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.

Not all transgender people transition, and for those of us who do we each have our own paths. If there are other trans women reading this, I would love to know what experiences and choices you made, and how they affected where you are today. For me, transition started while I was finishing up my undergraduate years. I had just come to accept that I’m trans and was ready to do something about it. My senior year I spent socially transitioning and figuring out what was in my future. I met with my adviser regularly about grad school, job prospects, and how my being trans could affect it. For a time, I considered leaving the field for a few years to transition and then come back a new woman — the classic narrative.

That ended up being very different from my actions, though. I applied to grad school my senior year and got into a school that I was excited about, and so I took the plunge. Meeting with the administrative staff was essential for making sure my preferred name and gender showed up for all of my classes, since I hadn’t had any documents legally changed yet. To do so required my legal and preferred names to be published in my hometown’s local newspaper, since my address was still with at my parents’ house, and at that point they agreed to not entirely cut me off from their support as long as there was no local evidence of my transition. This was my moment of starting anew, and I spent the next few months as “accidentally stealth” — I didn’t particularly hide that I was trans, but I also didn’t tell anyone about it and I met and developed friendships with people who only knew the authentic me.

It didn’t last terribly long. In part, things with my family were still working themselves out and I needed friends I could talk to about it. Our department also started an intramural sports team that I joined, but given the gender requirements of teams I had to have a conversation with our team captain, one of my fellow students.

It was around this time that I was able to find a doctor and start taking hormone treatments. The next few years were rough. Remember middle school, and how going through puberty was awful and stressful? Imagine that, but with all the extra pressure and work that comes with grad school. If you can avoid going through puberty during grad school, I *highly* recommend it. But I persevered, and eventually finished up my classwork and later obtained my PhD.

Which leaves me where I am currently, as a post-doc looking for a tenure-track position. At some point, I would very much like to have gender confirming surgery. Unfortunately, neither grad students nor post docs make terribly much and the little I’ve saved away is but a fraction of the cost. Things get more complicated when the vast majority of health insurance policies exclude trans health care, and with that fact that I’m at such a crucial stage in my career where the thought of taking off a month or two for recovery is terrifying.

I find myself faced with a lot of similar questions I hear when women in academia talk about having children. Is this the right time? Should I put it off until I have a faculty position? Until I have tenure? As my body ages, will it be able to recover as well if I put it off? Will I ever even be able to afford it? Is there ever going to be a good time, or just less terrible times?

I don’t have an answer to any of these yet, as I’m still figuring out and stumbling along my own path of what it means to be a trans woman in academia. If there are any others out there, I would love to hear your thoughts.

10 thoughts on “Transitioning in Academia

  1. Hi, there. I’m a trans woman in academia (associate professor of chemistry), and I’d be more than happy to talk about this and other issues you may or may not face. Feel free to drop me an email at On the particular question of when to get surgery, get a faculty position first. While, yes, most insurance plans do not cover GCS, there are two things to bear in mind. First, faculty plans are *much*, *MUCH* more likely to cover this than other plans. Second, the number of states where GCS *is* covered on *all* plans has gone from 0-7 in about the last year-and-a-half, so even a year from now, your plan might magically start covering GRS (plus…you know…faculty paychecks are better…). In any decent department, this will simply be treated as a medical leave, and it’s handled through HR, and won’t raise many eyebrows. While there are similarities to having a child, there is a huge difference: with childbirth, the leave that we give people is totally inadequate to the job. With surgery, if your doctor says you need three months, HR will be cooperative. With GCS, once you’re recovered, you’re back on the job.

  2. Hey, really neat to find your post. I’m in you position years ago. I’m a junior in college and haven’t been able to transition in undergrad because I’m doing a sport/scholarship to help pay for school. You’re an inspiration!

  3. Just thought I would send some love and encouragement. Thanks so much for speaking out and for sharing your story. I hope you have a safe and supportive space in your home and career. I am at a university where I hope we would be accommodating and supportive. I know we have a great employee support group and a wonderful student body. I am not sure about our policies for faculty/staff who are transitioning but I am going to check it out and make sure our policies are inclusive and our procedures are proactive. Thanks again! Best wishes, and I hope you continue to be able to share and discuss your journey. You are indeed an inspiration.

  4. Heyy

    This is a great post ! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in your journey. Transition during academia maybe requires even more courage because there could be a lot to lose after hardworking. People like you and your achievement definitely have a great value for us and inspire us! I am a post-doc at public university, in midwest area and I was definitely feel alone and insulated so far. I hope your journey continues with success in your personal life and academic life too.

    • We might feel alone in our departments, but there are many of us out there. The thing I want most to convey is that you’re not alone, and that we can find each other and build community. Finding that out for myself is a big part of how I’m still in academia.

      • You are definitely right ! That’s why it’s very important to aware of other people like us and know their progress. please feel free to contact with me arronsivok at

  5. Pingback: The long tail of under-representation | downwithtime

  6. Thank you for writing this post. I am an academic librarian at a small, liberal arts college, who already has our version of tenure. I’m much farther along in these games we call life and career, and thus my questions were similar at times, yet very different at others. My greatest risks were familial as I have been married (with children) for over 25 years. I spent the spring, 2017 semester making private announcements to friends, co-workers, and family as well as going through therapy sessions and endocrinology appointments to begin a course of hormones. Toward the end of the summer, I began to present fully on a 24/7/365 basis. This was a couple of weeks prior to to students returning to campus – this way my colleagues (and frankly I, as well) could get used to things before the melee began. Thus far, despite the heavy burdens of guilt I carry for the pain I have caused my family, I have been joyful and comfortable beyond imagine with my new self. In fact, I have had a few “pinch me” days where I wonder if this is a dream.

    I wish you all the best, and would welcome contact as I am curious to know how other transpeople are doing within academia. Academics tend to be a fairly liberal bunch, but certainly not all. You can reach me at pflanagan at hsc dot edu. Sorry – I have concern about bots!! 🙂

  7. Thank you for this. I know it’s years after you wrote it but I would love to talk to you about your experience. I am in a somewhat similar spot. I hope things worked out well for you. akbarjenkins at gmail dot com

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