My Wiggly Jiggly Path to Tenure
This actually happened…
- I had a massive culture shock when I first moved to New York City to pursue my PhD at top R1 school.
- I was extremely mathematically underprepared and found myself in one of the most prestigious schools in the country among the smartest students in the world. I wanted to live in New York City, so I applied to a school there. I had no idea at the time what being at that amazing Mathematics Institute really meant.
- I had left two engagements in my home country, and had a heavy religious baggage to shed, alongside an incredibly demanding PhD program.
- I got married during my third year of graduate school, defended my thesis at my fifth year, while pregnant.
- I moved with my then husband to Michigan, where both of us were offered postdoc positions at another prestigious R1 school.
- I had my daughter in Michigan, got divorced, my ex-husband went to live in Mexico, and I became a single mother for a two year old. I did not have family, but I had great friends in Michigan and less than a year later I met a wonderful man.
- I applied for very few tenure track positions at liberal arts schools, and I got a tenure track position at a big liberal arts university in Virginia. I moved to Virginia with my daughter when she was three.
- My boyfriend and I had to split, and eighteen months later he died. Grieving his death while starting a new job in a new state with a small child was the most difficult thing I had gone through in my entire life.
- I went up early for tenure, and I got tenured, seven years after earning my PhD, four years after getting hired at my school.
So how did it happen?
- I never ever listened to all the “no’s” I was told. No one knew my circumstances and what I was battling while being at my job. I was confident of what I was capable of, only when I got time to focus on it. I was very O.K. with not having time to focus on my job. I did not feel guilty. I had this deep confidence that I was playing the hand I was dealt in the best possible way. I did not try to compete or compare myself to other people at the same level of my career.
- I was put down more times than you can ever imagine, both personally and professionally: “You do not have the skills to pursue a job outside academia,” when I was contemplating leaving academia.
- I really enjoyed my life, valued what I had and what I had accomplished. I was living my dream, my most powerful persisting dream, the one I had since I was a little girl: to be free. I was free. No one knew what I had gone through to get to be free. So as amazing and attractive being a professor in math is, it’s nothing compared to finally being free, day in and day out.
- I kept on working on research even though I knew I did not have the time to finish or publish it. There is a seven year break from publishing on my resume. I could not afford to worry about that.
- I got a job that valued my teaching, service, and was forgiving about my publishing break. When I was finally able to publish my projects, I went up for tenure and my application was successful.
- I applied for many small grants. When some got rejected I wrote to the grant directors and asked for feedback. I implemented their recommendations in my next proposals. I applied again. By the time I went up for tenure I had been able to secure over $90,000 in funding for various research and service projects.
- I rarely was able to focus on my job in my pre-tenure years, not because I did not want to, but because raising my daughter and providing her with the best kind of security: financial, housing and educational, were my priority. I always knew I would get back to my job full force, however these formative years for her were never going to come back, and no career can substitute giving her a solid foundation in life. It’s also a fact that no child under the age of seven gives a single parent any free time, so it’s not like I had much of a choice.
- I documented everything I did in my career, as related to: teaching, research, service, grants and mentoring students. This documentation came very handy when writing my tenure application.
- I became an awesome teacher, and cared tremendously about my students’ success.
- I felt grateful I had a beautiful home, a beautiful daughter, amazing friends, great sister who was incredible support via phone from Lebanon, a good paycheck, and an adventurous life full of travels. I always felt that if being a math professor did not work out, it did not matter, since what I have been able to overcome since I was sixteen has prepared me to be anything I wanted to be, when I wanted it.
When you are born and raised in a war, when you experience various losses and hardships: forced engagements, culture shocks, graduate school, new beginnings over and over, changing countries, jobs and states, death, heartbreak, motherhood and single motherhood; getting tenure, or not getting tenure, becomes the least of your worries, because you deeply believe that your heart is strong, loving and will survive.
I am very grateful I got tenured, and I love every moment of it. I am now more seasoned and productive. I love my research, students, and service. My daughter is eight. My path was so nonlinear.