How my mother made tenure
June 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
My mother, Min Zhou, is now a world-renowned scholar in sociology and Asian American studies. Thirty years ago, she came to America to start her Ph.D. studies with only $50 in her pocket. Throughout grad school, she worked as a motel maid and housekeeper to supplement her inadequate stipend. She has tons of stories about her amazing career progression since those humble beginnings. I'll share a quick one right now.
During my mother's six years as a pre-tenure assistant professor (1990–1996), she woke up at 3am every weekday morning and got straight to work in front of the living room computer. She advanced her research for at least three uninterrupted hours each morning while everyone else slept.
Why did she need to start her work days at 3am? Because for most of her pre-tenure years, she was also running the household and raising a child by herself. Although my parents weren't divorced, my father's jobs often required him to live in different cities apart from us.
I started first grade during my mother's first year as an assistant professor. Here was our daily routine: As soon as I woke up at 6am each morning, she would prepare breakfast and get me ready for school. Then she would spend the entire day at the university filled with interruptions from work-related duties. To supplement her frighteningly low starting salary, she taught up to four extra classes per year, which took up even more time and didn't count toward tenure. At 5pm each night, she would come home, take care of me, cook dinner, and do household chores until she collapsed to sleep at 9pm. Repeat for six years.
I was a very annoying kid: I constantly demanded my mother's attention and pestered her with nonstop questions about anything that popped into my mind. But instead of telling me to shut up, she always managed to muster up whatever remained of her energy to talk to me and to answer my curious (yet annoying!) questions. If instead she had just shut down my natural curiosity by telling me to stop bugging her, my intellectual growth would've definitely been stunted.
Throughout those formative years when I needed her the most, I never felt like she turned her back on me just to sneak in more work time at night. I always felt loved, cherished, and respected. Back then, I didn't appreciate how much effort it must have taken to balance being both an attentive mother and a prolific scholar.
My mother never made a big deal out of her ultra-disciplined work schedule. Given our unique family circumstances, she simply did what she had to do to make tenure and advance her career while also being a good parent. Without those three hours of consistent forward progress each morning from 3am to 6am, she would not be where she is today.