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

Gloria Mark on service, multitasking, creativity and fun

Gloria Mark is a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at University of California Irvine. Gloria talks about her experiences as chair of a major conference, not just the work but also the rewards. She talks about how she moved from a Fine Arts background, painting murals on buildings, to a PhD in cognitive science and now studying the relationship between media use, attention and stress, but still being able to be creative in work. She also reflects honestly on her own struggles to manage her screen time and stress but above all she reminds us of the importance of fun and fulfilment in work.

“There are opportunities all around us and very often we are blind to them. … You have to be willing to give up a particular path that you might think you are on.”

 “Email is a symbol of work… a reminder there is work there” 

“You can practice creativity in so many ways, in conversations, in writing, in just thinking of ideas.”

“It’s important to keep some kind of fun in what you do because otherwise it’s not worth doing and it’s very important to have fulfilment.”

She talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Organising a major conference as a tremendous amount of work but being fulfilling, and value of CHI stories for understanding who are the people behind the research

4:50 Taking on a big service role as conference chair, its fit to her ‘big picture thinking’ strengths, growing into the role and learning about people

8:40 Greatest moment seeing it come together walking around the exhibit hall

10:10 Everyone has a particular talent they can contribute, encouraging volunteers and matching skills/interests and what they can contribute

11:00 Career path starting with a fine arts degree, painting and drawing, painting building murals … but not being able to see a future painting in a studio

14:00 Decision to do something practical using her maths skills, but finding bio-statistics boring, needing to earn a living and applying for a research assistant position

17:20 Being asked: “Do you think you can do research on the discovery process of artists?” Of course! Loving reading on cognitive psychology and being yelled at at her first conference

20:00 Getting into cognitive psychology PhD in decision making

20:30 “One philosophy that guides my life - it’s what Einstein says, chance favours the prepared mind. I love that. There are opportunities all around us and very often we are blind to them. But if you are really aware and open, important to be open.” “You have to be willing to give up a particular path that you might think you are on and you have to be willing to change, to veer away from it or to change completely.  And of course … you have to do it intelligently and weigh the risks and the benefits of whatever choice you can make.”

“If it connects to something that is really a part of you that is worth the risk. Because you can’t do something that you feel is not who you are or is against your belief system.”

22:50 Themes from research studying issues around multi-tasking, stress etc. How this research strand started from a personal experience, moving in 2000 from Germany working in a research institute doing only research, to an assistant professor position in the US to do teaching, writing grants, committees, service work … “to what extent am I the only one [multi-tasking]?”

25:20 Patterns seen in studying multi-tasking – sped up and intensified through use of digital media, and the more people switch attention through different screens, the higher their stress because of limited capacity of attentional resources and not replenishing resources

29:30 Extra stress in re-orienting to a new context, every email involves some new topic - “Email is a symbol of work… a reminder there is work there”; online a lot, reading email at breakfast,

32:50 Measured average duration of attention for people on any computer screen is a little over 40 secs, a cost when switching so frequently

33:40 Knowing this from research but making a difference to personal patterns? More insight – as habits are hard to break

34:40 First habit to break? To be more aware of physical environment, going outside more, interacting with people more, shifting attention from screen; but hard to break away because there are rewards for being online –the Las Vegas phenomena and random reward hits

37:30 “Another reason it is hard to pull away is because we are all caught up in this web of interconnections” – have to solve the problem on a macro level, need to think about organizational policies eg batch email times

40:25 Study cutting off people’s email in the workplace for 5 days – stress down, screen attention duration longer … variety of individual responses but at the end of the 5 day period realised life went on. But Information is too seductive

42:40 Looking after herself, honouring the art piece of her? Discovered she can be creative in different mediums not just visual and art training good for science “because I learned how to do lateral thinking” – “you can practice creativity in so many ways, in conversations, in writing, in just thinking of ideas”

46:20 Not good at pulling away from work. Too stressed and manifest in sleep patterns. Take vacations but sometimes vacations can be stressful. Don’t do enough of trying to alleviate stress. One thing that helps – “try to take care of a task as soon as possible because delaying on a task makes stress worse”. ... “It’s like a treadmill”

50:00 Final thoughts? Important to do things that are fun and interesting.

