Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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The most valuable lessons I learned (or relearned) in 2011

Posted by Melissa on December 18, 2011

1. Having the right tools at your disposal makes your life as an experimentalist much easier.

When I decided to become a faculty member at an undergraduate institution, I knew that I’d have to get by with less research equipment than what I had grown accustomed to in a research university setting. At Carleton, I nominally have what I need to do the research that I want, but to make things work, my research program requires using resources at the University of Minnesota. I’m grateful that I have access to those facilities, but scheduling the use of that equipment can create a real bottleneck in my work. Also, it’s much harder to involve students when equipment is not available on campus. This year, I was reminded just how much extra effort that off-campus work requires when Carleton purchased a multipurpose x-ray diffractometer (XRD) with an NSF MRI grant that I helped write. Previously I could only make needed XRD measurements at the University of Minnesota. Getting a suitable XRD system at Carleton has been a blessing for my research projects. The experience has served as a reminder that working with the limited research infrastructure available on campus can be a very real source of stress, and opportunities to acquire key pieces of large instrumentation make a huge impact on my research life. Now if Santa would just deliver a Quantum Design MPMS system for Christmas…

2. As lofty as our ideals and as plentiful as our good ideas, at the end of the day, the college budget must be balanced.

In the past year, I’ve begun to learn more about the business side of the college. My education has been by necessity (as a member of the college budget committee and a member of the strategic planning working group on faculty/staff compensation) and by choice (participating in a discussion group about the book Why Does College Cost So Much?). I appreciate the education I’m gaining about the economics of the college, even though at times it can be incredibly sobering. Ignorance may be bliss, but the additional perspective I’ve gained helps me make sense of a broader range of issues and situations that I encounter as a member of the Carleton community.

3. Gendered service expectations and roles are alive and well…

…and some days that makes me mad as hell. I like how Katie Hogan frames the issue in her essay in Over 10 Million Served: “While most human beings, myself included, would not want to escape the opportunity to serve others — after all, human connection usually deepens emotional, creative, political, and intellectual development — in the academic world, an insidious and invisible economy of service has for years exhausted the energies of women, with women of color being particularly pressed into service roles.” I’ve long known about the studies showing that women do more service work in academia than men, so this isn’t news for me, but recent experiences have made the issue more personal.

4. You must be true to yourself and your professional goals

When I first started on the tenure track, several people told me something to the effect of, “Make the decisions that you want to make in your career, not the decisions that you think you ought to make to get tenure. In the end of the day, if you don’t get tenure, you still want to have built a professional career that reflects who you want to be.” Although it was difficult advice to take to heart as a junior faculty member, it was valuable to hear. This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in the PKAL Summer Leadership Institute, and it gave me space and structure for reflecting on my professional trajectory and where I want my next steps to lead. However, I still struggle to remember that the decisions I make should be authentically me, not what I think I ought to do or what I think my colleagues think I ought to do. I am trying to carry Polonius’ words with me, “To thine own self be true.”

What are the lessons that you will carry with you from the past year?

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