Monday, November 21, 2011

Are you happy?

The title of this post is a question that I have been asked TWICE this week now.  So it seems as if the heavens above are compelling me to 1) ask myself this question and REALLY think hard about it; and 2) write about it so that I can share my thoughts/feelings with others who may benefit from this post.

A masters student asked me today, as I was advising her about the journey of becoming an academic (she is interested in doing a doctorate), whether I am happy that I have chosen the academic job route.  It's a tough question, though, because on the one hand, I do absolutely love my work.  So much so that it's a little bit of an addiction.  In fact, my late advisor said it well: "Jason, being an academic means that you'll always have a mistress.  You have your wife ... but she'll always be jealous of your work and all the time that you'll spend with it instead of with her."  Being an academic is, in many ways, a completely selfish act.  I seek knowledge because I want to know more (I'm just so darn curious!).  I spend countless hours toiling over things that other people would consider minutiae (but it's NOT minutiae ... I'm building knowledge here, for goodness sakes ... pushing the frontiers of what we know!).  And I do all of this, at least for me as an emerging scholar, because I find it intensely interesting and, quite frankly, because I want to be employable at a top-notch institution.  So I do spend lots of time trying to get published ... trying to think of really awesome ideas that can get funded by people with deep pockets ... the sort of stuff that takes absurd amounts of time ... time that could have been spent with my family, had I not been so addicted to my work (see post entitled "Debt").

So yes, I'm happy that I chose this route because it fulfills my career aspirations, and because the job just really suits my dispositions well.  But ...

It also means that spending those countless hours working my tail off really puts a strain on the other parts of my life.  I'll be frank here.  The academic life is not family-friendly.  I am constantly being pulled back to my laptop because I'm always thinking, "I need to get _____ paper out for publication ..." or "I have to meet with _______ and discuss how to write our NSF grant," or more commonly (at least in my immediate future), "I have to GRADE PAPERS!!!"  I do see a small number of people who have families and seem to be able to handle it quite well.  But, they ARE the minority for sure.  In other words, I have yet to find a way to balance my work life with my family life so that the one (work) does not consume the other.  At this point in my life, Amy and the kids are most definitely getting consumed by my work.  As a postdoc, finances are TIGHT, especially with 2 kids.  So we are a family of 2 working professionals who are scraping by (financially) to make ends meet.  That's a big cause of unhappiness.  Also, at the end of the day, Amy and I are so strung out from work that we barely have time or energy to even spend quality time together.  That's also a cause of unhappiness.  Yet, it's what I've chosen.  So I own it ... all the happiness AND the unhappiness that comes with the choice.  

As an academic, it really helps if you have a spouse who borders saintliness.  Amy is my personal hero.  And ultimately, whatever I "achieve" in my academic career won't mean a thing unless that work can contribute to and support other people in the same way that Amy has contributed to and supported my own happiness.  And for that, I defer to St. Bernard of Clairvau:

There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowing; that is curiosity.
There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is vanity.
There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is love.

I doubt that I can say in earnest that I am really happy that I've chosen this route unless I can say that I have sought knowledge in order to serve.  Unfortunately, my perception of how things are in my field is that, as a junior researcher, you simply do not have any room to do such things ... yet. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011


There's a Chinese saying that goes like this: "The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness."  As young scholars we spend a lot of our time and efforts in trying to consume information--filling our minds with articles and book chapters written by the greats, listening to what our advisors say, and going to sessions like graduate student seminars or early career seminars.  We follow this pattern for as long as we feel like we have reached a point when we are "experts."

But unless we pour that cup out, we cease to be useful.  I can relate to this.  After losing my mentor, I hungered for mentorship; I felt completely helpless and approached the rest of my doctoral career from a deficiency perspective.  I think that mindset also carried over to my postdoctoral career.  But I am beginning to move on from that mindset.  The paradox of mentorship is that mentorship is most effective when YOU contribute at least as much mentoring as you receive.  When you receive more than you give, you cease to be useful.  Regardless of our situations, we have accomplished what we have because we have learned something along the way.  Those things we learn are lessons that can be taught to others.  Our hunger for mentorship should be matched or even exceeded by our hunger to mentor others.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Last I posted, I was only getting started in my postdoc!  It's been overwhelming.  But 1 year later, and I'm sitting here reflecting on how far I've come.

