Moving to…Nebraska!

I’m excited to finally share the news: I’ll be joining the Information Systems & Quantitative Analysis faculty┬áin the College of Information Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha this fall! UNO’s focus on community engagement is a great fit for my research and teaching, and many of the things that appeal to me about the college are basically the same things that drew me to Maryland: an interdisciplinary environment, strong support for research with real-world impact, and interesting people who are passionate about their work.

Of course, it also means I’ll be moving on from the University of Maryland’s iSchool, and I’ll genuinely miss the great faculty, staff, and students in College Park. The iSchool has been a wellspring of opportunity and a wonderful intellectual home for me over the last three years, and I’ve learned more than I could have imagined.


One of the things I’ve learned about is making difficult decisions. The specifics are less important than the bottom line: my family comes before my job. It wasn’t an easy choice, but moving to Nebraska will let me continue doing the same kind of awesome work while maintaining a happy household.

And that’s what we expect to find in Nebraska: the Good Life.

Nebraska...the good life

Image: CC-BY 2008, Thomas Beck

Research-Life Balance

There’s no such thing. Well, maybe there is, but a lot of researchers probably don’t realize it.

I’ve been told several times by my learned elders that the best way to have a happy life as a researcher is to blur the line between work and play. The problem with this wisdom is that I can always tell the difference between work and play: some things are fun, and some are not. Things that I don’t really consider play include: reviewing papers, revising papers, articulation work (the work you have to do in order to do your real work), coordinating, logistics, transcription, data cleaning, grading – need I go on? There’s plenty more where that came from.

I can sort of relate to this research-as-play concept, however, since I’ve always loved doing analysis and I enjoy qualitative data collection. I like hearing people’s stories when I interview them. I like writing papers, for the most part, and I really like presenting. I like designing courses and working with students. Perhaps I’m just a little too literal when I question the idea that one should not experience the work-play dichotomy as such, but not all parts of research, or of the academic enterprise, are all that much fun. I just can’t find much fun in hammering out workshop logistics, for example, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few days.

But from another angle, I’ve been incredibly successful in blurring the line between research and play. The leisure activities that I most enjoy include spending time outdoors, hiking, photography, and now that I’ve taken it up for my dissertation research, birding. The topic of my research – technologies supporting public participation in scientific research – therefore lends itself very well to mixing business and pleasure.

My research requires me to spend time birdwatching, gardening, and hiking: next month I’ll be wrapping up my fieldwork by going on a wildflower hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This experiential  approach (participant observation) helps me better understand how citizen science projects work, and it’s fun! Not just a little bit fun, but a lot of fun!

For example, today I dallied on my walk home from campus – in the rain – because I stumbled into a patch of warblers. I spent an hour spotting 9 species of warblers and an Indigo bunting, instead of zipping home in the usual 13 minutes. It was really exciting since it means 5 additions to my life list of birds, and they were beautiful creatures. Then I had to spend another hour with my field guides verifying my identifications of the birds. All of that is part of my research. Of course, I do have to take extensive field notes – not exactly fun per se – and spend oodles of time analyzing the experiences, but at least it’s something I can enjoy in the moment, and that pleasure is relevant to the research as well.

Enjoying my research is not accidental. When I chose a dissertation focus, I selected a topic that I’m passionate about, that capitalizes on my skills, and that offers endless variety. This is not a research topic I’m going to find boring by the time I defend my dissertation, and I’ve been working in this area for a little over two years. I did not pick this topic solely because I want to hang out in National Parks. I chose it because I think it’s really important: technology allows more and more people to become directly involved in doing science, which both enriches their lives and makes a substantial impact on what science can achieve. Every time I stop doing it long enough to think about it, I’m excited about my research.

People often respond to my description of my dissertation work by saying things like, “I should change my research focus so I can go hiking for my dissertation,” but the specifics of my fieldwork are atypical for my field. And the fieldwork is not the whole story; like nearly all of my colleagues, I spend substantially more time at a computer than I do in the field. Systematically analyzing the mountains of data produced by 5 days of hiking in the mountains is going to take many, many hours, and not all of that will be much (any?) fun. That’s just how research works.

But my fieldwork photos are going to make some awesome dissertation defense slides!

Working Weekends

I’m a PhD student, and like most academics, a 40-hour work week is out of the question for me. The demands of an academic career cannot be satisfied in so few hours, at least not by mere mortals. At the same time, working all the time is really unhealthy. Even the most stoic smartypants will eventually buckle under the weight of that kind of workload.

When I first started my degree program, I worked every day. I ate all my meals at my computer. It was really pathetic. It made Ev unhappy, and I wasn’t all that happy with it either. Fortunately, I wised up pretty quickly. Now we always eat dinner together – in fact, any meal for which we are both in the house is eaten together and away from computers (though relatively often in front of the TV.)

