Work life balance: it is OK to work hard

IMG_3103Do you ever get the feeling your career is some kind of race and others view your hard work as sneaking into a car in the middle of a marathon? Do you feel better about taking time off if you know others are doing the same? Is too much freedom the joy and the curse of academia?

A colleague of mine at Rice talked of an institution where everyone left close to 5pm and never came in during weekends. But some time into his sabbatical there he realized some people sneaked back into their offices in the evening or on weekends, closed their doors and worked madly away. Why would they ever do that, I wondered? Why not just work as you see fit? Perhaps I did not understand the strength of cultural conformity then.

In many respects the general admonishments against long work hours just don’t apply to academics because our work is so varied and what we do is largely under our control. In early spring in graduate school I often worked very long hours. I might get up at 4 AM, drive 50 minutes to Lake Travis, row across Cat Hollow to my study site, spend two hours marking and censusing wasps, just as the sun was rising and the canyon wrens began to call and the cliff swallows soared and circled. Then I might spend a few hours perched in front of a wasp nest, writing down everything they did. By lunchtime I would be back in Austin, at another population of a different species of wasps needing less attention at this time because of their colony cycle. I could search for new nests for a couple of hours then bike to campus to catch a 4pm seminar and see friends. Does that sound like a terrible day? Would I have been happier doing something else with any part of it? No. Do I work like that now? No, but might if I went back to wasps, and could give similar stories from much later in my career.

Exceptionally hard work is most possible when it is most varied. No one should hold you back. After all, it is not a race. We each bring our particular experience, ability, and interest to our projects. Work life balance should be something you choose, not something that is dictated to you. Life has its trade offs and academics are so lucky that how you navigate through them is largely your choice. So don’t feel guilty during those periods when you just can’t get away from the joy of academia.

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What are your goals for fall?

Sometimes I think I could easily fritter all my time away if I don’t have a clear list of goals. If I don’t remember what I want to figure out, I might just do all the little tasks others throw at me and feel accomplished. But then I would be so surprised and puzzled that others somehow found time among the thicket of trivia to accomplish something important. They keep their eyes on the horizon, I guess.

Most productive, happy people probably do this for themselves and don’t need anyone else to tell them to get busy. But it never hurts to have a mentor that reminds you to do this. It also never hurts to have a mentor that helps you adjust your priorities, or at least to see them from a different angle. This is particularly important across the transitions of an academic career as you become more of a mentor and leader.

It is also true that looking over the shoulder at what your group members are or are not accomplishing is important. Everyone should be creative, productive, and happy. If someone has decided not to work hard, or seems to lack enthusiasm, it will hurt the whole lab group. It is the responsibility of the lab head to mentor that person, encouraging them, or to let them go. Academia is not for everyone. Every lab is not a good fit for everyone. Most people I have talked to who have ultimately had to ask someone to leave the lab group have wished they did it months or years earlier.

A trimesterly report turned in to the lab head and then discussed gives everyone a time to understand whether expectations are met or not. This can be a preparation for asking someone to move on. But usually it is not since we generally love what we are doing.

We have done a lot of different reflective things. We have had brainstorming. We have had celebrations of paper and grant proposal submissions. We have had these reports in various forms. Here is the one I just sent out this year. Maybe you have a better idea or some questions to add.


Goals for fall 2015

Faculty housing at University of Chicago, The Cloisters. How many great ideas have originated here?

Faculty housing at University of Chicago, The Cloisters. How many great ideas have originated here?

due 15 September 2015


Please answer the questions below as a guide to future research and as an evaluation of past research.

Please also send us your most recent CV, including undergraduates, you have mentored and papers in progress even if they are not submitted yet. Undergraduates should send us a resume.

For postdocs, note that when you came, we agreed to two years of funding, so put your start date with us on this report. Funding past two years is often possible but will be dependent on your progress and our funding situation.

These reflections are due three times a year, 15 January, 15 May, and 15 September.


