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.

Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading

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.

Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture:

1. Attended all official orientations of every kind. If nothing else, they have been a useful way of making new friends in a new city.

2. Had an official meeting with the Chair and DGS to ask about expectations from me as a new faculty member in the department, as well as students’ expectations from me as an instructor. A lot of it was silly stuff that I just needed answered: do I print materials or can I expect the students to? how much reading can I expect them to do in a week? what do they actually learn in prereq X?

3. Unofficially chatted with students and asked them versions of the same questions. Noted the variability in answers but mostly the constants.

4. Invited other young faculty members out for coffee. They are going to be very important for my mental health.***

5. Talked to off-campus mentors about what they know (which unfortunately for me, in this case, isn’t all that much).

6. Observed. Sat quietly in talks and social events and tried to make sense of who sits next to whom, who speaks sarcastically of whom when they are not in the room, etc. This one really scares me — I am convinced that there are some intrigues between some senior faculty members, and that they run deep.**** But I can’t quite figure out what they are.

Being the new gal can be disorienting. But as the new year begins, I am determined to be happy and productive, and to do my best to steer clear of trouble. Now if only I were better at detecting it…

How have you dealt with invisible inner-departmental politics at a new institution?

 

*And at the same time, also not to get over-excited about it. Hiring decisions are as complex as they are obscure.

**Relatedly and worryingly, this department has failed to tenure three young women in the past few years. Men don’t quite seem to have the same problem. So, there’s that.

***Speaking of which, I’ve also already made sure I have a PCP and an understanding of the mental health system here, in case I need to use it. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that this is something to figure out now, when I’m doing well, and not when I’m in a crisis.

****And that they affect hiring decisions.

Guest Post: On being productive and reproductive at the same time

Today’s guest post is by Megan Rivers-Moore, Assistant Professor at the Pauline Jewett Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton University


  1. PhD, Post-doc, someone give me a job please

When I’m about to go start fieldwork for my PhD, my academic advisor says “why don’t you have a baby? Everyone trusts a pregnant woman.” Now, I’m not saying I know for sure, but this seems like pretty terrible advice.

When I’m in the field, the women I’m interviewing find it baffling that I am in a long-term, happy relationship but don’t have a baby yet. As we get to know each other, as the mutual trust develops, I am regularly asked if there is something “wrong” with me, if I can’t get pregnant. They cannot conceive of any other reason that I wouldn’t have a baby. I say something vague about trying to finish school first, get a job, and then we have many long conversations about the complexities of work-life balance in the Costa Rican sex industry.

I get a post-doc in Toronto, the point of which, I’m told by several people, is to have a baby and get a tenure track job. Well, ok then.

I’m pregnant. I actually eat soda biscuits while I’m lecturing so that I won’t retch. I’m pregnant, but I’m also bleeding. I use the bathroom before class and then I realize there is the possibility that I will actually have a miscarriage at the front of the room while my eight-five students watch. I get my first cell phone, because my partner insists that I need to be able to call someone if this happens. I think about what the order of the calls would be: first my partner (guess what, honey?), but who would be next? The department administrator (I’ll be ending class a little early today)? Maintenance (there’s a bit of a mess in my classroom, sorry! Do you have any of that sawdust, like when kids barf at school)?  This is not at all funny, but the only way I can face the possibility of my body coming apart while I teach Feminist Studies in Sexuality is by making myself laugh, imagining trying to make it into a teachable moment. I haven’t included a section in the course on reproduction, but I imagine announcing “one aspect of sexuality we haven’t discussed is pregnancy. Many, many, many pregnancies end in miscarriage, as you can see. We don’t tend to talk about it, it’s not supposed to be a big deal, so people often feel isolated. And deeply heartbroken. You know how important it is to relate our academic theorizing to the real world? Well, this is me unravelling before your very eyes! Don’t forget this when you fill out your course evaluations.”

As it turns out, this time around I don’t have a miscarriage. I am seven months pregnant and travelling to Texas to interview for a tenure-track job. Right after I arrive, I’m taken out for tacos by a lovely couple who spend the whole dinner trying to get me to drink. “This place is famous for its margaritas. Why don’t you try one? Are you sure you don’t want a cold beer to wash that down? Irish coffee for dessert?” Either they haven’t noticed I’m pregnant or else things are really relaxed in the south. As the epic marathon of a multi-day interview goes on, there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to mention my pregnancy. I am seriously out of breath during my job talk, gasping a few times as the fetus decides to push my internal organs up into my lungs. I avoid touching my belly at all, I watch people avoid looking at it. We all pretend it isn’t there, except for the head of department who says “I’ll put you on the waiting list for the campus daycare.” When I finally waddle back to the hotel room at night, my fetus and I spend a long time poking each other. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you. How’s it going in there? Do you want to move to Texas? I’m killing this interview, I think I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job. I can’t help but notice that the guy who does get the job may well have triplets on the way, but he didn’t wear them under his sweater at the interview.

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Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part II

This is the second part of a two-part post on How to Get a Postdoc Position, written by Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University,  Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University.


Part II. Tips for securing a postdoc 

In our previous post, we talked of the what, why, and where of  postdoc positions. As promised, we are now here to guide you in how to find yourself a postdoc, and a good one at that — because even once you’re convinced a postdoc is right for you, it can be challenging to find the right one. As we mentioned in Part I, many kinds of postdocs are not advertised, and postdocs that didn’t exist can sometimes be created (like other collaborations) through social networking. Frustratingly, someone may be planning to hire a postdoc that fits your description, one that would be downright ideal for you,  but if your name doesn’t pop into their head, you may never hear of the position. (We have on occasion heard of a position we would have applied to, after hearing that a co-sufferer on the job market was hired for it!) This is a truly flawed system, yes. But we want you here, and you want that postdoc. So how can you find one?

Our #1 piece of core advice is that you do not depend exclusively on your Phd supervisor, and that you take action as early as possible by doing the following. Keep in mind that while this can be terrifying for academic bookworms, it is also a great opportunity to grow your academic network. Conferences are a great way to do this, but we recognize that there are many, many reasons that you may not be able to make it to conferences. So we’re including here virtual networking tools as well, and would love to see more work-arounds in the comments.

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Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part I

Today’s guest post is brought to you by three post-docs:  Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University,  Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University


Part I. The what, why, and where’s of a postdoc position.

When we first spotted graduation on the horizon and realized, “OMG. I need a job!”, the realm of the postdoc was mysterious and opaque. What exactly is a postdoc? (Answer: Many things). Where are postdoc positions advertised? (Answer: Many places. Or sometimes nowhere.  Or sometimes they only exist if you create them). Can I just ask someone for a postdoc? (Answer: Yep…kinda.) When we each finally scored satisfying postdocs, we met women graduate students with all those same questions, had a chat about it, and decided that our answers could be useful more broadly. So, here they are.

Why you may want a postdoc

Postdocs are pretty standard in the physical sciences where it’s viewed as a necessary extension of Phd training, but postdocs are also becoming more common in the social sciences and the humanities. Why? It’s a little bit about the carrot and a little bit about the stick.

  • Postdocs are a way to get a paycheck for academic work while riding it out for another year on the job market.
  • Postdocs pay better (around $50k in 2015), and look better on your CV than another year in graduate school, or a year of adjunct teaching.
  • Postdocs can provide training in new skills (research, teaching and mentoring).
  • Postdocs can help you build research collaborations with a new lab or school.

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