Transitioning in Academia

Working your way through the academic career takes a lot of time commitments, and often we are pressured away from any time-consuming activities that would take us away from our work. Having children is a huge one, which has been discussed and continues to be discussed as academia works on better policies for women to maintain a work/life balance without losing their careers. As I’ve gone through my academic journey as a trans woman, I’ve had to navigate another tricky balance: transitioning in academia.
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Not the newbie anymore – growing into mid-career mentorship

I’m 35. I’m an Assistant Professor. I haven’t used all three shots at an NSF CAREER proposal. By many measures, I’m early career. But… This is year 8 on the tenure track, my first round of federal grants is into the no-cost extension stage, and I’ve both graduated and published with multiple cohorts of graduate students. I survived year 1, year 2, and beyond. At some point, I realized that this whole “professor gig” was what I was doing with my life. It isn’t always easy, but it’s a lot easier now than it was when I started. So by some metrics at least, I’m some distance past early career.

But sometimes I feel unprepared for honorific “mid-career” and the role as a mentor that this stage of my career seems to be inviting.

I have junior colleagues who come to me for advice. I’m not always sure I have good advice to give, but I listen and can usually tell them what my experiences have been in somewhat similar situations, how it worked out, what I’d do differently, and maybe even what I’d recommend they do. But often I feel like a complete impostor. How can I be considered a good source of advice, when I don’t even have tenure and my publication record is not where I want it to be?

At a conference, a post-doc from another university told me about an issue the women students in her group were having with men at the conference, and asked what she should tell them. Since I’d already encountered the same issue hitting one of my female students, I responded with something like “Now at least they know who the jerks are and that they should avoid interacting and collaborating with them in the future. There are plenty of great people to work with in our field; there’s no point in wasting effort with the jerks.” She then told me how much she appreciated being able to talk to an “established, successful woman in our field.” (She may even have said “senior woman” but I’m blocking that out.) That conversation stuck with me for the rest of the conference and beyond, for two reasons.

First, was I really an established (senior?) successful woman in my field? I looked around. There were quite a few women graduate students, somewhat fewer postdocs, only a handful of women in their 30s and 40s, and a vanishingly small group of women I’d call senior. And I was hanging out with the professor crowd, who I’ve now been bumping into at conferences for going on 10 years. So I suppose, to a post-doc looking forward to the next career stage, I was the visible female manifestation of having an established, successful career. A few weeks later, I was chatting with a collaborator and relayed my experience and my uncertainty at being considered mid-career. She assured me that I was most definitely in that cohort, and maybe had been for a while. Later I realized that I’ve been collaborating with her since I started my PhD, and then when we started working together, she couldn’t have been any older than I am now. Yet I’ve always looked up to her as a role model and mentor. And so I suppose she is probably right.

Second, if I am (becoming) a visible, mid-career woman in my field, what can I do to make things better for the women who want to follow in my footsteps? How can I help stop the sort of issues that were hitting female students at that conference and that cause the loss of women in academic science at every step forward in their careers? I don’t feel like I have a lot of power or influence in any organization, and without tenure, I don’t yet have the time or even job security to try to push for institutional change. Over beers with a member of my society’s education and outreach committee, I suggested that they consider a mentoring program for new faculty to combat the sense of isolation and uncertainty that seemed to accompany many folks’ first years on the tenure track. I was completely shot down. See? No power. So what can I do?

I think what I need to do is embrace my status as a mid-career woman and to own the idea that younger colleagues, especially women, will see me as a mentor. Whatever my job title says, however little sway I’ve got in the boardroom, there are things I can do that will make a difference. I told the post-doc at the conference that I was a big believer in the “old girls club” and even the “young girls club” as a way to avoid the jerks and find good collaborations (and mentorship). I’m not suggesting that young women scientists avoid the men, simply that they be unafraid to work with women, and the network of good men those women work with. The is the strategy I’ve used, rather accidentally, and it’s worked for me so far. I now need to explicitly recognize that I’m in the position to pay it forward. I need to welcome and even cultivate collaborations and friendships with younger women in my field, and to be unafraid to mentor even when I feel like an impostor. I suppose I even need to let them know that I still feel like an impostor, but that such feelings don’t have to be a barrier to success.

I’m not a newbie anymore, even if my tenure status has yet to catch up. I’m growing into mid-career, and maybe mentoring younger colleagues becomes one of the ways I challenge myself at this new stage in my professional life.

I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too!

As of last week, I have officially survived my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor! I’m sure there are a lot of you out there just getting started, too, and so I wanted to share some advice and reflections, while they’re fresh (Year 2 is already upon me, and it’s already a different animal!). I was told a lot of this before I started, myself, and it didn’t really sink in until I lived it. Still, just having someone normalize your experience is so incredibly valuable, and so here’s my own:

1. You won’t get anything done in Year 1. This is actually not really true, but it feels like it. Everything takes much longer than you’ll predict — getting your office set up, getting phones turned on, figuring out the email client and Payroll and the archaic student course software (or softwares!), ordering equipment. There are meetings and orientations and everyone wants to invite you for coffee and to talk about collaborations and to invite you on committees. You’ll basically find that you get to the summer break and all of your ambitious plans to publish (even if you have a teaching release!) and write grants and collect amazing data all went out the window, and you will very likely feel like a failure. Even if you were crazy productive just before you defended, you’ll find that you’re paying the price now, and finding it harder to focus with so many new demands to your attention. But here’s the thing: everything you’ve been doing, from the thinking to the planning to the figuring out what your space situation is, has value. It’s part of the process. When you hit Year 2, it should all be settled.

What you can do about it: Be strategic about your time, and block off a day (or a half a day) that is sacrosanct. Put it on your calendar. Do not treat it as time for scheduling meetings– treat it as a meeting between you and your computer. Invest in some time management software like RescueTime. Get those last PhD and postdoc papers in the pipeline. Make it a goal to apply for a grant or two, even if you have startup funds. Don’t stay at work too long. I didn’t figure any of this out until recently, and I’m trying it out for Year 2. Continue reading

Are we really still talking about pseudonyms?

MASKS by flickr user cometstarmoon

MASKS by flickr user cometstarmoon

This summer I was at a conference in my field that had a tweet up. I don’t just tweet as @sarcozona – I also maintain a real-name, professional identity on twitter, and I went to the tweetup under that identity.

The conversation drifted towards the appropriate way to handle tweeting conference talks that go very badly. Someone said something to the effect of “it’s a good thing I don’t tweet under a pseudonym or I’d say some pretty mean stuff.” The group largely agreed that pseudonyms were a protective shield for poor behaviour. Some of them thought that if they were writing under pseudonyms they’d be saying much meaner and snarkier things. Writing under pseudonyms was disparaged and laughed at or considered bad behaviour by some of the people there. No one defended pseudonyms. Continue reading

New Semester Blues

As a student – through most of graduate school – I loved the beginning of the new school year. New notebooks, new textbooks, I wasn’t behind on anything yet, and I’d get to see my friends every day again! Better still, the schedule was pretty light so it was still a few weeks before reality of schoolwork kicked in again.

These days, my feelings are more complex. At the beginning of a new semester, I don’t start with a blank slate. I have already done hours of preparation on classes, and a lot the work – grants, papers, research, conference submissions – doesn’t coincide with the school year. At the beginning of the new year, my schedule changes dramatically. No more rolling with a slower morning, things in my schedule that are written in stone: teaching is the big one. Seminars. Administrative roles kick in again, with their meetings for various committees. Graduate students have other commitments too, so expectations of them needs to be readjusted. Email traffic through my inbox will increase exponentially. And lot of the intensity is there from the outset – lectures need to be prepared, there is no up-ramp for committee work, and the rolling deadlines of grants, papers, conference submissions continues without a not to the academic year.

To be honest, right now I am finding the idea of the semester starting feels like an insurmountable mountain. Continue reading

Guest Post: Overcoming “young upstart” status

Today’s post was contributed by Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, a Visiting Assistant Professor. Find her online @rglweiner and at her blog

As a sociologist, I might teach about inequality of various forms, yet I had not bumped up against any -isms recently.

Until a few weeks ago, I ran head on into some –isms in the workplace.

I was attending a faculty workshop on teaching and technology with several colleagues. There were two women (myself included) and two men in attendance. I enjoy the chance to be a student (that sense of enjoyment is what carried me through much of graduate school) and the opportunity to meet other folks at my institution, to hear about college business, and to think about new teaching strategies for my upcoming courses. I was pleased that the organizers allowed me to jump in at various points in our discussion to demonstrate my use of an application or to provide additional examples of a particular program because I love to teach. After my first contribution, a quick Evernote demo, two male colleagues remarked that I was “intense.”

Intense is one way to describe a cutthroat colleague. Intensity implies strength and perhaps rigidity or control, a person who is all business. I was unsure what I had said or done where I would represent myself as “intense.”

I shrugged off their evaluation and forged ahead.

Later that first day, one of those male colleagues asked me how I was finding the college. I replied that I valued the teaching experience and that I was finishing my second of three years. His response: a look of surprise followed by an equally surprised reply, “Oh, and you seem so invested in your students.”

Yes, sir. Yes, I am. Continue reading

Guest Post: Research, Teaching, Service…and Depression

I thought about blogging about having depression as an assistant professor for a long time. I had a sort of vague idea that since being depressed is something that is usually dealt with in silence, maybe sharing some of my own experiences would be helpful. But then I got scared; somehow it was a little too personal and low self-esteem would start to creep in: “What could I possibly have to say about depression that others haven’t said?” Then this semester happened and I witnessed first hand a post-doc and a brilliant undergraduate student have to take a semester of medical leave because of depression. This was when it hit me – we all have to start talking in a more open, honest and caring way about depression, mental illness, grief and similar conditions that most of us deal with at some point in our life. Continue reading