How did I end up here?

I am a young female science professor in a tenure track job at a major research university.  That in itself is both a major accomplishment, and a very rare thing.  I look my age, or maybe a bit younger, and people who don’t know me usually assume I am a student.  New students who enter my office usually cannot hide their surprise upon meeting me, and some people have even asked me where the professor is.  When I first moved into the office, the department asked someone to come clean it after the recently retired prof who used to have the office moved out.  I happened to be there when the cleaning person came by, and she helpfully informed me that “a new professor is moving in” clearly thinking I could not possibly be that person despite being in that office.

Moving around the wider world, I don’t often mention my profession, but it sometimes happens that I meet a new person or strike up a conversation with a stranger, and my profession comes up.  People react with surprise, every time.  Sometimes, with extreme surprise and disbelief, even thinking I am joking.  I am now purposefully vague unless asked specifically about what I do.

All I did was follow what seemed to be the most obvious path at just about every decision point in my life.  I was smart and did well in high school, so I went to college and majored in my favorite subject (a science).  I did well there and liked it, so I went on to grad school.  I did well there and still enjoyed it, so I went off to an academic postdoc, then a faculty job.  I never skipped any grades, spent 4 years in college, 5.5 years getting my Ph.D., and 2 years as a postdoc.  Not so weird for someone who always wanted to be a scientist.

And yet, it’s very lonely where I am now.  My colleagues in my department, while nice people, are almost all men much older than I am.  There is only one other woman besides me in the department, and we are decades apart in age.  The professor closest to me in age in 8 years my senior, and while friendly, we aren’t particularly close.  How did I become such an anomaly, when all I did was follow what seemed like a straight-forward path?

Keeping it all going

No one expects that being a professor and a mom to an autistic toddler is easy.  It really isn’t, but not always in the ways people might expect.

Caring for the autistic kid is actually probably easier than most people think, at least in our case.  Our daughter is very high functioning, and other than some sensory related meltdowns, is a fairly happy kid.  She gets frustrated when she can’t communicate something she wants, but so does every toddler.  In fact, every weekday evening from 5:30-7:00 PM we have our ABA implementers around to help out.  Lately kiddo has wanted to do her ABA therapy in her basement playroom – which is wonderful.  She and the implementer stay down there and husband and I can make dinner and eat together in peace.  This is a recent development, it used to be that kiddo was constantly running away from therapy to me and demanding to be picked up.  So things on that front have gotten easier.

On the work front, it’s summer, so that means no teaching at the moment.  But stress levels are still very high.  As my mother keeps reminding me, I have a proposal deadline coming up. Seriously, when do parents stop nagging you about homework?  Apparently not when you become a professor, at least in my case.  Note to other profs: Do not tell your parents about impending proposal deadlines.  I don’t know why I ever did.

Of course I also have to prep my fall class, get a paper out, advise a student, and a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve recently had my own health scare that is most likely nothing, but has resulted in me having a TON of doctor’s appointments and tests.  Last week I had a cardiologist appointment, a kidney ultrasound, and a cardiac MRI, all of which showed me to be perfectly healthy.  But it’s an extra drain on my time and stress levels, and the docs want me to do more tests, ugh.

So with all this, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some things slip through the cracks occasionally.  This week, I managed to annoy the front office staff of my department because I was supposed to sign a form by a specific date and I went to sign it the day after the deadline.  The deadline was pretty much the same day we got the forms because of the end of the fiscal year.  Apparently they were looking for me on Tuesday to get this signature, but I had some other stuff to take care of on Tuesday and wasn’t around.  So when I talked to them on Wednesday I got comments like “No one ever knows where you are, you’re not around.”  And other annoyed comments.  At first I was embarrassed but then I realized a few things: 1) I’m a professor.  I don’t work for or report to the office staff.  and 2) It’s summer, which means the university isn’t paying me for my time.  Many people may not know this, but professors actually aren’t paid for the summer months unless we find our own money through grants.  So I feel like they can’t really fault me for not being around for a day, after all, I’m still working for the university over the summer without pay from them.  (I did have 1 month of pay from a grant, but 2 months are completely unpaid for me).

