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.

Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not.

Care work of all kinds (self care, elder care, child care) is often not valued by academic institutions –at least in terms of letting students, staff, and faculty use time, money, energy for those tasks while having the resources to continue excelling at their jobs). And that’s unfortunate, because care work (+ other kinds of unpaid labor – emotional, organizational, and physical) is still highly gendered and stigmatized.   Recognizing the common threads between these kinds of care work that women do can help workers better organize together and institutions create policies that recognize all the forms of care demanded of women, not just childcare of babies + infants and not just for tenure track faculty.

[And having no kids (or elders or pets) to care for can still be held against women in the workplace, as managers can expect them to be workaholics (“put their career first”) or potentially even cover for folks who have care responsibilities. The 1-body problem is real, in multiple ways.]

But today I want to specifically talk about the penalties women in the academy occur for having multiple children.

It’s like the patriarchy up and decided “fine, ladies, you can have a kid and still be considered a working professional – but just this once” — as if choosing to have a kid again is abusing the supposed privileges that come with it.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Searching for an academic position on maternity leave

Today’s guest post is by Chicken_little. Chicken_little is a postdoc in clinical psychology in the midst of an existential career crisis – but officially in search of an academic position. She studies the impact of mindfulness interventions in various populations, although she very often forgets to practice mindfulness in her daily life. When she is not working or reading funny academic tweets, she is the proud mom of a baby boy. 


I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to finish a manuscript. I can hear my son yelling in his crib, refusing to take his nap. As I try to concentrate on bringing the finishing touches to my soon-to-be submitted paper, I can’t help but feel incredibly guilty of, once again, favoring my work over my son. The appeal of a tenure-track position is big, and so is the pressure to be productive and to get out several manuscripts this year, even though I am (supposed to be) on maternity leave.

Thank goodness my spouse is home and is there to soothe the baby. Being a postdoc and working from home does have benefits : I was able to transfer my maternity leave to my partner, so we can both spend some time with our son in his first year of life. But let’s be honest here : having him at home only means that I can get more work done, as he watches the baby. I am trying to make things happen for my career all the while he is putting his own on hold. This better pay off.

This is what I have learned so far on being a mom and a postdoc in search of an academic position at the same time : Continue reading

Getting out of a hole

Last year sucked for me in an epic way. Health problems and personal losses, compounded by a long-distance spouse, made me realize just how tenuous pre-tenure life is. When your everyday status is “barely treading water,” there’s no leeway for life to throw curve balls*. I was already overcommitted and doing too much service. Then I hurt myself. My dad got cancer. I had a string of demoralizing events. I ended a couple of long-term close friendships that had become toxic over the years.

I got behind. A lot. And I felt like I didn’t have much of a safety net yet in my new job, so I didn’t ask for help. I avoided the things that were stressing me out. I stopped taking care of myself, partly because of my injury, but partly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I dropped balls. A proposal never got submitted. A paper was late, and another one stalled. I didn’t make progress on a workshop commitment. I missed a couple of reviews.

I felt like a failure, and this just exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Lack of progress on my health goals meant pushing back trying for a baby by another year. I regretted not having gotten my reproductive act together sooner, before I lost my dad. I felt like I had no one I could talk to about any of this. I didn’t want my mentors to think I wasn’t worth the time they’d put into me. My family was already suffering and didn’t need me to worry about. I didn’t want to lean too much on my friends or my partner. I felt so self-conscious about not being invincible.

I made a lot of mistakes in the lead-up to my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year that set me up to have a harder time than I needed to. And then I made poor choices in how I handled (or didn’t handle) what life threw at me. Once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out. Much harder, I think, than avoiding the hole in the first place. So what should I have done differently? Continue reading

On seeking accommodations in school

I’ve known for a long time that accommodations are a Thing–that is, that they existed.  About a year back, TSW had an excellent guest post on this very topic, outlining what sorts of accommodations exist, who qualifies for them, and some of the hurdles folks face in moving through the system.  I hope for this post to serve more as a personal case study, to describe my experience in requesting accommodations for the first time, and to offer any insight I might have gained from the experience.

I’ve written a bit already about my mental health.  As I mentioned in that post, I have pretty serious depression, but I’ve found a combination of therapy, medication, and physical activity that keep me pretty darn happy and stable.  That said, though, most of my first year in grad school has been tougher than it needed to be due to my housing situation. Continue reading