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If I didn’t need a job, I’d probably… April 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, work.
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I am always amused when listening to people talk about what they’d do if they didn’t have to work.  I sort of found out for myself: I’d probably work.

I had a couple years as a stay-at-home mom, where I primarily was homeschooling the older child.  I also had a stint doing it when he was a toddler.  I sometimes fantasize about staying home with the younger boy, who would be much easier to homeschool than the older boy was.

Then my husband reminds me that’s not a good idea: I was pretty much going batty by the end of it.

I bring this up because Nicoleandmaggie posted about this, saying boredom would be a problem.  Oh, was it ever.  I cannot spend all day at home with a child.  Believe it or not, I had nearly a spotless house (you’d die laughing if you saw my house now), was taking care of getting kids to appointments, homeschooling, even working on an MSEE part-time…

And going completely nuts.

I really immersed myself in dancing during this period because it was one of the best ways to interact with other adults outside of school.  Unfortunately, regular training, teaching classes, and spending time outside of structured dance time did nothing to help the boredom.  It kept me busy, but not stimulated.  My classes (which I was doing pretty much one per semester) were about all that kept me sane.

The year the older boy hit middle school, he decided he wanted to go to public school full time, and I decided it was time to finish my MA.  My dancing dropped off significantly, I was working on teaching or research or homework almost every night.  And I was much, much happier.

I guess what that made me realize is that I really, really need to have intellectual stimulation, and reading Scientific American just isn’t enough to do it for me.  I like working on problems, figuring things out, working towards a goal.  If I were to win the lotto, I suspect I would just keep doing the same thing, probably by funding my own research.  (Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to find someone to pay you to do it?)  I think the biggest difference is that I’d probably be able to go on trips more often.

Let me drop everything and work on YOUR problem March 23, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, grad school, work.
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I appreciate the fact that I have very respectful and polite colleagues.  I particularly appreciate it when it comes to my schedule.  I only work half-time, and most of them have been very good about making sure to schedule things for when I am there.  On those occasions where things had to be scheduled when I was supposed to be gone, my supervisor has usually asked me first to make sure there’s no conflict.  My hours are pretty flexible, as well, so if I have to stay late one day, I can take time off the following day or something similar.

Still, I hate having things change around too much.  Changes in schedule seriously seem to affect my concentration, and changes in routine just don’t sit well with me.  I can certainly deal, but it always seems to throw me off.

In the past month and a half, things have gotten much worse, schedule-wise.  I’ve had to do a lot of changing schedules because of some PR that the university has been doing both on my research at work as well as my dissertation project.  I have gotten to the point that I now am dressing up half the time when I go to work because, more than once, I’ve gotten a call in the morning that they’d like me to talk to a reporter or in the afternoon.  Half the time, I wasn’t even dressed like a nerdy engineer – t-shirt and jeans was it.  It’s a good thing I live close to campus because I’ve had to make emergency wardrobe trips.  However, despite all of the rearrangements, if I’ve said I had a conflict, no one has ever asked me to change anything.  People have been willing to work around my schedule, which has been awesome.

The only real problem I hit is when deadlines show up.  If the deadline is looming but not close enough that I can adjust a schedule for the week, that sometimes sucks time out of dissertation work (although I am getting more and more protective of that as time goes on, simply because it’s so easy to let it slide).  What’s worse is when there are deadlines at work and the kids suddenly have a million and one extra activities as well.  And I really hate it when someone gives me ‘vague’ deadlines, like “as soon as humanly possible”.  I usually tell them what is humanly possible for me, but I suspect that on a couple of occasions, they felt as though they could do the same thing faster.  It’s possible they could…but it’s also possible that, if they had the same schedule constraints I do, they might not.  As cliche as it is, I go back to Stephen Covey’s 7 habits book.  In it, he says he schedules everything out, and if someone drops something in your lap, you ask them what other thing you should get rid of to fit in this deadline.  (Maybe it’s surprising, but my supervisor is very open to shifting priorities when it’s necessary.  Other people…not so much.)

How do you deal with shifts in schedule and sudden deadlines?

Wordless Wednesday: Things in my office February 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, photography, work.
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My many hats February 9, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, gifted, homeschooling, math, teaching, work, younger son.
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A couple weeks ago, my blog was promoted by a couple of sites and the hits started flowing in.  I commented to someone (most likely Gears) how it’s nice to be recognized for my blogging about engineering but frustrating for the lack of recognition for my actual engineering work.  Guess I should’ve waited a couple weeks.

