Transition on the tenure track

As a newly minted associate member of the ASCB LGBTQ+ task force, I have been invited to write a blog post in recognition of Pride Month 2019. I grew up in Britain in the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to be a scientist from the age of 5 and, around about that same age, I knew I was really a girl – but the words to express this would not be available to me for two or three more decades. Genetics was my first love and I started out as a graduate student in the early days of gene cloning working with Neurospora (where biochemical genetics began) and then moved into Drosophila as I started my postdoctoral life. Both periods focused on gene regulation. In my first postdoc, I fell in love all over again, this time with Developmental Biology, which morphed into Cell and Developmental Biology during a second postdoc. My lab just turned 25 and although I can’t remember exactly when I first joined ASCB, I know it was over 20 years ago. As a transgender scientist who recently came out, I thought that I would share a few observations on my transition in the academic world, and focus on the unique challenges and benefits that go along with the familiar burdens and prejudices of many trans stories.

Finding my own path

In common with all transfolk I had to find my own path, so what follows are personal thoughts and observations that come from my mid-career transition. I work at Penn State, a large public university with well-developed rules of equity that include gender identity, inclusive health benefits, and a truly supportive (or at least tolerant) administration and faculty. We can be found in several top 50 LGBTQ+ inclusive college listings. In this, I feel privileged because the path is not as smooth for those at many other institutions, particularly at some parochial schools, where transitioning or even coming out can have profound consequences for one’s career – up to and including summary dismissal.

Location, location, location

A successful transition requires good therapeutic and medical support, and like many universities, Penn State is situated in a small college town well isolated from major metropolitan areas where such resources are typically found. Here in State College, at the geographic center of Pennsylvania, we are also over 100 miles away from our own medical school in Hershey, and our local expertise in transgender therapies and medicine is still in its early stages of development.

Going through the early, private, stages of transition in a small-town location raised major concerns about privacy. Did I really want to run into my therapist in the grocery store? Could I trust a local electrologist to keep my confidence? The solution to this conundrum for me was to begin therapy by telephone, and to travel to Pittsburgh or Harrisburg for demonstrably experienced and trans-friendly services or to see therapists in person. Transitioning is hard work for anyone, and this is enhanced when geography or a need for privacy requires long travel days: There is an extra burden to transition when you repeatedly lose a whole day in the lab (sometimes once a week) to travel for 2-3 hours each way for a one-hour appointment, and the occasional need to coordinate two appointments with an overnight stay (to minimize driving) destroys two day’s attention to the lab.

With or without the extra burden of long travel times, transitioning is hugely distracting in a profession that already requires us to have constant, almost obsessive, focus to succeed.

Transitioning takes its toll

On the tenure track, it is drilled into us that we must succeed in teaching, research, and service, and as I look back, my transition was a disaster in academic terms. Teaching and service duties necessarily dominated, while grant submissions were reduced, and several submitted papers left by departing students and a postdoc sat uncompleted waiting for experiments requested by the reviewers. Do not misunderstand, we were not completely idled: New reagents have been developed, talks have been given and I have never been more excited about my science.

The problem is in how the work we managed to do did not feed into the steady flow of papers and grants that are our key metrics for funding and advancement. My chair has been very understanding and I am rebuilding, but this has left me in a race against time (familiar I’m sure to any underfunded faculty member) where any future pressure on space in the department will clearly lead to the rapid loss of my lab and that precious “research active” status – we must get rolling again soon! For someone who is pushing hard pre-tenure, it is difficult for me to imagine academic success without a stay of tenure while completing a successful transition. I have no idea how many university administrations would consider such a stay, let alone have an existing policy that would explicitly permit this. It is something that should perhaps be explored.

You cannot escape your deadname in academia

As with most people who transition, I made a legal name change, which has some unique effects in the academic world. As with any scientist, my record is in my papers, and now my pre-transition record is locked in place with my deadname (trans-speak for my old name that should no longer be mentioned). Quite apart from the slight distaste of seeing this name on my old PDF bylines, I have to relentlessly come out to people who send in requests for reagents described in those papers, many of which are addressed to my deadname based on those bylines. For the journals, publications are moments in time, enshrined in printed copies that can never be altered. It also turns out that an academic search engine like PubMed will not connect my two names in their search engine (I asked), making it harder for searchers to find the totality of my work unless they can find the link to ‘My Bibliography’ on my faculty home page.

Then there are grant applications; the transition is obvious to agencies and reviewers from my CV and from the fact that one is a known entity in the field. Because of this there is now the added risk of implicit bias in the review process, but the biggest issue I now face is a 2-3 year gap in my publication record. I must decide if and how to explain this in an NIH-style biosketch. Informed reviewers may see this as a true deviation from a normal career path, but some will likely see it as an “excuse.” I have yet to find out.

Finally, at Penn State, my email address was assigned based on my initials when I was hired, but my new name does not match these. It turns out that my institutional identity is so totally defined in all university systems by this address that it cannot be changed – another constant irritant in this regard that has been somewhat ameliorated by establishing an alias.

The many communities of a college transition

I’ll wrap up here with a few loose thoughts that are specific to academic life.

Town and gown relationships can be important. I am privileged in not having to blaze the trail at my institution. There are other trans and non-binary faculty here who did that, and reports of gender-critical faculty continuing to use deadnames or incorrect pronouns here have been limited to one individual that I know of in over 2,500 faculty on this campus. I am also fortunate that State College is a hugely progressive community with many legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community that are not otherwise afforded by the Pennsylvania legislature. For some in an otherwise liberal college environment, there can be tensions between the school and a more conservative local community that could make transition at work fine, but community life difficult.

The community of 40,000+ students at Penn State is hugely diverse in its cultures, religions, and politics – a potential minefield. However, Penn State emphasizes acceptance and tolerance on campus, so my classrooms have not become contentious. In fact, I have found that I now have a new role as students and others in the LGBTQ+ community quietly seek me out for advice.

As a newly “diverse” faculty in my departmental community, I did find myself immediately asked to chair The Climate and Diversity Committee. This seemed likely to be fairly time-consuming, and I saw a parallel here to the way the career of academic women can get diluted by well-meaning inclusion on too many committees in the name of gender balance. However, it also seemed likely there would be some value that my new-found visibility could bring to the C&D process, so I did not turn this down in the end.

Was it worth it?

I am sometimes asked if transitioning was worth it. I have found infinite value in being myself after so many years and, with hindsight, I now recognize that not being able to do so was a constant drag on my academic performance. So the answer is an unqualified “Yes!” In joining the task force, I hope to bring some of this experience to other ASCB members, as well as to help the Society develop and promote fully inclusive activities and policies.


About the Author:

Claire Thomas is an Associate Professor of Biology and of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. She and her lab are interested in the role of the cortical F-actin cytoskeleton in apicobasal polarity, protein trafficking, growth, and morphogenesis, working mainly in Drosophila. Claire is a member of the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee. Email: