It’s All My Fault

In this essay I would like to explain why I am not yet a professor of mathematics.

Today at 49 I am still in search of my dream job. My gender is not the main reason that I don’t have an academic position or another job I like. My biggest problem is myself. My low self-esteem and my over-emotional reactions in the past were the things that most affected my career.

I remember how I came to Israel Gelfand’s seminar in Moscow when I was 15. He told me that I was too old to start serious mathematics, but that he would give me a chance. He said that at first I might not understand a thing at his seminar, but that every good student of his comes to understand everything in a year and a half. The year and a half passed and I wasn’t even close to understanding everything. Because of this I was devastated for a long time.

I had always had problems with my self-esteem and being a student of Gelfand just added to them. My emotional reactions, while they impacted my work in mathematics, were not exclusively related to mathematics. When my second divorce started, not only did I drop my research, I quit functioning in many other capacities for two years.

I was extremely shy in my early teenage years. By working with myself, I overcame it. When I moved to the US, my shyness came back in a strange way. I was fine with Russians, but behaved like my teenage self with Americans. For two years of my NSF postdoc at MIT, I never initiated a conversation with a non-Russian.

For the second time I overcame my shyness. Now, if you met me in person, you wouldn’t believe that I was ever shy.

I became much happier in the US, than I ever was in Russia, but still my emotions were interfering with my research. Because it was so difficult to find an academic job here, I felt tremendous pressure every time I sat down with a piece of paper to work on my research. My mind would start flying around in panic at the thought that I wouldn’t find a job, instead of thinking about quantum groups.

Over all, I think that my inability to control my emotions, together with my low self-esteem, might have impacted my career much more than the fact that I am a woman, per se. Being a mathematician is not easy; being a female mathematician is even more difficult. Still, in my own life, I know I can only blame myself.

The good news is that I have changed a lot, after many years of self-repair. This is why I have made the risky decision, at the age of 49, to try to get back to academia. And this time I have a great supporter — my new self.

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4 Comments

  1. Misha:

    Tanya, an academic position is waing for you: http://boston.craigslist.org/gbs/edu/906629768.html

  2. Prashanth:

    I was moved when I read this particular blog. I agree completely when you say low self esteem can wreck havoc in one’s life. I have had problems with low self esteem too. I guess the only way to surmount it is to keep yourself occupied.

  3. Jack:

    Hi Tanya,
    I found this brief post full of insight. It is very hard to pursue an academic activity when one considers all of the “realistic” problems that interfere with knowledge. I’m a relative late-bloomer in the sciences. I didn’t start studying physics until age 23; I went in with no background in mathematics and I struggled. With all the strain I had, the hardest part was the portions of life that were extra-academic. Finding a job, supporting my wife, etc all interfered with what I wanted to really do – learn. I too would sit down and try to wrap my brain around branes, but would always be drawn away to deal with painting the house, getting the oil changed, etc. I’m now in my 30s and I’ve finally decided I want my PhD – I probably won’t start it until I’m 38 or 39 though. Do I think this is a detriment to my life? Not really, I think that the subtle thing that motivates people like you, like me, is the very real desire to learn and to grow as an intellectual being (at least that’s my excuse when I forget to take out the garbage!). I applaud your choice to go back to academia (this comment comes late, how did it go?) and you’re an inspiration to those of us that aren’t young and nimble, but that still love the sciences and maths.

    Cheers,
    Jack H.

  4. Noname:

    You have done more that Weierstrass at 40-45 so, as We physicists say “There is no spoon”.

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