I was going to make my first post here a practical discussion of some of the challenges a chronic illness creates for someone on the tenure track, but that can wait a few weeks. This post is about how thwarted dreams don’t ruin your life, and how staying on the tenure track when you think you won’t make it to tenure can be a good decision.
When I was 13, I read Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. The next year I learned about botanists who worked for the Missouri Botanical Garden, travelling the world and finding new plants. I was already in love with all things photosynthesizing, but I was captivated by the idea of scrambling through rainforests and deserts to find ones no one I knew had ever seen. That was the only job I imagined myself in for many years.
I often felt unwell as a child. By the time I finished high school, it was clear I had a disabling and incurable illness. As I got sicker and sicker, my botanical adventurer dreams seemed further and further away. But I still stayed on the path I thought might get me there – college, a science major, and undergraduate research jobs.
By the time I began my first undergraduate research position, most fieldwork was somewhere between extremely unpleasant and physically impossible for me. So I fell into data analysis. I started with data that other people had collected, used, and promptly forgotten. I became fascinated by the stories this old data still had to tell. For my PhD, I’m answering big questions with a dataset that was collected to solve a very narrow problem and then shoved into a filing cabinet.
When I read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, I didn’t know I’d be good at math, that I’d love programming, that making nice graphs would feel so satisfying, that getting scans of data languishing in a dusty stack for decades is almost as nice as Christmas. I might not have realized these things at all if I’d been sent out to the field that first summer with the rest of the undergrads.
I will never be an ethnobotanist or spend weeks at a remote field site – and I no longer really want to. Illness has severely limited many aspects of my life, but I’ve discovered interests and developed skills and strengths I probably wouldn’t have with a healthy body.
My illness presents what may be an impassable obstacle to tenure, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to jump off the tenure track as a graduate student. Who knows how I’ll like the track ahead, or what side-trails I’ll discover along the way? For now, I’m getting a comfortable paycheck, my schedule is flexible enough that I won’t get kicked out for being sick, and I get to work on questions that I made up using tools that I like.
If I keep spending the time I’m well doing the things I love, I’m confident I’ll be able to spend my career working on problems I care about – only time will tell whether or not that’s as a tenured professor!