Compartmentalizing your life

These last five weeks I have been traveling every week while trying to juggle my teaching, research, and family responsibilities. Thankfully I have successfully fulfilled all my teaching and service responsibilities! Even if this meant almost no sleep, I was able to devote 2-3 hours of fun activities to my kids every weekend (in addition to my regular parental responsibilities) and one date night with my husband. Hey, I even got to stop by and drop off a gift at my friend’s baby shower and go shopping for dresses with my 4-year old daughter to an upcoming baby shower this weekend where we are required to dress alike. From the outside, it may seem like I have an incredibly balanced life even when 3-4 days per week have been spent away in meetings, giving talks, and meeting individuals all day. But the balance is far from ideal. Why? Unfortunately, I have neglected two things that are also very important to my life – my personal needs and my research. In every travel engagement I literally had a full schedule each day, starting early in the morning and ending very late and with no breaks. Thus every time I got back I had a pile of work waiting for me. I had the best intentions of taking care of my research and myself but unfortunately I could not get more than a couple of hours of research and a couple of brief text messages with my best friend during these five weeks. While these might seem like some consolation, they are puny and shameful efforts, in both cases.

Ironically, as I mentored various individuals, in particular women in STEM from graduate students to senior faculty members during my travels, I realized that most of these women and I are all guilty of the same charge. In the midst of my hectic life, I forgot to apply to myself some key advice that I am giving them. I usually try to follow my own advice but when I get extremely busy with travel I forget everything and only focus on two things – my teaching and preparing what is needed for these meetings and talks.

My advice to many women in academia is to make sure that you compartmentalize your life, including a compartment for your personal (individual) needs as well as research, and spend your time in accord with these compartments. For example, if it has been pre-determined by your goals, objectives and responsibilities, that from 8:00-9:00 am you teach Calculus and from 10:10 am-12:00 noon you do research every Tuesday and Thursday, this is what you should do on these two days and time slots. Only in a big emergency should you break away from doing these tasks but you should get back to them, as soon as possible. Do not make excuses for not living in accord to certain compartments or ignoring them. Adopting the idea of my colleague and friend Ricardo Cortez, you must “respect” these compartments.

I must follow my own advice and most important, “respect [my] research time” as advised by Ricardo, and respect my personal time. As Ricardo pointed out in his e-mentoring blog some time ago, if you have to teach you don’t cancel your class unless it is a very big emergency. If you have an appointment with yourself to do research or spend some quality and essential time doing something for yourself, then you should also not cancel these appointments either. I must respect my research and my personal time, always! How can I give my best, if I am neglecting the number one person responsible for keeping things running and getting them done in my life? I cannot! I must take care of me as well as everything that makes my life happy (including fulfilling my responsibilities). I must compartmentalize the personal aspects of my life too, just like I have done with my work and profession, according to the value and importance they play in my life and in my long-term goals. If I want to fulfill my professional goals, I cannot ignore my research compartment. If I want to optimize my productivity each day, I must make sure I am rested and not running myself down by going into overdrive mode in certain aspects of my life while ignoring others. I must reorganize the proportion of time I spend in the various aspects of my life.

I am revamping the compartments of my life to include my personal “me time”. I am starting by clarifying my goals, determining what I need to do to get there, and setting realistic parameters for myself. The latter is extremely important, if I am to truly stick to my plan. Setting parameters will require a careful inventory of my life and re-prioritizing. I will prioritize according to what I need to do in order to be successful in both my personal and professional life. I will not compromise things at the top of my priority list for other things. I will make sure that what I am doing and how much effort I am spending in service, teaching, and research are aligned with my institution’s expectations. I will be more selective on my service and travel commitments and not allow myself to feel guilty for not accepting invitations from friends (in the profession) or organizations with very good causes if I am already oversubscribed with service engagements or if there is a risk of me neglecting my priorities (during these invitation engagements). From now on, I will make sure that any invitation to speak or travel includes plenty of time for me to address my top priorities. Even though it is great to meet, mentor, and interact with many individuals for an entire day, I will not accept a full schedule from 8am -10+pm with no time, (say, at least 4 hours) to spend on research and on my personal needs. This block of time will not be negotiable.

If we women are to be successful in academia and happy, regardless of the stage in our life, we must require from ourselves and everyone else to respect our research and personal time. This should never be negotiable. To avoid the pitfall of neglecting important things in our life we must compartmentalize our life and live in accord with these compartments. Our efforts and time spent in these efforts should reflect our proprieties and what is expected to advance in our careers and personal lives. In order to have full control of our lives we need to make sure that we prioritize according to what is important and essential in our development and growth. I encourage all of you to reorganize your life, if necessary, just as I am about to do.

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Young Mathematicians and the Challenges of Writing

One of the biggest challenges for many young mathematicians is creating work they feel worthy of sharing with the world. This feeling transcends well beyond the mathematical community and is quite prevalent in many fields. How does one deal with this, and what are the true challenges that one faces?

One of my favorite pieces on this subject is by the well-known host of NPR’s “This American Life”, Ira Glass. You can find his thoughts here:

But I want to paraphrase and focus on some key points that he mentions:

You have good taste, but feel like you create work that doesn’t taste so good: So many of us at the early stages of our careers feel like our contributions are relatively minor. However, we are missing the bigger picture. This is our time to learn how to contribute novel mathematics to the community. Our impressions of our results are myopic, and we need to reflect upon the fact that our contributions are meaningful despite the fact that we are new to crafting our technique. Moreover, through continually sharing our mathematical discoveries, we become much more skilled at developing our own mathematical strengths, and consequently strengthen our contributions.

Just do it! Writing can only be done by writing. It is commonplace for young mathematicians to discover interesting mathematics they want to share with the world, but feeling “stuck” when looking at a .tex file that has a title, a list of authors, and a few definitions. Like a famous company we all know promotes, “Just Do It!”. A quote of Jodi Picoult (fiction writer) that one of my collaborators shared with me is perfect for this:

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Writing is a daily habit. It is surprising how much a little bit of regular writing can add up. In my first semester as an Assistant Professor, I wrote .pdf files for each lecture of a Discrete Mathematics class I taught. Each lecture only amounted to 1-2 pages of notes. What I was shocked to see was the culmination of this work at the end of the semester. What seemed to be relatively minimal regular writing ended up amassing 50-60 pages of notes. It felt like I had a draft of a small book without really thinking about it! Regular writing has surprising consequences.

Remember why we write! I close with what I feel is the most important point of all. Why do we write? It is our way of sharing our thoughts with a community, that is imprinted for all time. We have strong voices with interesting things to say. It is extremely important for the mathematical community to hear our voices, read our thoughts, and view our perspectives. It is through our writing that we share our world with everyone else.

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“Hello Hector…,” “Hello Ricardo…,” “Hello Fernando…,”

I ran into a colleague from another department the other day. Someone whom I’ve known for years. Someone whom I consider a friend. She greeted me, “Hey Hector, how are you doing…”

It’s not the first time that this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Now it’s true that, because I am clearly a Latino, I probably look a lot more like a “Hector” than a “Herbert,” but nevertheless you figure that they would get my name right after my 23 years on the faculty here at Loyola Marymount University (LMU).

The incident reminded me of the many other times that I’ve been called “Ricardo” or “Fernando” by other colleagues. This is probably because there are a couple of other male, Latino faculty at LMU who are in age close to me. They are in totally different departments (one in Psychology and the other in Political Science) and don’t look at all like me. (Well, or maybe they do since all us Latinos look alike…;-) Anyway, I thought these incidents might be interesting to write about since they are likely to have happened to fellow ethnic minority mathematicians, and are likely to continue to happen to future faculty from underrepresented groups.

