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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Some Random Thoughts from a (New) Full Professor
March 12, 2009 - 11:04pm

I learned this week that I am being promoted to “full professor”. This is exciting, but also a little scary, as, for the first time in my academic career, I don’t have a new, established, goal to work towards. I am going to spend the next few weeks trying to decide what my “next step” is; should I write a book, finish a few articles, or finally bring an economic major onto campus? These will be weeks of discernment.

As I realize that this last academic hurdle has been met, I want to take a few minutes to share some random thoughts with those who may be earlier in the process. Remember, (as I write about in Mama, Ph.D.) these are coming from someone whose academic career was very nonlinear, and included a run-in with a brain tumor that almost cost me my life, my dreams and my career. I hope they shed some insight into the process for those just beginning it.

1. Find a mentor, and, if possible, find a woman mentor. It is good to have someone who has been there to give you advice and to help you navigate the system and the trade-offs involved in trying to have both an academic career and a family. I will be forever grateful to several women who helped me along the way.

2. Think carefully about the sacrifices you make for tenure. I entered my career thinking that I would earn tenure at about age 33 and then have children (I think I just assumed that a husband would show up along the way, which he did.) In reality, I adopted my daughter at age 40, only weeks after earning tenure at my second job. Life does not always work out the way we plan. I was willing to make many sacrifices to earn tenure, not ever considering an alternative life plan for myself. And then my health issues made many decisions for me. Today, many women see things differently. I am amazed at two younger colleagues of mine who each had two children on the way to tenure. One talks of writing her tenure dossier at the computer while nursing her newborn.

3. Strive to find a position that nurtures your soul. We are the modern equivalent of the contemplative cloistered religious communities of the middle ages, and we should take advantage of this luxury. Look for a teaching-research mix that helps you grow as a scholar and person, and don’t let well-meaning graduate school professors tell you what combination you should pursue.

4. If things start to go poorly, start looking for another job. You don’t have to take one, but at least keep your options open, if for no other reason but to give you perspective on your own situation. I was very good as a student at writing a good final paper or acing a final exam, therefore being able to pull off a good grade in my classes at the last minute. As much as we want it to, tenure doesn’t really work that way. If the fit with your department is not good, it might be a better use of your energy to look for an alternative position rather than try to fit in where you don’t naturally fit. And it is certainly better than changing your personality or opinions, political or otherwise, just to be accepted. Being a “voice in the wilderness” may seem like an honorable alternative, but, as someone once told me, remember what happens to most prophets.

5. In the end, it is all about the students. They are the reason why you are a teacher, and they are the recipients of your passion for your subject. I just received a congratulatory note from a friend from college, and in it he mentioned two professors I had over 20 years ago, both of whom have since died. However, I think of both of them often, as I struggle to be the best teacher I can be. Your legacy lives on in your students in ways that mean much more than you can ever imagine.

6. As one of my graduate school teachers was fond of saying, and, as my recent promotion illustrates, “bigger fools than I have done this.” Good luck!


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