1) What have you accomplished since 15 May 2015? List papers and their status and note where they were 15 May. List projects that have not yet reached publication stage.


2) List the projects you are currently working on, exactly what you are doing, and who your collaborators are. List expected completion time. Give enough detail so the hypothesis and tests are clear.


3) List any projects you have not started working on but anticipate beginning in the fall. Give enough detail so the hypothesis and tests are clear.


Posted in Managing an academic career, Organization of a scientist, Your lab group | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Teaching without lecturing: Exploded discussion in Class 3

IMG_7967   In discussion session on Friday the students told the TA, Omar, they wanted me to explain some of the questions that they did not understand. So I agreed and offered them one of two lectures. Either they could hear my normal first lecture on behavior, or they could hear a more general one that also talked about my research. I told them it was important to know what I did. I also told them that both lectures would get at broad concepts useful for the upcoming test. They chose to hear the lecture on my research, which is a version of this one from Distinctive Voices. Actually, it looks like there are a lot of other cool talks there, like the one on stereotype threat.IMG_7980

But first, we went over the study questions. They worked with their six person groups, putting the questions that baffled them up on white sheets of paper that hang around this odd room. After awhile I pointed out that no one was answering the questions and that they better do so. I reminded them that I did not grade on the curve, so they could all do well. Slowly they got up and started circulating, reading the questions and sometimes answering them.

Quickly there was a marvelous vortex around the posters with lots of vigorous discussions as the students looked at the questions and answers. They started to copy stuff down also. I pointed out that understanding was more important than copying and anyway I would post photos of all the sheets for them. Soon all the students were milling about and there was so much attention to the posters. I walked around writing my own opinions and developed a bit of a following as they queried my answers. Why runts? Why do mammals and not birds have runts? Why would a mother rear fewer babies than she could? Why mate with the male in the center of the lek? At the ESS, who does better, hawks or doves? And so on.IMG_7968

There was only a half hour left for my nice lecture. Did they want to hear it? Seemingly no one did. This conversation seemed more important for understanding. One student told me she was humiliated to see that after an answer she had written, I had simply written “NO.” I  pointed out that I didn’t know who she was, and if we weren’t all prepared to be wrong, we could never learn. She agreed and said that was one answer she would never forget.

Now if on test day they can just show me that they haven’t only learned these questions, they also know how to think about the topic. Then maybe I’ll treat them to a lecture, told in story form, of course.

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Work life balance: beware transitions

Two different people have recently made me very aware of the biological importance of transitions. One was Jeff Clune who gave an excellent talk at BEACON last month. One part was on the evolutionary origins of modularity. He finds considerable support for a really new approach: that modularity evolves when the costs of transitions, or connections are included. It is a bit different from our own behavior but I’ll apply it anyway. Beware transitions! They are costly!IMG_7540

Not entirely independent, because of the BEACON tie, was a very nice study by Heather Goldsby, Anna Dornhaus, Ben Kerr, and Charles Ofria from PNAS on the costs of task switching and their ability to explain divisions of labor. This is hardly news for social insect researchers, but still cool. So, what exactly can we say about our own task switching? First, collect the empirical data.

IMG_4871How many different things have you worked on in the last three hours? I began with commenting on versions of a quiz written by one of my wonderful teaching assistants. She then got it back to me fast enough that this was actually two rounds. I worked through my emails, putting most of them in the Random folder and a few into the To Do folder. I encouraged a few students, gave a quick read to a paper, and passed on the warning to check equipment after the university brownout a week ago. I sneaked over to Facebook, tweeted a couple things. Then I figured out what I would do in class later today, found the study questions and a talk I’ll also give (they’ve asked for some talks, go figure). It was about ten, so I made breakfast. Yes I’m working from home. I have a natural and very predictable low around 10:30, so I used it to deal with an annoying insurance company problem, on the phone with headphones.

