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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