Friday, May 8, 2015

On Good and Bad Bosses

Being a PhD student (especially in Norway, where it is paid employment) is in many ways a sweet deal. You get to spend time working on exactly the thing you're (supposed to be) most interested in. You get to have a narrow focus on a topic so specific (and often insignificant) that most people know next to nothing about it. You get to become an expert on this topic. You get to devote time, energy, intellectual capacity and whatever skills you've developed over time on working on just one, single issue that need not be of any particular interest or use to anyone else (though naturally you have learnt how to argue that indeed it is of particular interest and use to everyone else - you've gotten some kind of funding for this project, after all...). You get to do all this for a longer period of time, usually about three to four years, and in the meantime very few people are going to bother you in any significant way with meeting deadlines, making progress or doing any of the most basic things most employees are expected to do in their jobs: show up at a specific time, show up at all, actually work...

Of course this latter point isn't entirely true.

First of all, most universities will by now have instated some kind of checks and balances system to keep a little control of their PhD students. It will still vary greatly from institution to institution how rigid this system is, but I would guesstimate that you nowhere anymore can do what seems to have been the "norm" many places in the past - you show up at the start of your doctorate and then nobody sees you again for four (or more) years until you show up again for your defense with a 1000 page dissertation.

These days there are some requirements. You have to take some courses (here I know Norway is still on the lighter side. In many places it still is more than justified to call the PhD students students, as they do plenty of course work and have papers due and everything - our system is more flexible and it can be argued that it is just as correct to call me and my peers PhD fellows). You generally will have some deadlines along the way (we, for instance, have a halfway evaluation, which I will take sometime this summer or autumn). And technically I am supposed to show up for work during work hours at any time I don't have a justifiable reason not to do so (a conference, field work, those courses I talked about), but in reality I am fairly sure I could stay at home for several weeks at end and no one would notice (except my office mate, but she wouldn't tell on me, and a simple Facebook message saying "Working from home for a while" would put her at ease). And even if they did notice, it wouldn't have any consequences.*

Many of the requirements, then, are more for show than actually breathing down your neck like the proverbial distrusting boss would do.

However, I do have one of those bosses as well. The problem is that she is not always a good boss. And before you jump to conclusions about me slandering my boss in social media, I should clarify: I'm talking about myself. (My real boss is a man, so there.)

My Bad Boss - me - isn't always a bad boss. The not bad part is what makes her a boss at all. Because in a system where so little pressure is put on you for any day-to-day production (but HUGE pressure on the long haul production with the far-ahead deadline way out of your sight), you really need to pull yourself together and force yourself to do some work every now and then. You need to be your own boss. You need to tell yourself what your tasks are, and then you need to do them. Otherwise, you've already lost.

On occasion this works for me. I can have whole days and several days in a row, even, where I work like a normal person (one of those with real bosses), and get stuff done. My Good Boss manages to give me clear instructions and as a Good Employee (because I am, honestly, even if this post so far might suggest otherwise) I get it done.

This is improvement on my part.

I remember when I wrote my master's thesis I was absolutely horrid at getting stuff done. Every word came at an insufferable price - it felt like I had to pull them out of me like fingernails from a torture victim (you're welcome for that mental picture).

This is because then I only** had the Bad Boss. The Bad Boss still comes around too frequently for me to be particularly happy about it, though. The Bad Boss doesn't motivate me or give me instructions; the Bad Boss tells me that the final deadline is coming closer with every day (well, duh!). She tells me that I have a come nearly halfway in my PhD, but I have not produced half of the text for a PhD dissertation (and my objections that I have done plenty of other useful stuff that doesn't necessarily reflect the amount of output you can touch and feel but nevertheless contributes to the end result have no traction with her). My Bad Boss makes me feel insecure, worried, and generally pretty useless.

My Bad Boss most frequently visits when I am tired, hungry, stressed out, or that one week of the month where most women feel more insecure, worried and useless (if you're a man and you've no idea what I'm talking about, I envy you and I'm about to punch you in the face. Go away. Bring me chocolate before coming back).

Most annoying of all - my Bad Boss makes me a Bad Employee. And as I mentioned, I am not really a Bad Employee. I am a Good Employee. Whenever Good Boss is around it's pretty visible too, so you don't even have to take my word for it.

So. Like a terrible academic*** I have arrived at the problem far too long into the text I'm writing. In order for me to be a Good and Productive Employee, I need my Good Boss to speak louder and more frequently than my Bad Boss. But how do I do this?

Like an even more terrible academic I was very close to ending my text with a question. Because a question, at this point, is about as good as I can do. I don't really have an answer. I can't predict when the Bad Boss will show up, or how long she intend to stay (though I can of course try to avoid the situations I know she is most likely to appear, but even so - it's not like I can avoid work one week every month, no matter how relaxed the system might seem).

My best bet is on the realization that I have a Bad Boss, and that I have a Good Boss. I know there are two of them. So for the times when it feels like only the Bad Boss is the one showing her ugly face, I can try to tell myself that she will not linger forever. The Good Boss will show up eventually. In fact, if I manage to ignore the Bad Boss she sometimes tires of pestering me, and goes away all on her own. Sometimes, sometimes, even the Good Boss pops her head in directly after, just to check on me.****

So it boils down to this: I need to get rid of my Bad Boss but I should probably also be aware that she will never disappear completely, but rather keep in mind she will also never stay put for good.


*For the record, I also have a supervisor, and she is very active, and she probably would notice both my absence for longer stretches of time and definitely my failure to meet deadlines and produce text. So in my case the potential slacking off has a very real limit. But not every supervisor is as active or attentive, so it is not entirely impossible that you would find cases where not even he or she would know if the PhD student had stopped working altogether for a loooong while.

** This is a truth that needs some moderation. I did write the damn thesis, and it's not all bad, so at some point the Good Boss must have been around then as well. But it didn't feel like it - I suspect maybe the Good Boss simply was a deputy back then, and thus did not really dare to challenge the authority of the Bad Boss. At least that is my theory. I am glad that the Good Boss' career has taken an upward turn!

*** For some reason I really want to write "academidian" instead. But then my Bad Boss told me I could not justify a title clearly derived from a crossover between academic and comedian. As I am neither (can you see what this hag is doing to me? I need her to GO AWAY!!! And not come back - not even with chocolate).

**** Sometimes she brings chocolate! :)


CA Heaven said...

Fire the bad boss and enjoy your years as PhD student. Later you will probably think back on this as the best years of your life. I do >:)

Cold As Heaven

CA Heaven said...

Fire the bad boss and enjoy your years as PhD student. Later you will probably think back on this as the best years of your life. I do >:)

Cold As Heaven

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