Now it is nearly noon. Class is at 2:30. I still have to walk in to work and touch base with my team. After class is a seminar that looks interesting in anthropology. I’m guessing I’ll skip a nap today. I’m glad I already did the 3 mile dog walk with Zeus, first thing after I got up. At this point I have at most an hour and a half of productive research time left before dinner.

What is my point with all this drivel? The main point is that I have done a lot of different things. I have paid the price of transitions. I have dealt with what is most urgent, teaching today. I have not worked on my overdue paper, but I will. IMG_7642I have not worked on the four letters of promotion recommendation for colleagues across the land. I have not worked on my talk for Seville and the flight is on Friday. I have not gotten together with Suegene and planned our Korean feast. I’m starting to get nervous.

But actually, I’m a jumpy person. I need to flit from one thing to another. I sit on a ball or stand. That helps. I make lists of the things to work on in a day because without it I can get lost and then just go bother my team as they work in the lab. So I make transitions work for me by allowing them. Others need fewer transitions because once they get out of the zone, it is harder to get back in.

My teaching assistants are each writing 6 quizzes from the book. I have encouraged them to get them all done right away. That way they can get in the frame of quiz writing. They will be faster and more efficient and not forget the comments I give them on effective quiz writing. It will be done so the student that needs to take the quiz early will have it ready.

I plan to write several of the letters of recommendation all at once so I can also get in that frame of mind. Before I do it, I remind myself of the kinds of things that are important to go in such letters. Then it will stay fresh for all the letters, though of course each needs its special story.

Transitions have a cost. Recognize this cost and make it work for you. Work and live consciously, enjoy what you do, and give yourself permission to change. Some transitions will be between different kinds of work and others will intersperse life. Another kind of transition is the one that takes years or decades. I used my time differently when I had preschoolers. But that is something for another time.

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The power of study questions, and groups: Class 2

IMG_7647IMG_7655The second day of class with no lecturing has passed. We had no gripping videos today, but we had a lot to do. The students had turned in their photo releases and their get to know you sheets. Their first Wikipedia assignment is due today. It is simply to join the course and do the tutorial. Basically it is an easy 20 points. I made sure that they learned from their tablemates how to do this before they left. They were excited to get their Wikipedia wings. I assured them that the page takes a bit of time to update, so not to worry.

Their real work today was to plunge into The Selfish Gene (video) and thinking critically. I gave them 6 questions, taken from the various prefaces. First they were to answer them on their own. Then each table of 6 was to come up with a consensus answer, written out on a yellow sheet. I walked around the room answering questions and seeing if the different tables were actually discussing.

Here are the 6 questions:

Dawkins pretest for 27 August 2015         Name:___________________________________

  1. Why did Richard Dawkins name his book The Selfish Gene? What are the pros and cons of this name? What might he better have called it? What is the strength of this name, even though a lot of the book is about altruism?
  2. Why do selfish genes often favor cooperation?
  3. Why does Richard Dawkins call meiotic drive genes ultra-selfish, or even outlaw genes? What is a meiotic drive gene?
  4. What are the pros and cons of looking at natural selection from the gene’s angle and from the individual’s angle? Break down the argument.
  5. Why don’t we help chimps more, given that we share 99.5% of genes?
  6. What are the challenges that Dawkins faced in writing this book both for the layman and for the expert? How did he resolve them?

IMG_7641The students did well with some of the questions but struggled, even in the groups, with others. It is clear they do not get some basic issues of gene-based selection, or gene vs. vehicle differences. They don’t seem to get the difference between genes at different loci, different alleles at the same locus, or copies of the same gene in different individuals. But some groups were moving in the right direction. IMG_7654I hope they do better once they have properly read the book. After all the test over it is in a week! Tomorrow in discussion section they will go over the study questions on the first 6 chapters. Any that stump the groups of 6 they should write on one of the white poster sheets and get help from other groups.

Fourteen more weeks to turn these delightful and eager students into experts!