52:43 End

Related Links

Gloria's home page: https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Welcome.html

CHI2017 conference chaired by Gloria with Sue Fussell - https://chi2017.acm.org

Chris Frauenberger on post-docs, parental leave & multiple dreams

Chris Frauenberger is a post-doctoral researcher and principle investigator at Technical University Vienna. Chris shares his experiences navigating various post-doc positions, taking parental leave, negotiating with his partner about family-career choices, dealing with an uncertain future, and being strategic about trying to build up a CV and visibility to maximize the chance of getting a permanent position.   He also reflects on what happens if this doesn’t happen and being able to pursue other dreams.

 “It’s hard to say no to something because then you are effectively jeopardizing your CV and that’s a bit of a silly game”

“Sometimes it’s really healthy to take a step back and think about what are the kinds of dreams that you have and if you’ve got enough dreams to do you feel less anxious about that one working out”

“I’ve done all the things that I think I can do… but there’s a limit to how much control I have over the rest”

He talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Moving to the UK as a PhD student and experiences; Shifting to a Post Doc position in Sussex and shifting topics

13:40 Finding participatory design aligning with his values and it becoming one of his central fields

15:50 Not being strategic about the decision of where to next, but relying on things ‘feeling right’, just doing things; no point not being happy with decisions

19:35 Family situation, negotiating agreements to handle both partner’s career needs, but at a cost of lots of travel between London, Graz and Brussels for three years

22:30 Tensions and tradeoffs in making decisions about moving to Brussels for partner’s opportunity, leaving professional networks and career imaginations, versus financial security, time with son but (always feeling a but); in the end still a quick clear decision

25:20 Being emotionally hard to leave the UK, the difficult of thinking about doing participatory work with language issues in Brussels; making a deal with partner about next move being his if something came up

27: 30 Enjoying the good life in Brussels, looking after children, but still trying to publish, write grant applications

28:50 A lot of uncertainty around career but also a lot of security financially; but “what do I do with my career” and after two proposals fail “What if I don’t get back into that loop?”, checking out options in design companies

29:55 Third grant proposal finally getting funded – straight after the call, being hit by the reality of having to “move all this to Austria now”, almost a frightening thought that it had come true; but no regrets

32:00 The three years in Brussels show on his Google Scholar page – not just about writing journal publications but whole social networking you miss out on, not being asked to do service roles, not having visibility; also tiring without support structure around you

34:00 Motivation to work on papers while on parental leave; driven by sense of unfinished business and carving out time to work on writing around running a household

38:10 Anything different to support networking and visibility? Strategic twitter use but it still can’t replace the many small conversations you have when you meet people face to face

40:30 Problems not having parental leave officially sanctioned and impact on applying for grants where this leave isn’t formally recognized since he was technically ‘unemployed’ not on parental leave

43:15 Experiences taking on principle investigator role, being able to do what he wanted to do, employing good PhDs, steering/shaping and being able to step out and let it run

45:35: Learning curves? Leading from behind, giving as much freedom as possible, leading by asking questions but depends on having the good people to do this with – felt natural

47:20 Do differently next project? Shaping the environment, more of a research studio, getting to a more integrated way of working around a table

50:15 Reflecting on being nervous at the beginning of the project about publishing and dealing with paper rejections in the first year – concern about “what if this project doesn’t yield the currency that I need” after three years not publishing

52:15 Focussing on raising profile, saying yes to everything, lots of reviewing, service roles internationally and within the faculty – becoming more visible, setting up a good CV profile to be considered for jobs

54:30 Huge relief of next project funding after other proposals falling through, other applications not coming off, but wanting to stay where he is, which makes for vulnerability and having little leverage; making it hard to say no because of CV; but liking many of the service roles for conferences and communities, and having influence

59:25 The future after this next project? Not wanting to be in the same emotionally draining situation as at the end of the current project, diversifying in also thinking about career choices including outside of academia - “If that’s the case [of something not working out] I’m going to pursue one of my many other dreams”… wanting to stay in the academic system but recognizing that it “might spit him out

01:02:50 Academia quite hard in having to live with rejections and needing to find a way to distance self, but if things “don’t work out then you have to embrace that as a positive thing” and you go to a different dream

01:05:00 Having an absolute last parachute of going back to Brussels if really needed but not wanting to; taking best of three years to be in a place and tiring to re-build it

01:07:38 “That’s how I calm myself down, saying I’ve done all the things that I think I can do and like to think they’re working out well, but there’s a limit to how much control I have over the rest

01:08:00 One of the downsides of this constant worry is impact on doing actual research, instead time is spent on writing proposals, doing things for profile; having more future certainty will provide more freedom to do that

01:09:40 Looking at what kind of position he wants to have, by looking at others and how busy they are and how little they do get their hands dirty, “it’s not entirely positive”; ambition to have a small research group

1:11:40 Concerned with increased push to performance measurement, how to find time to write, do research and chase next job;

1:14:00 PhD time the best of your life but not believing it when you are a student!

