Maneuvering challenges

Susan Olesik
Chair and Dow Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Share this article

Susan Olesik, chair and Dow Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, works to ensure the women hired in her department succeed.

Susan Olesik, a 2016 Glass Breaker, is familiar with facing challenges and maneuvering around any obstacles that have come her way over the years.

This year, the President and Provost’s Council on Women recognizes five faculty and staff members whose efforts have improved workplace culture for women at Ohio State: They are Ohio State Glass Breakers.

Buckeye Voices presents question-and-answer interviews with each extraordinary honoree. Susan Olesik, chair and Dow Professor for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has tackled a few firsts in her career and works to ensure that women in her department succeed.

Q. What advice do you have for other women seeking leadership roles?

A. Network, network, network. When opportunities are offered to be on university committees or national committees, strongly consider them unless too many offers come at once. I have learned much from interacting with faculty who are in fields much different from mine, as well as my national and international peers. Don’t get too overwhelmed by this service. Think about whether you will benefit from the service as a learning activity.

The summer after being promoted to associate professor, I was asked to be on many national and university committees. I accepted a number of them but eventually had to start saying no. One of the requesting individuals at the time threatened to tell my dean that I would not do the service. I told the person to go ahead. I had to do this. It was just too much!

Q. Have you faced any challenges or overcome any obstacles?

A. There were a number of times in my career when it apparently was not acceptable for a female faculty member to speak up. And there were a number of instances of discrimination. But the most common challenge was that academia did not know how to deal with married faculty members.

When my husband and I started looking for academic jobs, it seemed every place wanted to decide which one of us was good and which one wasn’t. The possibility that both postdocs were good didn’t seem to be an option.

My husband was offered a job at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I was given a reasonably strong commitment at a local lab in the triangle area. But when I arrived, my position vanished for reasons that were completely beyond my control. I then was offered another postdoc position at UNC-Chapel Hill and spent the next year looking for a position nearby. No offers came. At the beginning of the next year, I started looking for academic jobs nationally and had two offers by the end of that fall. I chose to join Ohio State.

On our fifth wedding anniversary, we split up our furniture and I moved to Columbus. For the next five years, my husband and I lived in both Ohio and North Carolina. We had a house in Carolina and an apartment in Columbus. One of us flew every weekend so that we held on to our marriage. We paid more than about 1.5 of our two salaries for this traveling.

This issue has gotten much better in the last 10 years. It is now acceptable for departments to hire both members of a married couple.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

A. I would say that my style is proactive and collaborative with my colleagues. My colleagues and I have strong ambitions for our department and as chair it is my job to hold those ambitions close and keep pushing forward.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. In our department, all full professors are possible candidates for the chair position. I am honored that my colleagues have allowed me to become their chair.

I do plan to keep pushing myself forward. My research group has some exciting research that we are currently working on. On the leadership front, I have not decided what will be next.

Read more about Susan Olesik's career path to the leadership position she holds.

About the author

Susan Olesik
Susan Olesik -
Chair and Dow Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Susan Olesik is Chair and Dow Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.


Buckeye Voices — Commentary from The Ohio State University