Home > math, musing, women in math > Radhika Nagpal is a role model for fun people everywhere

Radhika Nagpal is a role model for fun people everywhere

July 25, 2013

Can I hear an amen for Radhika Nagpal, the brave woman who explained to the world recently how she lived through being a tenure-track professor at Harvard without losing her soul?

You should really read Nagpal’s guest blogpost from Scientific American (hat tip Ken Ribet) yourself, but here’s just a sneak preview, namely her check list of survival tactics that she describes in more detail later in the piece:

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

I really love this list, especially the “stop taking advice” part. I can’t tell you how much crap advice you get when you’re a tenure-track woman in a technical field. Nagpal was totally right to decide to ignore it, and I wish I’d taken her advice to ignore people’s advice, even though that sounds like a logical contradiction.

What I like the most about her list was her insistence on being a whole person and having fun – I have definitely had those rules since forever, and I didn’t have to make them explicit, I just thought of them as obvious, although maybe it was for me because my alternative was truly dark.

It’s just amazing how often people are willing to make themselves miserable and delay their lives when they’re going for something ambitious. For some reason, they argue, they’ll get there faster if they’re utterly submissive to the perceived expectations.

What bullshit! Why would anyone be more efficient at learning, at producing, or at creating when they’re sleep-deprived and oppressed? I don’t get it. I know this sounds like a matter of opinion but I’m super sure there’ll be some study coming out describing the cognitive bias which makes people believe this particular piece of baloney.

Here’s some advice: go get laid, people, or whatever it is that you really enjoy, and then have a really good night’s sleep, and you’ll feel much more creative in the morning. Hell, you might even think of something during the night – all my good ideas come to me when I’m asleep.

Even though her description of tenure-track life resonates with me, this problem, of individuals needlessly sacrificing their quality of life, isn’t confined to academia by any means. For example I certainly saw a lot of it at D.E. Shaw as well.

In fact I think it happens anywhere where there’s an intense environment of expectation, with some kind of incredibly slow-moving weeding process – academia has tenure, D.E. Shaw has “who gets to be a Managing Director”. People spend months or even years in near-paralysis wondering if their superiors think they’re measuring up. Gross!

Ultimately it happens to someone when they start believing in the system. Conversely the only way to avoid that kind of oppression is to live your life in denial of the system, which is what Nagpal achieved by insisting on thinking of her tenure-track job as having no particular goal.

Which didn’t mean she didn’t work hard and get her personal goals done, and I have tremendous respect for her work ethic and drive. I’m not suggesting that we all get high-powered positions and then start slacking. But we have to retain our humanity above all.

Bottomline, let’s perfect the art of ignoring the system when it’s oppressive, since it’s a useful survival tactic, and also intrinsically changes the system in a positive way by undermining it. Plus it’s way more fun.

Categories: math, musing, women in math
  1. BarryR
    July 25, 2013 at 7:19 am

    You realise for many of us “go get laid” is actually harder than getting tenured? Anyway, I’m going to take her advice by not taking her advice and disappearing in a puff of my own logic.


  2. ddf
    July 25, 2013 at 8:51 am

    What a wonderful post. Should be framed and hung above the entrance of every “prestigious” institution. The way to happiness and fulfillment is to do what you really enjoy rather than reach for illusory status. Figuring that out requires wisdom; getting tenure at Harvard only requires intelligence ( and political skills)


  3. suevanhattum
    July 25, 2013 at 10:41 am

    I remember having a conversation about this sort of thing back in the eighties. I have always been dedicated to doing what feels like the right thing to do (and it must feel good at some level to qualify). I dropped out of a phd program in math because it wasn’t fun. I teach community college math, and the only thing I don’t get to do that university profs can do is to teach math for teachers.

    I’ve been working hard for four years on a book that I hope will *make a difference*. I’m getting tired during this long haul, but I keep getting little pick-me-ups from people loving the draft, and from ticking one more item off the long long list. Part of why it has taken so long is my commitment not to overcommit.


  4. July 25, 2013 at 11:23 am

    I guess the obvious, naive question is, can you (well, can *I*) get tenure in this way? (I really hope so!)


    • Michelle
      July 28, 2013 at 2:15 am

      Possibly not at Harvard. But one can. I did.


  5. July 25, 2013 at 11:23 am

    So much good advice. She’s stronger than me. I haven’t even finished my PhD and I’m already disillusioned! But I’m really happy I am finishing it (though I’m not planning on going academic) because I’ve learned to live and be happy in the program. I also learned that 99% of the things that bothered me actually didn’t matter. The vast majority didn’t even matter even if I had continued on to academia.

    The most important thing I would try to tell new people (always gotta give worthless advice) is to make sure that if you go into academia to stay happy and keep things in perspective. Figure out what amount of time you can research effectively and limit yourself to that. Make sure you have things outside of research that you actually enjoy more (so that you are forced to be efficient when working in the little time you have before your volleyball tournament). And yeah make sure you have friends outside of work…I think it’s pretty common to be friends with other people in your PhD program in the beginning, but the fundamental fact is that they are your colleagues and they extend work into your personal life…that screws with your boundaries.

    But really most importantly try to be happy and use your work to drive that…no amount of research/recognition/whatever is worth your sanity.

    (And of course no one should take this advice as she says… 😉 )


  6. Tony
    July 25, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    While I agreed with many of the things Dr. Nagpal said in her post, I think the caveat at the end is much bigger than she makes it out to be – it’s easy for her to say these things because she had a tenure-track position at an R1 institution. The majority of graduating Ph.D.’s never find a tenure-track position, and have to work as contingent faculty, piecing together teaching jobs just to make ends meet. This would make it incredibly hard to follow some of her advice, including the title of the piece. I would love to see this issue addressed more in blogs by academics like this one.


    • Michelle
      July 28, 2013 at 3:39 pm

      I see comments like this almost any time there’s an article about the difficulties of being on the tenure track. I agree that there’s a lot to be said about the move towards using more contingent faculty, how adjuncts are treated and paid, and so on. In fact, there *is* a lot written about these issues. But must every single article written about academia address the issue of contingent faculty? It is an issue worth addressing, but not *the only* issue worth addressing.


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