Tenure, She Wrote is a pseudonymous group blog covering issues for women in science and academia, and has had a lot of well-written, thought-provoking posts recently.
The latest is by @sarcozona, on how to manage chronic illness while doing a degree. She asks: “Do we really want to prevent people from contributing to our fields because they can’t (or won’t) work incredibly long hours?”, and outlines some highly appropriate and intelligent ways to manage grad school while managing your illness.
It often seems that our mental construct of the academic scientist is someone who works >60 hours a week, rarely takes weekends off, and is always up for anything (even another committee assignment). This Nature article in particular set off a storm of online and media discussion around the work culture in science.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, particularly in light of my own situation. I first wrote about being on medical leave in May, and at the time was cautiously optimistic about my recovery trajectory and ability to return to work. However, a number of serious setbacks over the summer has changed my perspective substantially. It’s clear that recovery will be much slower – and more difficult – than I’d originally envisaged.
Some people think that being on medical leave must be like being on vacation. The reality is not so exciting. My on-leave life is a carefully managed construct that delicately balances time away from the house with resting, doctor’s appointments, dog walking and training, basic chores to keep life on track, and connecting with my (online) community. Too much time away from the house, and I’m too physically and mentally exhausted to do anything else. Too much time online, and I often swing into an ‘up’ phase and don’t get enough rest (and consequently can’t do anything else). Too much dog walking…well, can you ever have too much of that? The bigger problem is having too little of it, and the exercise it provides.
The footprint of this tiny, regulated life covers an area much smaller than that of my academic life. That life contained all the things that professors actively engaged in teaching, research, and service do: travelling to conferences, teaching, working with graduate students, doing field research and writing papers, applying for funding, sitting on various committees… The footprint of my current life would fit into the big toe of my academic life.
The question that nags at me is whether I’ll be able to return to academic science.
I could control my environment, as Sarcozona outlines in her post. And while this is good advice – and something I’m already doing – I wonder at what point the required control would mean I could no longer doing the job for which I was hired. Standing up in front of a group of people provokes anxiety attacks, so I could only occasionally teach or go to a conference. I get exhausted quickly, particularly in interpersonal situations or when I’m thinking hard (for example, when writing or editing papers), so would require a relatively short workday. I find public spaces extremely difficult to navigate, so I’d work best at home.
When do people start deciding that all these environmental controls mean you just can’t work, period? It’s not as though I’ve become stupid overnight – I still have an active and inquiring mind. But by noting my limitations, does that just give people excuses not to collaborate or work with me? How do you maintain collaborations when chronic illness is so unpredictable? While I can do more on the ‘good’ days, I sometimes end up overdoing it because I’m just so thrilled to be ‘able’ again (which then sets me back for the next few days).
My policy thus far has been to be myself – limitations and all – and let others choose how to respond. But when your career is at stake, sometimes being upfront seems self-defeating. I know people who’ve neglected to manage their illness in order to maintain the semblance of an academic life, for fear of how they’ll be treated otherwise.
I don’t have any firm answers to these questions, but ran across this quote from Justine Musk that helped me see things a bit more optimistically:
Being in crisis sucks, but it also gives you a valuable opportunity to reshape your life, in a way you never would have done when you were in your normal zone.
All the best to Sarcozona and the many others out there trying to juggle chronic illness and academic science. Good luck to all of us with reshaping our lives around it.