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From Jerk to Justice League: How to be a leader, not a whiner? (Grad School Style)
November 13, 2012 7:08 AM   Subscribe

From Jerk to Justice League: How to be a leader, not a whiner?

Last night, the boyfriend mentioned that he's always felt like his father went through life (and goes through life) looking for a fight. His father is generally a good guy, but he doesn't appear to be the most adaptable snowflake I've met on life's bumpy road. I'd describe it as being cranky about life at times. No big deal. Who isn't cranky sometimes?

But then boyfriend said he feels the same way.

He feels like the world is out to get him and he's spoiling for a fight. He takes slights and inconveniences personally, and he doesn't mask it when he's bothered. My opinion: he appears rude when he does it, and maybe overly aggressive. I think (and he agrees) that he doesn't roll with life's small punches because he doesn't know what to do about the central problem in his life right now.

He's a grad student in science and incredibly stressed by the neverending push to do more, faster, push further out of his comfort zone, and generally keep up with the testosterone-filled, family-comes-last, political jockeying in his lab. When he was talking about this, he mentioned that he feels alone in his desperation--why doesn't anybody else push back against the unhealthy culture? Is he the only one who feels he deserves better than this? And when he does push back, why doesn't anyone respect him for it?

I argued that lots of people push back when they find themselves faced with situations like his, but they don't fight alone, and they don't transfer their frustration to petty things. They fight back socially. They join movements or form partnerships. They shine a light on the problem in a way that doesn't alienate others and instead creates a rallying point.

He's interested by that, but I'm not sure he's sold on the idea of lending his anger and energy toward something bigger than himself. And more than that, he doesn't know how. I've never had that kind of chip on my shoulder, and I'm not sure what to tell him.

The question(s), from general to specific:
Big picture, have you ever taken this kind of anger against personal injustice and turned it into something bigger? Did you lend your support to a cause? What kind of thought process took you from feeling wronged to finding a constructive focus?

Small picture, do you know of any groups that rally around grad student work-life issues? Who can he join?

BF reads articles about work-life balance and laments that it's viewed as women-only issue. There's a sadly sizable group of people who say "suck it up, or quit science" in response to his concerns. Or they have the attitude of "You should live to work, and want to live to work. What's wrong with you?"

I believe that it's possible to for people in general, and him specifically to find a balanced life in which he can have the profession of scientist. But I'm short on examples of scientists who exhibit a life-balance that he'd find worth looking forward to--a life that includes family and time that isn't filled with work-obsession. Feel free to throw in encouraging words on that matter if you have them.
posted by celare to Human Relations (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It really depends on the science.

I live around the corner from the CDC and you can best believe that those folks are impassioned by their work, and enjoy a good work/life balance in the bargain.

I know someone who is a chemist and she works with flavors (for tobacco, so gross) but she loves her job and her family and hasn't compromised a thing.

I think that if your BF looks to government/private sector jobs, rather than academic, that a lot of that stress and pressure will disappear. For some reason Academia is so cut throat and political and nasty. Kissenger was right when he said, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

Not to say that there isn't stress in Government and the Private Sector, but it's different and it's not so damn personal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:33 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's up to him. I am in academia and realize that stresses like this are a very real thing. However, the people who manage to rise above them find their own niche or way of dealing and just run with it.

The point is that the world will be like this regardless of what you do, and your own reactions are all you can change.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my aunt, who is a psychologist. She was visiting and I was yammering on and on about how my parents were unfair, they give my brother a ton of leeway and were super hard on me, I had such a hard time, yada yada.

She looked me in the eye and said, "Okay. Let's assume that they really DO love him more than they love you. What the fuck are you going to do about that?"

There's actually a lot of freedom in giving up control to the universe. But there's also a lot of freedom in picking your battles -- which is to say, in your/his situation, finding the most efficient way to get to where he wants to be. Jobs focusing on education more than research (e.g. at a liberal arts college instead of an R1), jobs in the private sector, jobs adjacent to the science (e.g. being a science communicator or research administrator instead of the researcher) may all have an impact.

But if he has decided that his life is about being a fighter -- which, for many people, is their true lifelong hobby -- that may not change. My crazy mother, for example, doesn't use a microwave because what would she do with that free time? Doing things, even complaining, gives people purpose.

I refer to this as "Marge Simpson in Cypress Creek." When she has nothing to do, she has to find SOMETHING else. And what happens then?????

So now YOU need to pick your battles. What's the most important thing to him: the success and satisfaction he finds, or knowing that he keeps fighting? Because until the latter becomes too unbearable, which it very well may not, it's not going to change.
posted by Madamina at 8:05 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The question(s), from general to specific:
Big picture, have you ever taken this kind of anger against personal injustice and turned it into something bigger? Did you lend your support to a cause? What kind of thought process took you from feeling wronged to finding a constructive focus?