The truth is that if you are from an underrepresented group in academia (and probably other professions), you are likely to be confused in name or in person by others who are not used to seeing folks like you around. I am certain that there is no ill will nor maliciousness nor prejudice coming from my colleagues, but it can be somewhat annoying to have to say, “I’m Herbert not Fernando.”

But the moral for this BLOG is that I try to not let these incidents nor perhaps other similar ones get to me. They are part of the story of being one of the few ethnic-minority faculty on campus. There simply will be situations that are annoying but not worth my energy to fight or get upset over. If I did, I’d have a lot less energy for the battles that are important and that are worth my time and effort to advocate for diversity.

So, my message to those young mathematicians out there who are of backgrounds that are not so common in the profession, be aware that there is a chance that you’ll be mistaken for others “like you” (or perhaps not so much like you). Your response to these incidents is something very personal. My one bit of advice is that if you do decide to respond by “calling someone out” on something, try not to let it upset you. There are many important battles to fight on the diversity front, and sometimes being upset will help in those fights, but being upset requires a lot of energy. That is, try to use your “upsetness” wisely!

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5 Things Everyone Forgets To Ask For When Negotiating The Ideal Faculty / Postdoc Position

Landing a tenure track job or postdoc is a long process and by then end of it, we’re ready to accept any offer that comes our way, even if it requires our first born child in the fine print. But, with an offer in hand (or over the phone or by email), you are in the greatest position to negotiate your potential future with your institution of choice. Here are five common items that most of us forget to negotiate.

  1. Parental Leave – Many colleges and universities still don’t have adequate parental leave policies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a leave policy specific to your needs. In doing so, you may be able to change the policy for those coming behind you. Some possibilities include:
  • An entire semester off at 75% salary
  • A one course reduction at 100% salary
  • The first 6 weeks off at 100% salary (this is especially beneficial when your child is due near the summer or winter break.)

You may want to include each of these as potential options to choose from, given the circumstances. Even if your institution is not able to accommodate the request, this will give you an opportunity to have a conversation with your Dean or Department Chair about the climate at the institution and ways to improve it.

  1. Sufficient Startup funds – Most of us neglect to ask for sufficient start-up funds since we don’t have labs to maintain. But hindsight is 20/20. Here are some things I wish I had considered getting funding for.
    • Professional fees / Lifetime memberships – Join the AMS, MAA, SACNAS, NAM, AWM, SIAM, ASA, and any other professional organization you are interested in. Ask for funding to cover multiple years (or a lifetime membership).
    • Summer research salary – Ask for 2/9ths of your salary (for each summer) for you to do summer research during the first three years. This will give you time to apply for grants to support your work in subsequent summers.
    • Conference travel – I would estimate $3000 per year for the first three or four years. This allows you to stay connected to your research by attending and presenting at national meetings.
    • Funding to support student summer research – Ask for funds to support up to three students for summer research for the first three years.
    • Full time post-bac researcher – For those of you with tenure track offers, ask for funding to support a post-bac researcher for up to three years. You can usually find a math major (either at your institution or somewhere else) who wants to take a year off in between undergraduate and graduate school / full time employment. This student could easily spend 20 – 30 hours per week focused on your research area and they are much cheaper than a postdoc.
  2. Initial Reduced course load – Ask for a lighter teaching load for the first two years. Perhaps a one course reduction each year. This will give you the time needed to prep for new courses and adjust to the learning needs of students at your new institution.
  3. Delay or Accelerate the tenure clock – If you are coming from a postdoc into a tenure track position, ask for the OPTION to go up for tenure early. It’s better to have this option up front in case you want to use it than to realize in year four that you could successfully go up for tenure but need to wait another two years. At some institutions, you can elect to go up for promotion separately from tenure. If you are starting the job around the time of a significant family event (birth, adoption, death), ask for a tenure clock delay.
  4. Temporary position for your significant other – Many institutions are not able to accommodate a tenure track offer for your spouse or partner (although you should be sure to push for it!). If that’s the case, consider asking for a three year Visiting Assistant Professor position. (Note that this looks better on one’s resume than Adjunct Professor). Three years will give you both enough time to settle down and seek out other nearby options while having steady salaries. If after two years nothing comes up, consider seriously going on the job market TOGETHER in year three. Your department may be able to leverage the possibility of your leaving with the Dean to make your spouse a more permanent offer.

