Anne C. Petersen, PhD
W. K. Kellogg Foundation
After some time as a mathematician and computer programmer on exciting projects in the Biomedical Computation Facility (BCF) at UC and some soul searching in the provocative days of consciousness-raising groups and feminist ferment, I returned to graduate study in a PhD program titled Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistical Analysis (MESA) and simultaneously pursued an MS in statistics with mentors from the BCF.
The chair of the MESA program informed me that women were not welcome in his program because they did little but have babies. This rejection made me even more determined to prove that women could do more than have babies. I completed the Statistics MS and was ABD within 3 years, while also working part time in the Statistics Laboratory and serving with my husband as resident head of an undergraduate dormitory.
During this period, I also had major surgery and lost a baby at 7 months of pregnancy. This was traumatic because of the strong expectation of becoming a mother but not having a clue about how to integrate this with being a professional — despite my indignation at my program chair's beliefs. With medical advice that I not delay having children because of the expected recurrence of the medical problem requiring surgery, I was not ready to move alone to some distant city despite offers of faculty positions. My husband did not want to leave his rewarding position in Chicago, so I accepted a research associate position in the medical school at the university — a position held almost entirely by women, minorities or foreign nationals.
While chafing at the limitations this position placed on faculty roles, I learned how to write proposals for funding and won both training and research grants. Believing I needed some teaching experience, I also taught statistics at various Chicago-area institutions of higher education. Becoming a research entrepreneur, I pursued research of interest to me and focused on adolescent girls. My appointment within the psychiatry department made a psychological focus most sensible, a focus also congenial to me despite my limited educational background in the area. While ignoring women's potential for leadership, the University of Chicago developed my capacity for lifelong learning with skills of enduring usefulness.
Success as a researcher became a valuable commodity on the job market in the early 1980s, and when Pennsylvania State University expressed interest in me for a department head position, I called in my husband's promise to move if I really wanted a position elsewhere — though he'd imagined something on either coast if not in Chicago. Our children were then 5 and 8 years, making a family move feasible.
My 10 years at Penn State were among the most exciting and productive of my career, adding more than 100 articles and chapters and a dozen books to my vita along with important skills and experience. While continuing my research on biopsychosocial development in adolescence, and teaching statistics and research methods, I gained valuable experience as an academic administrator, winning a position as collegiate dean after 5 years as a department head. Psychosocial concepts of power and group process became salient areas for new learning.
My next three positions involved institutional leadership: vice president of research and graduate school dean at the University of Minnesota, deputy director and COO of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and now Senior Vice President for Programs at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Each has been interesting and taught me much.
The move to Minnesota was propelled by the emotion of returning to our home state, a short-lived move once the White House called. The NSF appointment by the President, with Senate confirmation, was a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve my country in a leadership position and play a policy role within the administration. It was exciting, but additional aspects of my 2 years in Washington — such as the government shutdown — began to diminish the glimmer. Camping out in small quarters apart from husband and family was another disadvantage, felt more acutely after I'd turned 50 and began to assess what my priorities were with time left — just as life course developmental psychologists say we do! As happened during much of my career, a terrific position beckoned at around that time — my current position as senior vice president with responsibility for all programs at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. As the second largest grant maker in the country and a mission to "help people help themselves," the foundation provides tremendous opportunity for someone with my eclectic background.
My advice to those of you just starting out is to pursue opportunities that seem interesting to you and that provide ways to learn and contribute. My career path so far has been a rich and rewarding adventure! Rather than wasting energy on various constraints in the path, I'm glad that I forged ahead, choosing to "make lemonade when I got lemons."
(Originally published in the January/February 1998 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)