Monday, April 23, 2012

A gift from my father's side

After dinner, my father used to sit in his easy chair and listen to music and watch TV while we kids played in the living room. "Barefoot," he'd regularly call. "Come pluck out my white hairs." I'd run over to him, and he'd move to a position where I could reach better. As the years rolled on, he realized that he was fighting a loosing battle. A decade later, a few of the cousins, with goading from the aunts got his brothers and him to dye their hair. But at this point, all the men in my father's side of the family would do as well to have their few remaining dark hairs pulled out to leave a full field of snow on their heads.

I thought of this sequence of events as I stared, flabbergasted, at four white hair front and center on my head.

"How old are you?" He asked. Shocked, I could not find the wits to politely tell him That should be irrelevant. "28." I answered. "Huh. People often don't want to take post docs who are over 30." Back in the visitor's office, his grad student assured me that he was just trying to be fatherly, and that this mindset was true in his home country.

It doesn't matter I tell myself, staring at the white cluster. I'll be moving to his home country in September, 5 years after that conversation. I put my date of birth in the application, and I got the post doc.

Shocked choruses of "you're old," and "I would have guessed you are much younger" from colleagues who, never deviating from the academic path, entered graduate school at 22 and post docs at 27 fill my head. I respond with a memory of walking home from a friend's house when I lived abroad after college. I was giddy with the realization that I was finally living in a society where my age and waistline did not anti correlate with my desirability in society. At 23, I was devastatingly young, to young to be deemed able to do anything. At 40 a man comes into his own, and stops being one of the younger generation.

Which of these would I give up, I ask myself. The fifth year of undergrad to complete my second major? My years abroad? My year studying something completely different? None of these are worth the possibility of tenure before 40, of being rid of my student status before the greys appear. No, I've made the right decisions. These few years are just a rough patch. Once I am through this, I will wear my experience and my hair proudly.


  1. where I come from people start their PhDs usually when they are 25-26. There is no possibility to start it earlier than that and consequently most of the PhD students are at least 30, when they finish. So I got my first white hair long before I got my PhD and - as you - I'm happy for all the experiences on the way.
    I luckily never heard this sentence before: "Huh. People often don't want to take post docs who are over 30" - why would one cut out so many experienced and mature people (=

  2. I think it is field specific. For reasons I cannot fathom, there is a strong bias in my field towards people who have not taken any time off, and those who have not spent significant periods of time doing other things. I don't know if there is actually a correlation between going straight through and quality of thesis/finishing a PhD on time/at all, but there is certainly a perceived correlation.