Two Astronomers Named Sarah Survive Academia with this One Simple Trick!

Dr. Sarah Ballard completed her PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics at Harvard University in 2012 and is now a NASA Carl Sagan fellow at the University of Washington. She’s written articles for the Harvard Crimson and for the Women in Astronomy blog about parental leave, values affirmation, and the intelligence of groups. On her website, she also provides some resources for running your own Impostor Syndrome workshop. Follow her on Twitter at: @hubbahubble

Local scientists discover the technique they don’t want you to know about!
(Sarah Rugheimer at left, Sarah Ballard at right)


For every article I’ve written on navigating astronomy, I’ve had probably one hundred small conversations on the same topic with one of my dearest peers in astronomy. When my friend Sarah Rugheimer and I were graduate students in the same department, we met in one another’s offices and bolstered one another at the lowest points. We normalized our impostor thoughts by confessing them and laughing about them. But then I moved, so we’ve had to come up with more creative solutions to support one another. From the necessity of invention, I think we’ve stumbled on something pretty great.

We homebrewed a reward system of checking in with one another, that alleviates at least four needs we find otherwise lacking in academia. It’s simple, it’s easy to implement, it’s amenable to long distance friendships, and it’s free. It’s literally two Google forms, embedded in a website. In one, we honestly record the number of 30 minute increments of work we accomplish (25 minutes of focused attention upon a task, followed by 5 minutes of break). We might make a note about how we feel about the amount, or what we did with that time. Then we submit, and it’s recorded to a spreadsheet we both can see. We accumulate hours. Then we sum: time is an easy unit to count. In the other (entitled simply “Self-care! Do it!”), we check boxes corresponding to things we want to incentivize that improve our well-being. For me, these things are sorted into “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” and I award points to myself based on their difficulties. Something “easy” is meditating for 5 minutes at my desk: 2 points. Something “medium” is worth 5 points. For example: attending therapy that week, or exercising for an hour. Something “hard” is completing a task I’ve been putting off for >2 weeks: 10 points each. For Sarah R., these checkboxes are sorted into “restorative” and “maintenance.” A checked box in the “restorative” category might mean a visit to Inman Spa in Cambridge. A checked box in the “maintenance” category might be digitizing a set of handwritten notes.

We reward ourselves incrementally, at points we designate beforehand. Examples are a fancy dinner, the new Jolie Holland album (me), or a nice massage (Sarah R).

I tweeted about our set-up, and both Jim and Johanna challenged me to articulate its machinery. Why did we come up with the arrangement we did? Why does it feel good? What does provide us that we’re missing? Below, I explain what we find to be otherwise missing from our jobs, and how our check-in system allays each need.

1. Academia often lacks short-term or middle-term rewards.

A typical unit of academic achievement, e.g. publishing an article, has a timespan of months. The process is predicated on small and incremental progress, which doesn’t itself feel particularly rewarding: tweaking a figure, rewriting a section, dealing with the fact that your spectra has weird sky lines (why?!), incorporating the grammatical edits of coauthors, and so on. Some academic endeavors, such as crafting an incisive and useful referee report, offer no “reward” at all. The effort, while of course worthwhile, is only one small piece of career-long service to the astronomy community, unseen by almost anyone. Long-term rewards are certainly present: finally seeing your paper on the arXiv, getting into graduate school, winning a fellowship, or seeing your doctoral student earn her PhD! But it is very difficult to name short-term or middle-term rewards, on the scale of hours to weeks.

I’ve often heard that studying astronomy is supposed to be its own reward. And sometimes, certainly (breathtakingly!), this is true. But those instances are fleeting, and can’t be expected to comprise sufficient and reliable positive reinforcement on relevant timescales.

Attempted solution: Sarah and I now dole out to ourselves short-term and middle-term rewards. We keep one another honest and insist upon awarding praise. For my tendency to deny myself reward (because I “should have worked harder anyway”), Sarah R. checks me.

2. We are very often disconnected from the reality of what our colleagues are doing.

To support this claim, I offer a finding from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that J. Johnson handily summarized on his blog. When individuals claim to work for more than 75 hours a week, for example, they are overstating the truth by more than 25 hours on average. We often cannot rely on the metric of what we perceive to be true about others to calibrate reasonable expectations for ourselves. I posit too that the Impostor Syndrome speaks to the profound mismatch between our self-perceptions and our perception of our colleagues.

Attempted solution: We literally record the number of hours we worked and the amount of self-care we did to cope that day. We are electing to share this unadulterated data with one another. Trust me when I say: this makes both of us feel better, not worse.

