How Age Can Pave the Road to Tenure

There are lots of articles about how older women feel invisible and how ageism affects women in the workplace.

My story is about how age and experience has helped me in my road to Full professor.

I entered graduate school more than a decade after I finished undergraduate school. I found a graduate program that was willing to take a chance on me, even though my undergraduate grades were only reasonable and I had not taken some of the standard courses or exams you might expect for my field. The program had a good number of women in it, and the department was actively recruiting women graduate students and faculty. They told me that they often prefer “older students” because they tend to be more focused and mature.

Once I arrived, I did see some of my graduate student friends struggling with the question of “why am I here?” and “did I just come to grad school because it was the next/obvious/easy step after undergrad?” I never really struggled with these issues.  I was very focused and worked as hard as I could to get out in a reasonable amount of time.  In the end, I finished my MS and PhD in about half the (tremendous amount of) time I had allotted myself.

Recently I have been promoted to full professor relatively few years. Why did things go so well, even though I entered graduate school not so well-prepared mathematically and with family responsibilities? It cannot be discounted that I am cis-gendered, heterosexual, Caucasian and don’t have to accommodate significant physical or mental challenges. In addition, here are a few ways that age probably counted in my favor

I chose my graduate program and advisor wisely. Advisors affect almost every aspect of a graduate student’s work life. They can tell you which professors teach well.   They can get you the space, supplies and equipment you need to get your work done. They can pay for you to go to conferences and introduce you to people. They can encourage you and put you up for awards and opportunities. They can help you find a thesis topic that is interesting, important and do-able. They can support your work-life balance and choices. They can help you reach your career objectives.

They decide when you are allowed to declare victory.

Or they can fail to do these things, which will likely impact your quality of life and path toward your PhD. My advisor helped me graduate relatively quickly, move on to my postdoc and find an awesome job.

My children were fairly independent. Even now my kids need me lots of ways, but it isn’t anything like having little ones.  In grad school, they were old enough that we could work/play in parallel at the kitchen table for long hours.  Later they could feed themselves and even the whole family. Eventually they could get where they needed to go on their own.

Even so, when I got out of grad school, my goal was for my youngest to say “Mommy!” only once and to expect an answer right away. While I was in grad school it took about 3 or 4 tries for the poor kid to get me out of my own head. I don’t think this Dad-centered time was a problem for them or for our relationship. In fact, I think it was great for them to see us both as totally competent primary parents. In my postdoc and job it was even easier because they were older (and eventually out of the house).

My partner picked up all the slack. This is huge. My husband took over everything home-related while I was in grad school. I probably did the laundry and some other things, but my husband gets credit for our family sticking together and functioning.   One reason he could do that was that I was no longer nursing. The way I remember it, one of my kids NEVER took a bottle.  This might be somewhat revisionist due to the fog of insomnia because I do remember expressing and freezing milk. Anyway, a single friend recently commented that being single isn’t that lonely, but sometimes it is just terribly impractical because there’s nobody around to pick up your slack. I continue to be grateful a decade later for all the support.   There was a LOT of slack. Not only that, he put up with my continual fear of failure, even though every metric indicated I was succeeding. That fear of failure was why it took me so long to go to grad school in the first place.

I applied for and obtained my dream job in my first year of postdoc. I didn’t really feel ready to take a job, but I took a chance and it panned out. I only applied for this one job, so it didn’t take a great deal of time. I deferred the position and stayed longer in my postdoc to get experience (and for family timing reasons). This allowed me to enter my tenure-track job with a few projects already headed in good directions and a few more in reserve.

I think that all of the experience (from before and during graduate school) helped me obtain the tenure-track position because I could bring unique perspectives and skills to the department. Choosing the right job (which largely meant choosing the right people to work with) was informed by my experiences in several other jobs.

I negotiated my position fairly well. When the negotiations went poorly I was not taking the advice in this post.

I listened to everyone’s advice, but took only some of it. I can think of a couple of times I didn’t listen to the right advice, but most of the time I got it right.   I picked projects that would be productive and interesting and put aside others that might not help me obtain tenure. I said no to requests and opportunities a few key times.

I made bridges across my institution. I think this was partly due to my extroverted personality and interest in interdisciplinary ventures, but also because I had administrative experience. I could see when department chairs and Deans were having a hard time and I often took (and still take) the time to thank them. I participated in many cross-campus initiatives, but not in the first year when the startup costs were high. I helped with other people’s outreach efforts so I could contribute without the huge taxing effort of organization.

I’m having fun every day.   Some days also have sad and mad, but I really can find some joy in my work every day.   I’m old enough to have lost or almost lost friends to illness and death in every decade. They never got to be as old as I am now, and I am clear about the fact that my days are numbered. We spend most of our waking hours at work (and some of our sleeping ones), so I figure I might as well find ways to make my heart sing.  I’m incredibly lucky that my job presents daily opportunities.


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