How to live like a college student

It occurred to me this morning that recently I've been living like a college student. I don't mean that I've been going to beer-saturated frat parties, having meals made for me at a cafeteria, and futilely trying to sleep through the thump-thump-thump of stereos playing too loud in the dorm. Rather, what I mean is that I've been approaching my life something like this:


This is not a great way to live. Indeed, my Freshman year of college, I didn't live that way. I remember people really being annoyed with me when I would tell them at 10PM or so that I was done with my homework and was going to bed. (The thump-thump-thump made that hard, but I had a white noise generator to help (i.e. a fan).) How could I be done? they would ask. The answer had more to do with starting than with finishing, really. You will be happy to know that by sophomore year I de-squarified a bit, and started to live more like a traditional college student— that is, according to the diagram above. I've observed a number of college students both when I was in college and since then living according to this plan.

Why am I living like this right now? It's not good. Especially since a bunch of the things I need to get done aren't "due," per se, which means that I never make progress on them. An utter lack of motivation to get stuff done is one of the major effects of a clinical depression, of course. It is also an effect of one of the things that's driven me into a clinical depression, that is, the sense that I have no future at Vanderbilt or in academia, and don't have enough control over my situation (thanks to the terribly competitive situation of grants) to be able to create a future. This has seriously damaged my motivation to get things done that don't have a due date on them for at least a year, and perhaps two, which of course just feeds into a vicious cycle of being in a worse position....

I realized this morning that I am just completing things as I have to, and that I"m not getting ahead on anything. It's a stressful way to live. The thing is, when you live like that as a college student, you have the end of the semester to look forward to. You've got a really big crunch, and then it's over and you get to start with a clean slate. In real life, we don't have that. I've been living like a college student for too long without an "end of a semester" to tie off everything I'm working on. (There are, of course, ends of semesters for classes, but they don't represent the vast majority of my responsibilities now they way they do for a college student.)

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I am a biomedical scientist, so if this grant-related suggestion is inapplicable to your situation, sorry.

When paylines are very stringent, one rational response is to submit many different grant applications for a variety of different projects, and try to target the projects to different agencies or (if within the same agency) different review panels. This has at least two good effects: (1) It gets your science in front of multiple audiences, thus increasing your chances of finding a receptive one. (2) If, all else being equal, each grant has a 10% chance of being funded, you can increase your overall chance of being funded by submitting more grants.

If I remember correctly from your posts on this topic, you still have about a year until your tenure decision. If so, this should allow you another shot at a review cycle, no?

Finally, just a note of sympathy for your situation.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 25 Jun 2007 #permalink

One more review cycle-- that is, one more call for proposals.

The astronomy world is a lot smaller than the biomed world.

I will probably put in three NFS proposals next year, two of them in collaboration with others. One of them would go to the Galactic Astronomy panel, the others to Extragalactic. Their nature is such that the subdivisions will probably be different.

The truth is, there is only so much time one can spend doing nothing but writing proposals before one realizes that one's life is a waste anyway....


The truth is, there is only so much time one can spend doing nothing but writing proposals before one realizes that one's life is a waste anyway....

Good grief, your life isn't a waste, and, no matter what the future brings, never can be. Nor are the lives of every person (including me) whom you have changed by teaching, encouraging, entertaining, and/or inspiring, a waste.

You've made a positive difference to a lot of people, and continue to do so. Fortunately, that's true whether you think so or not; in other words, no matter how bad you might feel, you can't change the fact that a lot of people's worlds have been made better for your being here. You can ignore that fact, but you can't change it.

Julia -- I think you missed the point of what I was saying. I wasn't saying that my life was a waste -- what I was saying was that any scientist who spends too much of a fraction of his or her time writing proposals in an attempt to get funding is wasting time better spent doing science.

It's sad how much time scientist spend asking permission to do science rather than doing science. To be fair, it's not all wasted, because the thinking that goes into writing proposals does help focus and clarify the science that is to be done. However, if you're writing proposals about large numbers of different projects trying to get funding to do one, you've wasted a lot of time casting about instead of working productively on a project that you might finish.

Julia -- I think you missed the point of what I was saying.

Glad to hear that.

