Getting Tenure, Part I: It Took a Village by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

 “[T]he many sacrifices made for my career have not been borne by me alone….Here are some of the ‘villagers’ to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.”

On December 1, 2011, the full professors at Claremont School of Theology unanimously recommended two of my colleagues and me for tenure. Provided that the Board of Trustees approves their recommendation and two extremes never come to pass (either “financial exigency” compels my institution to start laying off people willy-nilly or I do something professionally or morally egregious enough to be dismissed “for cause”), I now have a job for life! :) 

When I submitted my dossier for tenure, I had published 1 book, 9 solo or co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles, 9 published or forthcoming chapters in edited volumes, and 1 book review.  I had received several competitive grants and fellowships (e.g., Wabash, NEH, AAUW, Mellon). I had been elected to prominent leadership positions in 2 professional organizations (viz., AAR and SCE).  I had won 4 teaching awards and designed and taught 12 undergraduate or graduate courses at 3 different schools: an elite private university (Harvard), a large public state institution (Virginia Tech), and a freestanding, progressive Methodist-affiliated seminary (Claremont School of Theology). I had also done a sizable amount of outreach, service, advising, and mentoring. Apparently, that quantity and quality of output had been enough.

But those statistics insufficiently capture my life on the tenure-track.  While not officially part of my dossier, the following numbers provide a fuller picture of what I’ve experienced since completing my doctorate in 2003:

  • 3 cross-country moves for work and the various upheavals and real estate transactions they entailed
  • 3 of my newlywed years spent commuting 270 miles each way between Blacksburg, VA and Washington, D.C. in order for both my husband and me to launch our respective careers and still see each other regularly (n.b., I logged 8 hours round-trip by car each week)
  • 2 pregnancies resulting in 2 healthy and lively sons, who are now ages 4 and 2
    • The first involved my gaining 40 pounds but eventually losing 60 due to a
      35 weeks pregnant with #2 (Heather Reid Kwok Photography)

      combination of breastfeeding, exhaustion, and what was probably depression for 2 months beginning in the 10th month after childbirth

    • The second involved  “complications” with my contract negotiations at CST, my gaining and losing approximately 45 pounds, my being back in the classroom 3 weeks after childbirth teaching a new course (it’s a long story), and my weaning my child after 1 year (instead of my previous 1.5) to avoid the dramatic weight loss and exhaustion I experienced with my first child
  • Innumerable occasions, particularly in the first 2 years on the tenure-track, where otherwise carefree moments were suddenly interrupted by what my friend Lisa Schweitzer has brilliantly coined as “t’angst” (i.e., tenure angst).

I say all of this neither to complain, nor to imply that my struggles have been any more difficult than what many other scholars in the early stages of their careers have experienced. Rather, I want to set the groundwork for the most important point of this post—that the many sacrifices made for my career have not been borne by me alone.  It took a village—my extended personal and professional community—to get me to the point where I am today.

In that respect, my experience has affirmed my commitment to feminist and Christian principles of community, interdependence, and the sharing of one another’s joys and burdens in friendship and solidarity.

Here are some of the “villagers” to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

  • My grad school advisors and mentors for investing in me, helping me to select courses each term, employing me as teaching assistants, writing countless letters of recommendation on my behalf, and being gracious enough to allow me to graduate even with a less than camera-ready dissertation at the time of my defense.
  • My incredibly supportive husband for continually sacrificing for the sake of my career advancement. Among other acts of love, he has willingly given up three perfectly good jobs and relocated twice without first having secured job prospects of his own. (Fortunately, he became gainfully employed within a short period of time in each case, although once only after passing the bar in a new state and taking a $120,000 pay cut).
  • My generous parents for believing in me, helping us with down payments, and buying 30 copies of my book when it was finally published to distribute to their friends and relatives
  • My senior colleagues at my first institution for carefully shepherding me through the mechanics of publishing as well as through strategies for dealing with large classes and the occasional recalcitrant student. I remain especially grateful for their very intentional efforts to protect me from burdensome service commitments (in some cases by bearing the load themselves) so that I could focus on my research.   
  • The many colleagues and dear friends I’ve made along the way including those who
    • shared the trials and triumphs of various stages of grad school with me
    • made life in D.C. exciting and in rural Southwestern Virginia not just tolerable but even enjoyable as we bonded over life, departmental politics, and t’angst
    • reached out and comforted me after the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech
    • showered us with gifts and brought over meals in those sleepless weeks after our first baby was born
    • shared hotel rooms with me at conferences (and in the years I was nursing my children, not only always offered me the “nicer” bed, but also never complained about the distinctive noise my breast pump made when I was doing my business in the middle of the night)
    • invited me to submit chapters to books or journals they were editing, gave me feedback on my work, or came to listen to me deliver my papers at conferences
    • made an effort to visit or kept in touch in other ways (this includes my older brother and his family)
    • befriended my entire family after our grand reentry back to California and helped me to adjust both to working at a seminary and to managing our dizzying pace of institutional change
    • helped tremendously with the actual tenure application process (especially the two friends/colleagues who went through it with me and my anonymous external reviewers)

That list, to be sure, is not exhaustive. Other important people in my “village” include those known and unknown to me who made it materially possible for me to work (viz., the people who’ve grown the food I’ve eaten, cleared the streets after snowfall, tended to the physical plant of my workplaces, cared for my children when I’ve been away, and so forth).

There is also the matter of how my village was structured: the resources that my grad school made available to me to allow me to finish debt-free, the policies that my institutions had enacted that provided for funded conference travel, occasional research and teaching assistants, “stopping the [tenure] clock,” course reductions following major life events like childbirth, etc.

My debt of gratitude is large indeed.

So now I have tenure. Not only that, but I have it at an institution with a reputation for academic excellence and a talented and ever-diversifying student body and staff. The proverbial icing on the cake is that I also get to live and work in a place with fabulous weather (and produce! and great Asian food!), and with close family nearby.

I have indeed won the academic jackpot. My deepest thanks to everyone who helped to make that happen.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is the first Asian American woman to have been awarded tenure at Claremont School of Theology. She will discuss the meaning and significance of that honor in part II of this blog.

Three happy & newly tenured faculty in good spirits at their second post-tenure party. Congratulations are in order to dear friends/colleagues Monica A. Coleman and Duane Bidwell as well!

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

49 thoughts on “Getting Tenure, Part I: It Took a Village by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. I echo what Carol has said. Congrats! Thank you for sharing the personal side of your journey as well as your professional one. We often do not get the opportunity to hear that side of the story.

    Also, thank you for answering the question I had in my mind about your time at Virginia Tech. With today’s sad and tragic news, I wondered if you were there when the first incident happened.

    Thank you for sharing! I am honored to know you and be a part of this blog alongside you.


    1. Thanks for your well-wishes. Let’s talk about the shootings in another forum but the short version goes like this: I was planning to go to campus in between the two sets of shootings, but then heard the fate just like everyone else; I lost a friend; two students that I know were severely injured, all were deeply affected. It was probably the worst thing we as a community went through but all of us eventually settled (some more than others, of course) into a new normal.


  2. Well-deserved and most impressive. Thanks for making me proud of someone who I knew as a delightful but somewhat squirrely high school student. This blog entry is a real testament to the good that one woman can do with the right combination of supports, encouragement, partner, family, and village. May the greatness continue!


    1. Thanks for this! Who knows what my 37-year old self would think of my 17 year old self (and vice versa)! Thank God we are all combinations of continuity and change!


  3. Congratulations again! Your journey is inspiring. It shows me that many great accomplishments can be had at the same time life is being lived. As your student, it is exciting to be in the moment with your success and this juncture.

    There is something to be said about that as well…I don’t think it’s incidental that many of us who also hope to achieve amazing things in life, get to witness you going through it. Perhaps a sign for all of us who struggle with a full plate of “everything”, and challenges one way or another, but yet have ambitions and goals we want to achieve, to “keep going”… thank you for sharing your side of your story on how you “kept going…”

    And, your hubby…that’s love… :)


    1. Valentina – thanks for commenting. You know, I wrote this blog for so many people, including the grad students who I have the privilege of working with. The road was indeed long for me, but it sounds like you have a pretty amazing support system, too and I am confident that you will continue to do amazing things in your life–and for the world!


  4. What an inspiration you are! We are so lucky that you landed here.

    I have loved taking your classes. They are challenging and make my brain hurt, but in a good way :)

    Thanks be to God for you, your brilliance and hard work, and all the hands that held you up along the way.

    (ps-looking forward to one day making something out of felt with you)


  5. Oh, thanks so much for this. As a person who moved away from her newly-wed partner for continued education required for ordination, I, too, have realized the sacrifice and support of the spouse and the village who supports us on the long journey. These higher vocational goals are only achieved through great personal transformation as well as professional, and its occasionally hard to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps someday we will have guidance about the discernment process of the spouse…it’s critical and so very hard to describe.


  6. I honor your tenacity, drive, and passion for all aspects of your life. It takes a village indeed — and one VERY motivated individual. What most resonates, though, is the deep gratitude and love you have in your life. Another incredible jackpot!

    I had no idea you were the first Asian American tenured professor. That’s an important – if long in coming – milestone for CST and one that we can all be proud of.

    May your lifetime job always bring you the joy and inspiration that you bring to your students.


    1. Linsey – thanks! in one of the earlier versions of this blog, I was going to talk about our near-weekly “More than Coffee” outings (with the waitstaff always bringing 3 menus when they saw one of us appear) but then it got too long. But thanks again for your friendship throughout the years!


  7. Grace — reading this, nodding in recognition and agreement. So often we women/moms/partners on the tenure track don’t get to talk about these things for fear it will compromise our standing in the eyes of peers, senior colleagues, tenure committees, and even our students. *Thank you* for talking about it publicly. So happy for you and your success, but also that you have had such a supportive network of family, friends and colleagues along the way. Congrats!!! Debbie


    1. Hey Debbie: indeed; that’s one of my reasons for sharing. Thanks for your collegial friendship throughout the years. I will always treasure the times we spent in various grad school classes together!


  8. Congratulations again! I really enjoyed reading this, although it is a bit overwhelming to think that all of that is still to come (for some of us grad students). While we will all take different routes getting to our proverbial (or not so proverbial) tenured positions, yours is one to truly admire. Thanks for being such a great mentor to me in what I’m sure will amount to a long and bumpy road.


    1. Jeff – thanks for sharing in the merrymaking. And I hope that I can continue to do what I can to make the road less bumpy for you!


  9. Congratulations for your strength and tenacity! Having had you in the classroom (Intro to Christian Ethics), I found your pedagogy, attention to detail and students to be exceptional.
    How fortunate for CST and those who benefit from your wisdom.


  10. It is fabulous to celebrate your accomplishments with you! Your journey towards tenure and your continual journey of both your personal and academic accomplishments will inspire many around you (myself included!). I’m grateful for our friendship.


    1. Grateful, too! Thanks for making the effort to come celebrate with all of us. We miss you, but know that you are doing wonderful things at APU! :)


  11. Great news! so happy for you.
    Good luck at CST, sounds like you finally triumphed over the “t’angst,” life changes and moments of utter exhaustion.
    take care


  12. This really touched me. I am a single parent. My son was born on 12/17 and my faculty approved my tenure less than one month later. When ever people express awe and wonder how was I amazing enough to do it, I always analogize what my life may look like on the outside to that CeCe Winans song Alabaster Box [] which has a line that says, “You don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.” But you do, Professor Kao. Congratulations.


    1. Prof. Price: Thank you for sharing a slice of your life and recent success with me, too! I see that you run a blog of your own and will start following it!


  13. Congratulations, Dr. Kao! As a doctoral candidate myself, I read this post with great interest–and perhaps a modicum of trepidation. The narrative of your path to tenure reads as a bit harrowing, but ultimately encouraging. I appreciate your emphasis on the role of community in your achievement. There is a myth–fairly durable–that the attainment of tenure is a solitary pursuit, the product of long hours in the library, perched in front of computer with dusty tomes in archaic languages piled high. But the reality, as you portray it, is much more of a communal achievement: professors, families, friends, students, all contribute to this project in remarkable ways. That makes the effort all worthwhile. Oddly, our graduate schools do not always make clear how important that community of support is to our success. Thanks for that reminder.


    1. Ryan – thanks for your heartfelt congrats and I’m so glad you got one of the messages I was trying to convey. As I mentioned above (to Valentina), one of my many intended audiences was grad students (either those I’m working with or those unknown to me). So yes, long hours in the library or at one’s desk and also the community that sustains one to make it through!


    1. Nikol: So good to hear from you. I thank God for those years we spent together at VT and I remember the mix of emotions in the room at your going-away party (of us being thrilled for your professional opportunity at Rutgers, but sad to see you go). Thanks again for getting back in touch in this way!


  14. Praise be to God! Remembering days of NE Ethics Colloquium between Harvard, Yale, Brown, and BC. Remembering my wondering if this other “ethnic” scholar had similar preoccupations to mine, remembering some powerfully impressive SCE presentations where your scholarship and witness blew me away, remembering a developing friendship with a like “mommy” scholar that I definitely look forward to. The journey has been awesome. Thank you!


    1. MT: Wow, that is quite a memory you have; thanks so much for sharing and for letting me know that what I’ve had to say here and there made an impression on you. Looking forward to our developing friendship, too! See you at the next SCE?


  15. Thanks for writing and sharing this, Grace.
    Along the way, you’ve been an important part of the villages others dwell in as well!
    Many Congratulations!


    1. Thanks, Joel. The memories of theology colloquium, studying for our general exams, and countless dinner parties are firmly etched in my mind (and heart)!


  16. I know I’m a little late to the conversation…but first, let me say congratulations! Second, I have to tell you that for many years I thought I would have to choose between getting my Ph.D. and pursuing a career in academia and being a mother. I didn’t think I could do both. Thank you for being a role model and demonstrating that with dedication and hard work, it can be done.

    Also, I appreciate so much your point here that it does take a village. We live in such an individualistic society and we often fail to recognize the crucial roles others have played in helping us to get where we are. Thank you for sharing your story, and thank you for being part of my village!


    1. Gina – thanks for commenting. While the 1980s superwoman model has been extensively critiqued, I know that I still “wanted it all.” I once saw Maria Shriver on Oprah (of all places) while I was in grad school say something like the following: “we women can have it all [marriage, career, children], but we can’t have it all at once.” I totally internalized that and thus understood that at any given point in my life, anything good that was worth having or doing was going to come at “costs.” :)


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