When the world doesn’t take you seriously

You don’t need respect from everyone in order to succeed

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Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

“She barely looks old enough to drive, but she’s a professor.” That’s how one of our deans liked to introduce new faculty at the fall convocation every August. Especially when we were fresh out of grad school, or didn’t have enough facial hair.

Plenty of us have had this kind of problem. Either you look too young, too female, too small, too heavy, or too…something. Whatever it is, not everyone recognizes all the respect or authority you deserve.

They don’t take you seriously. Maybe they never will.

Other people might go a step further, and undermine you constantly. Maybe they don’t do it on purpose. I’m sure the dean was just joking when he suggested I or other young people didn’t look like real faculty. But it’s a little tone deaf these days to introduce a professor as if she were your teenage daughter. Maybe, just a little bit?

This happens to me more than I’d like. Despite everything, people interrupt me during conversations and talk over me during meetings. Not all the time, but enough to get on my nerves. They don’t mean to act that way. But when they look at me, their first instinct is to ask where my parents are — not my thoughts on budgets or job candidates.

My favorite thing is when someone does pretend to listen for a while. Then they cut me off, and repeat everything I’ve just said back to me, with a little twist that enables them to take credit for the ideas.

I’ve considered trying to grow a beard to remedy this situation. Maybe a tasteful goatee. Dying my hair grey. Or maybe toting a briefcase around instead of a messenger bag.

Anything to enhance my gravitas.

A monocle might be overkill. Then again, I’ve always wanted to look like Mr. Peanut. One day, I’m going to live my dream.

My first year on faculty, I was voted chair of a search committee. A full professor proceeded to berate me during the next department meeting, question my qualifications, and then submit a formal complaint letter that I be removed, since I wasn’t “experienced” enough to run a search. Fair point, but he sure was a dick about it.

The department chair appointed him as the chair instead, just to shut him up, and wrote me an apology over email. I still served on the committee, as a grunt to weed out bad CVs.

A week later, the same guy got overwhelmed and resigned as search chair. He couldn’t figure out how to use the online application management system. Guess who got re-appointed?

The whole time, I managed to go with the flow. I ran the search. Everyone second-guessed every decision until we brought in the final candidate, who blew everyone away. We made a successful hire. And finally a tide of compliments rolled in. From the same people who’d made my life hell. One of them even came by my office and said, “I think you’ve done an excellent job from day one. Great work!”

Yay me. Too bad you don’t win trophies for putting up with tremendous amounts of bullshit.

Worse problems exist, I know. Just when I get worried about eye bags and wrinkles, someone stops me at a conference and says I’m aging backwards. Oh, shucks. How flattering. I’m not even trying to be sarcastic. If I had to choose, I’d take eternally being mistaken for a college student over any other form of punishment.

You might even be fully justified to hate me for whining about reverse ageism. But it sure does suck when you spend $40,000 and four years in poverty to earn a PhD, and nobody even remotely suspects you might have an advanced degree until you hand them a business card.

But I’ve learned there’s only one thing you can do when people don’t take you seriously. Let your work speak for itself. People worth impressing will notice. Everyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.

Sometimes I have to do recruitment events at local high schools. The front desk people check me in and say stuff like, “You’re going to love student teaching. When do you graduate?”

These days, I don’t correct them. Imagine what a bitch I’d sound like if I said, “Actually, I have a PhD. I’m a professor.”

Barf.

I’ve never made myself throw up before. If I ever need to, I’ll just say that aloud. “I have a PhD. I’m a professor.” Should do the trick.

Some people place so much importance in their titles, positions, and degrees. Me? No matter what, I’ll never be one of those people who adds, “PhD” after their bio on Twitter, or Medium.

Besides, part of me knows the truth. I’ll go ahead and say it. Getting a PhD in the Humanities isn’t the hardest thing in the world. It’s just expensive and time-consuming.

No place brims with pretension like a writers’ conference. Imagine how many times I’ve heard someone introduce themselves and add something like, “I’m a professional writer.” If you have to say it like that, then maybe hold off until people recognize you. Meanwhile, focus on the work.

Never change yourself simply to make other people take you seriously. It’s tempting. But it’s one of the worst things you can do. For almost a year, I wore a blazer every day. Even when it was hot outside. If anything, people might’ve taken me even less seriously because I was trying too hard.

Pretty quickly, I also dropped the whole “Dr.” act. My students called me by my first name anyway, and I was fine with it.

One semester, a student did ask me straight up if I had a PhD. When I said yes, it suddenly became a big topic of conversation.

Half the class wanted to know why I didn’t insist on being called “Doctor” or “Professor.” My answer: It just wasn’t that important. Their education mattered more than my ego.

That played pretty well. Mad respect.

Assholes still run the world in a lot of ways. Unfairness and inequality prevail way too often. We’ve got to fix that in the long run. Meanwhile, I’m going to quietly prove myself. I’ve stopped worrying about every slight and misjudgment. My time and energy can go toward better things. And so can yours. Lots of people may doubt you. They’ll think you’re too young, inexperienced, or unskilled. So what? Prove them wrong.

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