This week is for orientation and welcoming new students. Amidst all the ongoing events, it’s hitting me that I’m about to enter my second year as an assistant professor. I have no idea where the time went, but then I feel that way about everything. I’ve been waiting for a perfect time to write this reflection, but since that’s a myth, I grabbed a second cup of coffee and my laptop and let my thoughts and hands do the rest. I suggest you grab your favorite drink; this is a long read.
Below is the story of how I got here …
The last year of my doctoral program was emotionally heavy. It was this cocktail of rounding up a dissertation, job hunting, the sickening worry of the unknown, and a painful breakup was the cherry on top. Like most people will attest to, being a student puts you in a bubble, and the real world outside has very different ebbs and flows. My advisors and people who I respect their professional opinion suggested that I apply for a post-doc as opposed to a direct faculty position. A post-doc is a job that offers training and opportunities to strengthen your skills and research expertise before becoming a full independent researcher. It made sense. A little extra training and a soft-landing into academia seemed like a logical step to take because I didn’t have much research experience outside graduate school. So, I started sending out applications and rejections came bouncing back and hitting all the wrong spots of my professional self-esteem. I would soon realize that being an international hire had its challenges. Any employer that would hire me had to sponsor a work visa. With post-doc jobs, it gets tricky as you may be recruited by an individual who has research funds and needs your input versus a college or a department. If a college, department or university doesn’t support financially, it makes it harder to fund international hires.
If you’re an international Graduate student hoping to get a post-doc, this is by no means an attempt to discourage you; your circumstances could very well go differently. I have seen people get successfully sponsored, and you should still try regardless of the outcome.
It was roughly five months to graduation, and there were no prospects for employment. I was nervous. This was particularly nerve-wracking because upon graduation, my stipend from graduate school was going to stop. And because I am an international student, I can’t legally just work anywhere. The pathway for international students and professionals is quite narrow in the US. There are specific things you need to do or have done, and there isn’t much outside of them. There were certain criteria my desired workplace had to meet to be approved for post-graduate employment.
One day, I reevaluated my job search and wondered why I wasn’t casting a wider net. I was never really afraid of a faculty position. Anyone that knows me will attest to my borderline delusional ambitious self. If I was truly not good or trained enough, I was willing to work more than twice as hard to get to where I needed to be. The advice to apply for post-docs also wasn’t working for me. One of the concerns was that my CV wasn’t robust enough to apply for an independent faculty position. Well, at this point, I had gotten a decent dose of rejections for jobs I thought I was well-qualified to receive. I don’t mean the ones where you don’t interview and simply get a standard rejection email. I mean the rejections that come after interviews that go so well and make you think this is it, but you either get ghosted or receive a rejection email. Those kinds of rejections settle a nice punch below the belt.
Time was running against me; I could no longer play safe with job applications. With the sting of rejection, fear of the unknown, and all the faith I could muscle up, I selected some assistant professor positions. I even dared to pick the ‘Big Name Schools,’ and I applied to all of them. Coincidentally, a fellow graduate student heard about a university I was applying to, and she nicely told me not to waste my time. She reiterated again that I had very little going on in my CV. I wasn’t upset at the discouraging words; I felt calm. I wasn’t confident that the named university would consider me, but I also was not afraid of being rejected anymore. Those rejections had initially made me feel smaller and put so much doubt in my mind about who I was. But I realized that although my CV may not have looked like much, my gigantic God will ensure that someone sees how amazing I am.
Hurricane Irma hit. I was among the stubborn ones that reluctantly left Miami. I kept hoping that it would fizzle out before it got to us, until we were asked to evacuate the city. Two of my girlfriends and I decided to drive to Charlotte; my brother had graciously allowed us to crash his one-bedroom apartment. I remember we were stuck in traffic because it seemed like every single person in Miami was fleeing at the same time, when the email came in. It was the same university that I was told not to bother wasting my time on. I screamed in the car, and my exact words were, “they opened my application?.” I was staring at an interview invitation, but somehow, I was still puzzled at what happened. It felt unreal! I went on to receive several other interview and campus visit invitations for the position of assistant professor. In the four or so months left, I interviewed for a position almost every other week.
I did my campus visit for my current position in November 2017. I remember telling one of the people I spoke with during the visit that I had a crush on the university and it was surreal I was being considered for a position. In hindsight, that may not have been the best hire-me pick-up line, but I was just being honest. It was like a crush on your favorite celebrity. You never really think you will meet them or go on those dates you’ve planned in your head, but somehow all of that happens. The campus visit couldn’t have gone better. As I said my goodbyes and thanked everyone, I knew I was coming back soon. It was an absolute knowing, something I’ve felt very few times in my life. This university is in the North of the US, and I am quite terrified of the Winter. Something about that temperature feels like an experiment on the limits of human tolerance. So, when I was heading to the airport with snow trickling down, knowing this was going to be my new home was both strange and comforting at the same time.
The day my offer letter came in still feels like a blur. You know how you pray for things for a while, but it always seems like the answer is too far way? I was at that point. So, when I had an offer letter that had in it everything I had prayed, hoped, and worked for, I was dumbfounded. All this in addition to holding an offer letter from a place I thought wouldn’t open my application and was called by fellow graduate student “a waste of my time.” I curled myself into a ball on the floor of my room and couldn’t decide whether to cry, scream, or do both. I can’t remember which one I eventually did. Even as I write this, I still feel those emotions coming back. It was an outpouring of a journey of over eight years filled with blood, sweat, tears, prayers, disappointments, hope, faith, courage, fear, and the list goes on. I ended up turning down another offer, two more interviews, and three campus visit invitations, all for the position of assistant professor.
I learned some valuable lessons from this experience:
a) God’s unanswered prayers deserve special ‘THANK YOUs.’ I wanted a post-doc so bad and those rejections led me to something way better.
b) Don’t let anyone cloud your judgment of who you know you are. Aim as high as you want to every single time. This is pretty much the gist of this story.
c) As cliché as it sounds, rejections and disappointments make us more refined. I got stronger!
d) Don’t rely solely on your own understanding. One of my favorite scriptures is Proverbs 3:5-6. Life doesn’t always happen in an order that makes any sense.
On my dad’s birthday in December 2017, I arrived at my new place in the heat of the Winter. I left Miami at 80-something degrees Fahrenheit and ended up in what felt close to Zero degrees. I have no idea how I made it through that first brutal Winter!
It’s been over a year and a half, filled with its experiences, ups and downs. Some days I feel like a stranger visiting and going unnoticed, especially when I look around Walmart and I’m the only Black person as far as my eyes can see. However, most times, I feel at home because of the people who are now in my life, some of whom have become so close I can’t imagine life not meeting or knowing them. I have learned that home is about people, not a place or a building. People make you feel loved, like you belong, missed, and cared for; the right people can make any place home. It also turns out that all my fears of the cold Winter were unfounded. I’ve made it through a couple like a pro (winks.)
Since becoming an assistant professor, I have published papers, presented within and outside the US, started research projects that are dear to my heart, and recently received a grant with a colleague. I have grown so much! I look back feeling grateful for every bump, twist, and turn that brought me here.
For everyone reading this, waiting for something big or urgent, I encourage you to keep pressing. It’s going to happen! I’m believing along with you.
Make it a Winning-Day