Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Long Road

Guest blogger Varsha Dani tells us why it's never too late.

This week, I am starting as an Assistant Professor at RIT and I am super excited about it. What's the big deal, you are probably thinking. Don't lots of people get hired in tenure track positions every year? Sure. But the difference in my case is that I got my Ph.D. in 2008. 

Why didn't I look for a position right away? There were a number of reasons. I was burned out. I was going to have a baby. The job market was not particularly good that year. I would have had a two-body problem. And most importantly, I thought it was just going to be a short break. I thought that there was no rush...

What did I do in those intervening years? A lot of things. I spent a lot of time with my kids, including part home-schooling them for some time. I found some new interests, both in Math and CS and outside. I found new collaborators and did some research in new areas, just for fun. Sometimes I was funded for it through grants, but mostly I wasn't. I wrote a lot of Computer Science and some math materials for Brilliant.org. I organized math clubs at my kids' elementary and middle schools. I hiked. I wrote poetry. I never intended nearly 13 years to go by, but somehow they did.  At some point I remembered that I had meant to take a short break, not to give up on being an academic altogether. But by then it seemed too late. At the beginning of my meant-to-be-short hiatus, I used to jokingly refer to myself as a "scholar at large" but by the time a decade had gone by I had started to feel extremely isolated and being a scholar for its own sake was not something to joke about anymore.  Each year I rolled the job-search dice, but with each passing year it seemed more and more futile to do so, and more and more of an imposition to ask people to write recommendations for me. And then, out of the blue, last year, I found a whole community of independent researchers who, like me, were pursuing their scholarly interests despite not being employed to do so, and who felt unapologetically unembarrassed, even proud of it.  And, even more out of the blue, this year I got an offer. And now, this Fall, I am actually doing it. I am actually an academic! To be honest, I feel more than a little trepidation about it, mixed in with the excitement. 

So why am I telling you this? Partly to celebrate. Partly to publicly thank my spouse, who has been extremely supportive of all my decisions (and all my actions that were born of indecision) over many years. Partly to give a shout-out to the wonderful folks at the Ronin Institute who helped me remember that we do science (and computer science) because we love it, not because it pays the bills. Ironically, I believe I needed to be reminded of that before I could get a job! But mostly, I'm writing this to reach out to anyone out there who thinks that their decisions have led to a one-way street they no longer want to be on. It may be hard, and there are, of course, no guarantees, but you won't know whether you can turn around, unless you try. 

23 comments:

  1. Congratulations! Keep it up. I read with interest the Muffin problem. There already seems to be quite a lot of material on the blog that will keep me busy (in reading). Thanks. All the best.

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  2. Congratulations and all the best!��❤️ The story of some of my generation including myself, repeats itself. It is never too late! That is my philosophy even today at the age of 73. Not exactly to get the seal of a professional but for whatever we wish to do, happily and freely. Subjects which were of least interest in school, like biology, medicine, history etc. interest me today. And yes, I am proud to be an academician.A teacher and a learner. And equally happy to see people like you pursue a career.

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    1. Thank you! I don't know who else of you are referring to, but to be honest, I thought of you, and your story, a number of times in the past decade! Wonderful to hear from you.

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    2. Thank you! Varsha, I met many women who might not be in research, but gave up career but finally settled with some thing less paid less recognised. I have friends who were gold medalists, gave up a career, because of traditional responsibilty and mind set and two body problem. Many of my generation did have to compromise with their career. In fact all my women colleagues in Mumbai University, in Mathematics and outside Mathematics,had settled with a compromised career,many times losing a few years of their career during their prime time. Yes, I definitely had longer break bu enjoyed my profession there after.

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  3. Congratulations and best wishes! --Aravind Srinivasan

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  4. Congratulations Varsha!

    I don't know you that well, but somehow it seemed to me that you "had it", so I am not surprised you found your way back!

    Congratulations to Tom as well!

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    1. Thanks Vijay! To be honest I'm still unsure how I got here or whether I deserve it, but I'm not complaining :)

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    2. We are all in the same boat --- including not complaining :-)

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  5. All men are equal, they usually say.
    But only in a few aspects, and in their own way.

    So are all women, by default.
    But fewer aspects still to set them apart.

    Strong to follow and carve out their very own roots and good routes,
    And taking time as fourth dimension to deal with duties, passions and pursuits.

    Life is long, today is important but not the only day.
    Nor is now the only time, so set up priorities in your weighted way.

    Best wishes for the best work distribution and ambition at any given time,
    Concentration on sincerity and hardwork will lead to succes in sublime.

    Ajit Iqbal Singh, Aug. 27, 2021

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  6. Congrats Varsha. I'm happy that I was one of the people you worked with as a "scholar at large"!

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  7. As a friend and repeated coauthor, this makes me very happy!
    - Cris Moore

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  8. Hi Varsha -
    This is Ruchira Jaitly from school, and I have to say - what an inspiring story to share. So very delighted to hear about you teaching at RIT! You go girl! Congratulations

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    1. Ruchira Jaitly, wow! Just wow! That's truly amazing.

      When I wrote this story I was expecting that it might lead to hearing from some old friends again. You know, like friends from grad school. Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted that it would actually reach someone from school!

      Actually, seeing your name got me thinking about school days, and in particular about what M. la Colombiere used to say at assembly, and I realized that I've just told a "Today is the first day of the rest of your life"-story.

      Anyway, thanks so much for commenting, this has really made my day.

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  9. Congratulations Varsha, remember you from Chandigarh days way back in 1984 and then once talking to you at the residence gate of TIFR. Best, S A Katre.

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  10. Cris and Jared, thanks for being two of the people that really made this story possible!

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  11. Dear Varsha, Welcome back to academics! Yours is an inspiring story for a lot of women. My best wishes for a stimulating career in academics. Kumaresan

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  12. Taking the premise that essentially "All Roads lead to Rome", you have chosen the more adventurous road that has enriched you, and helped you grow, in robustness, strength and personality. Value-added robustness and perspective, that will serve you well, once you step foot into the city. So, trepidation should be the least of your concerns ...

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  13. Dear Varsha,
    It seems to me that you never ceased to be an academic, although I am really very happy for you that you are now officially recognized as one! It is commendable that you pursued your passion for Maths through all these years (and enjoyed it too); I'm sure there must have been times when it would have been easier to give up. Congratulations and best wishes for this new phase in your life. I have no doubt that you will do very well and go on to achieve greater heights. Enjoy the journey!
    Aparna

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  14. Super Brilliant post. You have a great sense of humour! and make light of things which were maybe quite traumatic at THAT time. More than your personal achievements in these intervening years is the MOST precious gift of your time which you gave you gave your kids which is priceless. All the Very Best in this new innings of your Career, hope you can still juxtapose parts of what you were doing till now, clearly that makes a person much more holistic and all rounded. I wish many other staid academics would have the gumption to do what you did because you liked it and not because it pays the bills !! Good Luck !

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