January 1, 2011

On needing dissertation alone time

My sister and I are visiting my parents over the holiday break. We are both in graduate school (she's getting her MA in music), so we both brought work home with us.

Lately, we have been fighting because she wants to hang out in my bedroom while I'm working on my dissertation. This is partly because after I left home, my parents put a nice couch and an HD television in the room -- but also because she's bored, and she wants the company.

I have a hard time working when other people are in the room. Even if they are sitting quietly, I feel self-conscious and distracted, and it's harder for me to focus. I have a private, introverted side, and I can't get completely absorbed in my work when I know that I'm being watched.

It's not like I'm a freak who won't hang out with others. I love to talk and socialize, and sometimes I even enjoy working with others around -- mostly when I'm doing something tedious. But when I really need to focus, I work best when I'm alone. And right now I'm working on a dataset that is like a very complicated, multi-level puzzle.

Today, we had an absurd fight where she asked if she could work on her homework in my bedroom. I said no, but she came in anyway and refused to leave, protesting "I'm not DOING ANYTHING. You're just being a bitch." I said she was distracting me, and she argued that I couldn't possibly be distracted by her working quietly.

Finally, I played music she hates (Ke$ha) until she left my room. It was like we were five.

I feel bad that she's bored, and that she thinks I'm being catty for no reason. I don't want to fight. I just want to work during the day, and hang out during the eveningsā€¦ but people who aren't introverted academics just don't understand.

This problem will be solved when I drive back to my city, but it's not just an issue with my sister. In my last relationship, my ex always wanted us to work together, and took "I want to work by myself" to be some kind of insult, that I was just avoiding her. So this is something that keeps coming up.

What do you think, fellow academics? I'm sure I'm not the only person who prefers working alone. But at some point, do we have to learn how to work with others in the room, in order to be good family members (whether we're living with siblings, or partners, or friends, or kids?) Or is it reasonable to demand solitary research time?


  • Completely agree with you! There are some tasks I can do with other people around, but serious things I need to be alone for. I am really confused as to why someone else (especially if your sister is in grad school?) doesn't get it - grad school is more than just doing mindless homework or something!

    By Blogger Psycgirl, at 1/1/11, 8:07 PM  

  • Well she has a different personality, and for her grad school is playing an instrument -- so she's used to everyone in the house hearing every note she plays as she practices for hours.

    By Blogger Di Di, at 1/2/11, 12:26 PM  

  • This comes up in my marriage, a lot. For me, it's all in the balance.

    I don't mind my husband taking lots of time alone, working, but there does come a time when it feels like work comes before the marriage, and then I get bitchy.

    It doesn't help that the running joke at his university as that philosopher = workaholic. Or that he went into work on New Year's Day. Or that 2 weeks into a month-long break (keep in mind I got Christmas Eve off and that was it) he told me that he would be working all day because "work is busy right now." Or that he told me that vacations last "too long."

    From my perspective, part of it is that I don't mind working alongside someone and I think that each kind of worker has a hard time imagining what it's like for the other kind. And part of it is that I feel neglected and like I'm not important.

    For me, it helps when we have a deal, like that he will work tonight but we will go out the following night, or at 9:00 we'll play Scrabble, etc. etc.

    By Blogger Inksster, at 1/2/11, 6:10 PM  

  • I am completely the same way. My BFF is over sometimes and she'll sit in the same room with me in complete silence and I will get absolutely NO WORK done. It's ridiculous but I think I might have been a monk in another life. (But, like you, I can be social - when I'm not working.)

    By Anonymous suzy pepper, at 1/3/11, 3:35 PM  

  • Thanks for the feedback everyone. I think when you're an academic in a family, some tension is inevitable because we choose when and how we work, so we're always making choices instead of being forced into working in a certain place at a certain time like normal people. Sometimes family members don't understand and think academics always have the option of not working, or working at home, or watching the kids while they work. They mistake a lack of structure for not really having much to do, or not needing to set aside hours that are exclusively "work time" like anybody else with a job. But at the same time, academics have a responsibility to make a schedule that allows for family time -- something that requires a lot of discipline, because you have to make the hours count and then stop. This type of work schedule doesn't come naturally to academics, but it seems like it's necessary when you have a partner with a normal job. Otherwise they always feel like "you could have worked on this while I was at work and then stopped when I got home" which is often a fair point.

    By Blogger Di Di, at 1/4/11, 1:33 AM  

  • Yeah, I think that I also struggle over the idea that my job has less work than his because he is academia. I am at work about 45 hours a week, plus paperwork and writing up evaluations, plus reading pertaining to my field, plus supervision and preparing for supervision, plus my research for Kenya, etc. etc. And then I am deciding if I want to adjunct as well.

