Best Laid Plans

The author and her family

Twenty years ago I began my college teaching career.  I was a 2nd semester first-year graduate student who was given sole responsibility for a Business Calculus Class.  It was terrifying, amazing, exhilarating and exactly what I wanted to be doing. But it wasn’t until twelve years ago that I began my tenure-track career.   I was in my penultimate year as a teaching and research postdoc at a service academy with a joint appointment at a US research lab. It was a job I loved. However there were several tenure track job openings that seemed like great opportunities and that were near family, so I applied.  I went on interviews and decided most of the jobs were not a good enough fit for me to leave my current position early. The last position I had my eye on was the dream job: a small liberal arts college (SLAC) 45 minutes from where I grew up. My parents still lived in my childhood home and my sister and  her family lived even closer to the college. I wasn’t the mathematician they were looking for, but I applied anyway. Having gone to a SLAC, I was a believer in the kind of institution; it was where I wanted to spend my career. Also, this college being so close to home was more than I could have hoped for.  I didn’t make the first cut for interviews, so I continued on with my life. Continue reading

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The Road to Success



I am Emille.

You, Reader, probably do not know me. The relevant information for now is that I am a Black woman (yes, this is always relevant) in my very late 30s. I earned a PhD in mathematics from a large, research oriented university almost 12 years ago and held a 3-year postdoc after graduating. I have a loving husband and two children under the age of six. No, that is not me celebrating on top of a mountain.

The following is one of the many stories that has shaped my professional and personal life. Before we begin, I’d like you to ask yourself: What does professional success look like in the mathematical world? If you took a moment to think about this question, you might have come to the conclusion that there are many types of “math jobs” out there that the question is too broad. OK, fair enough. What if I altered the question to: What does professional success look like in the mathematical world of academia? Because, Reader, you probably smell what I am cooking, the answer that you are mulling over in your head might be much broader than the answer in which so many of us were indoctrinated in graduate school. I’d guess that at some point in your graduate education, you were told that getting tenure was the proverbial end game and achieving anything less than this was somehow falling short of the mark. Even if this idea wasn’t explicitly articulated to you, I’d bet that most every career signal you saw pointed in this direction.

And is there anything wrong with having this as an ultimate goal? Absolutely not. In the words of the great Nina Simone, please don’t let me be misunderstood. My thesis is simply this: Professional success can be measured in so many different ways. Let us as a mathematics community broaden our metrics of success for the benefit of us all. The fact of the matter is that most math PhDs who intend to stay in academia at some point have intentions to find their dream tenure-track position in their dream location. But what if the cookie crumbles another way? This is real life, after all, and things don’t always turn out as planned. Moreover, women are more likely than men to make career decisions based upon familial obligations (see this recent article on research related to women leaving STEM fields). Hence, a narrow view of success could affect women even more negatively than men.

As you might have guessed, this particular issue hits home for me. Here’s the story, as promised. My husband and I got married the same summer my postdoc ended. I had accepted an offer for a tenure track assistant professorship at a great school in southern California, but my newly minted husband got a job working in Silicon Valley (read: about a 6 hour drive away). Our plan was that we’d live apart for a while taking cheap commuter flights on most weekends until he found a job in SoCal. What could possibly go wrong with this plan?! About 8 months in and still no job change for him, we found our bank accounts dwindling from the frequent travel and maintaining apartments in two very expensive markets. Our patience was wearing thin. On top of all of this, I suddenly started to feel a twinge of longing upon seeing mothers with their babies.

Then out of the blue, an opportunity knocked. It was something completely unexpected and in direct opposition to our grand plan. There was a year-long sabbatical replacement position at the University of San Francisco for the next academic year. Was I interested? Maybe. But what would this mean for the professional life that I had spent most of a school year (granted, not a long time) building? Was it even possible to take a leave after only a year? What would my new colleagues think of me? What would happen after one year? I grappled with all of these questions and more, but in the end, my desire to be with my partner and to get started with our family won out. I took a leave of absence for the following academic year, and moved to San Francisco despite my reservations toward leaving.

