Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’ve decided to go ahead and say something about how I navigated (and am still navigating) the challenge of trying to have an academic career and a family as well. This is not a topic I can adequately address in a single post, so bear with me. And, since my main motivation for doing this is the hope that knowing about my experiences may be useful, somehow, to other people contemplating these waters, ask me if there’s something I’m leaving out that you want me to talk about. (If it’s too personal, I’ll say so.)

I think Rob Knop’s comment is dead-on. Many of us in academia have been trained to exude such dedication to our field (through whatever combination of scholarship, teaching, and service our institution values) that we worry it will get us in trouble to admit we have other interests as well. Especially for those on the job market or trying to get tenure, demonstrating too great an interest in something out of the academic sphere — like having kids — is something you fear might bring critical attention upon you. My sense this is even more true for women in fields that are still largely male-dominated; you want people to notice your great research or teaching, not to think to themselves, “See, she’s not sufficiently committed to the field, or she wouln’t even be thinking of taking time away from it for something as mundane as childrearing! We were better off before we started wasting our program on these women.”

In order to blend in, there are lots of things we don’t talk about. But if more people talked about them, talking about them wouldn’t make us stand out quite as much. So at least in this little corner of cyberspace, let’s talk.

This post is the “set up”: the situation I found myself in when I started contemplating whether it would be feasible (or insane) to have an academic career and a family.

When I was still a graduate student in chemistry, I hadn’t really started thinking the family option through. I was (in my own mind, anyway) way too young to see myself as a parent, and for most of those years I wasn’t in a relationship that would have made the jump from “couple” to “family”. But, I was keeping my eyes open. In my department, there were two women faculty members. One had tenure and no kids. One was in her probationary period while I was a grad student; she had a baby and didn’t get tenure. None of the women in my graduate program (at least that I knew of) even considered having a baby while still in the program — except (if I’m remembering correctly) for a couple of the theoreticians (who were exposed to computers rather than chemicals). At least one of them left the program without a Ph.D., but a fair number of people (men and women) left the program without Ph.D.s; the other, if my memory is right, didn’t pursue a professorial job. It was actually a bizarre and wonderful thing, the year I defended my dissertation, when one of the graduate students a few years behind me in my research group became a parent. Of course, he was male, but it still seemed like a radical (and risky) move.

Flash forward to the start of my graduate program in philosophy. Now instead of being one of the youngest students in my graduate cohort (as I was in chemistry), I was one of the oldest (a seasoned 26-year-old). I was in the early stages of my relationship with my better-half, and I had just made a fairly major decision about my trajectory (i.e., becoming a philosopher rather than going forth as a chemist) that was not premised on making safe bets.

Clearly, I was looking for trouble.

But, trying to find my footing in a new discipline, I wasn’t looking for family-inflected trouble just yet. Once again, though, I took a good look at the grown-up members of the discipline I was looking to become a part of. As I started my studies in philosophy, there were three woman faculty members in my department, all of them assistant professors. They were fabulously smart and very nurturing towards us graduate students, especially (but not exclusively) toward the women. By my third year, they started coming up for tenure.

One had a child near the middle of her probationary period. She did not get tenure. One got pregnant the year she went up. She did not get tenure. One got tenure (yay!) and got pregnany almost immediately after getting tenure. Her child was born very premature, and they had a long hospital stay that was rather more harrowing than anyone would have liked. (They’re fine now, but still.) This was rather a disturbing data set for some of us to contemplate.

To be fair, it was not a cakewalk for the male junior faculty who had children to get tenure, and this was a university that showed some pride in holding the line for tenure very, very high. But, talking to another graduate of my program a couple years ago, he related to me that, as far as anyone had been able to ascertain, this university had never granted tenure to a woman who already had children.

Around the time that the tenure massacres were gearing up, another woman my year in the program and I jokingly made a plan. “It’s easier to get a Ph.D. than tenure,” we decided, “And we’re getting on in years. Pregnant by fourth year!”

During our fourth year, the university changed the student health insurance. My health care provider mentioned to me that the new plan included a fairly decent maternity benefit.

