Life lessons from Maria

Yesterday we had the facts. Today, I want to talk about take home lessons. (almost wrote lesions. them too).

One of the things that happens as one grows up is that one becomes adult in corpus if not in mentis. As an assistant professor, the process may not be complete, but it is sufficiently advanced that “I didn’t know”, “no one told me” and “it’s not fair” are no longer acceptable. They are not acceptable as excuses, reasons, justifications, and not acceptable to cross one’s lips to anyone who does not already know where one has buried ones bodies. It is certainly not acceptable to a senior faculty who will immediately brand you with snowflake disease, or to colleagues/peers who already know that it’s not fair, and is not ever going to get more fair, and will be irritated with you for bringing it up.

This is not just academia. This is nearly any job that any adult holds. Nor is the “unfairness” some deity extracting vengeance for insufficient worship. This is not “luck”, in the “I always have bad luck” sense. Nor is it a sinister plot by evil BlueHairs and GreyBeards to Destroy Your Life. Really, they do not care that much about you to waste energy destroying your life.

Most of the horrible things that happen to you are random events that occur in an extremely large interconnected system (life) that have proximate causes that can (sometimes) be traced backwards (a little bit). They often appear random, but given that they are the actions, or the results of actions, of some other human bean, then to that human they are hardly random. Get over it.

That such events are random, pseudo-random, or even just appear random, does not mean that one cannot take action to reduce their occurrence in one’s life. Chance may only favor the prepared mind, but tenure committees favor the prepared junior faculty. [Note the only is part of Pasteur’s original quote: Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.]

As a junior faculty, learn what you can. Talk to people. Ask all the questions. Visit the head of the college/school tenure committee. Ask for advice. Show people your CV. Go to at least one, but no more than two workshops on tenure at your institution. Take note of things that are consistent advice (most likely publish more), and things that are inconsistent across people, books or workshops.

For Maria to say “no one told me that protected time means I have to publish” is absurd. Did someone who had done a significant glamour PhD & postdoc, gotten an R01, etc etc, think that not publishing for four years was going to be OK? This is the tragedy of glamour pubs, and glamour careers. As is true of owning-class kids, glamour scientists really think they are special, that publishing in less than S/N/C is beneath them, and that somehow what ever they do is going to be ok in the end. It’s not.

Do not let your professional career take you by surprise. Do not be a “pure-boy of science” to whom all presentation and style and politics is dirty and irrelevant to content. Of course, the science, the results, the substance of what we do is why we do it. But the world, my young colleague, is grey. And knowing a little about the societal aspects of academic life (aka professional development) will make a difference in the end.


9 thoughts on “Life lessons from Maria

  1. This is great advice, and exactly the right perspective I think.

    “Really, they do not care that much about you to waste energy destroying your life.”

    Generally true, I would hope, though I had seen this twice (at two different institutions) already before leaving my postdoc–one case of whispering poison in the ears of P&T committee members, chair, etc. against someone whose research could be perceived by someone paranoid/fragile enough as competition. The other a totally unhinged crazy person, accusing junior prof of only wanting job so she can “get pregnant” and get “paid for not working.”

    They are out there. Fortunately I haven’t seen any sign of them in my new joint.

  2. great post, potnia. A big thank you for blogging so much career advice gold. as a teetering in this dismal funding climate and not getting enough feedback from own senior ‘mentors’ because they are all so busy (i’ve asked for sure), blogs like yours have become my go-to for guidance, motivation, and, well, procrastination (in descending order of importance).

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