Tenure + epsilon

So, Dear Readers, it’s finally official: I have tenure at Bates! It was a long and sometimes scary process, but I made it through. The reaction at first was very impostor syndrome-y: “Really? You gave me TENURE? What are you doing?” Of course, I got over that (mostly) and now it’s more of a feeling of “OK, my life gets to be the same”. I was mentioning this to a colleague, who said that when he first learned that he got tenure, his reaction was basically the same as saying “well, I didn’t get hit by a bus”. I immediately knew what he was talking about, the feeling, more than one of accomplishment, is one of “something horrible didn’t happen”. But of course, I’m happy, perhaps more relieved than happy, and I am learning to be proud of myself and what I’ve done. But it still took a while for it to feel real. However, more than my feelings, in this post I wanted to write a bit about the process from turning in the dossier last Fall to hearing the news.


I wrote about the process leading up to submitting all my materials last Fall. I learned many lessons and was mostly relaxed and relieved then, too, because the whole thing was now out of my hands. Or so I thought. The process at Bates may be different from other schools, but from conversations I’ve had with my grad school friends it seems like it’s not too different. Once you submit your materials, your colleagues submit letters (in my case, every tenured member of the department submits a letter, and the Division Chair), and so do your external reviewers (who write only about your research) and your students (you select five, the college selects a random sample of about 30). All of this goes to the Committee on Personnel. In mid-December, you may get a “request for clarification” on some point in your dossier. And then, suddenly, the ball is back in your court.

The letter basically asked for me to clarify on a couple of things about my research. One of the questions, which should have been obvious that it needed to be┬ápart of my research statement from the beginning, asked me to clarify specifically what I did/am doing in each of my collaborations (of which I have several). This, of course, should not have been missing from my research statement. You shouldn’t just say “I worked with six people on a paper” and then just describe the paper. You should say how much you contributed and how. Especially if you’re confident that your own contribution is important and valuable to the project and can articulate it well (which I could). So, dear readers, there is an avoidable mistake that you should… avoid.

The second point, though, set off all my paranoid, self-conscious, impostor syndrome alarms. They asked me to write about whether I think my research will become more focused, and what that focus will be. The defensive part of me goes: “they think my research is all over the place, and they don’t like it”. Of course, “they” could be the CoP, or my external evaluators. I was more afraid that it would be my external evaluators, since they are mathematicians I know and admire, and I don’t want them to think I’m some sort of flake. But it’s just as bad if it’s just the CoP, since they are the ones deciding whether to recommend me for tenure! Lots of fun anxiety ensued, which my family had to endure since it was Christmas break. I am glad I waited a little while to craft my response (which was due early January), because once I got over the freak-out I realized that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I had written something right away, it would probably have been very defensive (without needing to be) and maybe even been fodder for actually deciding against my tenure (although I doubt it). In any case, I explained what I’m doing right now and why, but I also described one of the research topics that I think has the most promise. I actually believe this is the case, I wasn’t just trying to please (which, by the way, I REALLY don’t recommend), but I also know that, in mathematics, some projects just don’t work out, and that is just the nature of the game.

Once the response was submitted, the waiting game resumed. I attended the Joint Math Meetings, in which everyone asked me about the tenure application, and promised me it would be OK. Of course, you never believe people when they say that, but at the same time you appreciate it. I got back from San Antonio and right away we started classes. In between my first and second class of the semester, the Dean of Faculty emailed me and said he wanted to meet with me, and was I going to be in my office. I said that I had class in 10 minutes but I was in my office. That is when he came and gave me the “unofficial” good news. It still needed to be approved by the President and the Board of Trustees, but he said that “it shouldn’t be a problem”. I taught class in a state of giddy and almost panicky excitement. Jumped up and down in from of my Chair, and went out to celebrate that same night with my good friend who had also gotten the good news that day.

As is to be expected, I was still nervous. Maybe one of the trustees hates me for some crazy reason. Maybe they’ve read my blog and think I’m horrible! Of course, that didn’t happen, but I was not really calm until I got the official letter from the President. Which I am thinking of framing.