As I began my fifth year in the program (the last one with funding), at age 30, I was not completely sure I wanted to be a parent. (There are very few things about which analytic philosophers are completely sure; it’s part of our training.) But I had already decided (when I switched from chemistry to philosophy) that it was important to me to try to live a life where I did the things that mattered to me, even if they seemed terribly risky. I had decided that I preferred to try to follow my heart and fail rather than never know whether I could succeed. And, as strong as my commitment to philosophy was, I also wanted to see whether I could be a good parent.

Given my age and the state of the academic job market, waiting until I got a job and tenure seemed like a gamble with a good chance of failure. Given what I had seen in my department, getting the hang of a tenure track job and then upsetting that equilibrium by having a child part way through seemed equally risky. The least risky option besides just foregoing a family altogether looked like it was going to be having a baby as I was finishing my dissertation, and then trying to land a tenure track job.

And I knew exactly zero women who had ever done that.

I tried to imagine myself finishing up, going on the market, and starting a tenure track job with a baby in tow. It wasn’t that much harder to imagine than finishing up, going on the market, and starting a tenure track job without a baby. I broached the subject with my better half, who sometimes gives me a lot more credit for knowing what I’m doing than than facts would seem to warrant.

We decided to give it a shot.

To be continued.

Comments

  1. #1 Thomas Winwood
    July 22, 2006

    You became a philosophy? Like Stoicism or Aristotelianism?

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 22, 2006

    Stupid typo! I blame the heat. But, it’s fixed now.

  3. #3 trillwing
    July 22, 2006

    Thanks so much for writing about this subject!

    For me, the decision to have a child was helped along significantly by the fact that my adviser has two young children (ages 2 and 4 at the time I became pregnant) and that she was up for tenure. (BTW, she earned tenure in 4 years instead of the usual 6 or 7.)

    In her I have not only a fabulous role model for balancing work and family life, but also someone who has been supportive of me as a dissertator and a parent. I could not have come this close to finishing my dissertation without that kind of support.

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    July 22, 2006

    Your reasoning parallels our own. We had our first kids in grad school, and the next during my post-doc years — my wife was actually very, very pregnant when she gave her defense.

    We looked at the standard science career track and saw that it consisted of decades of uncertainty and that most faculty weren’t getting tenure until their late 30s, or later, and decided that we could not let our profession dictate our personal and family life. Academia is so insane that you have to take conscious steps to dissociate those personal decisions from career decisions, and treat them as parallel tracks in your life with no interactions between them.

  5. #5 greensmile
    July 22, 2006

    Sadly, the less prestigious the university, the more freedom the professors seem to feel about “having a life”.

    I went to a state university of no particular fame. I got a BS in physics there. My advisor was a tireless campaigner for the Sierra Club and some times devoted the time from last class on Friday to first class on Monday in attending meetings and organizings…he even learned to fly a plane so he could get around to all the movers and shakers he needed to see.

    My son is getting a degree in molecular biology at a decent but rather small new england college where his advisor has been out of the office more than in years past because of the arrival of a second child. And this professor’s interest in camping and rockclimbing is also a passion of my son’s and makes for many discussions of gear and hiking routes…when cytokinesis is not preoccupying them

    When my daughter got a degree in integrative biology [we still call it ecology here] at UC Berkeley, her favorite professor’s stingy office hours were due to meetings, conferences, reviewing of other peoples work and so on to such an extent that she hardly got to see them…it was 10 years before she could stomach academic environments well enough to go back for a masters.

    Balancing an academic career with a personal life is a problem both with the person and with the situation in which they find themself.

  6. #6 BilZ0r
    July 24, 2006

    Great post, on a topic a lot of people are interested in.

    As an American, you’re quite lucky, the idea that you need to leave your country probably doesn’t factor too much in your thinking. As a someone doing a PhD in Neuroscience in a Southern Hemisphere University, getting to Europe or the US is the goal. Not only do I have to consider about how having a family might effect my ability to get the best position available, I have to think about how it will effect my ability to get into other countries, and how moving across the world would effect them.

    I mean, I can’t even get a Dog because I wouldn’t want to drag it across to globe!

  7. #7 face
    October 5, 2009

    why is this 4 pages long im dyin here

  8. #8 Bu Wood
    January 7, 2010

    Some steps are easier when taken one at a time. My wife had five children and then went back and got a PhD. She even wrote her dissertation on women reentering the workforce after years away, involved in family raising.
    Admittedly, she did not try to assault the gates into academica. That was a good idea as she seems to make a few bucks consulting, institutional politics.

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