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Scary myths and scary data abound about life as a tenure-track faculty at an "R1" university.Scary enough to make you wonder: why would any smart person want to live this life? And I can't blame them for asking, because I am scared by those myths too.As a young faculty member at Harvard, I got asked such questions a lot. I have chosen very deliberately to do specific things to preserve my happiness, lots of small practical things that I discovered by trial and error.
Having to prove oneself again after the whole Ph D experience? But the sad part is seeing how completely miserable people will allow themselves to get trying to do it. Just brainstorming with the faculty and students at Harvard is an incredible experience, and being friends with them is icing on the cake. Heck, no industry job was offering me that kind of job security! Enough time to make a detailed plan for my next career. If you ask them what is important to succeed as a junior faculty member, people will tell you everything they did that they think helped them succeed. And while this list sends you into shock, followed by depression, followed by a strong desire to quit (because heck I'm never gonna be able to do all that) -- the truth is that that is the last thing this person wants. And so with the best of intentions, they advise you on how to fail.
The answer changed my life, and gave me a life long friend. I decided that this was a great job, that I was going to take it with both hands, and that I was going to enjoy my 7 years to the fullest. An extreme case of this happened to me in my early years, when I went to a Harvard event for junior women faculty.
He looked at my quizzically, and said "Tenure-track? Hey, I'm signing up for a 7-year postdoc to hang out with some of the smartest, coolest folks on the planet! And which other company gives you 7 year job security? And I took explicit steps to remind myself of this decision every day. To make a long story short, several senior women got up and explained how we needed to do all the things the male junior faculty were doing, but then also do a whole second list of extra things to compensate for the fact that there is huge implicit bias against women in letters and assessments.
Of course, I said all these things without any proof that they lead to success, but with every proof that they led me to enjoy the life I was living. Several of my close friends challenged me to write this down, saying that that I owed it to them.
They told me that such things were not done and were not standard. But what is definitely true, is that we rarely talk about what we actually do behind the scenes to cope with life. I've enjoyed my seven years as junior faculty tremendously, quietly playing the game the only way I knew how to.
But recently I've seen several of my very talented friends become miserable in this job, and many more talented friends opt out.
I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance.
Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance.
I've decided that I do not want to participate in encouraging such a world. So with some humor to balance my fear, here's goes my confession: I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc. He was on the job market for faculty positions and had just gotten an offer from MIT Sloan. If I'm not here for tenure, then there are a bunch of things I do not need to do.