I turned down a permanent faculty position. Yes, I turned down tenure. The process led me to redefine what ‘success’ is for me, and hopefully sharing this unusual situation can help others broaden their definitions of success. To start, I love science. I have been sciencing long and hard for approximately 10-12 years, including a Masters, PhD, many post-docs, and nationally competitive Research Fellowships. I am a 42 year-old mother of two, working in plant biology, having graduated in 2007, and submitting my thesis while 8 months pregnant.
In the continent where I work, (not the USA) it is common for people to under-take multiple post-docs across up to 9-10 years. Given that I love research with a passion, and am prepared to sacrifice social life, food, and a decent salary, I decided to continue post-doc as long as I possibly could to ensure I have a strong CV, allowing me to win a permanent job in the city of my choice. Ambitious? Sure, but I felt (dreamt?) that if I worked hard enough, prioritized my career, published in high impact journals and won hundreds of thousand dollars of grants, I could be in the top percentage of scientists with permanent jobs. I don’t need to remind Tenure She Wrote readers, that the percentage of women is lower, and the percentage with children even lower.
This strategy of focus worked well, with me winning a university fellowship when my youngest child was ~1 (6% of applicants awarded), and then a federally funded Research Fellowship (12% of applicants awarded) with my youngest, of two children was ~4. I was thrilled to finally be working in the university of my choice, surrounded by women, in fact mothers, with international reputations and faculty positions.
The past 6 years have been a glorious honeymoon of research-only, independent grant funding, and the autonomy to work with the finest colleagues in the world. The grants have allowed me to fly to the best universities and field sites, collaborate with the world’s best academics, and this has clearly enhanced my international reputation, based on the invitations I have received in the past years.
Last year, with the final year of my research fellowship approaching, I started applying for faculty positions. This process led me to realize what type of universities I want to avoid (small town, isolated, and/or very under-resourced). During the process I was offered, deep breath, a faculty position in a city, not enormously far from where I live. I applied for the position merely to see what the job market was like, and because I felt like I was a decent match for the position. After they offered me the position, I realized more about the start-up package they were offering. Meanwhile, both my children and I became very sick, with fevers, and requiring friends to deliver us meals. The reality of relying on people for help, made me realize the cost of moving cities, and the benefit of grand-parents, and the support network of friendships earned over multiple years. Additionally, the negotiation process showed that this particular university wasn’t one where I could be the type of scientist I imagined. They do great work, with wonderful people and brilliant field sites there, however the process of deciding filled me with dread. I wasn’t able to sleep at night, and I confess, there were tears, while talking to older, wiser professors from different universities about the decision.
I finally decided to decline the position. Since then, the current government has ruthlessly slashed funding for science and research, such that the entire country has had massive layoffs, and the department and university is now on a remarkably tight budget. I hear from professor friends, of women who chose to work in industry as they can earn remarkably more, and work part time for the same income, and less ‘pushing shit uphill’.
Given the paucity of jobs in the city where my children (and their grandparents) live, I am faced with the very real possibility of leaving academia. I no longer view this as failure. I have now thrown aside the view that ‘only academia is success’ and instead realized that success is embracing choices which mean I can sleep at night. It is possible that my gifts may be better used in learning to program and code, perhaps within industry, rather than teach in an increasingly crowded university. After ten years of mothering, and academia, I see that my kids are not reaching their full potential, as I’m frequently thinking of work rather than their homework or social lives. Their father is helpful, but despite this being 2015 he does not take on board an equal role of parenting. I’m also deeply conscious that approximately only 10% of women with a degree reach tenure. Am I prepared to continue to pay the price? Time will tell.
I’m mindful that it is vitally important for us to encourage other younger women, that academia is not the only version of success, that a PhD is a stepping stone to multiple careers, and academia is only one. I’m also mindful of supporting other female under-graduates, and pregnant post-docs, that the road ahead is not easy and whatever choice they make is the best for them.
My new mindset is that, given I made each choice in the process with an enormous amount of thought, leaving academia is not failure. Staying in academia is not my current definition of success. This has been a hard paradigm to release, given most professors have a deeply restricted view of success as equal to tenure. My new definition of success includes not only ‘tenure in a city I was flexible about’ but now also ‘being flexible about a good job in the city of my choice’.
Tenure is not, I repeat, not the only metric of success. Those young in their career will scoff and say ‘ha, but for me, I can have it all, I can have tenure in the city of my choice, and children’. Perhaps you can, and perhaps also, we can broaden our definitions of success, to include multiple examples of success, working in industry, consulting, the Non-Profit sector, or government. Success, I realized now I have turned down tenure in the wrong city, is making choices that enable us to sleep at night.
Today’s guest post is by Melanie, an Australian Research Council Early Career Research Fellow (DECRA) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.