As academics, we are faced with ridiculous numbers that most people are happy that they don't have to face.  For example: "At ____ academic journal, only about 5% of the papers submitted get published." Or applying for jobs (like what I'm doing now): "At ______ university, we received over 500 applications to fill our ONE Assistant Professor position."  Or when applying for funding (like at the NSF or The Gates Foundation): "Typically, it takes people over 8 failed attempts at writing a grant before they experience success."  If you don't know...writing a grant to get funding is a colossal task!  So when your livelihood depends on publishing ("publish or perish"), and on getting funding, and finding a job is so ridiculously difficult, why do we do what we do???!!!  Perhaps we are gluttons for punishment.

I submitted an article for publication about a year ago.  It was rejected.  I changed it up a little, took some of the suggestions that the reviewers made, and submitted it to another journal.  It was rejected again.  I then reconceptualized the study completely, and asked different questions and even had some colleagues look it over.  It was rejected again.  My coauthor and I are flummoxed.  So we did a radical reconceptualization, added more data, and have submitted it to another journal.  It's in review, but I'm feeling good about it.  I think it's got a really good chance.  Why do I think this after all the rejections?  I don't know.  I just do.  As researchers, we all know the numbers ... we know our chances of success are not favorable (at least for us junior researchers).  But we keep going because we love what we do.  Because the questions that we ask drive us so powerfully forward ... because we are so convinced that what we are researching is so incredibly important ... that we drive forward despite the unfavorable odds.  Back 10 years ago, my late advisor asked me, "Jason, why do you want to pursue a Ph.D.?  You're going to be dirt poor and have a miserable life."  When I told him that I just have to read and know more about this stuff, I got his attention.  And as we talked more, I think it became apparent that I really was out of my mind crazy.  So this is why I do what I do--because I can't imagine doing anything else and loving it so much. 

And you know what's REALLY crazy?  I'm kind of glad that my paper didn't get published those first few times I attempted it!  Why?  Well, because this time around ... it's a REALLY good paper.  To be an academic and to succeed as one, you have to view rejection as positive feedback that makes you better, because that's exactly what it is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Extinction is a scary fate. In academe, it is no different. Darwin's theory of evolution described the struggle of organisms to stay alive by changing and adapting to the real world. Once a genetic trait, expressed as a physical or behavioral characteristic, adapts and proves successful, that trait is given another opportunity to propagate itself to the next generation. A gene that fails to adapt to the real world dies. The academic equivalent to this is stated brilliantly and elegantly by Alfred North Whitehead: "Theoretical ideas should always find important applications within the pupil's curriculum ... [this doctrine] contains within itself the problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from being inert." An idea that is connected to the real world and allowed to interact with other ideas, thrives and connects itself to other ideas. One that remains inert, however, loses its vitality. Inert ideas are disconnected ones. They are evolutionary dead ends. Whitehead rightly argued that we must, "eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kill the vitality of our modern curriculum ... instead of unity, we offer children algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows, History, from which nothing follows." I would say that academics face this challenge too. How do I, as an educational psychologist, take my research about psychological constructs that your average person has never heard of, and connect it to things that have pragmatic value?

As a doctoral student, I had a much less well-developed idea about how to do that. Now that I'm a postdoc, I'm seeing a bit more of how my research interests can connect. Though my advisor has passed away, I've inherited his academic DNA. His was a prominent voice in self-efficacy. This is something I've inherited. He found amazing applications of self-efficacy in educational contexts. Mostly with writing among middle school students (his passion). His scholarly work is cited over and over again. His work is no evolutionary dead end. As every newly minted Ph.D. discovers, I had to learn to take what I had inherited and find new ways to make it continue living. In one sense, I am very much so of my advisor's academic genetic composition (I also study self-efficacy). But in another sense, I must evolve--adjust to my surroundings, and find new applications for my work.