And you would think the story ends there, but no, dear readers, there is more. A week and a half ago, I got another letter. The official review report from the Committee on Personnel. Some people had warned me about this letter. It can be disappointing if, after all the suffering and waiting, they only say “good job”, or it can be a list of all the things that they don’t like but they gave you tenure in spite of all that. It was actually a pretty great letter. All my insecurities and defensiveness about my research due to the “clarification” were proved to be unfounded, and in fact most of the comments on my research were pretty positive. I was really happy to see the selected positive quotes from the external evaluators and students. This really felt like all my hard work and suffering (sometimes self-inflicted) really paid off. I am now a permanent member of this college, and they like me as much as I like them.

So what now, dear readers? I probably need to retire as a PhD+epsilon for starters (perhaps it is time for new blood). But don’t worry, I will be here the rest of this year, at the least. But the best part of this is freedom. Not that I restricted myself too much in order to get tenure, but now I know that the place I’m at likes me just the way I am. And that is a very good thing.

phd040813s

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Pay it backwards

Recently, I had two weird reimbursement experiences. The first was getting a check reimbursing me for travel to a conference I attended over two years ago (it seems the check got lost in the mail or something). The other was getting a letter from a school I spoke at requesting that I return some money that they gave me by mistake (I assumed it was an honorarium, but as the letter stated I was “not entitled” to it). Both of them are annoying situations for different reasons, but what amused me was that I got some money back that I assumed I had lost forever, and immediately I lost some money that I assumed was mine.

As one does, I shared this grievance with my facebook friends, and of course many expressed sympathy and amusement, and some advised me not to give the money back (I am giving the money back, in case you are from the University That Shall Not Be Named, I haven’t decided what to do if you’re not). Others even suggested that maybe this was a “dishonorarium”: if your talk is really terrible, you should pay the school that invited you.

But one very insightful suggestion┬ácame from my friend April (who has her own badass blog): “I’d be really interested to read a good piece on academia’s weird reimbursement culture. I’ve known a good number of students who turned down professional development opportunities because they couldn’t front more money on their credit card because they were still waiting on reimbursements from months or years ago.” Now, this blog post is not my “good piece on academia’s weird reimbursement culture”, but more of a call to start this discussion.

I remember when I was a grad student and I owed a ton of money on my credit card for exactly this reason. Or I got dangerously close to overdrawing my bank account. It’s not that I didn’t have the money, it’s that I didn’t have it right then. I still pretty much wait until I get reimbursed before I buy another plane ticket, but that doesn’t always work out. Especially when you have a grant (or your students are traveling with your grant), it’s weird that you still have to wait some time before getting paid back rather than just paying from a special account.

I guess the problem is controlling that you’re using the money for the “right things”, instead of buying yourself a new pair of shoes or something. So I guess it comes down to the fact that we need to prove that we have already traveled, report what we spent money on, and then the grant or school says “ok, you get your money back”. But there is probably a better way to do that? I know some friends of mine have a work credit card and they can use it for these kinds of things, and then their grant pays for it. Shouldn’t we have something like that for grad students too? And postdocs? And do we?

Anyway, I just thought I would pose the question to you, dear readers, and see what you think. How do you feel about our weird reimbursement culture? Are there better ways to do this? Should I give the money back? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Is Anybody Going to San Antone?

So here I am again, getting ready for another installment of the Joint Math Meetings. It promises to be as exciting and busy as always, with lots of great invited addresses and special sessions to attend. As in years past, I will be writing for the JMM Blog, together with Anna Haensch (also a contributor last year) and Joshua Batson, who is fresh off his Mass Media Fellowship. I will also be conducting interviews for Bates and trying to attend as many talks as possible, trying to see people, the exhibits, and catch a glimpse of The Alamo in between. Hope to see many of you math people there! In the meantime, I leave you with this classic tune by Charlie Pride.

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