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I'm a computer scientist at the point in my postdoc where I will have to decide soon whether to apply for faculty positions this fall or go to industry, in the US/Canada/UK/maybe Europe.1

But I've also recently come to the realization that spending half of my waking hours fervently wishing I had been born a girl could be a sign that maybe I should be doing something about that.

My situation is such that I doubt I would be able to really "pass" anytime soon, if ever. Even if I went all-out on transition immediately – which I'm not sure I'm ready for anyway – I can't imagine that I wouldn't be quite obviously physically trans at interview time and at least for a while afterwards.

I'd be fine presenting male through the faculty interview process and so on; my dysphoria is not particularly acute, and I have not yet started on hormones or anything. But I am certainly not willing to wait until tenure! I'm old enough already. (~30, but losing hair fast....)

Transition will obviously make life harder either in industry or in academia. But assistant professorships are not like normal jobs. Getting students, perhaps getting grants, perhaps teaching, and probably a million other things will all be harder in the midst of transition. It would also be combining two quite stressful experiences at the same time, and early-stage assistant professorships are not necessarily the most friendly job to the possibility of required medical absences / etc.

By contrast, my assumption is that a job as a researcher at some tech company will only provide the "usual" amount of discrimination and inconvenience, with probably better capability to handle potential medical issues, much more financial support for a potentially expensive process, and maybe fewer people I'll need to convince I'm a real person. A greater portion of these jobs are also going to be available in a major liberal city with the support structure for this process (and near my existing social networks for support).

And yet, ideally I think I'd want to be on the faculty market anyway.

So: how infeasible is transitioning as an early-career faculty member? Should I abandon this path for now and go to industry research instead, and maybe come back to it after a few years?

I'd particularly love to hear from anyone who's been in a similar situation, or to be pointed to examples of academic scientists who've transitioned before being well-established in their careers.

(This seems to be the only relevant question on the site, but is broader, and the examples of trans academics there seem to have all transitioned after already being quite established [except Lynn Conway, who (a) did this in the 60s/70s and (b) had to completely restart her career in "stealth mode"]. There are also a few on workplace about related situations for "normal" jobs, but I'm looking for academia-specific thoughts.)


1 I don't really want to do another postdoc; I'm in the second year of my current one, with a professor who's relatively prominent in my subfield, and though it's been great I can't help but think that a second one almost anywhere else would be seen as a "step down." Doing multiple postdocs is also quite rare, though not unheard of, in my area. My current position is "term-limited" before another faculty cycle comes around.

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    If you think about it in terms of "is it a terrible idea?" but without considering the academia field, what changes in that equation? Maybe thinking outside of this context can shed some light on possible solutions. – user1306322 Jun 19 '18 at 10:39
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    I think not transitioning is a terrible idea. Transitioning isn't frictionless, but living against yourself seems like pretty much the worst possible scenario. Best wishes with that, and congrats on being true to yourself :) – mgarciaisaia Jun 19 '18 at 13:03
  • @mgarciaisaia That's imo a given that maybe didn't come across clearly; the question is whether doing it at the same time as starting out as faculty is a bad idea and therefore I should go into industry instead (at least for a while). – anon Jun 19 '18 at 14:46
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    I'm voting to leave this open for now, but it's borderline. Suggestion: Focus the question on the academic side of things; ask for anecdotal or empirical data on out trans people in academia, maybe something interesting will come up. Outside of this it mostly comes down to opinion / your specific circumstances / general workplace. Whatever you decide, good luck! – Flyto Jun 20 '18 at 9:00
  • Any major life changes are an extra burden so to speak. In a new job you are getting the ropes, people are getting to know you. For instance, I lost a new job with complicated politics due to being in the middle of a breakup with my ex. I would try a thing at a time. – Rui F Ribeiro Jun 24 '18 at 16:54
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How infeasible is transitioning as an early-career faculty member?

I transitioned as a postdoc back in 2013, so I did it. Whether or not it's a terrible idea depends on many factors, and just plain luck. I don't have experience in industry, so I can't comment much on that. But I'm sure it's the same situation: it depends on many factors, and plain luck.

Travel

One thing that would likely be distinct between academia and industry is traveling: conference travel is the norm in academia. This has two important consequences:

  1. Surgeries for transgender medical procedures are not performed in most places, e.g., in Canada, there's only one clinic that performs GRS (in Montreal). Different surgeons have different styles, and have different levels of experience. To be able to choose one's desired surgeon (and get the most suitable results), one needs to be able to travel, which I expect is far easier in academia than industry.

    For surgery, I organized to attend conferences nearby, which helped ease the travel costs. My hormones are prescription-free in Turkey, so I stock up when I'm there.

