My Crazy Summer Research Life – Part 2

In this post, Dr. Keri Colabroy talks about work-life balance in the midst of summer research realities and a career in academics.


I am a working mom. Maybe you noticed. Maybe it’s the picture of my children in the lab with my students, or my tales of summer camps and doctor’s appointments…I am constantly juggling: summer research, two kids (7 and 4 years old) and a to do list as long as my arm.

Life is too short. I will make this career work while having a family life that I am proud of.

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My kids and my research student

I love teaching and I love working with students in the lab, but I also love having a family. My life during the academic year is busy, busy, busy. I am in my office every day, and I am grading papers, exams and lab reports every night after my kids go to bed. On weekends, I spend my days running children to activities and grocery shopping while my nights (after kids are asleep) are filled with lecture planning, designing assignments, answering email and (*gag*) the ubiquitous committee work. Summer is my chance to be a little less (ahem) crazy.

What does a little “less crazy” look like?

I take back my summer weekends and my summer evenings, and (gasp!) even a week here and there! I am still in the lab every day. I am fixing the instruments, planning the experiments and cheering on the students. I am writing my grant, planning my syllabi and managing the summer research cohort on our campus. But when I leave at the end of the day (which is 4:30pm), I am home with my family. I let the kids stay up later (there is no school after all!), we swim, play games and walk to the park. We take a weekendweek here and a week there to visit family up and down the east coast. I will take a Friday afternoon off for a special outing. A younger (untenured) me would have felt guilty spending those hours “not working”. But I guess I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t care. Life is too short. I will make this career work while having a family life that I am proud of. My kids know and understand how important “teaching chemistry” is to me – and whenever I can, we do “home science” experiments and make trips to the lab. And my students know my kids. And I try – and I hope I succeed – at giving 100% of my attention to my family and my students in turn. This does mean that I spend less time on myself. But this phase of life is short. My kids are little and they won’t always need me like they do now.

work_lifeWork-life balance is a choice.

It doesn’t just happen. Choose the balance you want and make it real.

So – what have we learned since summer research started 6 weeks ago… We’ve dealt with a string of problems in running chromatography, and we’ve learned that we need to flush the lines of the chromatography instrument with 0.1N NaOH after every sample to keep them clean (why didn’t I just stick with manual columns…(sigh); we’ve explored reversed-phase, anion and cation exchange SPE for purification of complex biological samples in preparation for Mass Spec, and we got the pipettes calibrated. Most of our progress has been in method development, so I will have the students document these methods in our electronic lab notebook as we move forward.

At the end of every summer you will have learned something – the trick is framing your experience to see that something.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I was feeling a bit lost for content. Nothing exciting has rocked my lab this summer. We are working every day, but we are tackling complex problems, and headway is slow. My students presented their work at our summer seminar series 2 weeks ago. As they were putting together their presentations I was showing them how to break down their work into a series of goals – some of which they have accomplished, and others that are still “works in progress”. At the end of every summer you will have learned something – the trick is framing your experience to see that something. Ten years ago, this kind of progress would have just killed me. But, 10 years ago I was a brand new faculty member and tenure loomed large on my horizon.

Maybe you are thinking that there are PUI faculty out there cranking out a paper each summer…and maybe they are out there. But, I am sure not one of them. So…welcome to normal. You are normal.

What have I learned in 10 years?

This is reality. Some summers are like this. While I’ve had summers where everything went right and we collected publication quality data in 8 weeks, more often than not – we are slogging it out, one step after excruciating step. Maybe you are thinking that there are PUI faculty out there cranking out a paper each summer…and maybe they are out there. But, I am sure not one of them. So…welcome to normal. You are normal. Research with undergraduates is amazing. It’s fun, inspiring, and totally worth it…but it’s also hard…and slow. Mostly slow.

While I’ve had summers where everything went right and we collected publication quality data in 8 weeks, more often than not – we are slogging it out, one step after excruciating step.

Don’t. Give. Up.

Stick with it. Doing real research with undergraduates is worth it. I promise. I have 10 years worth of students that prove that. And those mythical PUI faculty publishing a paper every summer…we’ll find them and ask them to write a blog for next year, and maybe we’ll both learn something. Deal?

In the meantime, take back your evening and your weekends. There isn’t too much summer left!

 

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