But balancing my workload with his free weekends was harder to work out. I didn’t always feel like I had the time to take a day off. After awhile, though, I realized that taking a day off generally made me more efficient and effective the rest of the week. Just one day to relax and take care of the rest of life’s demands – it really isn’t too much to expect, is it? It took until I finished my coursework before I really made a consistent habit of taking a day off. Until that point, there was always just too much work to feel like I had the time to spare.

My current strategy is to pick one of the weekend days and plan ahead to do something with Ev. That usually means going out somewhere, whether for mundane errands like groceries and home improvement supplies, or going out to the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, like we did yesterday. It’s a good habit because making a plan means I’m more likely to follow through on taking the time off. It also makes Ev happy – he can tell that I’m putting a priority on spending time with him, and that’s important.

It usually works out better for me to take Sunday off, though I usually want to take Saturday off instead. That’s because if I work on Saturday, then I really feel no guilt about taking Sunday off, and I have usually met my work quota. Sometimes if I take Saturday off, I also slack on Sunday, and then by Monday I feel bad about being a slacker – and feeling guilty is counterproductive, too.

When I take a Saturday off, we usually…

  1. Start the day by sleeping in until around 8 or 8:30, and I make homemade waffles for breakfast. We always had waffles for Saturday morning breakfast when I was a kid, so to me, this is nearly essential.
  2. Go to the CNY Regional Farmers’ Market in the morning (year-round), followed by any other errands. Sometimes that takes well into the afternoon, which isn’t the most gratifying way to spend the day, but sometimes that’s what’s in order. If lots of errands are in the cards, we often have lunch out somewhere, and we try to make it somewhere different. We hit the market about every other weekend.
  3. Take the dog to a park, or go for a hike on one of the many nearby trails, such as any part of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference.
  4. Alternately, go to a NY State Park or down to Ithaca. If it’s snow season, then we might go snowshoeing at Beaver Lake Nature Center or Highland Forest, both part of the Onondaga County Park system. The dog does not come along for snowshoeing, because she does not have snowshoes and the snow depth is usually up to her furry little hips.
  5. If the weather is really terrible, we stay in. Sometimes that means the house gets cleaned a little. Sometimes it means I curl up with a non-academic book for awhile. Sometimes it’s a movie marathon. Often I play a little Wii Fit.
  6. Occasionally, we even go out for dinner! We like going to the Taj Indian Palace on Erie because they have a nice Indian buffet with lots of vegetarian options for Ev, and it’s quite affordable.
  7. Even more rarely, I invite people over for dinner. When this is the case, the whole day is spent on cleaning house and making a super-awesome dinner for guests. Part of what I like about doing this is that the house gets cleaned, and there’s no putting it off!

When I take a Sunday off, we usually…

  1. Take a day trip! The biggest drawback of being a PhD student is the tiny, tiny scope of my existence. We actively work against that by trying to explore the local area, whether it’s checking out hiking trails in a new town, driving the back roads to get to a destination like Women’s Rights National Historical Park, or checking out a birding hotspot that I keep seeing mentioned on a birding listserv.
  2. A similar agenda to Saturday, except no trip to the Market.
  3. I almost always cook a Sunday dinner, so I either start something in the morning or make sure we’re back in time to make something tasty.

Once in awhile I take the whole weekend off. This usually has less to do with my to-do list (which is always burgeoning) and more to do with the weather forecast or my general antsiness. My absolute favorite thing to do with an entire weekend off is a short backpacking trip in the Adirondacks. This is only an option from mid-April through mid-October, when it’s warm enough overnight to be tolerable. Usually Ev gets out of work early on Friday afternoons, since he only works 36 hours a week (and that counts as full-time!) so sometimes we can hit the trail on Friday afternoon. Usually, however, we just get prepped on Friday evening and then leave quite early on Saturday, because it usually takes 3 to 4 hours to reach our trailhead and we don’t like hiking after dark. Chili loves these trips! She’s a great trail dog and gets really excited the second we start loading our packs.

In general, though, my weekend work days aren’t as long as my weekday work days. Usually I’ll only work 4-6 hours instead of 9. That’s good, because no matter what my plans are, there are always some neglected household things to attend to, and not dealing with them eventually starts to bother me as much as not getting my “real” work done. And no matter what else I’ve got going on a weekend, we’re more likely to take the dog to a park or go find a nice trail to spend a little time outside, which we both really enjoy. It’s relaxing, gets me out of the house, and it’s good exercise.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect approach. It would be awesome if I could optimize the weekend time a bit better, maybe spend even less time working. But part of what’s relaxing about it is having a little less structure. I often wish I had better ideas for using the free time that I do take, but I figure this isn’t half bad. It’s certainly an improvement over where I started out!