Perhaps part of the problem is imposter syndrome, and I certainly have some of that.  It probably doesn’t help that I am female and younger than both of our front office employees, by a decent margin.  In fact I’m younger than some of the graduate students, which can make it a bit awkward if I try to exercise my professorial authority.  Also, I am someone who is very easily embarrassed and I suffer from a high level of anxiety, for which I take medication but it’s still a problem for me.  So for now, as silly as it is, I’m avoiding the front office completely.


Things they don’t tell you: Professor edition

My route into an academic career was fairly straightforward.  I got a bachelor’s degree (3.5 years).  I went to graduate school and got a PhD (5.25 years).  I did a postdoc (2 years).  Total years of post-high school training: 10.75.  And yet, almost all of that training focused on either learning new things, and/or performing research to discover new things.

It turns out of course that a professor’s job is a lot more than learning new things and doing research.  In fact, the large majority of a professor’s time is spent doing neither of these things.  So what are we doing?  The obvious answer is teaching, and during the academic year, teaching and preparing to teach does take up a lot of time.  Other duties include writing grant proposals to obtain research funds, advising graduate students, providing peer review services for journals and funding agencies, and lots of administrative and related duties (such as various types of committee service).  With the exception of a tiny amount of grant writing experience, and 2 quarters of TA experience (mainly grading), none of my training prepared me for all these job duties that actually comprise the majority of my job.  Certainly I have next to no training in managing all these competing duties.

Lots of people have written about how the transition into an assistant professorship is hard, and it is.  More than being difficult though, it’s bewildering.  I constantly have a million questions that people don’t realize I don’t know the answers to.  Like, how do I give my TA the ability to put grades into Blackboard?  How do I access the university’s online purchasing system?  What are the specific rules regarding how I can spend my start-up funds?  What’s a reasonable about of time to sacrifice to reviewing others’ work?  How do I use the department copier?  How do I order computers? How do I recruit decent graduate applicants?  What should I look for when reading graduate applications?  It’s not fun admitting ignorance about all things large and small to to all of your colleagues, so I have figured out a group of 3ish professors in the department I feel comfortable asking potentially stupid questions.  I try to rotate through them so that no one sees the complete scope of my ignorance or is annoyed with constant questions.  I’m probably overthinking this.

I recently got my first grant funded (woo hoo!).  While that’s great news, it gives me even more questions.  When and how will I get my grant money?  Will the money match what I asked for in my budget? What are the rules regarding reallocating funds from one line item to another?  What are the rules regarding when money must be spent by?

The main point I’m trying to make here is that if my experience is any guide, new professors are very confused people!  There is so much that was just taken care of for us when we were students and postdocs, but now we’re thrown head first into the machine that is a large university, and just trying to figure it all out.

Fake it ’til you make it

The phrase “fake it ’til you make it” has been popping up in my head a lot lately.  I am teaching my first college level course as a professor.  Not that I haven’t taught before, but this feels different.  No one is watching me, no one is checking that I am teaching the material well, or even the right material.  The class of about 50 students is all mine, to teach whatever I want to, for 3 hours a week.  Even though the material is fairly basic, and the course materials mostly recycled from a previous iteration of the course, and even though I have a PhD, I still feel like I have no business being at the front of that class.  So I’m just faking it, and I think it’s going well enough.

The funny thing is, I realized recently that no matter how much you “fake it” you never really “make it.”  At least, not in the sense of losing that feeling of faking your way through something.  A more senior colleague who is a full professor in my department confided that this semester she is teaching a new graduate level course, and it’s difficult and stressful for her.  In an academia, full professor is pretty much as high as you can go.  She has definitely “made it” career wise. So if she’s still faking confidence in teaching, then apparently this phase may never end.  At least I know I’m not alone!