Normal work has also been crazy. I’ve been given full control of the Minion and have thrown him in on a new project where he’s learning everything from scratch.  It’s similar to projects that I’ve done, but even more complicated and using a different program.  So our next couple weeks are going to be real fun as we’re going to be trying to make our way through using this new program and occasionally resorting to the old program for reality checks.

The other serious challenge I’ve been dealing with this week is long division.  It’s pretty scary stuff, especially when you have a seven-year-old who is fighting some rather strong perfectionistic tendencies.  He’s been getting to the long division portions in his computer math, and he starts to shut down.  I’ve been getting more and more frustrated with it, so I decided to put an end to it tonight.  I went back and printed out some of the older homeworks so that we could take a couple steps back.  I think the problem is that he really thinks he can do everything in his head.  I have to admit that his ability to do mental math far outweighs mine: I simply have to write everything down.  However, he’s starting to hit the limit of this particular ability, and so he freaks out whenever he has to do a problem where he can’t do it all in his head.

I told him that tonight’s homework was going to be doing some work sheets.  With the problems written out on paper, he didn’t seem to have this idea that he had to do everything in his head.  The first couple were challenges, but then he started getting the hang of things and was able to execute the last few problems very quickly.  By the time we had finished, he was doing 3-digit numbers divided by 2-digit numbers with no problem.  We’re going to do some more difficult problems tomorrow and then try heading back to the computer.

We tried a similar approach when he started to get stuck on multiplication a couple months ago.  I guess there are some things that really have to be written out to be understood.  I just hope he starts to make regular use of his notebook from here on out.

And so it begins… January 20, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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Yesterday afternoon, two emails came through at work letting us know that about 1/4 of the people working at our center would be dismissed.  This morning, the front page of the local paper had the story.

Our center has primarily been funded under earmarks along with some other projects coming through industry collaborations.  When congress cut all earmarks, we lost the most significant portion of our funding.  (I find this frustrating as cutting earmarks doesn’t actually reduce the budget…it just means that no portions of the existing budgets can be allocated to specific projects by congress.  So our center losing most of its funding changed nothing in terms of the US budget.)

Today was surreal.  Someone came up to tell me they were one of the ones let go.  Another person announced it at the end of the meeting.  I had no inkling before they said anything that they were on the list.  I didn’t take it well.

Right before Christmas, two people I know let me know they’d been laid off (both EEs in technology industries).  I’ve heard of companies pulling such tactics as they approach the end of their fiscal year.  I will say that despite the fact we knew things were going to be happening, I was hugely relieved that, in the case of our center, they at least waited until after the holidays so that people could enjoy the time with their families.

And the people that have been let go are not necessarily going because they weren’t smart or hard working.  That is both the hardest part and the best part.  I know that these people aren’t to blame for their predicament – it was simply a matter of whether their expertise is necessary on some of the projects we have coming in.  I’m confident these people can move on and still be successful.

On the other hand, it sort of flies in the face of the “work hard and you’ll always have a job” mentality that so many people put out there.  That’s simply not true…and that’s why this is really hard.  I’m also feeling a twinge of survivor guilt.  I still have my job, as does my husband.  It seems unfair that I just happened to luck out to have some of the skills that will be required moving forward.

Most of the people will still be around for a month, but it’s going to be hard to work as though nothing happened.  And after they’re gone, the place is going to be uncomfortably empty.

Out standing in their fields December 22, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, societal commentary, work.
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I was very surprised to learn that FrauTech apparently reads the Bismarck Tribune.

I didn’t think anyone outside of North Dakota did that.  (Although I’m guessing this is not a regular occurrence.)

She linked to an opinion piece in the Tribune about how kids who are under 16 may not be allowed to work on farms unless they belong to their parents.  I’ve had very mixed feelings about the whole bill.  While I think that in places like California, these sorts of regulations are needed lest migrant children be put to work instead of going to school, the culture up here is different.  Kids who work on the farm are expected to go to school, as well.  Of course, this is partially because there are still vestiges of family farms up here, and I don’t think such things have existed in California for quite a while.

Contrary to what Frau said, I do have students who come from farms.  A lot of them come from rural schools, and going into engineering is not easy for them.  I was very dismayed to hear that one of my students had taken AP calc in his school, but his class of four students often spent the time doing things that were not related to calc.  The internet has done a lot to make the discrepancies between rural and urban less obvious, but it’s still not completely leveled the playing field.

