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.

In Negotiations, The Pen Can be Mightier than the Mouth

A long time ago I heard that women are not so good at negotiating. You can’t blame this all on women, since part of the problem is how our attempts to negotiate are received.

Recently I was told that young women are “getting *$%^ed” because they are told that the staring salaries at various companies are fixed, which they interpret as “no need to negotiate.” This is far from the truth, because there are moving costs, bonuses, and other possible perks that can be negotiated. If you look at the data and compare what male and female students are getting when they graduate it is not equitable. We need to do a better job mentoring our students how to negotiate.

My own experience has led me to conclude that when I negotiate with my pen (through email) I can be far more successful than when I negotiate with my mouth (by talking either in person or on the phone/telecon). Here’s what I have learned in my own negotiations:

  1. If the promise isn’t in writing it does not exist. Department chairs, Deans and other administrators change (sometimes unexpectedly) and the next person is only obligated to honor things that are in writing (and signed). When you are hired, make sure your needs regarding space, travel, equipment, supplies, student funding, etc. are met as much as possible.  It should be in writing how that is going to happen and who is going to pay. Not just that the institution will take care of it, but what funding source at the institution will pick up the bill.
  2. Negotiate with your pen (keyboard), not your mouth. Unfortunately, when women negotiate with their mouths, people generally respond based on how they look, the tone of their voice and how things went with the last woman who negotiated. When you make your request politely but firmly in writing, you are just stating your needs. The person reading the request can “hear” it in their own inner reading voice. They can respond to the content and take the time to consider what should be a yes and what must be a no.
  3. The strongest position is one you can walk away from. That’s why having more than one job offer is an advantage. This goes for consulting gigs too. Recently I negotiated a consulting job where I asked for an amount. I was offered about ¼ of the amount. I provided evidence that if I took another job I would be paid ½ again as much as the original amount I asked. I wrote politely that I would prefer to work for them, but only if they could meet my salary and other requests. They met the requests.
  4. Concisely explain what you will do with the resources you require. If an institution is providing something (money, space, small class enrollment), they deserve to know what the institution will receive in return.   This can be phrased as a benefit to the institution, not a defense of your request (even if the request for information seems like a challenge to your request). In my consulting contract negotiation, after the salary was settled, the other party asked for several new things (I’m assuming to get what they thought was their money’s worth). I made a tiny compromise, but basically (in writing) said that what they were requesting would not work and provided the educational reasons. They met my request. Everything went well and I have been asked to perform a second job, but doing much more for the same money. I have made it clear that I will be happy to continue the work, but only under the same conditions as the first job. I also joked (with my mouth) that each time they ask for more, I’ll double my salary request. I can do this because of condition #3 (see above).  We’ll see how it goes…
  5. Be friendly, professional and positive as well as cool and tough. Negotiations are a test of both parties. How will you and the institution behave when things are tough and awkward? Discussions about money often make people act in unusual ways. You can show that you are cool, tough, positive and professional under pressure. Then the institution (and individuals) can expect you to be that way on the job.   Your institution deserves that kind of behavior, especially if you are provided the resources you need to do your job well.
  6. Be reasonable in your expectations. Before the negotiation begins, do your homework (with your mouth). As much as possible, find out from several people what has been done in the past, and what might be possible at that point in time. If you ask for something far outside the normal realm, it can be difficult for administrators to honor your request. If you really need something unusual, then possibly ask (with your mouth since you might not want this in writing) if it would be possible to trade it for something else that others normally receive. Once you have done your homework, you are ready to begin real negotiations.


Is Tenure Worth All the Trouble?

A few months ago, I became a full professor! Much like when I earned tenure (I just changed that word from received to earned), for a while I was in a haze of disbelief. Was the quest really over? Was anything different?

In both cases the resounding answer for me was yes. I’m really happy at the new opportunities, freedom and empowerment the promotions have provided.