  2. Traveling is more difficult for transgender people, including security inspections, applying for visas, carrying medicines, facial hair growing during long flights, dilation, shared accommodation, and so on. In fact, some countries have anti-debauchery laws.

I highlight some other important factors below.

1. Transitioning is personalized.

Everyone's transition is different. For many people, transitioning is essential: they choose between transitioning or killing themselves. Other people find it suitable to not transition full time. Many people are between these two extremes.

Whether or not what you have in mind is "a terrible idea" depends on you: (a) how critical it is to transition, (b) your financial situation, and (c) your family situation. And many other factors: religion, friends, disability, race, local laws, and so on.

2. At no point is transitioning convenient.

I doubt there will ever be a point where you feel now is the optimum time to transition. At the very least, a huge amount of time gets eaten up with updating one's documents and medical care, along with simply learning how to dress and behave.

One point: If you wait, are you going to publish under your dead name?

My experience is that students mostly don't get involved in the transition. If you stay focused on the material, so will they. I would say family is probably of greater concern than students. However, there's inevitably some complications: your reputation (good or bad) rubs off onto your students, and writing letters of recommendation can be a bit awkward.

Some people take medical steps (such as sperm donations, hormones, facial hair removal, etc.) prior to socially transitioning. However, WPATH standards of care for various medical treatments have real life tests, which is relevant if you're intending to seek medical treatment down the line. You need to establish yourself as your gender to get medical referrals.

When I've asked older transgender people, they only ever say they regret not transitioning earlier. In your case, if you end up losing your hair, it could have significant and irreversible negative impact on your quality of life; you may want to consider starting medical treatment soon.

3. Transitioning takes place with incomplete information.

Whatever decision you make, you're going to make it without all the information. You won't know how people will react in advance. You'll make a decision without knowing which path is best. And, regardless of what you do, you'll probably spend a fair chunk of your life thinking you made the wrong decision.

4. Don't overvalue being passable.

Being passable helps everyday activities proceed smoothly. However, my impression is that if someone is making an effortful attempt to present and behave as a certain gender, one's gender will almost uniformly be respected (despite not being passable).

Setting a goal of being passable is risky; it is often not achievable, and it can be devastating to accept that oneself is not passable.

I'm mostly passable nowadays, but people still find out about my past through my prior publications. Generally even if they find out, they act like they don't know.

Hormones make a big difference to passability (but they take time). There's also surgery, such as facial feminization surgery, which is a major improvement, but it's expensive and a referral may be required, depending on the surgeon(s).

5. Unpredictability.

Transitioning takes time, and over time people's values change. There's also a roller-coaster of emotions, a "second puberty" when one undergoes hormone therapy, and often dieting becomes important (which may mean a lack of energy to be productive).

Particularly difficult for me was belonging to a "boys club" (mathematics/computer science) while I was desperate to establish and assert my femininity.

People are unpredictable. Just because someone has liberal values, and so on, doesn't mean they're going to be accepting. Likewise, just because someone is conservative, doesn't mean they're going to be hostile. The people you work with make a difference to your quality of life in general, and it's impossible to predict.

Task difficulty is unpredictable. There's going to be things that turn out far easier than expected, and things that should be simple which are complicated.

Mental health is unpredictable. It's difficult to maintain mental health as a transgender person. It's possible to end up with depression and/or anxiety, eating disorders, and engaging in self-harm or suicide attempts. (Every transgender person I've asked has a clear plan on how they would kill themselves.) And even without being transgender, academia can be a rough ride mentally.

Relationships are unpredictable. In addition to transitioning having unpredictable effects on your current relationships, hormones (if you choose to go down that road) are known to affect people's sexuality, which may impact if and who you marry, which may impact your career options. Moreover, if you end up marrying a man, by default a husband's career is socially considered more important than the wife's, and it's considered the wife's responsibility to look after children (perhaps through adoption).

6. Other points.

  1. Don't get lost in your transition. It's common for transgender people to end up only thinking about their transition, and that becomes who they are as a person. My impression is that this causes others to perceive you as "a transgender" rather than "a woman". I feel it's best to develop non-transgender-related interests.

  2. Work harder than expected. Job security is a big deal for mental health, but on top of this, medical treatment is expensive. So I encourage you to make sure your colleagues have instances in their mind where you have gone beyond what's expected.

  3. Have ambitions beyond merely surviving. It is hard to have goals when you feel like you're merely surviving on a day to day basis, but it's good for one's mental health. Don't just constantly perceive yourself as a victim, but do something with your life.

  4. Expect hiccups. While deeply hurtful, you're inevitably going to be misgendered and deadnamed, have people comment on your appearance, have people scheming behind your back, and so on. When this happens, it makes me paranoid (Is this what people truly think of me?). Somehow, you need to continue to be productive despite this. As you become more established, these hiccups become less frequent.