So what speaks "modern day" more than virtual learning environments? How about applying psychological constructs to the world of emerging technologies? Can this be a way that I continue propagating these academic genes? Piaget argued that knowledge becomes "a system of transformations that become progressively adequate." Or, as Darwin would say of species, they become progressively more fit to survive.

As an academic in the social sciences, it is becoming more and more important to "receive external funding." In other words, get grant money. Why? So that I can pay for all my research needs without asking the university to chip in. Universities are in a tough spot financially now, and to relieve that burden, they "encourage" their faculty to get money. The university where I am working now, for example, gets 68% of the money that professors acquire from grants! That's HUGE! Elite U, however, is more the exception than the rule. This is how academics prevent themselves from being inert. They write up research grants and find ways to make their research interests applicable to the most pressing concerns we face today. And by spending countless amounts of time writing these grants, we hope that one day a large funding agency tells us, "we like your ideas and would like to fund your research." The trick is, of course, to find the "cash value" (thank you, William James) of your ideas and to sell it. Selling ideas is not something doctoral students are ever trained to do. Defending ideas? Oh sure, no problem. But selling is a different story. And so begins my marketing education ... I've got 2 years to learn to be a salesman.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Chef Gusteau

How I love the movie Ratatouille. A great chef dies, but lives on and continues his legacy by speaking words of inspiration and wisdom to a gifted rat. Chef Gusteau's words were, "You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true - anyone can cook... but only the fearless can be great!" Combine that with Anton Ego's words: "In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook’. But I realize - only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

I've often thought of myself as a bit of an impostor--I'm in education, but came from the hard sciences; I'm in psychology, yet have only taken one "real" psychology course in my entire life. And most of all, I'm at probably the most elite university in the world as a postdoctoral researcher working on a really cool project with  people from an impressive academic pedigree. This is something I could never have thought possible in my life. I definitely feel like an impostor here. But Anton Ego is right ... talent can come from anywhere. I just have to believe it, and act it.

And then there are the words of the great Chef himself: Anyone can cook ... but only the fearless can be great. Back when I was an undergraduate taking my first educational psychology class from a professor who would be so important to my life, I was intimidated by how knowledgeable he was and how critical he was of everything his students wrote. So I approached him one day before a writing assignment was due and asked him for some advice. His enigmatic answer: "Just be fearless, Jason. Write fearlessly." And then when I decided to go into teaching, I came to him for advice: "Dr. P, what do I do ... I've never taught before!" His advice once again: "Jason, just be fearless ... teach fearlessly."

After Dr. P died, I thought my research career was over. But somehow I mustered up the strength to get over it and move on. Dr. P spoke to me like Gusteau did to Remy. And the reoccurring theme? "Just be fearless." Let me just say that when you lose your advisor midway through your doctoral program, fearlessly going forth is pretty friggin hard. How do I carve out a research agenda that will sustain my academic career when my advisor died before I even became  a doctoral candidate? Most junior faculty members are able to do research and write with their advisors. Me? Dr. P didn't even guide me through my dissertation. What did that mean for me? It meant that I had to be supremely resourceful ... I sought out the council of others. And in the process I formed wonderful relationships with scholars in my community. But I had to be fearless to do that--I had to go outside my comfort zone.

With this postdoc, it feels like I've got an incredible opportunity to carve out a future for myself in academe. At the same time, it's tricky (who ever said it would be easy, right?). I'm an educational psychologist with a background in science and teaching. But I'm working with a group of people who are in educational technology and math education. Once again, I'm the misfit. But misfits  can do great things, right? Yes, but I have to be "imaginative, strong-hearted. I have to try things that might not work". In a word, I must be fearless. Thank you, Dr. P ... my Chef Gusteau. I shall carve out a research agenda that I hope would make you proud ... and if I am successful, it will have come about because I first learned to be fearless.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Every doctorate student who graduates knows about debt. You have 6 months after commencement before you begin paying out; You know about how much money you'll have to dish out per month to pay off that loan; All these troublesome money issues that fester in the back of your mind as you ponder, "aggghh, was it really worth it?"