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What to do in class if you don’t lecture? Class 1

When the students walk into the room there are videos playing on the monitors, one at the end of each 6 person table in our cavernous basement classroom divided by pillars. They find a seat and see there is already an assignment at their table. It is this:

  1. Watch the video, writing down exactly what is happening without interpretation or judgment of any kind for 5 minutes.
  2. What is your interpretation of what is happening?
    1. Who are the actors?
    2. What are they doing to each other?
    3. Why are they doing what they are doing?
    4. What is the survival advantage to these actions?
    5. How would you test your hypothesis?

I show them three videos, one on great egrets, one on wasps, Polistes carolina, and one on stingless bees. All are available on my YouTube channel, strassm. They are also available here. They are designed for watching without prejudice or narration.

They answered the questions on paper, not their computers with their myriad distractions. Then each table tackled the second question together, writing a table summary of what they saw. Discussion was lively and hard to bring to a close. To me, this is what learning looks like. Students observe and think on their own, then defend and modify with their classmates.

Isn’t that what it is like in real life, be it academia or otherwise? We lose the teachers and bosses and have to convince and learn from our colleagues. The sooner my students learn to rely on each other and their own understanding and not me, the better. The sooner my students think on their own, get information independently, the better. I don’t have time for busy work and neither do they.

At this point my wonderful teaching assistant, Omar Delannoy-Bruno, pointed out that I had not even introduced myself yet. This was true, so with only 20 minutes to go in class I called them to one wall, had them sit on the floor and introduced myself, Omar, and the class. (My other TA is still out of town.) I had already sent them the syllabus and the first readings and assignments. I had told them to begin signing up and learning how Wikipedia works. I pointed them to my class page. But sometimes it is all right to reiterate things, to tell them more about the structure of the course, once I had their attention with the behavioral work.

I also had them fill out media release forms and answer some questions about themselves so I could better remember them. Many were banal, but one was memorable: she had pet caterpillars as a child and brushed them carefully until her parents finally allowed her to get a guinea pig. I always say the way I learn student’s names is by their stories and this is a good one!

IMG_3389There is a lot of chatter out there about things like flipped classrooms and other innovations. We know a lot about what is important in our disciplines and what good learning techniques are. I’m not a fan of flipped classrooms. What makes you think your powerpoint lecture is so precious that students should bother to watch it outside of class? Are you really that gripping of a story teller that you can compete with all the other things they might watch?

I think there is simply no substitute for grappling with the material, then working together with others to modify your opinions or to modify theirs, and of course to separate fact from opinion. That is how I try to teach. The first day went well.

Posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching, Undergraduates | 2 Comments

What is the copyright of this blog?

I hope I sometimes post something useful to you. You might want to use it for your own group, or send it around. But there are some things you don’t agree with that you want to change. Is this all right? Who owns the words I wrote anyway?

Since I write this blog, I get to decide. You are actually legally bound to respect my decision. But you will be happy to hear that I’m a believer in open writing, sharing without cost. This is because I have a salary. I can afford to share. This blog is for helping others figure out this crazy and wonderful business of academia.

So the copyright I have chosen is CC BY SA 4.0, which means you can take my work, use it for any purpose, modify it to suit yourself, provided you do two things. First, you must credit me. Second, you must also allow your modified version to be shared alike. This is the license that Wikipedia uses and that is my standard.  If you go to the Creative Commons site, you can get a bunch of code, see below, for your site.

So hack away at what I’ve written and change it to your purpose, just remembering to keep your work shareable and to credit me.


<a rel=”license” href=””><img alt=”Creative Commons License” style=”border-width:0″ src=”×31.png&#8221; /></a><br /><span xmlns:dct=”; property=”dct:title”>Sociobiology: so you want to be a biology professor</span> by <a xmlns:cc=”; href=”; property=”cc:attributionName” rel=”cc:attributionURL”>Joan E. Strassmann</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=””>Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License</a>.

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