I tend to agree with the original opinion piece, however.  My husband was a farm boy.  I was didn’t have much experience on a farm, but my dad was expected to spend summers working on his grandfather’s farm.  I’m sure that if things hadn’t gone bust in the 80s, I would’ve been out there once I was old enough, as well.  And I see a lot of very bright kids who grew up on farms.

There really is a very different mindset in rural to semi-rural areas.  Even though I didn’t work on a farm, I got a job when I was 15 because it’s perfectly reasonable to have a job at that age.  Kids seem to be expected to take on responsibility a lot earlier, and I think that leads to a lot of positive life experience…something kids don’t get when all they do is go to school.  (Some of this, I think, accounted for the large amount of culture shock when I went off to college and found out that most of my classmates didn’t have jobs in high school…and I’d already had two.)  I think it also creates a much greater sense of community awareness.  Kids who grow up on farms are out in the community, out working.  They know their neighbors better, they are expected to interact with adults, and they are expected to behave as young adults.  And in the case of most farming communities, they often pitch in to help each other out when someone needs it.  You simply cannot substitute that kind of experience with anything else.

Right now, we’ve already lost a lot of ground.  If you want to know what urban parents who are very closely removed from the farm do, they try to figure out ways to get their kids back onto a farm.  My family lost their farm, and my husband’s family no longer farms…which means we’d really wanted our kids to go spend time with distant relatives or friends if the opportunity presented itself.  These laws would prevent that.  It’s even more frustrating in light of the fact that there are very few places that will hire kids under 16 any more.  Where are kids supposed to learn responsibility as well as what it’s like to be treated like an adult?

But it’s not just responsibility.  Kids do learn a lot of hands-on skills.  Not all kids who are handy will be great engineers, but I’ve observed that background gives a lot of kids an intuitive notion of how to approach problems…at least in the ones that want to sit down and think it through.

Maybe not all farm kids will make great engineers, but I know a few that it helped.  There are a lot of benefits to growing up that way, and it’s too bad more kids aren’t getting the opportunity.  I’m not convinced it’s the only way to get those benefits, but it’s one of the best.

The runners November 28, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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From the title, you might think I’m going to be talking about jogging.  Not so much.  Nor will I be talking about Logan’s Run.  Nope…I’m going to be talking about a type of person who annoys me.

I was reminded recently of a trip to Washington, DC.  I was there for a conference, and a friend who lived nearby decided to visit.  We weren’t sure where to go to dinner, so we met someplace and then grabbed a cab.  The driver gave a suggestion, and we went for it.

The restaurant was a very upscale ethnic place near Embassy Row.  After my friend and I were seated, I noticed something very strange about the wait staff.  I thought it was just me, but then, when our dinner was presented, it became obvious: they weren’t acknowledging my existence at all.  All questions were directed to my friend, and when I answered, they would wait for him to repeat what I had just said.  They wouldn’t look at me, they wouldn’t speak to me, they wouldn’t hear when I spoke.

The food was fantastic, but I left feeling a bit demoralized.  I’m sure my friend was sympathetic…but I think he was amused more than anything.  I can’t help but wonder what they would’ve done had I gone to the restaurant with another woman.  Would they have ignored both of us?

It’s easy to blow that kind of thing off when it’s a place you’ll only visit once or a fluke.  It’s harder to deal with that sort of thing when it’s someone in a professional setting.

Admittedly, I’ve not run into anything as overt as the experience at the restaurant, but I have run into a couple men over the years who simply have no clue how to interact with women colleagues.  It’s bad enough having a conversation with someone who stares at your chest…but it’s not much better when they refuse to look anywhere near you.  You wonder if they even hear you.

And then there are the times when you try to talk to them, and you get the feeling they’re running from you.  Literally.  You ask them a question, and the best response you get is a terse, one-word answer.  Maybe two, if they’re feeling dangerous.  As soon as they’ve muttered their answer while looking the other direction, they turn to leave.  They are done with the conversation, whether or not you are.

So these kinds of men are runners.  They run away from women.  It’s strange because the ones I’ve known have been married, so it’s not like they’re not around women at all.  They simply have no idea how to act around a woman who is not a family member or friend…and apparently it’s never occurred to them to treat a female colleague like the rest of their colleagues.