In addition to the five areas listed above, you should also negotiate your salary, your computing needs (a new computer every 4 years), software needs (Matlab, Minitab, etc.), and teaching resources (clickers, create videos for flipped classrooms, etc.) Be sure to get everything in writing and keep a copy handy in case your institution transitions to a new Department chair or Dean. Lastly, once you have successfully negotiated your position, make sure you share what you did with those coming behind you!

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Cultural Obstructions in Mathematics

Cultural obstructions to careers in mathematics are myriad and significant. The myth of meritocracy is long debunked in social theory and education research, however its legacy persists. This post goes out to those mathematicians who feel pressured out of mathematics because of the culture of mathematics. You are not alone.

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Your Upcoming Job Interview

Many of you are in the middle of the job search process and are going to have interviews pretty soon, so I wanted to offer some thoughts on how to prepare. I am hoping that other readers can add their own tips. I will discuss separately what to do before the interview, during the visit, and afterward. Continue reading

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Quality of life matters

Winter break is the prime time for graduate students looking for postdoctoral or faculty positions to finish putting together their application documents and materials or even finish submitting them. Then in a few months the time to start visiting campuses, doing interviews, and seriously considering job offers will begin. This time will be very intense but it will also go by fast and before you realize it you will have determined much of the lifestyle and path that you are to follow for the rest of your life. I say “much” because in an academic environment things are usually either fixed or changes occur very slowly in terms of positions opening up, promotion, and/or having the possibility to change gears, assuming you are in this track and you realized that the place you are at is not for you. The same holds true if you one day realize that you did not make the optimal decision (for you) that you could have made. In an academic track, your first job (whether it is a postdoc or a faculty position) sets the tone, scale, and the path that you will likely follow. Thus one very important thing to keep in mind is something that we often lose sight of or forget when we are in this process and it is something that I learned a little too late: the importance of taking a proactive approach to ensure that the decision you make results in having a good quality of life in both the short run and long run.

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Doing what we think is the minimum necessary is more difficult than being fully committed

A couple of years ago, I committed to giving a series of lectures (a sort of mini-course) on measure theory at the Universidad de El Salvador. Not a big deal except for two challenges. (1) Teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution, we don’t have a course on measure theory, so I haven’t ever taught a formal course in the subject. (2) I had to give these lectures in Spanish; my Spanish is fluent, but communicating mathematics, especially a challenging topic like measure theory, in Spanish is definitely much more difficult than carrying on an everyday conversation.

About a month before the lectures were to begin, I began thinking about what I would prepare to make sure that I survived the experience. I basically began thinking about what would be the minimum amount of work required so that the lectures would not be a complete disaster. I thought about lecturing straight out of a book without writing lecture notes. I thought about providing problem sets in English so that I wouldn’t have to be challenged writing exercises in Spanish. I focused on making sure that I would not do any extra work and still not embarrass myself. Anyway, the endeavor was stressful and very psychologically challenging.

After a few days of approaching the preparation in this way, I changed my complete approach: I decided that I was going to do all the work and preparation necessary so as to deliver the absolute best set of lectures of my entire life.

As soon as I made that attitude shift, the stress went away and everything seemed to become easy. I was no longer hampered by the mindset that I was not going to do an iota more work than what was necessary to “get away” with something mediocre. I was no longer upset about writing and rewriting lecture notes and exercises in Spanish or working on something for a few hours which in the end I decided not to use. I no longer considered the endeavor a time sink. I was only interested in doing my absolute best. This was refreshingly liberating and so much easier than trying to do something half-ass. I worked on the lectures very hard for the next few weeks and during the time that I was delivering them, but doing so felt so easy. The task was no longer complicated.

