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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8 Responses to The Road to Success

  1. Christina Sormani says:

    I don’t see this as a lack of success on your part but as a sign that academia is failing you. It seems to me that you should be tenured or at least have some sort of permanent status at USF. They are failing to properly recognize you and presumably nearby institutions have failed to offer you tenure track jobs as well.

    I’ve been very lucky. Like you I moved after three years of postdocs to a university in a city where my family could help with kids and my husband could pursue his career. I was lucky enough to land a tenure track job there. I did not have to overcome racism, only sexism.

    Nevertheless I’ll be honest that I don’t feel my career has been a success, not unless I realign my career goals and claim they were what I have achieved. My career is ok and I enjoy my job and I am able to continue doing some research just not as much as I wished I could. I have managed within the parameters of what I’ve been given to emulate the career I wanted. This may ultimately be as far as I get or maybe I will give myself an unsolved two body problem when the kids grow up. It seems no nearby universities are interested in hiring me.

    I’ll admit I was very ambitious in grad school and during my postdocs. I was going to be a great mathematician at a top research university where I was expected to do great mathematics working with doctoral students and postdocs. I would teach undergrads and grad students and treat them all with respect and help raise the next generation of enlightened mathematicians.

    I still plan to do this. I just may do it right where I am. I’ll do it with the students I’ve been given the opportunity to teach and I’ll do my best to help them succeed.

    But I won’t forget that I failed to crash through the glass ceilings I’d once dreamed of smashing. In that, I am not a success. But it isn’t my failure either.

  2. Carrie Diaz Eaton says:

    I love so much about this post. I have such brilliant colleagues at all sorts of institutions and in so many different positions. All are valuable to our ecosystem. What frustrates me is when one is ignored as a key players in our community because of the nature of their current job or academic pedigree. I agree that this marginalization tends to disporportionately affect women and I suggest those of us with multiple, intersectional marginalized identities, even more so. And it’s not just a judgement on our worthiness as mathematicians, but value systems on which we make our decisions. Finally it’s about treating us as human.

    Yes, there are a lot of ways the mathematical community could make access to opportunity more equitable, but for those living that now, as you say:
    “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.”

    Thank you for your contributions to our community!

  3. Charles Weaver says:

    You dont have to be a woman to base career decisions on family considerations. Many years ago I had opportunities outside of my town that I turned down because I didn’t want to leave my shared custody children. I don’t regret it even though it pretty much put an end to my math career.

    • Emille says:

      Nope. You don’t.

    • Christina Sormani says:

      All this relocation is unfair to both men and women. It effects more women than men only because men are more likely to be able to relocate their wives with them. I know of other men like you whose careers were frozen as they tried to stay near children they were unable to relocate and I know men whose wives’ careers relocated them away from a good opportunity. Many of the great mathematicians of the past never had to relicate at all. With this new sustem of moving from one postdoc to the next we are destroying the careers of many who care about family and destroying the families of many who care about careers. It seems easiest to commit to no one until after tenure but that should not be the expectation. There are many who find the right person when they are young and want children before there is risk of age related infertility. This modern system is not working.

  4. Marion Deutsche Cohen says:

    From the getgo my math career (also my life) was not at all what many mathematicians dream of. I got married shortly after undergrad and had problems getting into grad. My husband was already at Yale (physics) and I didn’t get a fellowship there. (My husband felt it was b/c of my gender; of course, I’ll never know for sure.) I wound up at Wesleyan instead. Then, after two-three years I had advisor-trouble; i.e., I had no advisor. I’d already written a Ph.D. possible-thesis in Schwartz distribution theory — with a very little bit of help from a FORMER advisor (long story; he was forced out) — and no professor at my school could understand my thesis. Three years later, after much searching (soul- and otherwise), my thesis got communicated (long story — actually, the story/memoir is in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, a couple of years ago) to Laurent Schwartz (yup, THAT Laurent Schwartz) who, in absentia, approved the thesis and got me my Ph.D.
    For various reasons (one: my advisor wasn’t in this country, in fact was in disfavor in this country b/c of his anti-Vietnam-war activities — two: I had a baby and got hooked on full time motherhood — three; my husband eventually was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and I was full time caregiver for six years — four: the ol’ two-body problem, five (perhaps most salient) I became and am a poet/writer, and that seems to be the thing that I’m able to contribute to this world (I do love math, and do some research, but mostly unpublishable — long story, some of which I don’t know. Anyway,) for various various I’ve been adjuncting for most of my adult life and have sometimes been completely unemployed.
    I can’t and don’t “blame” motherhood for this — in fact, I feel that motherhood (four children, as it turned out, plus a fifth who died two days after birth) has enhanced my passion for math (and for life).
    I’ve thought and written a lot about motherhood — and MATH AND motherhood (the tenderness, and also the feminist-politics). In some ways, MANY ways, I DID attain the life of my dreams. My passion for math remains strong (though changing/ evolving) and the life I’ve lived consists, moment by moment, of things I’m passionate about (one of them is thrift-shopping, though that’s a “less serious” passion — maybe…). Currently, in my “retirement” years, I teach only the course that I developed, Math’cs in Literature, and that course has, like motherhood, enhanced my feelings about math.
    That’s the SHORT story. But, like all of you here have said, career/life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect — mine NEVER did. I barely had the chance or the time to expect! But again — talking about “expect” — what I always expected (since taking algebra in.. I think it was ninth grade) was to do math all my life (as a career or whatever else it could be), and in general let emotions lead the way. (Part of that was, from the getgo — meaning adolesence — writing poetic prose about math in my diary.) That was the only way I’ve known how to think about math — see my poetry book, “Crossing the Equal Sign”, if you’d like, about what it feels like to do math research while also living a non-research life, including kids and cats; anyway — the only way I’ve known, the only path I took, the only path I COULD take.

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