In Which I Feel Sorry for My Former Self

We have had a wave of new hires, so we now have well over a dozen assistant professors. This is great for the department.

When I was hired, I was alone. No one for two years ahead of me and for several years after me. There were two people hired at the same time as me, but one was an awful person whose contract wasn’t extended after year three, and the other left after a year to take a job at a university in Europe.

I had two senior people assigned as department mentors, but they were both clear about not wanting to be bothered, so I didn’t bother them. One was a senior man I was afraid of, being that he struck me as someone who’d vote against my tenure if I ever showed any weakness. The other was a superstar woman who was in principle friendly and available, but in practice it would take her weeks to respond to my emails (by which time I had already acted on whatever the problem was) and she always treated me with a veneer of pleasantness over a clear undercurrent of annoyance, so I quickly stopped asking her for stuff. I did receive most advice from a couple of collaborators outside the department.

As for commiseration, there was no one. I met two people from a related department during orientation and initially hung out with them, but they were both single yet immediately became strangely attached to one another in a way they insisted was platonic but that seemed weirdly codependent to me (they eventually married and remain), so I was a third wheel there, and, again, didn’t feel I was really needed.

I honestly felt, most of the time, that nobody gave a shit what I did and how and that I was most definitely on my own.

These days, I am a mentor to one junior faculty who I believe comes and talks to me whenever he likes (I see him multiple times per week, as he’s across the hall from me). He’s doing great, going up for early tenure. I don’t think I have much of a role in his success other than to generally try and provide a welcoming environment and be a sounding board. I’ve recently received my second mentoring assignment.

Other than mentoring, there is so much more that we as a department collectively do for these junior folks that didn’t happen when I was on the tenure track. For example, they have teaching relief built into their tenure track — not just a lower load, but an option to have a semester without any teaching; that would have come in handy when I had kid No 2 on the tenure track. Moreover, there are so many assistant professors that they can find a friendly cohort and do some peer mentoring. There is much more and much better mentoring than I had as an assistant professor (I never had a meeting with department chair and both my mentors, which we now do once every semester).

I am happy that the new folks are having an easier time than I did, but I must admit that I have other feelings mixed in:

a) I feel sad for my tenure-track self. It felt so lonely.  I wonder if it would have been easier if someone had given a little bit of help or a pat on the back.

b) I don’t know that I can offer the mentoring that they need to these junior folks. They are all much more ballsy than I ever was, seem like they have their shit together, and command much greater resources from the outset.

I feel like a dinosaur, like my experiences are from another era. The era with no help and nobody giving a shit. What a difference a decade-and-a-half makes! Also none of the junior faculty have children. My experience on the tenure track was colored in every way imaginable by having kids (one in grad school, one midway through the tenure track, one post tenure)—the inability to go to the social gatherings and orientations and whatnot after work and on weekends; the never-ending exhaustion.

I feel like I ended up being depleted by everything — work, life — before I ever really reached my full potential. Even when I worked my hardest, there were weights around my ankles that prevented takeoff.

I believe DrugMonkey writes about this sometimes, that Gen X scientists haven’t reached their full potential. I can definitely see my tiny cohort being completely outnumbered into irrelevance by  the junior people.


  1. I am not so sure if having too many assistant professors go up for tenure on the same year from the same department is good for them, however. There is sometimes a tendency from upper administration to ration the “goodies” to a single department, especially if the standing of the said department is not that great within the college.

  2. That’s so depressing. Your post just makes me think that having kids while on the tenure-track is a huuuge mistake.

  3. So to that point about kids: How is taking time off while on the TT handled? I’m up for tenure early, so I’m not necessarily concerned about a drop in productivity with regard to tenure status, but I am concerned about keeping grant agencies and collaborators happy while I take time away.

  4. That does sound awful. I got hired in a cohort of three in my department, one of whom is my partner (praise the dual hire gods), and the third we both get along with fine (though we are concerned about their edginess for their own sake). Though having someone to constantly obsess over stuff with at home isn’t always 100% upside… Since my partner is going to have to get a tenure clock extension (lab reno snafu) it will be interesting to see how our future offset play out in practice.

