Life Happens

New assistant professors, plotting their paths to tenure, need to remember that the road is rarely smooth, writes Terri E. Givens.
August 10, 2009

Despite the economic downturn, there will be a few new assistant professors starting jobs in the next month or two. The transition from graduate student to professor is an exciting time, but it can also be the beginning of many life changes. When I was offered my first job at the University of Washington it seemed like everything was falling into place for a smooth transition to being a professor and eventually getting tenure. I had grown up in Spokane, and five of my siblings (I’m the youngest of 7) lived in Seattle. It seemed like a perfect situation in which to start a family and get my academic career underway.

I was a bit older than the typical assistant professor because I had spent six years between undergrad and grad school working in the nonprofit sector. My husband and I wanted to start a family, even though I had been told by my graduate advisers to wait until after I got tenure, but that would have put me beyond 40 (I actually got tenure the year I turned 41). We were very fortunate to have our first son during my second year at UW. Having family nearby was a huge benefit when I was able to talk my oldest sister into watching my son when I had to go back to teaching.

Despite getting the year off the tenure clock, I knew I had to focus on rewriting the dissertation, otherwise the material would get stale and I would have to do a lot of new research. I arranged with a colleague to share a nanny over the summer and planned to write a few chapters of the book. I invited my parents to the political science department graduation that year, so that they could spend time with my son and see me in my role as a professor. It was great to have them meeting my colleagues. Sadly, my dad died of a sudden heart attack two weeks later. It was at times like these that I felt very fortunate to have a large family, particularly my four sisters, for support. Since I was the lecturer in the family, I was asked to give the eulogy at my dad’s funeral.

My grief was mostly absorbed by the need to care for my nine month old son, but any plans for making progress on the book went by the wayside. I couldn’t focus, and in the meantime, there was my mother to deal with. We had to decide where she would live (she and my father had been spending their winters in Arizona), and figure out her role in what would become the tangled web of the family business. I did eventually make progress on the book, including making a trip to Denmark to add another country to my case studies a few months after my father passed.

Despite ongoing issues with my mother, things were going along well until the dot-com bust hit. My husband is an engineer, but Seattle wasn’t the best place for him. His talents in hardware design were better suited for a place like Silicon Valley. During the spring of my third year at Washington, he lost his job, and there were no real prospects for him in Seattle. On the positive side, I was awarded a fellowship for the next year. This ultimately meant a temporary move to the Bay area, where he had a job offer and I could work on finishing up my book and go on the job market.

It was an incredibly intense and wrenching year as we tossed around the idea of staying in Seattle (where the university was going through major budget issues), moving permanently to San Jose (where I had an offer of a postdoc at Berkeley), or a third option – moving to Austin, Texas where I had a job offer at the University of Texas. The situation was complicated by the fact that I was once again pregnant (a rather pleasant surprise), I preferred to stay in Seattle, and my husband preferred the Bay area where his family was located. In the end, my very supportive husband was willing to give up his career and being near his family if I wanted to stay in Seattle, I was willing to give up my tenure-track position and being near my family if he wanted to stay in the Bay area. We gambled and chose the compromise location. We would become Texans.

By the time we got to Austin, the book was ready to be submitted to the publisher for review, and I was ready to start a new challenge: being the mother of two boys. This was possible with the help of my oldest sister who moved temporarily to Austin to help with the second baby. My first year at UT was exhilarating. We were in the process of starting a new center for European studies and I was involved with hiring several new faculty members in my areas of interest. That summer I had a book contract in hand, and was well on my way to getting tenure. The following summer, my mother suffered a massive stroke that would take away her short-term memory. She had settled in Arizona and had been doing very well living independently since my father passed, but she would now need around-the-clock care. My sisters and I arranged for her to be moved to Seattle so she could be closer to the rest of the family.

The next few years would see my mother suffer several new strokes, go into a coma at one point, and for one entire summer I was on call, prepared to fly to Seattle at a moment’s notice. She survived and even improved somewhat, but she no longer recognized me when I would visit, and it was clear that she was slowly deteriorating. In the meantime, I juggled multiple writing projects, administrative duties, two young kids, managed to get tenure, and put myself in position to get to full professor. My oldest sister who had taken care of both of my children would face yet another crisis as her husband was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. It is at times like these that I regret that my career has led me to be so far from my family.

This has not been the academic career I imagined. I had visions of a straightforward life of the mind, research in Europe, and lots of publishing. I felt prepared for the rigors of juggling kids and a demanding career, but I was not prepared for the other ways that life (and death) would intrude. I am fortunate to have a large family. Unlike many of my colleagues, I do not have to deal on a daily basis with both aging parents and small children. Since my nieces and nephews are all grown, it is not as much of a burden on my siblings to care for my mother as it would be for me, even if I were nearby.

My message to young assistant professors is to expect the unexpected. Getting to tenure is not always the smooth road we expect it to be. Beyond the usual issues of getting published, we are at a time in our lives when spouses, aging parents and children impact our ability to be productive. The main piece of advice I can offer is to keep things in perspective, and be prepared for plans to be disrupted. Also, it is important to take care of yourself, which I have mainly done through running and exercise. I have been lucky to have a great deal of support from colleagues as I have gone through difficult times. It is important to keep in mind that you can get through these difficult times and remain a productive academic.

Universities are becoming more sensitive to family issues and many have developed special programs to help faculty deal with family crises. This trend needs to continue, as these issues will only become more critical as the baby boomer generation ages. It is in the best interest of academia to be proactive in supporting faculty with family issues, in order to keep their best and brightest on track to fulfill their potential.


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