But there is a far more important debt that is owed. That degree I hold in my hand was not obtained solely through my own efforts. I borrowed (heavily) the energy, love, and goodwill of my family. As far as I'm concerned, THEY were the ones who financed my education. Theirs was the currency that no value can be calculated. That's comforting on the one hand because I don't have another monthly payment to calculate for how much I owe someone. But it's also daunting, in a good way (I'll explain later), because I know very well that there's no way I could ever repay this debt.

If I were to do a dedication for Amy in front of a large crowd, it would sound a bit like this: "Four years ago, Amy and I sat down to have a difficult discussion. I knew that I had to do the Ph.D. and I was trying to tell Amy how important it was to me. We talked for hours. And I remember Amy telling me, 'Jason, I know that you've wanted to do this for a while, and I know it is so important for you. So first of all I want to tell you that whatever you want to do I support you completely because I love you. But I also want to say that this is a very hard thing for me to do because I know that by supporting you, I'll have to give up so much. I know that by supporting you there will be things that I want for myself AND for us as a family, that I'll have to give up. So if it were entirely up to me, I'd say please don't do it. But it's your decision to make and you should go forth with it, and I will support you with all my heart.' And after Amy told me this, she cried. And the only thing I could think was, "geez, we've been married for less than a year, and I'm already breaking her heart. What is wrong with me?! So Amy, after 4 years of watching you support me, my love for you has grown in ways I could never have imagined. And I only hope that you can say the same about me."

There is a massive difference between the monetary debts we owe to financial institutions and the debts of gratitude owed to those who love us. Do you ever notice that we never discuss the monetary debts we owe? We certainly don't put them into the acknowledgment sections of our dissertations. You'll never see a statement about how we are ever so thankful to the federal government and such and such a bank for lending us X amount of dollars. There's a bit of secrecy that surrounds how much we owe, how much we pay per month, or how long we will be paying these debts. Thinking about these debts also just puts us in a fowl mood, usually involving many expletives and the like.

But the debts of gratitude we owe to our loved ones are plastered all over our dissertations' acknowledgment sections. We freely proclaim to all how much we appreciated their support and love. And doing so is enormously gratifying. Therefore, it is the debts of gratitude that make the other debts we owe so much more bearable.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Copy, paste, and steal (errr ... borrow)

Did I say, in my last post, that there is an immense amount of work involved after earning those 3 letters? Well, I take that back ... sort of. I'm being playful, of course, but really, thank goodness for copy, paste.

In just 3 weeks, our project team is having a "summit." In other words, we're having our first major meeting where everyone comes together and gives their input for where they think the direction of the project should head. Because I'm the lead for the motivation and technology side of the project, I've got to come up with a formal presentation whereby I outline for everyone the theoretical backings for the mathematics interventions we are planning to do. It's a bit scary to think that even though the two PIs (my boss being one of them) on this grant were able to procure a ton of money from NSF there are SO many gaps and unknowns to the project. For example, we are supposed to do three different types of interventions, each involving some kind of new learning technology. We're pretty sure about 2 of them. But that third one ... yeah, we have no idea.

And that's where I come in. They want me to figure out something that is theoretically solid and has a promising track-record for success. And this happens to be a lot of work. Rummaging through research papers, finding out what's theoretically sound, and coming up with something that might be able to work with what we are trying to do. Lucky for me, I have weapons ... copy, paste, and borrowing from some people I have spent many MANY years studying. For example, I have Bandura and Dweck in my boat. Track record for success? Oh yeah ... try DECADES of success! For my formal presentation I'll need the theoretical backings for my ideas ... already done that (copy and paste from dissertation defense)! Nice.

So yeah, having those three letters opens the door to an immense amount of work. But, as they say, "if you're smart enough to get into a Ph.D program, you're smart enough to get out of one too." Those smarts of getting out of one (e.g., copy, paste, steal [well, borrow] ) are the same ones that will make this work that much easier.