I have been thinking recently about how serious and grownup I am. Or I seem.
I suppose I really am, which would explain all the seeming.
What I don't understand is when it all happened. I was looking at my pictures and some video clips from grad school, and that wasn't that long ago. I remember myself at that time. I was young and happy. Sure, I already had one kid, but that apparently didn't dampen my spirit. I was perky and happy and seemingly fearless. And I seem to recall having a sense of humor.
I got my TT job straight out of grad school. Yes, there are a number of fields where that is still possible even if becoming rarer. Anyway, I remember being scared out of my wits about starting my awesome TT position straight out of grad school. But that was the optimal choice, for many reasons, not the least of which was that my husband and I had been raising our son on graduate student stipends and money was really really really tight, so me getting a permanent position sooner rather than later was the only fiscally sane thing to do. My husband stayed behind for a couple of years trying to finish his degree, while my son and I moved two thousand miles across the country for my new shiny TT job.
The first year on TT was absolutely terrifying. Teaching was new and took a ton of time. I had never in my life seen a grant proposal until it was time to write one. My first grants were with collaborators and that was a great learning experience. I think I participated on 10-15 proposals as co-PI that first year (none got funded). I spent a lot of time writing proposals at Chuck E Cheese's, as that was a way to ensure my son was entertained and safe for a few hours while I worked. I wrote my first single PI grant (an NSF CAREER grant) in the summer after my first year. It was funded. That phone call from the program director around Christmas time in my second year ranks really high among my all-time happiest moments.
After the first couple of years everything is a blur. I don't know when things happened -- I mean, I know when papers came out and grants were awarded and all that -- but I cannot date the events that I think really influenced what now seem to be permanent changes to my personality. In a sense, tenure track was like a black box: perky sunny n00b PI in, seasoned grumpy humorless PI out. What happened in between is anyone's guess...
For instance, before TT I was really reluctant to reject papers that were assigned to me for review. At some point on the tenure track I started taking my own opinion seriously and started writing harsher and harsher reviews. The harshness eventually plateaued and I like to think I am now pretty objective and matter-of-fact as a reviewer. And I am the one who sends you a three-page report. But I totally reject shitty papers and don't sweat it, which I never would have done in my first couple of years on tenure track.
In grad school, I worked for a Big Famous D00d. The kind who writes textbooks and stuff. I published a lot of first-author papers and my advisor was great about giving me the space to breathe and work and write papers. I know that for a few years I was no more than Big Famous D00d's offspring, just an extension of him, in many a person's eyes. But somewhere along the way that stopped. People started seeing me for me, I started getting invited talks for my own work, I started having a circle of people whose respect for my work had nothing to do with my advisor. Even some people who dislike him (he's not the most likable guy around) have been very collegial and supportive of me.
I remember not knowing what to do with grad students: how friendly vs how aloof to be with them? Should I show interest in their general well being or keep it strictly professional? How do I learn to recognize a potentially good student? I made a lot of mistakes initially and wasted a lot of my startup funds on complete flakes. And then I lucked out a couple of times. And I also learned to reject and to fire. But I also learned patience and how to tailor the project to the student. I remember not being able to come up with meaningful summer projects for undergrads the first year. Now working with undergrads is one of the most enjoyable activities. Undergrads really bring some fresh air into the group, as they readily plug into the group and work on well defined short term projects that benefit larger ones.
I have a great group of kick-ass collaborators (we just got a paper accepted today in a very prestigious journal, w00t!). I sometimes cannot believe that they actually listen to what I have to say. Intently! How cool is that?
Often I still think of myself as a very young person -- I am sure everyone does, some base insecurities never die -- but it's still curious how grown up I am. And where was I when all that was happening? Seems like I was half-asleep and the fog only lifted after tenure was awarded.
My Zen Buddhist husband (to whom I go for advice on all of my many anxieties as he's much more fun and much healthier and more effective than medication or a shrink; you would not believe how calm this guy is) says I am just getting old and that's all there is to it. Maybe. Probably. I don't know. I certainly blame -- or should I say credit? -- tenure track for a lot of my professional growing up. And since I am, like many academics, largely defined by my work, I credit TT for a lot of my self-esteem elevation, but probably a few additional insecurities too.
What is certain is that the immense pressure of rising and falling entirely on your own, with not much chance for a do-over, is scary but completely thrilling. Enjoy the TT ride, but bring a barf bag. ;)