Why I really work with my husband October 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, grad school, papers, research, work, younger son.
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This past week, I’ve been trying to get a paper ready to submit to a conference.  My husband is a co-author on the paper, so we spent a good chunk of the day cranking away at it.  I worked on the text while he fixed all the LaTeX issues we encountered.  This is my first time submitting a conference paper using this method, and I wasn’t acquainted with all the nuances of the IEEE style.  I guess I’ve lucked out because I either used Word (up until I finished my thesis) or let my co-authors deal with the issues that arose from LaTeX.  Either way, the paper was submitted at 5:30 p.m., a whole 5 1/2 hours before the deadline.

Then we came home.  He took the dog for a walk, and I went for a run.  He cooked dinner, I showered.  He took younger son trick-or-treating, I handed out candy while trying scarf down my dinner.  (Older son held back Gigadog so that she wouldn’t a) try to steal candy out of the dish and b) slobber all over the trick-or-treaters to show them how much she loves them.)  And now I can finally get to writing tomorrow’s lecture and grading while he gets the younger boy to bed.  Oh yeah…and Mike has work to do, too.

It’s a good thing I work with my spouse or I’d never get to see him.

Staff reductions October 14, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, work.
Tags: , staff reductions,

Since I’ve been in school so long, I haven’t worked a job in The Real World for a while.  However, I’ve been listening quite painfully to all the stories that friends and relatives have been sharing the past couple years about their employment going through ‘staff reductions’.  You know, the nice way of saying they’re canning a bunch of people.

I hear stories about the strange ways they let people know, some of them knowing well ahead of time the company will be letting people go, some of whom find out as they’re led away from their desk.  Sometimes they call people into a room one by one to let them know, sometimes they just drop an envelope on your desk.

At a university, it’s a bit different.  Most people know fairly well in advance what the funding situation is and that they will be let go at the end of a semester or school year.  I think most people feel frustrated with the system, but most of the time, it’s not something taken personally.  Funding comes and goes, and sometimes you’re in an unlucky position when it goes.

The place where I work is somewhere between an industry lab and a university.  It’s a nice mix.  We have students who come and go.  Most of the staff are full-time researchers.  Sometimes they teach, but often they don’t.

So it was strange to sit in on my first ever “staff reduction” talk.  Like all other places, money is getting tight and not enough is coming in.  At the end of some of our projects, some people will be let go.  Unfortunately, because of the magnitude of the changes, not just a student here or there, we ended up having a big meeting.

I had to admit that the whole experience was surreal, maybe because I’ve never been through it before.  And while I’ve always been interested (and heartbroken) to hear other people’s stories about these types of incidents, I am rather disappointed at having my own.

Long work hours February 16, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, societal commentary.
Tags: disabilities, , part-time,

I’m not going to spend a ton of time belaboring this point, but there is something that gets me about the notion that one must spend around 60 hours/wk (or more!) to succeed in academia and even some industry jobs.

I know tons of women and a few men who would love to have part-time job when their kids are small and/or in school. And honestly, it makes me insane to see people who are working enough for two people when it would benefit everyone to break the work load down and give some of that to someone who would like to work part-time.

However, it’s not just parents who would like to work part-time…or even have jobs that really are full-time, not full-time and a half.

My husband gets to be my unfortunate example for this one. He has rheumatoid arthritis, and one of the side-effects of this is chronic fatigue. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid doesn’t just attack joints, it causes the immune system to go after the whole body with a focus on joints. This is exhausting for the whole body, and within a decade of diagnosis, about 2/3 of RA patients end up on permanent disability. While my husband has been very fortunate because his condition isn’t that severe, he has spent a lot of the last decade exhausted.

At one point, he was working 60-80 hour weeks shortly after our son was born. This was so wearing on him that when we all got a stomach bug (which was gone in a few hours for the rest of us), he ended up in the hospital.

It was completely unnecessary. One month in delivering the product was probably going to make little or no difference except that the company could post just slightly higher profits for that year rather than the next.

People who have medical issues or disabilities are perfectly capable of making a contribution, yet it seems like they need to be given special dispensation to work “normal” hours. It makes no sense to force people into these situations to begin with, but honestly, people with need not be singled out. No one should really have to work that hard to prove themselves or keep their jobs. All that does is push people to burn out. In some cases, I’ve seen healthy people end up very sick with all the stress and time they put into their job.

I know I’m dreaming, but it would be really nice if people could have a healthy work life balance and that the workplace was able to understand that the balance point may be different for everyone. It seems like there is no getting away from the notion that a “good, serious” worker is one who puts in more hours than everyone else, while anyone who can’t do that is slacking.


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