I have been tenured for five years. I think there are two major differences between my life before tenure and my life after. The first—the reduction in generalized anxiety—is directly a result of tenure. However, the anxiety did not drop away overnight. My brain and body had been trained on the anxiety of being an assistant professor for eight years plus the preceding five years of postdoc anxiety. It takes time to retrain a brain, and I am still learning how not to let the anxiety of life and work get in the way of the important and good parts of life and work.
If I could go back and do it all again, I would choose the same exact course—including the same whoppers of mistakes—if I could redo it with even a fraction of the anxiety.
The second difference is simply what results from the combination of effort and time: improvement. Experience develops me into a better scientist, a better communicator, a better teacher, a better colleague. It consists of discipline, practice, mistakes, learning, a bit of self-awareness, trying to become better at what I do.
My job as a tenured faculty member in the physical sciences at a big research university is not easy. It is a big job, a multifaceted job. It takes time to develop the skills to be good at it. Some parts come more intuitively to me than others. I work on it all. To be good at this job? Really good? I think it must take years--decades.
The basics of my job have not changed: To push forward my field via research/teaching/service. I love collecting & analyzing data, and love even more when my students/postdocs collect and analyze data. I work hard to keep the lab funded. I do my best to frame what we do in the context of the broader field—for colleagues in my field, colleagues at my university, students, the world. I practice writing, every day.
My non-work life has also evolved. I no longer have a young child. This makes a huge difference, and I finally understand what people are talking about when they talk about having young children as being simply a slice of the whole pie of life. What a difficult slice that was: working all day to set up a program, dealing with bullying colleagues, and then coming home to an exhausted toddler and exhausted spouse. Every day. In retrospect, there was lots of fun and laughter. But also I don’t know how we did it. Somehow, we did (and still are). My family is many things. One of them is resilient. When I see my colleagues raising young families I am awed and amazed at their juggle. I get it.
What hasn’t changed is that I have one of the best jobs in the world. I frame my own job—my vision, my mission, my tasks, what’s important—and I push myself to be the best scientist I can be. The fun parts are unbelievably fun. I love the rush when a student or postdoc does a beautiful presentation at group meeting, shows the results of a study in progress: the motivations, the conception, the feasibility experiments, the next set of experiments, the tricky analysis, what happens when a creative idea is implemented. When it all comes together (and it occasionally does) there is a result that tells us something new about how nature works. Even if the data are telling us something tiny and seemingly unimportant, the rush of meeting a newborn result is wonderful.
I dearly hope that every scientist gets to experience this feeling a lot.
And this the combination that propels me: To perfect my craft as a scientist and to share the craft with others.