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.