Under the heading of "not very helpful sympathy", I'm off in the commercial world, and my current survival methodology looks a lot like that diagram, except that there's not time available for the left branch. It can be equally depressing to be pushing along as fast as possible and not see the load decrease. (Indeed, mine seems to just get larger...the stack is getting to be just silly.)

I think I'm close to that old Macintosh error message: "Error -1: stack/heap collision". Ugh!

Still, there's nothing quite so depressing as feeling like you don't have control over your own destiny. I hope you get funding...if you don't, research astronomy is losing out. And so is Vanderbilt - if they don't get that, well, that's a big minus mark in my book.

Good luck!

By David Williamson (not verified) on 26 Jun 2007 #permalink

"When one door closes, another one opens"
-- Spanish proverb

There are many cases of professors leaving Academia, & finding other opportunities.

1) Stephen Wolfram
there was friction at UIUC (he was asked to leave), so continued on with his startup Wolfram Research/Mathematica. The rest is history, he became wealthy & was able to fund his own research in Cellular Automata. The result was the (controversial) book ANKOS.

He stated publicly about Academia: "It is BORING.." (the grind of teaching, proposals, traveling to conferences, etc). Another Caltech PhD who isn't afraid to tell it like it is.

His website is a good read, especially this letter from Feynman. RPF refers to issues that mirror your complaints about administrators/bureacracy/system. "Down with the Establishment", to use a 60's phrase.

"To you they are 'stupid fools' - so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience - but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way"

"Find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible, with one exception..fall madly in love! That is my advice, my friend"

2) Craig Venter
He was dis-satisfied with his situation @NIH ("I looked at my bank account with my wife, & it had $1500 in it"), i.e. overworked & underpaid. So, he started his own company (like Wolfram) called Celera. He has since moved on to form another company. He became wealthy, & recently sailed the world on a self-funded science project (good article here). Just like Wolfram, he could now do Science on his own terms/schedule.

The above 2 cases are brilliant examples of:

"Life is 20% what happens to you, 80% how you respond"
-- a wise man said

It is very clear from your posts/comments the last 2 months, that you can't stand Academia. (Very understandable, perfectly logical: it's an antiquated system that abuses its employees. Anyone who doesn't see this is a fool or lying) Your mind has made this decision, & so has your body.

"A good Plan will beat a Good Idea any day..10 to 1"
-- advisor to me, on my Project

You have to figure out the Idea (what do do, where to go) & a Plan (how to get there).

Have you considered Microsoft Research Labs? They hire ANY researcher, & let you do basically anything you want. See article here.

'It's a very academic-like environment, but without a lot of the pain and anguish associated with being a new faculty member," Mr. Rashid says.

At many universities, young faculty members in computer science spend a lot of time seeking grants to pay for their research. But Microsoft Research employees, unlike those of some other corporate research arms, accept no outside funds.

"You can come here and just do research," Mr. Rashid says.

Microsoft Research employees say they are not even expected to focus on areas relevant to Microsoft products. Asked in a joint interview how much freedom they have in setting the direction of their research, neither Eric Horvitz nor David Heckerman hesitates for an instant. "Complete freedom," Mr. Horvitz replies. "Complete," echoes Mr. Heckerman.

There are some notable Caltech alumni there (1 of them was a Caltech prof who was "forced out", I believe due to lack of funding). One of my ex-colleagues (prof @Georgia-Tech) picked up & left ("he didn't like it", someone told me), & joined MS.

See this article entitled "Even physicists have fun". N. Mhyrvold (Stephen Hawking's grad student?) was lured to MSR, who in turn lured J. Chayes (both knew each other from Princeton). There was the wave of profs who ditched Academia for MSR. The provost (?) at CMU (R. Rashid/CS prof was a defector) lamented publicly about the "brain drain"

"Better to have Brain Drain..rather than brain-in-the-drain!"
-- Indian prof, about losing talent to US universities

In conclusion, your symptoms (mental/physical anguish) are perfectly join the stampede of other profs out of Academia!

Hey Rob,

Greetings from an old friend.

A couple of years ago, I recognized I was in the same cycle shown in your diagram. I've been following the methodology outlined in David Allen's book "Getting Things Done" and I've found it very helpful for gaining control over all the many things I have to do.

I sympathize with your situation at Vanderbilt. I once heard academia described as "three jobs for the price of one", by someone leading an AAS session on alternative career paths. There are lots of options out there.

By David Shupe (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink