One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What if... You Thrived on the Tenure Track?

This is a post about What if... You Thrived on the Tenure Track? at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Ceclia Aragon took a 14-year leave from graduate school.  In the time, she had two kids, was a stunt pilot (yup, in air shows), and worked for NASA.  When she was a little tired with the life of a badass rockstar, she finished her PhD and got a tenure-track position (she is now tenured).  She gives some advice about organic networking: It's easy to say that you should hang out with important people.  But what do you do when you're shy?  "I hang out with my friends, and now, guess what -- my friends are now important people."  She says that the life of an academic suits her perfectly because it lets her pursue the things that are interesting and to truly find balance in her home.  Jobs are more flexible, interesting, and fun at the top of the food chain, she says, and you work just as hard as in lower-level, less interesting jobs.  "Life balance works well when you have that kind of autonomy."

Magdelena Balazinska has a lot of accomplishments, but also a lot of failures: grant rejections, paper rejections, proposal rejections.  "Just don't list those," she says.  Focus on the positive.  She shows pictures of the house she and her husband designed and built, and her two children in various stages of infancy and toddlerhood.  How does she manage?  "I get help from anyone who's willing to help!  I do what I have to do, and I ask for what I need."  She flashes photographs of her husband with a baby during one business trip, and her mother with a baby during a conference in Greece where she had to present.  NSF panel in Washington, DC?  No problem -- a photograph of her and a baby outdoors with an explanation:  "You can just call in, and then nobody sees how you nurse your baby!"  Magdelena says, "I don't try to be perfect.  I just do what I can."

Following a different path, Anne Condon was an assistant professor when she was barely 25 years old -- and now her daughter, whom she had when in her first faculty job, is attending Grace Hopper Celebration.  "For me personally, the combination of the academic life and the family life is fantastic."  Anne gives some advice:

  • Work on important problems, because the unimportant ones aren't interesting and just aren't worth your time.
  • Communicate effectively -- and if you need to bulk up your public speaking skills, it's never too late.
  • Enjoy teaching others.
  • Build strong research support networks.  The research community is just not that supportive, she says.  "You might give a talk at a conference and there might be 20 people in the room, and 19 of them are on their laptops."  I think she looked at me, here, as I typed out that phrase.  Oops.
  • Persist in the face of challenges; and, of course, go for it!
Natalie Jerger just finished her 3rd year review on her way to tenure.  She suggests that one of the most important things is to find a supportive partner.  Next, set your priorities.  For her, she and her husband always eat dinner together -- this is an important thing for her.  Last priority?  Cleaning the house.  "Both me and my husband are professionals.  We don't have time to clean the house.  We don't have time to argue about whose turn it is to clean the house.  Hire a cleaning lady."  Professionally, seek out and work on problems that you find interesting -- problems that you are passionate about.  Develop a support netwrok and find good mentors, those whose interests and priorities align with yours.  Finally, practice saying "no" so that you aren't stuck in a situation that you don't enjoy.

Jodi Tims, when she was 4, taught her friends about arithmetic -- that's how early she knew that she would be a professor.  Like Magdalena, Jodi took a decade to finish her PhD.  Violating all her advisors' rules about what one should do while in grad school, she worked full time as an instructor, did her academic research, and had two children.  "You just find a way to balance that together," she said.  Her advice for aspiring academics:
  • Accept advice of good mentors.  This is as much about receiving good mentoring as it is about learning how to give good advice: "One day you wake up and realize, 'I'm the mentor!'"
  • Don't underestimate your potential
  • Focus on your students.  Mentoring your students is a form of teaching, and this is a service that you need to provide to your students.
  • Know your institution. You don't have to make it work if your expectations are not met.
  • Get involved beyond your institution.  This is where opportunities come from, to grow as a person and as a researcher.
  • Appreciate life beyond work. Family and friends make life worthwhile.
  • Enjoy the ride!

Questions were presented on index cards from the audience.

Q: How did you make the choice to go into academia?
Cecilia: In academia, you get to determine what is important.  You choose to perform research that has impact.
Magdalena: Apply everywhere, and make the decision with an offer in hand from both industry and academia.  The interviewing process is a lot of fun.  The reason I went into academia because the interview in academia was more fun than in industry.  One of the huge advantages in academia is not only that you get to pick what you work on, but also who you work with.

Q: We all know that tenure-track positions are hard to get.  Should we accept non-tenure-track positions (postdoc, industry), or hold out?
Cecilia: In 2004 I wanted to be a faculty member, but I wasn't ready (by publication count and preparation).  I took a job in an industry lab not really knowing if I would make the transition.  But I worked on making my CV look like I was an academic while keeping up in my industry job.  I wrote papers and attended academic conferences that came out of novel research in my job.  Choose the industry position or the post-doc that will be most suited to your goals. Have a deliberate plan.
Jodi: There are lots of schools out there that are not the R1 institutions.  If you really want to get into academia, consider going to lower-tier institutions.  Maybe the pay isn't as good, maybe you start on a non-tenure-track position, but keep your mind open to other options.

Q: Do you really need a post-doc nowadays to get a tenure-track position?
Anne: As someone that went straight into such a position without a post-doc, I think it's a good thing to do.  There is a maturity process that happens over that time; you meet different people and you investigate other institutions.  I encourage you not to rush through things if there is no reason not to.
Cecilia:  That's a great answer.  I have seen people that have gone straight through.  If you do it right from the very beginning of your PhD program -- you are publishing 2 papers in top conferences, you're networking with the top people in your field for 5 years -- then yes, you can get such a position.  But if you're like everyone else, you don't have the pedigree in your publication record, then yes, take a post-doc.  But make sure you choose your postdoctoral mentor carefully: they can make or break your career.  A post-doc is an apprenticeship.  You're getting paid less than you're worth.  But on the flip-side, you're getting priceless mentoring from someone that's going to show you the ropes and make you very marketable.

Q: How do you make the choice between academic offers, or between a research lab versus a university?
Magda: If you have no other constraints (e.g., personal ones), go to the best university, because you will work with better students.  The better the students, the easier it is for the faculty to do well.
Ioana: Go where the smarter people are and where there are more opportunities.
Cecilia: I put together a matrix of things that were important to me.  Vacation locations, startup package, what my family liked.
Natalie: The people.  Colleagues.  Also, my husband was leaving his job so I wanted to go somewhere that he had a choice
You have to go home every night and still be happy.

Q: Cecilia, you are shy. How do you overcome this and how does it impact your career?
Cecilia: Yeah, I am shy.  I miss important connections, and I just accept that.  I know that when I started interviewing, I did not mention certain rare accomplishments that few academics achieve, and I didn't mention my highly technical background in mathematics and algorithms.  The unsurprising feedback was that I wasn't technical enough, and I didn't get an offer from this institution.  I told myself that for future interviews, I'm going to brag, even if I don't like doing that.  I felt like I was acting kind of like a jerk, but I got offers.  It works.

Q: How do you publish, write grants, mentor students, etc., in your first years?
Natalie: At first, it was terrifying.  Teaching can suck up a lot of your time because it's the most urgent thing.  The hardest thing is to make time for the thinking, to think about problems, solutions, and what you're going to do next.  I think I messed up my first student.  And have someone in your life that can give you practical advice when you're stuck.

Q: How do you deal with stress?
Jodi: It's actually a very important question.  If you don't deal with it, it will impact everything that you do.  I have to get out and do something: ride my bike, go to the gym, jump on the treadmill.  And then I go do something else, make myself some space to think about something else.  Then things fall into place and things don't look so bad as when you left them.
Magda: I talk -- to my husband, my family, my friends.  But not colleagues.  That's why it is so important to have family and friends.

Q: Family is my first priority.  I want to be a professor, but the 7-year tenure time is prime baby time. I'm afraid that my male department won't like my priority of family dinners and baby-having.
Cecilia: Men, when they have to take care of a family obligation, they say, "I'm busy."  Women say, "I'm busy, I have to go take care of my kid."  So when you have to go take care of a family obligation, be more like a man, and say: "I'm busy."
Magda: I work and work and work, and at 5, I say, "I have to go."  And I leave.  And guess what, a lot of my male colleagues have to go too.  And after the kids are in bed I work and work and work.  Maybe I don't sleep always as much as I used to, but it works for me.  And when I need to, I do sleep.
Ioana: Having family as a priority is not a problem.  Being confident and admitting that is the way to go.  I wouldn't want to be hired by a family-unfriendly institution.  I was very open about my 2-body problem in my job search.  The places that were not very accommodating, I did not consider.

Q: What advice do you have for someone applying for a tenure-track position with a partner?  It's a 2-body problem with a similar area of computing.
Anne: I think it's good to bring it up reasonably early with the institution.  If one of you has got an interview, that is a good time to bring it up.  You may want to wait until you have an offer, but it is better to let them know sooner so that the university can work on this issue.  Institutions need time for this.  There are other options: a short-term position that can turn into something more permanent; maybe there is industry nearby.  Be flexible but know what you really want.  For the university, if you can attract two great people to your institution, it's amazing.

Q: What are you proud of that you have done outside your academic career that you wouldn't have been able to accomplish without an academic career?
Jodi: My academic career allows me to be flexible to do things like pursue mentoring with ACM-W and Grace Hopper Celebration
Anne: I got to take on many projects of national scope, such as the distributed mentor project and work through the Computing Research Association (CRA).

1 comment:

  1. What interesting information. I have been starting to look for NJ jobs since I will be graduating in May. I hope that I am as successful as these women are someday. Thanks so much for the inspirational article.


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