I felt this kind of anger all the time. Then I realized I was constantly going around with my shoulders up around my ears and my hands balled into fists, wasting my energy at defending myself against perceived injustice.

Then I got therapy.

I don't know about your plan to cultivate the anger into something "useful." I have a lot more energy now, but I spend it on my art, my husband, and the people I love--not social justice causes. I had to learn how to let go of that anger to be a happy, functioning person. It really wasn't useful--it was toxic, and it poisoned many different corners of my life.

I think this is something your boyfriend should work out with a therapist, not a significant other.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:14 AM on November 13, 2012


Well, he's not imagining things. Science and the university can be exactly like that, and PIs are sometimes not shy as using it as a weapon. Sad but true story: once, as a grad student, I said I couldn't come in on the weekend as I was going away with my girlfriend, the first weekend I'd taken off in 6 months. The response: "Aren't you interested in your work?"

(And here I draw a line: "being passionate" is often used as a stick in academia, to get you to do more. But I don't believe it should mean neglecting your own health or your family. Neither do I believe that doubling your hours means that you double output.)

So, it's true. And tragically, your boyfriend is at the most powerless part of his career, where people can push him around the most and he has the least flexibility.

On the positive side:

* My life got a lot better as soon as I realised there was a never ending list of things that could be done. I stopped taking home work. I try to stick to regular hours. If there's a genuine emergency, I front up, but I refuse to work in a continual state of emergency. It doesn't seem to have lost me any opportunities and my mental and physical health is much better. It will be harder for him as a grad student, but I think there's stil space there. * Getting organised and focused about work - doing what absolutely has to be done - helps with the above.

* There are many senior scientists who work long hours and at home ... and many that don't. But no one wants to hear the story of those who worked 9 to 5. I knew a few PhD candidates who did strict 9-to-5, 5 days a week and they were a lot more relaxed and together than me.

* There are some organisations and movements to improve the conditions and careers of postdocs and students. NIH had one, you shoudl be able to find pointer in the pages of Higher Education and the Chronicle. Maybe he can contribute or join in.

* Encourage your BF to get some physical exercise regularly. It will help with the anger and tension.
posted by outlier at 8:38 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Feel free to throw in encouraging words on that matter if you have them.

I don't really have any in academia. There are para-scientific positions you can find-- many of which pay better than academia and PI-related positions in research -- that have better work/life balance. And there is work in contract-research organizations that handle this better. But real life in academia involves spending a lot of time reading journal articles to catch up with the latest work, writing grant proposals and hoping you make the top-10%-cutoff, and competing against PIs who think and talk about their work all the time.

Big picture, have you ever taken this kind of anger against personal injustice and turned it into something bigger?

The world is not like a feel-good movie where you stand up to the authority and come out on top. It's much more passive aggressive than that: you take flak from your advisor and supervisors, and you come back with good work done on your own terms that allows you to get out, done with your degree, and away from those people and on to the next job. As outlier says, it improves when you figure out how to do your work on your own terms.
posted by deanc at 9:57 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two notes: (1) he's in physics, if that matters. and (2) He wants to be a scientist, maybe working for the government or industry. He has no desire to stay in the academic world once he's got his three letters.
posted by celare at 9:59 AM on November 13, 2012


Two notes: (1) he's in physics, if that matters. and (2) He wants to be a scientist, maybe working for the government or industry. He has no desire to stay in the academic world once he's got his three letters.

In that case, I can say that "it gets better." Graduate school is a test of endurance. It weeds out the people who say, "I'm not going to put up with this crap anymore!" in favor of the people who don't let the crap "get" to them. As an aside, the government agencies that do physics research seem to have better quality of life than the NIH, for example.
posted by deanc at 10:10 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the guys in my lab (I'm an undergrad so I can't comment personally) copes with the frustration of academia by setting strict boundaries: he works 9-5 and leaves lab when his wife finishes work at her lab, he doesn't take work home with him, he spends time with his wife and friends, he tries not to take experimental failures personally (our project is a money sink with very few results so far because we're working with an uncommon organism), and he ultimately has decided that his health and happiness is worth taking longer to finish his degree.

It also helps that my lab is super chill - seriously, they take mornings off to go play golf, we have weekly lab meetings to collaborate on others' projects, everyone knows about everyone's family and talks/asks about them all the time - and the atmosphere is not at all hypercompetitive (maybe because we have a woman as our PI?). It's a university-affiliated semi-private lab, for the record, and it seems to be much less toxic than pure academia... so there are decent labs out there!

I'm not sure if this is up his alley, but I read an interesting paper lately on the toxicity of normative masculinity and how that plays into men's insecurities, anger, and feelings of persecution. Here's the link. As a trans person, I can't comment on its validity, but it did bring up sentiments akin to those your boyfriend has expressed.
posted by buteo at 9:18 PM on November 13, 2012


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