My second interview in this series was with Dr. Pushpa Murthy.
Pushpa is Professor of Chemistry at Michigan Technological University and currently, Program Manager at National Science Foundation. We are very much looking forward to having her back on campus. Pushpa is not only a Chemistry queen, but also an amazing leader. She was instrumental behind Tech introducing Maternity Leave, is a staunch advocate for women in sciences and engineering (WISE) and very involved in supporting women and their careers. I was very fortunate to have her support and wisdom when I came in as a tenure track professor to Tech. Pushpa was and is someone I know I can always pick up the phone and ask for advice. She is also a personal role model for blending outstanding professional leadership and parenting. She is my hero. Once again, her advice is transferable to any professional context. Here are a few gems from her interview.
1. Mid-career is a misleading term. Most Associate Professors have at least two decades of career still left. It is till the beginning. Tenure showed you can teach and you can do research. After that you can do one or the other, or three or two now, and move to service. You should look at it as a long term trajectory. Make decisions based on the long term trajectory.
2. Follow your passion. Tenure gives you freedom. It also gives you responsibility. Post tenure, you are one of us. The academic world looks at your differently. I is a cliche to say follow your passion, but it is true. By following your passion, you make everything else come together.
3. So figure out what you want. Use tenure to do what you want. I enjoyed research, writing grants, and teaching. Some people want to get involved in Peace Corps program, community activities but they need to know that these are not considered scholarly activities by the university. Someone I wanted to be the youngest President of a major university and he achieved it. Someone else I know has always wanted to write text books and they focused on that post tenure. Even though the university doesn’t think it is scholarly activity. So it is about finding what you love and doing it post tenure. But some people just don’t keep an eye on becoming a full professor and understand what is required to get there. If you want to become a full professor, it is important to understand the criteria that the university has laid out. If you want to be full, try to get that crosses off the list. Take an informed decision either way.
4. Don’t wait too long to go up for promotion to full professorship. The problem is that there is no time limit or clock to go up for full professorship. Some people wait too long. I see that especially among female faculty members. Women always want to be 200% ready, but I have always felt that it was my job to remind women faculty to go up for promotion. I understand that it like baring your academic soul, but no harm in trying. People have a hard time to decide when they have a strong enough case for promotion. This is why a mentoring program is crucial. Ideally an Associate Professor should go up for a full professorship in 5-6 years and not longer than that.
5. The first sabbatical you take post tenure is a very important. It is taking stock of the field and ask if this is what you want to do for the next five to ten years. So the time to make the decision is the year before you go on sabbatical. Depending on that, you will go where the right fit for your future is. Even if it means you delay your sabbatical by a year, it is a good idea to find a good fit.
In my case, there has been a lot of change in the last 20-30 years for an experimental chemist. Technology, equipment, etc. Molecular biology was not a field when I graduated. I needed to understand a new field better. There were new techniques that you couldn’t teach yourself. You needed to go to the lab setting to get it done. So I focused on that.
6. Be choosy about service roles. It is good to do administrative positions because it gives you a different view and knowledge of how a department or the university works and how those decisions are made. For example, when I was Chair of my Department, l learned things that you won’t learn from other positions. I got a glimpse of how the university power structures worked. I was part of the administration. And after I stepped out of the Chair position, I could get involved in various initiatives – getting the maternity leave policy at Tech, new chemistry programs, involvement in WISE programs. But wait till you make full professorship to take up those positions.
Take up positions of leadership in your discipline. In my case, I got active in the women’s group in American Chemical Society. This was complementary to the WISE group on campus. I have continued to be engaged in that and meets my desire to be more active with the wider world. Recently, I ran workshops for women scientists in India and it was amazing to see 50 women scientists in the same room and talk to them about different issues relevant to them. I find it very satisfying to reach out to women scientists and engineers and help with the career issues. The National Science Foundation position has also opened up my horizons.
7. Mentors The idea of mentoring is accepted only in the last ten to fifteen years. During my early days, there were very few mentors. Even now if you talk to the older faculty, many of them don’t believe in mentoring but in the boot strap culture. But it is helpful to develop relationships with mentors who know your strengths and weaknesses and who can help you guide your decisions and choices. Here at NSF, my boss is my first mentor. Schools must be mentoring tenured Associate Professors and asking them what their plans are and how to help them achieve their goals. In most schools, it is partly the culture and history of the department.
8. Keep an eye open for opportunities and jump at them. Take a chance. It is those changes that you took but didn’t anticipate end up giving you a lot of rewards. Academic world is so small. In my case, reflecting back, almost all my positions have been accidental. My becoming Chair of the Department was unexpected. Someone left suddenly and I was asked if I would be Interim Chair and I accepted and then I was elected Permanent Chair. So was my position was at National Science Foundation. I had planned a sabbatical visit to India but the NSF position was offered and I took it. None of these were something I sought after but the thing is to be ready to jump into a situation when there is an accidental opening.
8. Don’t burn any bridges. It is still an old boys network there. You don’t have to be agreeable all the time. But learn to disagree without being nasty.