Friday, December 02, 2005

The Shocking True Story of How I Became a Mom...Seeking Tenure

My mother and father are both PhD chemists. This explains much about me. When we blew a fuse I got a lecture on electricity. When my mom made gravy she talked about starches polymerizing. My dad measured crisco by water displacement and explained the concept of specific gravity as he helped my mom make apple pies. I am the fourth of five children.
Three of us are scientists.

Yes, my mother has a PhD and raised five children. Not that I feel inadequate or anything.

I went to a small liberal arts college because I had so little confidence in myself in high school that I couldn't face a large school. I went there because my English teacher recommended it (I had an enormous crush on him). I was always little miss straight A's. Quite annoying. In college I wanted to major in English, then psychology, then Russian, then, finally, Chemistry. I switched my major at the end of my junior year and therefore took nothing but chemistry my senior year. I squeeked out a 4.0 anyway. My senior year I also started dating my husband. When I graduated all I wanted was to be with him, so I moved to his state and got a job with a pharmaceutical company. We got married and I decided I wanted to go to grad school to do "something environmental". You must recall that this was in the days before the internet made finding and applying to grad school really easy. I ended up at my grad school at Extremely Prestigious Private University (EPPU) quite by accident. I was my advisor's first graduate student. She turned out to be possessed by the devil, but that is a whole other story. I am also leaving out the mess that our move to EPPU wreaked (wrought?) on my marriage.

After the standard 5 years, I was very near to graduating. My husband was offered a chance to transfer within his company to the land of his birth. I looked for a job there and was extremely lucky to find the ideal post-doc at Fatherland State University (FSU), working for a big, famous, guy (BFG). By the time I defended (Nov 30, 1998, I remember it well), I was 2 months pregnant.

First day of post-doc:
BFG: "I'm going on sabbatical."
Me: "I'm pregnant."

The first two years at FSU were mostly spent falling asleep in various seminars. I wrote only one paper. But a funny thing happened in year 3. BFG took a job on another continent in order to be near his family (who had for years been living on said continent, thousands of miles away). BFG left behind a fully-equipped lab, several students in various stages of their studies, about $1 million in grants, and contacts with various people who control the purse strings of local funding agencies. I pretended that I knew what the hell I was doing and took it all over. I figured as long as I paid for the pizza at the lab meetings, they would believe that I was in charge and take orders from me. And they did! FSU made me a "Laboratory Researcher" and then a Research Professor (about 60% of my salary was "soft money"). I got grants. I published. My department chair loved me, especially because my department started to lose all the people in my specialty and had no one to teach classes. I taught two classes per year and my course evaluations were good. The Dean knew who I was because I analyzed samples for some of his research. My dept chair played an astute political game and got me hired onto the tenure track despite a FSU-wide hiring freeze.

So here I am. When BFG left, I wasn't sure if I could handle being a professor. Especially when I got pregnant about 3 days after he jetted into the sunset. I promised myself that I would give it 40 hours a week. If I couldn't get tenure on that, then I would quit and go into consulting (thereby tripling my salary, by the way). I never really wanted to be a professor, especially after watching my PhD advisor work seven days a week for five years. But when they drop an opportunity like mine in your lap, you'd be an idiot not to at least give it your best shot, right? and so far I am doing pretty good.

There were many times that first year when child #2 got 7 ear infections and had four bouts of the flu that I thought about quitting. But when I seriously started to consider what I would do if I quit, I realized that I couldn't afford to stay home, and there was no other job I could think of that would give me the flexibility of schedule and the first-class medical benefits of the one I've got. So I decided to stick with it until they fired me because my performance was so bad or because I didn't get tenure. I figured by then my kids would be older and life would be easier.

My friend Donna was telling me that every time she complains to her mom about how tough it is to be a professor, her mother just laughs, because her mom worked factory jobs and night shifts and stuff. We forget sometimes how easy our jobs are. In college I worked in the meat department of a grocery store. This job is much easier. I come and go as I please and I can wear jeans to work. What more can a girl ask for?


Blogger PhD Mom said...

Thank you so much for your story. I can deeply sympathize with your situation. I had both of my kids in grad school, and experienced similar difficulties. (About a year with no pubs, and worse yet, no data, lots of sleeping). Things have ironed our for me, and I am about to begin a faculty position. Like yourself I plan to dedicate my 40 hours a week and hope for the best. Please let me know how this is working for you.

-PhD Mom

12:56 PM  

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