3. Academia feels solitary.

It’s true that the average paper in our field is now authored by a group of seven individuals, on average. We undertake projects in groups. But the requirements of research are often simply hours spent alone, poring over data or code.

Attempted solution: We are processing the day with another human being even with the action of writing a note in the optional field: “Today was frustrating.”

4. Academia doesn’t have reliable self-care incentives.

In fact, the reverse case often holds: there exist incentives to disregard self-care. I gently suggest that we all, frankly, know this to be true. Even though poor mental health is an endemic problem in academia, we are simply expected to secretly keep it together without encouragement or example, and on our own time.

Among academics I’ve known, there’s an expectation to prioritize completion of work over well-being. Can you imagine chatting before colloquium with a colleague, and offering “I went for a long walk outside at sunset last night, rather than writing just one more paragraph. I could feel the burgeoning overwhelm and acknowledged it with a break.“ This is a statement of very basic self-knowledge, very basic recognition of the exhausting cognitive load of science. And yet, I don’t know that I would ever overhear something like it. The instinctual response you might be feeling is that such a statement has no place in coffee hour. And then you certainly wouldn’t expect the next step toward normalizing mental health among academics: you wouldn’t expect the colleague to then respond, “well done.” What I’m describing is only the most basic positive reinforcement of self-care.

Attempted solution: Sarah and I now dole out structured rewards and provide one another with positive reinforcement for self-care.

It goes without saying: one ideally needs a buddy for this activity. Identify at least one another friendly astronomer you trust, someone who has a sense of humor. It’s very helpful to Sarah and I, and if it helps at least one reader (hopefully two!), I’ll be glad I wrote it up. For examples of self-care or for snippets of simple spreadsheet code to weight tasks and award points, please write to me.

What are the short-term or middle-term rewards you dole out to yourself? Do you tend to share your coping strategies with others, or keep them private?

5 comments… add one
  • Sally Conrad Jul 23, 2014 @ 14:04

    Brilliant implementation in my opinion. While not in academia, I have noticed that my mental fatigue is often best remedied by physical activity, assuming that there is also some sleep in the 24 hour scheme of things. The self-care that the Sarahs are encouraging for themselves and each other is imperative on so many levels. Good for them!!!

  • Garrett Weiner Jul 24, 2014 @ 0:05

    Having worked in academia as well as in the business and personal growth arena, I am impressed by the methodical approach you both have developed for a support structure. Tho how can I expect any less from two Astro Doctors. 🙂

    We all need support structures in our lives – to keep us emotionally and mentally balanced, holistically healthy and sustainably productive – but we are so consumed with what’s in front of us that it takes a real sense of desperation to get the structures up and running. Great that you’ve both supported each other in doing so and maybe there’s a key that others can use to replicate for their own selves, yet it also needs to be equally suited to their needs and invested in the way you have with yours.

    Anyway, well done!

  • Bekki Jul 24, 2014 @ 2:13

    This post is the best! It almost makes up for the disappointment I felt when I realized the truth about one mom’s simple trick for white teeth that dentists don’t want you to know.

    One trick I find myself using quite often for helping with Issue 1 (lack of short term rewards) and Issue 3 (solitary work) is to write Email Drafts Full of Lies, which go something like, “Hey, I finally finished the reply to the referee report! Do you agree with my response to Point 4?” I think drafting these emails helps me imagine how happy and relieved I’ll feel when I finish the Not Actually Completed Yet task and weirdly makes me feel more connected to my collaborators.

    I’m going to think about how I can adopt some of the great strategies you two came up with!

  • John Jul 25, 2014 @ 12:04

    Forwarding this link to my wife (also in academia), and I plan to advertise this as much as I can. I am impressed by the techniques employed and am now thinking how to try to incorporate similar strategies into my life. Despite being at a very rewarding/exciting point in my career, I can feel myself not doing a good job in the “self-care” department and it’s nice to hear that others are pondering solutions to the “one more paragraph” syndrome.

  • JohnD Jul 25, 2014 @ 20:43

    I heartily second your point about the need for short- and medium-term rewards and (sadly) about the academic tendency to deny that we deserve them. When I was working toward my orals, I promised myself that I’d buy the complete “Rocky and Bullwinkle” series if I passed. When I did pass, I decided that I didn’t deserve the reward because I couldn’t answer every question that I had been asked. (Yes, I know that’s not the point of orals. But we both know that’s how academics think.) Fortunately, my sister-in-law harangued me until I did buy them and as a result I laughed all the way to my dissertation.

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