A Strange Birthday

It was DH’s birthday today (happy birthday, DH!), so we took off work early, had a late lunch together at a nice restaurant, and went to see Dr. Strange. I admire the Cumberbatch cheekbones as much as any straight woman, but the movie itself was not much more than cute and entertaining, which is a shame — they had a kick-ass cast that could have pulled off a much more complex story, but I don’t think complex stories get filmed with budgets that can afford the kick-ass cast…

Strange cheekbones

So we got to behold a bald Tilda Swinton looking wise and eternal, finally delivering a 2-minute soliloquy where she got to show off her acting chops. Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange basically played House, MD who acquired a goatee, a cape (an excellent comedic actor in its own right, similar to the flying carpet from Aladdin), and some serious spell-weaving and time-bending skills. The space-distortion effects were cool, but we’d seen them already in Inception.


DH and I had some time to talk (uninterrupted! for more than 5 min! while we were both reasonably awake!) and he seemed a bit bummed out about getting older, along the lines of “there’s more behind than ahead.”

I don’t mind getting older per se. I’ve done the big things (the career I wanted, great kids), so I am actually quite looking forward to the years with less childcare and more time to enjoy the world and to learn for pleasure (arts, music, languages); my concern is staying healthy enough not to drop dead prematurely. And, while I don’t mind getting older, I often think about what lies ahead, professionally and personally, beyond kids.

A colleague my age and with the exact same Google Scholar h-index just got elevated to fellow status in a professional society. This colleague is an all-around great guy: a great researcher, mentor, and teacher, as well as a department citizen who pulls his weight in service duties, so I do not begrudge him even in the slightest and am 100% happy that he received this honor (of course, I congratulated him). What’s interesting to me here is that I was thinking about becoming a fellow of the same society earlier this year; I sent around a few inquiries about what’s needed and expected, and then I concluded that I was still too green for this honor, and that I wouldn’t even consider myself worthy until my h-index hit a certain higher value. This colleague also has a number of heavy-hitters in his corner, while I am always too embarrassed to ask people to do these things for me. Mostly I find it distasteful to bug people to write letters and nominations for me. I don’t mind owing things to people who might need something from me, too, but with these senior folks I feel like every time I ask for their time and effort I get deeper “in the red.” I wish not all recognition hinged on the endorsement from Esteemed Greybeards from Prestigious Unis.

A colleague with whom I talked about the fellowship a few months ago said that her experience was that her community was really supportive and nurturing, and propelled their members towards recognition. However, I believe her vantage point is that of a Golden Child. I don’t think my community is nearly as tight-knit and definitely nowhere nearly as supportive. People get accolades late in their careers. It’s exhausting always being the only woman or a rare token woman, and thus thrown into varied professional service (but not necessarily into accolades) at an earlier career stage. (Why am I in this professional community, again?)

To wrap up this meandering midlife-crisis outpour, I am over a decade into a faculty career and I don’t have it all figured out. I am a good teacher and scientist, and I believe I am a good and effective mentor. But that’s not enough for sustained success, as sustained success requires moving up and up, which requires a network of prominent supportive elders. A junior colleague mentioned how I was now one of the elders, and I do try my best to be supportive of junior colleagues. But there is only so much I can do by writing kickass letters alone (and I do write very good ones); I could be more helpful if I were more famous and decorated myself, which surely requires good technical work, but also the support that I don’t really have… The chicken and the egg.

Which is why one needs to escape into the movies with all the cheekbones.


  1. I’m not quite in the same spot, but realizing I can apply next year for senior membership in a professional society and having the same thoughts about needing those elders. I have some people I can ask, but I feel like I don’t really have that support…and it bothers me because other people have it without trying that hard. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised and it won’t be a struggle, but I’m not hopeful.

  2. Yeah, we women have it beat into our heads that we have to be overqualified in order to apply for literally everything! I totally relate….!

    My only solution as a senior academic scientist/professor myself, is to learn to firmly ignore that voice in your head that tells you to pull back. After all, there isn’t any penalty for being ambitious and going for stuff even if you aren’t quite qualified yet–just stuff in your head that tells you that you should prioritize above everything else the goal of not being annoying and making everyone like you so very very much and think about you with warm fuzzies and nothing else.

    But you should note that 100% of the male scientist leaders at your institution (Dept chairs, leaders of institutes, etc) have at least some faculty who do not like them and criticize them openly. It comes with the positions.

    So let other people turn you down, don’t turn yourself down for those opportunities that you want!

    And if a few people think you’re getting “uppity”, and even tell you this to your face, so be it. You can’t take all such feedback seriously.

    We as women have to recognize that there is no guaranteed perfect way to be a woman in this society. Lots of people, including even at your workplace, are probably going to disapprove of you no matter what you do (or don’t do), based mainly on their gender-based conscious and/or unconscious biases–it has nothing to do with whether you are truly prepared etc for a new role or not.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot about how our perception of things colors our view of reality, sometimes in an unrealistic way. So my first thought about this post is – how do you know that the men who are getting these awards aren’t shamelessly self-promoting and working it behind the scenes? Calling in favors that they will never be able to repay? I hear talk about how some communities are more supportive and go more out of their way to set their people up for awards like this (and I don’t argue with this, it is most definitely true). But I know that my contemporaries who are the “superstars” of the field also spend a lot of time “working it”. You don’t get these kinds of accolades if you don’t put yourself out there, and I suspect that you’re unlikely to get them the first or even second time you try. So get out there and work it, girl!

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