01:15:45 End

Related Links

Outside the Box project - http://outsidethebox.at

Ole Sejer Iversen - http://www.engagingexperience.dk

Ben Kraal on moving from academia to industry

Dr Ben Kraal recently started working as a User Experience Consultant, having chosen to leave a contract research (and teaching) position after 9 years in academia for a position in industry. He talks about his early career, doing a PhD and then working for 9 years on time-limited university contracts. He reflects on the challenge of being legible within an academic system when you are not in control of your own research agenda. And he talks about making the decision to leave academia for industry and how he is now able to be more present and engaged at home and he gets to do all the parts of his research job that he loved in his new industry role. I encourage you to also look at Ben's blog post on academic burnout and the Guardian article below that happened to also come out today.

“It’s a job that doesn’t ever stop. That’s ok if you are enjoying it and I think I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. And my family had long stopped enjoying that fact that I had ever enjoyed it.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:20 From degree to industry to a PhD position

05:16 Going back to academia, doing a PhD at Uni of Canberra

09:20 Moving cities to take a post-doc research position

12:46 Working on research projects

15:20 Moving into more teaching work

21:15 Publishing interdisciplinary work, boundary crossing, and using an editor for papers

23:15 Working on soft money, shorter contracts when soft money runs out,

26:30 Being an illegible person in the university system

28:52 Making the move into industry, making the choice to stay in Brisbane

31:08 Talking at a practitioner conference, taking students along, making connections, framing his expertise to be relevant to industry

35:40 Telling the university, he is leaving

36:53 The family’s reaction to his leaving, and getting to the point of not enjoying the work, the increasing pressure of meetings and impact on working at the weekends

39:00 Now much easier being engaged, being present to the family at weekends

40:25 Breaking the news to his students, colleagues, tying up final research work

43:14 What he is enjoying about his new job; doing all his favourite bits from being a researcher; and the long commute

48:15 Not doing email on weekends, “which is fantastic!”, because the firm doesn’t! Not doing email when he gets home; being told he looks so much happier when he comes home

50:50 “The pace is faster than the university but the rhythm is more consistent.” … as an academic having multiple plates in the air, “and if you can keep them in the air someone gives you an extra plate”

53:00 Will probably miss teaching - “Better at being a teaching academic than a paper producing research academic”

54:40 “Because I’m illegible in the university system, I’m actually interesting in the commercial world”; Discussing the way the academic system looks for people going deeper and the challenges of being cross-disciplinary

57:25 About Tom Rodden’s experience not being his experience, as Tom was able to be in charge of his own research and able to tell a coherent story, being legible into the wider system; And Marcus Foth also being able to tell a legible story; and being able to tell his own story in a way that is interesting to industry

65:00 Lucky to have had long term contracts compared to others not employed for more than a year at a time “so the university can keep them in a box”

67:07 End

Related Links

Ben on researching the airport of the future: an interview with Gerry Gaffney:  http://uxpod.com/researching-the-airport-of-the-future-an-interview-with-ben-kraal/

Ben’s blog post “On Academic Burnout”: https://benkraal.com/2016/12/01/on-academic-burnout/

Ben's review of 2016: https://benkraal.com/2017/01/01/2016-year-in-review/

See also a 2 Dec 2016 Guardian article on experiences with casual/short term contracts: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/dec/02/short-term-contracts-university-academia-family?CMP=share_btn_tw 

Symplicit: Customer-Led Innovation Consultancy - where he is now working: http://www.symplicit.com.au

People he mentioned:

Inger Mewburn: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/mewburn-i

Helen Purchase: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/computing/staff/helenpurchase/

Vesna Popovic: http://staff.qut.edu.au/staff/popovic/

Previous interviews he mentioned:

Tom Rodden interview: http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2016/11/2/tom-rodden

Marcus Foth interview: http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2016/9/25/marcus-foth