Thursday, May 31, 2007

How We Are Hungry

Just this morning, I stumbled across the scientiae carnival of women bloggers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Their current topic (the subject line) took over my thoughts like a mid-afternoon sugar craving. Sabbatical has helped me understand my deepest career hunger: to interact regularly with a small network of friends with common professional interests. I love teaching, being a professor, and working in academia. The emotional isolation wears me down though, and threatens to renew itself as I prepare to return in the fall.

This isn't meant to insult my closest friends at work. They are wonderful people who I confide in, enjoy talking to, and respect. They are also men closer to my parents' ages than to mine. I have close friendships with some women academics (in other fields) and writers of my own age that follow the interaction style I love: a seamless blend of work and non-work discussions that last for hours or days yet feel unfinished. I had one off-and-on work-based friendship as a postdoc 8 years ago, and another with a visiting researcher for a few months while I was faculty. The rarity of these relationships the last 12 years, whether with males or females, makes this my greatest hunger.

Watching my thoughts on this though, I noticed that I was answering the question "what are we hungry for", rather than "how we are hungry". How did I end up in this situation? I work in a reasonable department in a good school, my colleagues are collegial, with an above-average percentage of female faculty, and plenty of faculty near my age. I have some good friends in other departments on campus, but working in different buildings on campus, we manage to meet only once or twice a semester, never spontaneously (and we all live far enough from campus in different directions that after-hours gathering don't happen). I've met a couple of people (mostly women) at conferences with whom I expect I'd have such a friendship if we worked at the same institutions, but none of us make time to develop these long distance, given our other demands. Some days, I feel like my academic upbringing socialized me to not expect my style of friendships in professional circles, until I woke up and realized how much I missed them, and--worse still--how much I feel I stagnate intellectually by not having them. The latter is where this issue really irks.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel hungry over this at all. Perhaps I asking too much to want close professional friends with whom I can interact regularly and easily. Perhaps I am still mourning having graduated from college, where the dorms were a continuous feast of interactions academic and not. I know I'm not an academic in hopes of reliving college, but I did expect more from the promise of the academic environment as an adult.

Do others experience the disconnect between professional and other friendships? Do you feel it holds you back? Do you feel less productive having to have professional conversations in a style that doesn't come naturally to you? Suggestions on how to address it?

In the end, the question is simply how to get fed. Perhaps being involved in an online community, rather than trying to main electronic one-on-one conversations would help, simply because there's more chance of finding someone with free time to e-chat in the same day or week in a larger group. It would certainly be better than my current approach to the situation, which seems to entail too many cookies and chocolates.


Addy N. said...

Hi Kat! I was just getting a preview of the carnival posts (at technorati) and found your blog. I can completely relate to your feelings of isolation. My husband is also an academic and we talk about work and non-work topics at home, but we also don't have many other friends. I usually blame it on living in a small town, but I have a feeling we would be in the same situation anywhere. My best friend at work is also older than my parents! Cheers!

doc-in-training said...

Hi Kat. I thought I was the only one facing this issue. I wish that I had friends from the academic circle too... until this happened...

Over at my previous lab, there was a female colleague, whom I could talk to her for hours about various different things - work or non-work related. I have enjoyed our discussions, and I saw her as my best friend. Unfortunately, our friendship went sour after she realized that her contract would not be renewed - six months before she would have to leave the lab, which gave her plenty of time to feel bad about it. Since I was the only other person in the team, I became her victim, and working with her during those six months became a torture. During those 6 months, anything I said that was work related became an insult to her, and for things that were non-work related? She used them as weapons for personal attacks, and I regretted ever having shared anything personal with her prior.

Anyway, despite the effort, her contract wasn't renewed. Yet, my reputation has damaged to an extend that I didn't feel that I deserved.

I am at another lab.

Over here, no one talks much. People are nice, but there aren't much discussions going on except during seminars, conferences, and meetings.

However, due to my previous experience, I'm not complaining about it.

Having said that, I do agree that discussions are important at academic settings, and it would have been _wonderful_ to be able to have close friends from the academic circle. But it remains to be a dream for me as of today.

As for my current friends, they are from other circles, so I avoid talking about anything remotely related to work with them at all cost.


nicole said...

I just wanted to say that I don't think you're asking too much to have these kinds of friendships -- don't sell yourself short! Maybe going online like you said is the way to go.

Lab Rat said...

Hi Kat. Your post reminded me of how much I missed the "We're all in this together" friendships of graduate school - we could discuss so many things, work, life, dreams.

Where I am now, this type of relationship is practically non-existent, possibly a large part due to the rather conservative culture of the country, and maybe to a lesser extent, language differences. Initiating any kind of scientific discussion is horrendously tough - "junior researchers" are expected just to follow whatever the "senior researchers" say, without question. Being female just puts you lower on the pecking order.

Online communities would help somewhat, I guess, but for me it doesn't really satisfy that hunger for real-life, face-to-face interaction.

Fitz said...

I completely agree with you, Kat. I never expected to be so lonely. My graduate students have someone to talk with, but I can't and shouldn't talk with them about all the big and little frustrations, some of which they cause. I used to have a core group of people I could talk with at my postdoc position, but not really anyone here. Good thing the place where I used to work has a 1 800 number!

Consider who you can talk to: the young colleague in your department who is a gossip? The older professors who will soon judge you for your tenure evaluation? Other professors in other departments who will be surprised and wonder why you are not more loyal to your own department? None of these are good options, which is why I love the blogosphere for being able to vent anonymously.

To some extent, the job itself is responsible, I think. If I had more time I would be on the phone more with my buddies, but I had to review papers, get lectures ready, ... the day gets filled and I have had no one to talk to about the crappy stuff that was done to me today.

Natasha Lloyd said...

Hi Kathi, I just found your blog -- very cool.

Although I'm not in an academic setting professionally, I do still feel this disconnect between personal and professional lives. The people I work with are great, but I wouldn't feel comfortable inviting them over for dinner and a movie. It's not that I don't want to invite them, it just doesn't feel "right".

There is also the additional difficulty of remote co-workers. The work I'm currently involved in, for instance, doesn't involve anyone but me and my manager in my office. It's mostly people in California, Ohio, and Montana. It's hard to not feel isolated sometimes.

I've tried joining professional organizations in the hopes of meeting people with common professional interests, but those seem very closed off to newbies like myself.

In the end, I've come to think that the real problem is that many people in engineering-related professions are introverts. We may *want* to talk to others, but we have trouble initiating and sustaining new relationships. I don't think it's hopeless, but it certainly takes us a lot more effort. :)