants to be doing.

25:00 First year of teaching really taxing but didn’t feel like he was doing as many hours as in his PhD. Something he wanted to invest time in. Towards end of PhD everything felt like a grind, exhausting. If teaching more then getting faster feedback. So the feedback loops are a lot faster but slower feedback loops in research can be tough. Took a long time to get first paper accepted. Can go years without those reward feelings it takes your toll.

26:40 The big shift to grad school. Difference in identity between undergrad and grad school; “In Grad School it’s really easy to fall into this trap that your identity is the work you are doing and that’s why these rejections feel so much more personal” because this is what he chose; Handling rejection by keeping on working, but pretty demoralising when rejections start piling up, but also short term thinking so did finally have a year when work comes through. But again a comparison point. An exhausting way to go about things,

28:40 Importance of making this message that there are alternatives in Liberal Arts schools. Integrating teaching and research. Saw another lab member to go to a liberal arts and still be able to do research so had a hint.

30:00 Making the decision in the end. Thinking about mobility in academia, some directions harder than others. One concern was about moving out of liberal arts to focus on research? And many school sin very rural areas. Big family decisions. Are these places we want to live? Factors that played into decision – visiting the campus and the faculty and getting a sense of people’s lives there. At Bucknell and some others, impressed with seriousness of work and also talking about other aspects of life – sole identity not inside the office.

32:35 One of the interesting side benefits of smaller school in a more isolated place is the community that forms around it is very strong, most people live within three miles of each, a real sense of community and that the community values not just you but your family; had meals provided for a month and half after daughter born. Those factors really important on the family side. And not conceding professionally either to deal with family side.

35:00 Biggest challenge moving from grad student to faculty member – working on 10 things at once, now time splintered, needing to be much more organised, needing to be productive with small pockets of time, need to be more deliberate about research. Understanding what your strengths are, the rhythm of the semester, being reflective. Different strategies during semester vs during summer. Now uses a calendar. Setting in calendar these are the time to do research, otherwise can always improve lectures. “So have to be deliberate about how you use your time.”

37:20 Learning process re being deliberate: Understanding where he can be high impact. Always concessions. “How can I be high impact given I’m not going to publish 4 papers a year, that I don’t have grad students, what topics are more high impact, what resources do I have and voices do I have in the community that other people have?” So in the first year he determined that his time in the classroom most valuable, working to what he was strong at. At some point “I only have this much time. What benefits the students the most? If I only had 2 hrs to prep for this, how am I going to spend those 2 hrs?” A little structure one year helps the next. Slow process getting the pieces that work together.

40:15 Always been reflective and strategic thinker to some degree. People around in grad school very reflective. Seeing value on reflecting on the structural pieces that help. More honed now out of necessity. More constrained about his resources and so has to think more about what would be valuable. Letting grad students know there is a huge spectrum of jobs. Could be miserable in grad school but be an excellent professor. Feel like he is a much better professor than a grad student. “Fits me a lot better.” Thought was a one off for a long time, not knowing what the landscape was. After faculty position, talked to senior grad students and same things came up. And they would be amazed that a place like this exists. 

43:40 [Option of liberal arts college] should be a liberating thought. In PhD where you start out with big visions about how you are going to change the world and do research and then realise it is only small corner of research and keep working, still excited, but somewhere along the lines think “Oh no, I’ve been working on something for 5, 6, 7 years, and maybe I’m in the wrong profession, or maybe I still love this stuff but the way but the way the jobs line up don’t seem very exciting. That’s just horrifying.”

44:45 Goes to a bigger picture of computer science education. All these students at all these universities, computers impact us in all parts of life, and students not at big research schools. All PhDs graduating, passionate about these ideas but not connecting pieces well. The best educators who leave or go to industry, not because it is best fit, but their personal priorities don’t map to the big research schools.

47:26 End

Related Links

Evan Peck: https://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~emp017/

Evan’s blog post on “The jobs I didn’t see: My misconceptions of the Academic job market”: https://medium.com/bucknell-hci/the-jobs-i-didnt-see-my-misconceptions-of-the-academic-job-market-9cb98b057422  

Rob Jacob: https://www.cs.tufts.edu/~jacob/

Liberal Arts College: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_college