  5. Phindustry, in my experience it’s not a big deal in terms of your publication record (and hence granting agencies). If you looked at my CV, you would have no idea when I had kids, because there’s such a lag between drafting and publication that the small productivity drops of a few months here and there aren’t visible. As for teaching, at this uni there is no uniform policy beyond what all staff have, so each department has its own policies. I remain the only woman who has ever had a kid on the tenure track in my department (that was my middle kid, who’s 11.5 now). He was born in May so I took the summer off and was back in the fall. With my third, I had tenure and he was born in June and I had the next year on sabbatical (also got invited to sub full proposal for what would be my half-a-million grant about a week after I had my third). Women seem to find some way to get teaching release, but again so far a grand total of four have had kids, the last one just now had her her first in her early forties, many years after the TT (on sabbatical). When you have your first kid, the first 2-3 months are quite brutal, but it’s not like you won’t be able to do anything. You will be able to do some work, definitely enough to keep up with collaborations. It’s actually once you go back to work full time and the kid to childcare that they get sick and you end up having to miss random stuff, or aren’t able to (or want to) travel as much because you have a baby at home… Basically, people think that the postpartum time is the biggest problem, but I always found that to be false. It’s the several years afterwards while the kid is still little and needs you that you find your ability to do stuff definitely isn’t what it used to be. (There is nothing that instills dread in the heart of a young parent, esp mom, as seeing the daycare number show up on your phone, because it can only mean one thing — kid has fever or threw up and has to be picked up ASAP and stay home for likely days). Good luck!

  6. Hunh. I actually think/hope I’ll probably feel the same way you do in a few years. I’m the only junior faculty member in my department right now (also the only woman), didn’t get any formal mentoring to speak of (other departments are much more on top of it than ours at our university, and there are movements afoot to standardize formal mentoring across the university), and had one kid pre-tenure and am about to have another in my tenure year (most likely tomorrow!). I would really like to change some things for the next generation of faculty, particularly the laissez faire approach to junior faculty mentoring that my department has taken (your situation is even better than mine, because you actually had two mentors assigned to you even if they were useless!). I now (after requesting it explicitly) have the superstar senior woman mentor in a closely related department who is amazing when I do talk to her once in a blue moon but in practice never available. We’re a small department so there will never be a cohort of junior faculty, but already my university does a MUCH better job of helping to build cohesion between junior faculty in different departments than they did when I started (and it really didn’t help that I started in January and therefore wasn’t around for some of the new faculty bonding time in the fall, even though I did attend the so-called new faculty orientation, which was a total waste of time but sounds like it has gotten much more comprehensive in recent years).

    I guess my takeaway here is that it sounds like overall your university is doing a good job of working on the issue of junior faculty mentoring and cohort-building. I suspect that many/most universities are still stuck in the dark ages that you experienced. Mine sure seems to be, though I do see hopeful signs that they may yet evolve. If the tenure gods are kind this year I’ll be eager to be part of that process to help toss a rope to the women who are trying to climb up behind me.

  7. I agree with Lyra211, your university sounds absolutely enlightened when it comes to junior faculty mentoring compared to ours. Our current cohort of 2 junior faculty are having a much harder time of it than I did. The politics in the department have changed, and they unfortunately work in fields where we have some senior people with very strong opinions who are very outspoken. I’m doing my best to help them through, but as I received no formal mentorship, I’m unsure of even where to begin.

    On the positive side, we do offer 1 quarter of teaching relief for the arrival of each child, whether pre-tenure or post-tenure. I had two kids pre-tenure, and the quarter off from teaching was very helpful. I completely agree that the hardest part of faculty parenting occurs once you return to work and the babies/toddlers get sick. Misery!!! So glad that my family has finally outgrown that part of childhood. 🙂

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