Our blog focus on real difficulties, impediments and challenges the road to tenure can contain for women.  In a later post, I’ll talk about why entering grad school significantly later than most people may have made the road a bit smoother for me than some. Meanwhile here are my top 3 reasons each promotion has been awesome.

Three reasons becoming a Tenured Associate Professor was Awesome

  1. I could explore research, writing and outreach projects that may not lead to grants or publications, while continuing existing productive projects in order to continue to advance in scholarship.
  2. I could take on a position in the upper administration and develop new initiatives for my institution, which was viewed favorably in my review for Full Professor. In this position I regularly interacted with the Dean and Associate Deans and work with faculty of all stages. It gave me a new appreciation and a more holistic view of my institution.
  3. I could say no to “being a new shiny happy prof face” for visitors and parents because there were new people to do that, while saying yes to some important all-campus committees.

Three reasons being a Full Professor is Awesome

  1. Interacting with other professors feels different.   At a recent conference I had more confidence to approach other full professors as a peer. I still have less experience, but many of them are my age (or younger) and it feels nice to (at least in my own mind feel like I) belong at the table. After I served on a career panel, many untenured professors came to me to ask advice. It was great to be able to share my experience and be generous with my time.
  2. I can serve in roles that are important to my institution, such as member of the tenure and reappointment committee or Dean.
  3. I have been freed from the looming promotion-centered hoops that must be identified, understood and jumped through. That is so liberating. I can take greater risks in my teaching and research without fear. Teaching evaluations will inform my practice but not threaten my job status. I can devote time to professional service at a national level.

What to do before a reporter calls…

So you have a snazzy new result and you want to share it with the world? There are plenty of reporters out there looking for a good story.

Interactions with the press can lead to good things – recognition by your institution, your department and even funding agencies. But there is risk involved — interactions with reporters can be problematic if the story they tell isn’t one you like.

In the best cases, stories are a collaboration between scientist and reporter. Here are 10 tips on how to foster productive press interactions.


Crowdsourcing solutions to tenure-track concerns

The tenure process is probably unsettling for everyone on some level.

Even if everything goes well, the process of being judged by your peers and others, with the possible outcome of losing your career can pretty much give anyone a stomachache. Sometimes we can channel worry into productivity and use it to keep from coasting or becoming complacent. Sometimes it is just discouraging or paralyzing.

Maybe some level of worry is unavoidable, and we just need to push through.  But what about when a concern calls for action?

The following concerns are based on real situations that have occurred at a variety of institutions.  What would you suggest? Continue reading

Double Jeopardy: Women of Color and Gender Bias

We are probably aware of reports such as “Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by the American Association of University Women
and studies such as these:

  • Even when math skills were identical, both men and women were twice a likely to hire a man for a job that required math (Reuben, Sapienza, & Zingales, 2014) .
  • In academic laboratories in elite universities, male (but not female) scientists employed fewer female than male graduate students and post docs (Sheltzer & Smith, 2014) .
  • A double-blind randomized study gave science faculty at research-intensive universities application materials of a fictitious student randomly assigned a male or female name, and found that both male and female faculty rated themale applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the femalewith identical application materials (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham & Handelsman, 2012) .

What has been less studied is the way issues of bias impact women of color. Continue reading

Do you cuss at work?

I have been thinking lately about workplace behavior.

For example, is it OK to cuss at work? I have heard colleagues use all kinds of language, but I have noticed that with a few notable exceptions, I mainly hear the men doing the cussing. When they do, it seems like (they and) the students think it is cool.   So I wonder to myself, could I get away with that? Should I? Would it make the students uncomfortable? Is that OK?

In general I am pretty conservative on the matter. I tend to censor myself, even in conversations with colleagues when students are not around. I regard this as a choice, and not necessarily something imposed by my institution. I also have had experiences that lead me to believe at times a more permissive attitude might serve me well.

Here’s an example: Continue reading