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    What is "dilation"? – Azor Ahai Jun 19 '18 at 16:38
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    After surgery, a neovagina will naturally close shut permanently. To prevent this, you insert dilators (which are basically dildos) inside yourself for a period of time, and this is dilation. It may e.g. be embarrassing going through airport security carrying your dilators, and awkward using shared accommodation while needing to dilate. – Rebecca J. Stones Jun 19 '18 at 17:40
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    "Passable", in this context, means to appear convincingly as one's gender. It's not the best word, since it implies some level of trickery, but it's what's used. (It's also used outside of transgender contexts "a passable impersonation of Donald Trump".) And for the future reader, "deadnaming" is when you use a transgender person's former name (or non-preferred name); it's incredibly hurtful when it happens. – Rebecca J. Stones Jun 20 '18 at 1:49
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    Using someone's deadname implies partial (if not total) rejection of the authenticity of their gender. It implies a preference for the inauthentic (and involuntary) prior identity, akin to saying "I don't want you to exist." It costs nothing to use someone's real name (and pronouns), so failing to do so indicates that person's perceived worth (close to nothing). It also reveals personal information, increases their risk of discrimination and violence, and encourages others to do likewise. – Rebecca J. Stones Jun 20 '18 at 8:09
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    Getting an ORCID id (orcid.org) might help in alleviating the problem of "losing" publications upon a name change. – s.d Jun 20 '18 at 12:47
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Rebecca Stones has already given a great answer that got my upvote. But allow me to offer some personal perspective based on my experience here in US.

I transitioned about 20 years ago. The world is a much less hostile environment for trans people today than it was then. I think you will find academia, at least here in the US, to be an especially supportive environment.

Transition is difficult and scary for everyone. None of us ever starts out expecting we will ever pass. But there's a wide variety of people's appearances anyway and hormones, hair removal and facial surgery all really work. Within about a year or two, most people have learned the role, they look the part, they've moved on with their lives and they blend in mostly unnoticed. It happens faster than people expect and almost everyone comes out looking much better than they expected. (Transition really does cure transgenderism.)

Whether to begin transition before or after you find an appointment is your choice. If you've literally just begun transition and haven't yet figured out how to choose an outfit or apply makeup without looking like a cross between a circus clown and a pole dancer, well, yes, that could be distracting and unhelpful. But if you can present as a serious professional person, albeit of somewhat ambiguous gender, I think you will be fine. Early in transition, you might have some difficulty getting your name right on all the documents, however.

Good luck.

Added: On reflection, it occurs to me to point out there is an advantage to transitioning before the job search. When you transition, everyone around you also has to transition. They have to learn your new name, break old habits of what pronouns to use and change how they think about you. Transition is stressful for them, too. When they're uncomfortable, you'll be uncomfortable, too. If you start transition before looking for a job, even if you're not that far along, your new colleagues will only know you as your new self.

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I think it depends a lot on the institution. When I joined my Mathematics & CS department in 1998, there was already a transgender faculty member. Since then, that person has retired, but at least one other faculty member has transitioned, and my institution has explicitly welcomed transgender students, of whom there are many.

Perhaps when considering a school (after getting an offer?), you (or a friend, if you wish to be anonymous as long as possible), could contact the campus LGBTQ group, Queer Studies, or Women's Studies department to find out if there are any out transgender faculty whom you could contact.

Good luck!

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I am aware of one faculty member at my institute (in Germany) who transitioned between interviews and starting her assistant professorship. I don't know her personally so I have no idea about her experiences, but I thought it might be a useful data point anyway.

Looking for jobs in a large and liberal city might be useful for faculty positions as well as for industry; obviously job supply is less in academics than in industry but you could still look for positions in those kind of cities.

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From my point of view I wouldn’t see any objection for a transition early in your career. I would be open about it. My university promotes to be all inclusive and has a diversity policy. On the other hand, we would not have such programs if there wasn’t a need for it. So you could be right about your underlying feelings that it may obstruct your career in this stage.

However, what is mainstream nowadays? Looking at my department I see a lot of diversity. That is what makes a university such a vibrant place.

I guess it all comes down to your future department and the people in it. I just want to say that for me, your qualities as an academic and your personality would count, and not your gender (before or after).

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    -1 This answer is mostly a shrug and doesn't contain any personal experience transitioning or with someone transitioning. – Azor Ahai Jun 19 '18 at 16:40
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    "we would not have such programs if there wasn’t a need for it" this reality check hits the nail on the head. Support, acceptance and the journey to get there are all nice and fine, but there are also many negative aspects present. – user3209815 Jun 20 '18 at 7:38

protected by Wrzlprmft Jun 19 '18 at 19:28

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