Experiencing the refreshing and liberating feelings that came about because of going full-steam into a project/endeavor was a valuable lesson that I was not expecting. I reflected on this and remembered that there have been other times in my life when I have been very busy and tired, but also very happy because I was pouring my heart and soul into something. I also remembered some unhappy times when I was just trying to do the minimum to get through something.

In retrospect, what happened is not all that surprising given my experience as an educator. Indeed, I have had students (as I am sure many of us have) who spend hours and hours figuring out how to get away with doing the minimum on an assignment or studying the absolute minimum to get a “C” in a class or finding solutions to exercises on the Internet. They usually end up wasting a lot of psychological and emotional energy trying to “game the system” and not doing very well whether it be on an assignment or a class. Whereas the students that are diligent and aim high for an “A” in every class, usually end up being the ones that have the best attitude and seem more content.

Another (albeit somewhat tangential example) is what some folks do with parking tickets. It’s happened to most of us, that p.o.’ed feeling when we come back to our car and see that envelope on the windshield. We are so upset with the citation that we say to ourselves, “I am not going to pay this until the very last day possible. The city is not getting my money any earlier than necessary.” We then put the ticket on a counter or desk in our house and get upset and stressed for 3-4 weeks every time we look at it. I’ve learned to simply PAY THE DARN TICKET as soon as I get home. That way, I am upset for a few minutes, mail in the fine, and then I am done with it. I don’t have to look at the upsetting envelope for 3-4 weeks. Think about it, the city doesn’t care when it gets your money. In other words, going “all in” in the simple task of paying a parking fine, ends up reducing stress and making me more content.

In summary, since my experience preparing those measure theory lectures, whenever I commit to doing something, whether it be something minor or something truly important, I try to approach it with the attitude that I am going to give it my absolute best. It really is emotionally and psychologically easier that approaching the endeavor with the “what is the absolute minimum that I can do to survive this.”

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SACNAS: a transformative experience

Hello everyone!

My name is Adela Yang. I am a first-generation Asian-American undergraduate student pursuing Mathematics and Computer Science. I recently attended the SACNAS conference and it opened so many doors for me that were not available to my parents.

The SACNAS meals, venue, talks, workshops, sessions and events all came together to form a transformative experience. At this conference, I met some people who will be my life-long mentors. The speakers and presenters served as great inspirations for my future and they also serve as resources that I can reach out to. The exhibitors provided me with the knowledge to arm myself with on my quest for graduate school. Continue reading

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SACNAS at LACC 2014

My name is Joseph Chavoya. I am a Mexican-American Senior pursuing a degree in Pure Mathematics. As a first-generation under-represented student in Mathematics, I understand the difficulties associated with not only pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM); furthermore, I understand the difficulties in actually thriving in NSM. Though my first SACNAS experience occurred a bit late in my academic career, I found the experience very beneficial.

The presentations/talks in areas of NSM were inspiring (especially those done by people in my field), the exhibitor session was irreplaceable in that it allowed me to introduce myself to a variety of Graduate school representatives, and the poster-presentation experience was exhilarating (it felt really good to know that someone other than my mentor and I actually felt my work was interesting). Despite these events, I felt that I did not get the full benefit out of the SACNAS experience (note that this does not reflect on SACNAS). As a Senior who has already begun research into graduate school, applied for GRE’s, and completed REU’s, I felt that my biggest benefit came from the networking opportunities available throughout the conference, as well as the opportunity to present research. Sitting through these talks, however, I found myself thinking about the process I had to go through in order to actually arrive where I am now, and how much I could have benefited from SACNAS had I had the opportunity to attend one (or even two) year(s) prior. Looking at the SACNAS experience from this point of view, it has been one of the most inspiring, beneficial, and (in addition to the educational opportunities) fun experiences I have had in my undergraduate career. Given the chance, I would love to go again. In addition, I advise any student (especially those that are underrepresented in NSM) to attend SACNAS at the very first opportunity they get and take full advantage of the opportunities available.

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