    If I don't manage my time well, I can end up working 80 or 90 hour weeks. If I DO manage my time well, it's not a risk, and I never go over 50 hours. So, when my partner doesnt' put the work into structuring his time so that WE have time, I resent it, because I do see him making choices, just like I am. When he acts as though his job requires more time than mine, I feel resentful, as though he is saying that he is a harder worker or that his job is more important.

    This is all made worse by the fact that I, too, make my own schedule. My office has no official hours and I schedule my patients for when I want to see them. I do have some limits -- I don't like pulling kids out of school, so evenings/weekends are a necessity to some degree, but I chose to what degree. My boss does not track my hours and assumes that I'll do what I need to do to get my work done.

    I do think that it's much more difficult when one partner has done grad school when the other doesn't, but it also sounds like both sides of the equation post-grad school (academia versus not) can end up feeling unappreciated...

    By Blogger Inksster, at 1/4/11, 10:08 AM  

  • Oh, another way I've seen it beccome stressful is around kids. Several of my grad school friends have sort of stuck their spouse with the kids, because they "need to work." I understand, but sometimes to process of negotiation betwene the partners seems to break down and the non-academic becomes by default in charge of chidl-care, which can subtly send the message that the academic's time is more important, etc. etc.

    Can you tell that this is a hot-button issue?!? ;)

    By Blogger Inksster, at 1/4/11, 10:11 AM  

  • It's definitely true that most weeks (depending on what's going on) academics can choose whether they work a disciplined 50 hours or a less structured 90 hours. There is also a choice about how much gets done -- are you keeping up with teaching and little else, making x hours for research, or spending as much time as possible on research? So it's also a compromise between family time and career goals, since someone preparing for the job market or R1 tenure will need to publish more -- but we can also choose balance and less ambitious goals. It's a choice. I feel like the most ambitious academics (the ones who just HAVE to work at a big research university) tend to be single, or they have oppressed spouses who handle 95% of the childcare and household responsibilities while they work on research day and night.

    It's interesting that you said academics imply that their work is more important, because my ex used to accuse me of the exact same thing. "You act like your work is more important than mine." I never talked about my actual work as important (the opposite, really) -- but it came from me saying that I needed to spend more time on work. Her job ended at 4 p.m. every day, and I was never done by then, so we always had fights. I resented her because I would have loved to have a job with finite responsibilities where I didn't have to worry about anything after 4 p.m. And she resented me because she felt like I didn't prioritize spending time with her. The truth was somewhere in the middle, I'm sure -- I could have been more disciplined, and she could have been less demanding. But I can see how in our fights, me saying "I can't just stop at 4 p.m. like you" made it sound like I thought her work was less important. That's not what I meant, but I can see it. I think the problem was that she was jealous of my flexibility and I was jealous of her getting to stop at 4, so we resented each other.

    Also just to make sure it didn't sound this way, I've been talking about all sorts of people in these comments -- not you specifically. It sounds like you have very reasonable expectations, and you understand academia because you've been through it. I do believe academics with partners have a responsibility to work out a schedule that allows for family time, and it's not at all unreasonable to ask for it.

    By Blogger Di Di, at 1/4/11, 12:50 PM  

  • I know that you've been speaking generally and not personally, for the record. :)

    The slew of comments has come from the fact that, like every relationship has that one argument that never dies, this is the one in my marriage.

    I think that you're right, this argument, like most of those "won't go away" arguments is one where the truth is somewhere in the middle. I could be more understanding of the tenure pressure (but that becomes difficult when his pre-tenure colleagues joke about his workaholism!) and he could take more time away from work. But then I make it worse because what I REALLY want is for him to take more time away from work and REALLY ENJOY IT, which is not a reasonable demand since it's actually wanting to control his feelings, and in actuality the extra time away makes him anxious. SO. There we have it :)

    By Blogger Inksster, at 1/4/11, 6:54 PM  

  • I imagine if I ever combine academia and relationships again, it will be the argument that never dies for me too... but at least you're always talking about it and making schedules and compromises with each other.

    My problem has been discipline more than workaholism though... I love not working, but can't seem to structure my day so that I get everything done by 5 p.m. I'm terrible about waking up early and forcing myself to work no matter how I feel. Something to work on if I ever date a normal person... but right now it's just me and my cat, and she doesn't mind my schedule as long as I feed her. :)

    By Blogger Di Di, at 1/4/11, 8:23 PM  

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