Saturday, July 07, 2007

Can an Academic Researcher Enjoy Her Life?

I am still here! So, I thought I would reflect on a conversation I had with an old friend yesterday on the subject of the academic researcher life. The conversation started with a phone call from a friend who wanted to compliment me on a recent article that I wrote for the newsletter of a professional organization to which I belong. This organization is comprised of philosophers and psychiatrists and she happens to be both, with a M.D./Ph.D., so the compliment was well received indeed. It is hard to write interdisciplinary work that pleases both "camps."

Cathy also congratulated me on my pregnancy. Then we started talking about how her career is going. She bemoaned how little writing and puzzle-solving (a good philosophical practice) she had been doing, since the hospital she was working at was understaffed and keeping her extremely busy. I was sympathetic to her time demands, but tried to nudge her to get a few of her papers out that I had read in draft, because, selfishly, they are so helpful to my own work. Then Cathy started talking about how much she has enjoyed her life since she took the last two years off from academic writing and research. She goes out with friends, has a new relationship, goes to civic events etc.

That was the part of the conversation that interested me the most. You know, it is true that being an active or even diligent researcher makes it hard to enjoy your life. I am not sure how some people achieve that balance. When you are caught up in an intellectual puzzle you are trying to solve, it haunts you all times of the day. You start to get twitchy if you aren't doing at least some writing or reading. You say no to fun, to friends, to normal life, frankly, in order to keep writing.

I remember meeting my Dad's new medical partner last summer, whose daughters were so glad that their Mom had finally left academic medicine to pursue private practice. The eldest daughter told horror stories of her mother spending hours in front of the computer writing, or working in her lab, or reading through the literature . . . It was really interesting to get this perspective from a teenage girl, watching her mother engage fully in the academic researchers lifestyle. She just wanted her mother to hang out, play tennis with her, have a BBQ or something. I, of course, understand the insane drive of the Mom though--the need to work through something, the all-consuming nature of this and the learned indifference to how this affects others.

Right now, however, I am in limbo. I am not doing much active research or writing--while I still have two big projects looming. I am "nesting" and preparing for motherhood. And, I have found myself living a quite conventional, and lovely lifestyle. I do a little home improvement, go to the farmer's market with Za, try new recipes . . . And, I do all of this with little guilt that I am neglecting my important research.

I am struck by how insane the lifestyle is of an active researcher. So many hours poured into labor that is woefully under rewarded or even appreciated. It is a sickness, I fear. But, I am not sure I would ever be able to shake it. But, Cathy, I say, keep enjoying your life. Those papers, those ideas aren't going anywhere. You can turn to them when you are in a quieter period or the urge is so unbearable that you cannot even enjoy cocktails with friends.