Friday, August 23, 2013

Little boy blue and the man on the moon...

Work-life balance. If you're thinking about it, like me, you've likely already tipped the scales. For me, the old Cats Steven song,* Cat's in the Cradle, serves as a clarion call reminding me that my actions today will be rewarded or penalized later. It's seemingly easy to ignore any one request to play with my son today. After all what could it hurt? But there's a tipping point beyond which I would essentially never play with him, never teach him anything, and thus not have him around in the long term. One could argue that science is another such a child in my life, and it too requires my attention so as to remain on the productive side of its tipping point. This is yet another nonlinear dynamics problem for which I seek a partitioning of time that gives rise to a global fixed point. The trivial solutions would result in the loss of grants or detrimental effects on my relationships. The good news is that there are existence proofs that nontrivial healthy solutions exist! (And hopefully I'm maintaining one of them.)

A similar question arises when you run a research group. Each of my students requires just the right balance of training and freedom to venture into our joint research problems. She or he has little choice—once in the group—but to trust in my approach and in our group culture. That is, unless there is a catastrophic event that results in them leaving before achieving their degree. Like the little boy in the song, though, once graduated my students have the choice to remember their experience positively or negatively. If the former, this gives rise to an alumni network of students who continue to interact with each other and me. Thus the seeds of collaboration and interaction planted during their training continues to give back substantially to the other members of my group and me. But it's my choice to make those investments, and sadly not everyone makes this choice. So one of the pieces of advice to the students at the Future Faculty Workshop was simply: invest your time in mentoring the kind of group you want now and later. The former is your choice, but you will reap the latter accordingly.

*The lyrics of Cat's in the Cradle were written by Sandy & Harry Chapin, though I have mostly heard them on the Cats Steven soundtrack.

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