There is so much more I could say about my life from that move until now. What I will say is that almost 8 years after my move, I still live in San Francisco. I am still teaching in a non-tenure track position at the University of San Francisco. And, as I mentioned, I had two wonderful children along the way. Did I make the right decision to leave a tenure-track job to start my family? The answer is not black-and-white. What I can say is that I made the best decision that I could at the time given all circumstances. You, Reader, might ask how I define success for myself. I feel most successful when I know that I am doing good work. Good work for me includes motivating my students, participating in outreach endeavors, keeping up with my own research, and certainly not least, maintaining a joyful home. Not all of these cylinders are firing all of the time. That’s when I grant myself some grace, and try again the next day. I don’t believe there is a formula for success (a point which I emphasize to students), and in fact, there can be as many definitions for success as there are individuals. However, success is intrinsically linked to the work we see as valuable. The more value we place on endeavors such as leading student research, broadening participation in mathematics, collaboration with K-12 teachers, or leading math circles, the more success stories there will be.

How do you define success for yourself? Did you make a “non-standard” decision in your career trajectory? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Welcome to Math Mamas Blog

Welcome to the first post of our new blog “Math Mamas”!  We, the editors, were hoping to create a space where we can share our experiences, learn from each other, and discuss how our identity as women underrepresented in mathematics interacts with our role as a parent. Research shows that academic men benefit professionally from having children, yet women are penalized for having children. Therefore, the community we hope to create through this blog centers mothers and non-binary parents, particularly those who are raising or are considering raising children. We hope that our conversations will help all genders understand the joys and challenges of balancing life as a working mathematician and as a parent.  Mathematics is the more formal part of our lives. Motherhood is the less structured and messier part of our lives. Each of these enriches and impacts the other. These roles are not separate and parallel. Instead, they are constantly intersecting which sometimes makes both jobs better and other times brings about unique difficulties.

Emille’s children, Margot and Grayson, at Yosemite National Park.

One of our goals is to build and expand upon ventures that have already been started in this direction. In January 2016 one of the co-editors of this blog, Emille Davie Lawrence, found herself feeling overwhelmed by the obligations of her career and parenting two small children. Seeking others to “compare notes”, she started a Facebook group called “Math Mamas” that quickly became a vibrant hub at which to share commonalities, seek advice, celebrate victories, or even commiserate at times. As the group thrived, group members sought out other opportunities to more publicly share their stories. As a result, Pamela Harris, Carrie Diaz Eaton, Becky Hall, and Emille Davie Lawrence co-edited a special “Mathematics and Motherhood” edition of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics published in July 2018.  The special edition featured a collection of essays written by mathematicians who are mothers about various aspects of how these two parts of their lives overlap. Math Mamas blog hopes to continue these conversations and to share them more broadly within and beyond the mathematics community. We strongly feel that communicating openly will help others realize that even those women who seem to “have it all” also deal with obstacles and challenges.

Amanda’s daughter, Eda, dressed as Math Girl for her school’s Super Hero Day.

We, as the editorial team, will give our own narratives, but we also want to encourage others to contribute. We welcome guest posts from parents with a variety of backgrounds. Please share with us if you have personal parenting accounts including, but certainly not limited to fostering, adoption, surrogacy, or infertility. We would also welcome you to share if you are a single parent or part of a blended or LGBTQ family. What does the intersection of math and parenthood look like for you? All experiences are unique, but we hope that these posts will bring about better understanding within the mathematics community. To grow a more diverse and inclusive community, we need to be able to appreciate that mathematicians are more than the people teaching and researching in our departments. We have full lives consisting of both struggles and joys that impact how we do our job.  

Rachelle’s children, Giulia and Owen, at Natural Bridge, VA.

We all exist in the intersection of many identities. While we focus on the mathematics and motherhood, we also hope contributors to this blog will reveal how all of their identities influence their lives as working parents. As an editorial team, we encourage readers and commenters to value the experiences of our contributors, to read with the intention to listen and learn, and to interact with the blog from a place of support.

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