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Blogging with substance-which substance, we won't say
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Living in The Void: Healthcare
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Give and take
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What some smart women have to say about balance
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biochem belle

Research-and careers therein-rarely follows a linear path. Instead, it is often a long and winding road. These are stories about science and my personal experiences on this road.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Nov 07, 2010, 4:50pm
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Balance seems to be one of those things that everyone is trying to find. It's a difficult and delicate thing to maintain. For me, it often ends up looking like this:

Video 1. belle chases her tail whilst precariously balanced. It's all well and good and fun... until she falls on her face.

OK. I am being a bit dramatic--amusingly dramatic, but dramatic nonetheless. The point is, regardless of profession or career stage, finding balance is a tricky thing--especially if you're the sort of person who goes "all in", and science really seems to select such persuasions.

Around the time I started visiting graduate programs, a seminar speaker lunching with students asked what our plans were after undergrad. When it came around to me, the conversation went something like this:

belle: I'm going after a Ph.D.

prof (glancing at my hand): You married?

belle: After graduation.

prof (cynically): Good luck with that. I went into grad school married. I came out not married.

After that conversation, one criterion for graduate programs was 'still married when I finish'. (That was later expanded to 'still married and not in jail for strangling Ph.D. adviser', but that's a story for another time.) Here we are, 7 years later, and I'm still married. Of course, that's not to say it's been easy, as both Paramed (aka my husband) and I are extremely driven, passionate, and stubborn individuals.

Paramed and I grew up in the rural Southeast, where it's not assumed that every--or even most--high school graduates will continue to college. To this point, our decisions about where to go and what to do have been largely driven by my career, and Paramed has been incredibly supportive of every step. He took on a great deal of the domestic responsibilities while I was in grad school. On more than one occasion, he brought me dinner when I was working late. The week before my defense, he got on a plane by himself (and he really, really hates flying), came to postdoc city, and found us an apartment. In short, Paramed is awesome.

A year ago, Paramed took a big step toward his career goals when he finally got the opportunity to start working on his Bachelor's degree full-time. Our financial position--living in a city with a high cost of living plus debt derived in part from education and associated costs and in part from being young and stupid--is far from ideal, and he has had to continue working. His first semester involved a full class load distributed over 3 days plus two 24-hour work shifts every week. The next semester he was able to drop one of the shifts. What this means is that Paramed and I stay busy Monday through Friday with school and work, respectively. Before 6:30 Saturday morning, Paramed leaves for work, providing emergency medical care in one of the less savory parts of the city. When he drags in around 8 am Sunday morning, he considers himself lucky to have gotten more than an hour or two of sleep. Hence the first half of Sundays typically involve Paramed catching a long nap and me going grocery shopping. Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, we have to find time to (try to) clean our apartment, do laundry, pay bills, etc.

To make it work, we have to enjoy the little time we have. Sometimes it's as simple as working together fixing dinner in our tiny kitchen or kicking back on the couch with a movie or hanging out in a park reading a book or walking home together from work. Occasionally it's splurging on a nice, long relaxing dinner, free from the distractions of TV, email, phones, and so on. I have learned that, despite my protestations to the contrary, often the science can wait one more day. So I take those official holidays--things like President's Day and Memorial Day--so that Paramed and I can have an entire day off together, and I'm getting better about not feeling guilty about not being in the lab.

Even though we've conditioned ourselves to try to make the most of the time we have, we are not always successful. Often the limited time we spend together is actually spent slogging through some pretty serious issues, which can involve some very heated debates. We have learned, though, that these arguments get at the heart of issues needing to be addressed, and we have learned to forgive each other and use them as jumping-off point for moving forward. Paramed and I know that it doesn't necessarily get easier with time. In fact, decisions have been made that will almost certainly add more strain and stress. However, we know that for us to be happy together we also have to be happy with ourselves. So we move forward together, trying to balance two careers and our relationship together. We've made it 7 years. With a little luck, maybe we'll make it 70 more.

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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That really is a great post. I see your perspective now. Do you think that maybe he's more willing to accept your busy schedule, because he's also in a field that requires maximum effort and drive to be successful?

biochem belle
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Brian Krueger, PhD said:
Do you think that maybe he's more willing to accept your busy schedule, because he's also in a field that requires maximum effort and drive to be successful?

I think there are many contributing factors. For one, he's always worked like a maniac, from the time he was 14. Typically he's held at least 2 jobs wherever we've lived! There's also the fact that for most of the 2-1/2 years we were dating I lived in a nearby city, but with my schedule and the commute time, we usually only spent time together on weekends. I also think a major contributor is the similarity in personality, with regard to work ethic and drive.

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I got engaged a few days before my graduation from undergrad in May, and I start grad school in September. Since I actually got the ring on my finger, just about all the comments I've gotten have been positive. However, this past year, as I was applying to/interviewing at/waiting to hear from schools, I talked to a lot of professors about grad school. And if I mentioned my boyfriend, just in passing, I was likely to get comments.

In fact, I've even gotten the "go into grad school married, come out not married" line before. However, even worse, it was followed by the professor informing me that things worked out for him--his wife didn't finish grad school...she was just too sensitive to hack it (and many women have that problem)... but they are still together and she makes a GREAT housewife.

Though I walked away from that conversation feeling disillusioned, in some sense I'm glad that my once-respected professor outed himself as a sexist creep. It reminded me that people will have lots of different opinions about the way I live and the way I pursue my career... but a lot of them will be wrong. So I try to take all the negative advice with a grain of salt, and look for people with a more positive outlook.

Anyhow, I'm glad things have worked out well so far for you... it makes me more hopeful about my odds. Good luck with the next 70.

Lady Scientist
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I mentioned to Dr. Man your goal of "still married when I finish" and he laughed. But added that's his goal for our careers, too-- as in "Still married at the end of each day." It's especially hard to keep that goal when the two people are so busy.

biochem belle
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Keely-That one guy was not the only one to raise the question. I knew people who got divorced and people who got married in grad school. For the most part, the ones that finished grad school with an ex-spouse had problems that went well beyond the bounds of grad school. It takes a lot of give and take on both sides, but it can definitely be done :)

Lady Scientist-I like that goal to be "still married at the end of each day". Perhaps that will be the upgrade to our goal ;)

Lab Mom
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I married my PhD hubby at year 2 (of 5) in grad school. Best thing I ever did! I guess I figured it was one goal that was actually crossed off the big long "to do list" of grad school. A sure thing. Couldn't say that about the science.

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I don't know anyone else besides myself who got divorced in grad school, but there were definitely more important contributing factors that led to it.

It's nice to read about how you and your husband have been able to make things work. I ended up finishing grad school with an amazing boyfriend as my support system, and I can't imagine it any other way.

biochem belle
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Confounded said:
I don't know anyone else besides myself who got divorced in grad school, but there were definitely more important contributing factors that led to it... I ended up finishing grad school with an amazing boyfriend as my support system, and I can't imagine it any other way.

I'm glad you found a supportive guy :)

And just to clarify, I certainly do not mean to knock anyone that has gotten divorced-ever really-because you have to make the decision that's right for you.
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