But you have summers off!

I didn’t shower.

I spent enormous amounts of time in grad school watching things like this go across the screen, labelling the points where various and sundry parts of the vocal tract are at their peak heights. Today I would just write a program to do it for me, but that was a loooong time ago… Picture source: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/courses/spsci/expphon/week7.php

When I was a first-year graduate student, I did not realize that the first-year winter break was the last time off that I would have until I walked out the door of the lab for the last time–several years later.  Consequently, I spent it reading a book about linguistics–that is to say, I spent my last vacation for several years reading a book about the subject that I was studying during all of my work hours.  On the plus side, it was a great book, and I was thrilled to find a copy in the original French in the basement of one of the Giberts in the Quartier latin last year.  But, had I known that I would be spending the next several years in a basement watching jaws go up and down (literally), I think I might’ve taken a walk instead, or something.

The thing that makes academics howl the most is people saying it must be so nice to have summers off!  In reality, the summertime is when you work frantically on your research.  Research is, in theory, what you’re in academia to do.  In practice, events usually conspire to keep you doing everything but your research.  What kind of events?  Read on.  The following is a recent Facebook post from Karin Verspoor, a colleague upon whom I rely to kick my ass, teach me things, and basically be a bossy but much-adored big sister (despite the fact that she’s a lot younger than I am).  One of the many reasons that Karin is my hero is that she does smokin’ research in computer science (smokin’ explained in the English notes below) while raising three damn fine kids, which means that her research work typically starts around 10 PM.  Along the way, she got a doctorate at the best computational linguistics program in the world, ran labs at various and sundry research facilities in the US and Australia (hence the weird spelling in what follows), became a full professor at the University of Melbourne, and taught me a bit about statistical distributions of language (probably the most difficult of all of the things that she’s done–and, of course, the topic of this blog).  Karin’s Facebook post is about as accurate of a portrait of what the daily life of an academic looks like as one could hope for.  As Karin puts it: it’s not a whine–it’s just an attempt to answer the question Where does the time go?

This is not a whine, simply an exploration of the question “Where does the time go?”

phd021717sToday I had no meetings (a rare occurrence indeed) so I decided to stay home to catch up on some work. I started the day with ~150 unread messages in my inbox. During the day I received another 111, most of which I processed but not all, and ended up sending 125 messages. I am now near the end of the day with 61 messages still marked unread (I have read nearly all of them, but these are ones that I want to follow up on one way or another at some future time; yes there is probably a better approach).

ce7651ece5292ac5568bde111e80c355-phd-comics-phd-studentI finalised a paper due today and a presentation that someone is presenting on my behalf at 6am tomorrow Melbourne time in Bethesda MD (I will join by teleconf for Q&A), with a lot of back-and-forth with the students involved. I processed paperwork for a visitor and a new post-doc including checking references, tweaked [“tweak” explained in the English notes below –Zipf] position descriptions for positions we are getting ready to advertise (come work with us!), checked up on my seats and meals for my Friday flight, confirmed next week’s meetings, looked at flight options for my next-next trip, dealt with editorial work for 3 papers in 2 journals, contributed to the agenda for a meeting next week which I will miss anyway, inventoried and downloaded all the papers I need to review in the next couple of weeks (a lot), reviewed and gave feedback on several pieces of student work, made plans for some research assistant work while I’m out of town, made progress on a promotion assessment I’m working on, followed up on inquiries from prospective students.

I diddissertation-defense-phd-comics-safety_1n’t get to start packing for my trip, which I wanted to do, and didn’t quite manage to finish our Australian taxes which are due *very soon now*. I didn’t change out of my pyjamas until 3:30pm when it was time to meet Consuela after school (I obviously didn’t walk her there). I didn’t shower.

Of note: I had no time to work on any research today, as is the case most days. Research, in theory, is my job. I’m not even teaching this semester.

The glamorous life of an academic.


English notes

to tweak: This delightful monosyllable has a number of meanings in English.  I’ll give you the sense with which Karin used it, and then my favorite.

Karin’s: to make usually small adjustments in or to; to fine-tune (Merriam-Webster).  I think it’s somewhere between peaufiner and fignoler, perhaps.  Some examples:

How Karin used it: I tweaked some position descriptions for positions we are getting ready to advertise (come work with us!).

My favorite: to be high on, or doing, meth.  It can also be a noun, with a closely related sense.  Some examples:


smokin’: This is an adjective, and it’s quite positive. I don’t have a specific translation for it—it’s just really good.

How I used it in the post: One of the many reasons that Karin is my hero is that she does smokin’ research in computer science while raising three damn fine kids, which means that her research work typically starts around 10 PM.  

4 thoughts on “But you have summers off!”

  1. My husband will fully empathize with this …. he reminds himself audibly from time to time that he has been fortunate to spend a working life-time doing what he loves. Then he replies to himself that it’s a great theory and that the reality is that he spends most of his life on administration and virtually none on his own work …. the life of an academic therefore is just a grown up version of the lives of most others ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can certainly sympathize with your husband on that one! One of the big changes in my life recently has been coming to the realization is that I’m happy with where my career has gone to this point, and that I can actually stop worrying about where it’s going and start focusing more–both emotionally, and in terms of how I allocate my time–on doing what I’m doing with that career. That’s meant pulling back somewhat from administrative commitments that I took on precisely because I thought that they would advance my position within my professional world–which in fact they did, which is a large part of why I think I can stop thinking about that quite so much. Operationally, that’s meant not trying at all to attract students or post-docs to my group–I’m happy to accept people who show up uninvited and make a case that my group is one that they would both benefit from joining, and be able to contribute something to. I don’t explicitly try to attract them, though. Concretely, the result has been less time spent supervising other people’s research, and more time working on my own; the result of THAT has been both increasing personal satisfaction with what I’m spending my time on (less and less of which remains, as I get increasingly older and more decrepit, and therefore all the more enjoyable and precious to me), and an increasing number of publications. A win-win for me, and for my boss.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t apologise … I do better with lengthy explanations than sound bites in general which is probably a sign of my age as well as my desire for words to be used well. Your explanation makes total sense and I am glad that you have found this balance. For my husband, it is a question of being the academic on the one hand, his students don’t hinder him generally and he delights in his role, and the Observatory Director on the other. That’s the worst bit for personnel, legal and administrative shackles and yet it is something to be proud of and that they don’t want him to stop reflects well on him. But it has been at the cost of his own science. He will retire within the next two years, we hope here to France and he is bubbling with ideas for the future and to ‘give back’ to the industry he has been a part of for so long at grass-roots …. he comes from an extremely poor background and it was education that took him out of that poverty, he wants to give back through education. I of course will see as little of him as I do now. 🤭


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