Adventures in Ethics and Science

Where we left off in part 1: In my fifth (and last) year of funding in my philosophy Ph.D. program, staring down 30, trying to finish a dissertation, and bracing myself for the rigors of the academic job market, I said to myself, “How could having a baby make things noticably more difficult?”

Then I remembered: I’d have to tell my advisor.

I would characterize my relationship with my graduate advisor as a pretty good one. He always found time to meet with me, gave me good suggestions about what to read, made useful comments on my writing, and really pressed me to figure out what my view was on the issues I was trying to tackle in my dissertaion project.

He also scared me.

I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. (A few years later, he disclosed, after another of his advisees defended and we were joking with him about how much he had scared us, that he was surprised to learn we found him intimidating. We all had a good laugh about that. There may have been wine involved.) But, he struck fear into the heart of his Ph.D. advisees. It was mostly a feature of his awesome scholarly productivity and his no-guff attitude toward philosophy. If he thought a view was full of holes (or even just moderately shaky), he’d say so. That lights a toasty fire under your butt when you’re trying to work out your own view as you’re thrashing about with your dissertation. And he was an award-winning teacher. And his tenure case was a slam-dunk at a university where such a thing was unheard of. And he was all of three years older than me.

As Greensmile noted in a comment on the last post, there seems to be an inverse realtionship between the prestige of a university and how acceptable the idea of “having a life” is within that academic culture. This factor, I think, makes having a baby during a Ph.D. program more unthinkable than having a baby in the early years of a tenure track job at a non-Ph.D.-granting institution — the schools that have Ph.D. programs tend to have more prestige (and more of a research orientation) than the places that don’t. So, part of my anticipatory fear about telling my advisor I was pregnant can be blamed on the culture of the university. The standing assumption was that of course you’d want to devote yourself fully to research in your discipline, and that you’d be looking for a tenure track job at another R01 university, because anything else just wouldn’t be as good. And really, whipping out scholarly articles and books and such, traveling to far-flung libraries and conferences, securing fellowships to do an amazing postdoctoral year here and a stellar visiting assitant professorship there — that was the kind of life where even a partner who was not sufficiently game might get in the way. A baby was pretty much unthinkable.

And, though I had absolutely no reason to expect it from my advisor, I feared that when I disclosed my pregnancy, I might get a reaction along the lines of:

“You know, I dedicated all this time and effort to mentoring you and teaching you how to be a good philosopher, and now I find out that I’ve wasted that time and effort, because clearly you are not suitably dedicated to this profession.”

Actually, I had feared a similar kind of reaction from my graduate advisor in chemistry when I informed him, as I was nearing my (chemistry) dissertation defense, that I was going to pursue philosophy of science rather than chemistry. He didn’t react in the way I feared, but then again, I was able to make a case that my training in chemistry could help me be a better philosopher of science. As well, as a full professor in an especially mellow and well-adjusted phase of his career, he was more of a nurturer than a hard-ass.

Besides, my chemistry advisor had had loads of Ph.D. advisees ahead of me, and a decent number of them were doing other things besides academic chemistry. Not only were some of them industrial chemists, but some of them weren’t even doing chemistry.

But I was my philosophy advisor’s first Ph.D. advisee, and a baby was pretty much uncharted territory.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. While I could still hide my gravid state (and as the second-trimester burst of energy was kicking in), I wrote three thesis chapters that generally pleased my advisor and the bulk of a fourth that was rough but a necessary stage toward the polished version. As my advisor was expressing approval at the increased pace at which my dissertation chapters were coming into existence, I screwed up my courage and said:

“Oh, by the way, I’ll be having a baby near the end of the summer.”

*Crickets chirping*

My advisor blinked a few time, looking as if I had announced that at the end of the summer I would start breathing water instead of air. But there was no trace of anger or disappointment on his face, just utter surprise. “Oh,” he finally said, “That’s pretty soon.”

We had a brief chat (with me doing most of the talking) about the timeline I envisioned. I was going to try to finish drafting all the chapters before giving birth so I could defend in the fall, and I was going to apply for a postdoctoral teaching fellowship in my university’s required frosh intro to the humanities program (for which my “spare” Ph.D. would come in handy). I left the meeting feeling like my situation with my advisor was in pretty good shape.

All I had to do was finish writing my dissertaion and have a baby.

To be continued.


  1. #1 Dennis
    July 23, 2006

    As I’m coming into my sophomore year of getting a BS in chemistry, I would be really interested if we could make this thing a SB question of the week so I can try to decide whether I go straight chemistry or get some sort of softer degree where I can get a real job after school.

  2. #2 Hsien Lei
    July 23, 2006

    Wow. I’m so impressed with how honest you’re being. I’m sure there are thousands of women (and men?) who’ve had similar feelings about the intersection between personal life and academic life.

    My husband and I got married right out of undergrad sort of spur of the moment. We knew I was going to start PhD program and he was going to follow me after finishing his Master’s. Instead, he got a great job offer in Asia and we spent the four years of my program on different continents.

    My advisors were great and I was able to finish my PhD within those four years and while they were very encouraging about my potential to become tenure track, they also knew that I was planning to leave the U.S. After a year of postdoc, I left research because in my field, not being able to speak the local language (we’re business expats who move every few years) makes it impossible to own your own research projects. I became a glorified English editor with a PhD. Got my names on papers but it was hardly intellectually satisfying.

    I had a baby four years ago (has it really been that long?!) and work in online media now. It seems as if I was destined to do this but who knows. I often feel guilty about wasting tax payers’ money having had a NIH fellowship throughout much of grad school and, of course, wasting my beloved advisors’ time. :( And I miss the excitement of being at a top notch university with top notch people.

  3. #3 greensmile
    July 23, 2006

    The drama is lessened somewhat by the fact that we see you blogging as Dr. Stemwedel….for which you are to be congratulated; Our first was born as I started my second year of grad school and it pretty much ended my AND my wife’s studies [she was in a math grad program at a nearby university] simultanesously.

    The thing about all this that I find saddest is that the careers in software enabeled by our bailing out of physics and math after a year has paid better than the work most of my cohort of physics PhD’s found. By the time [~4 years later as a rough average] they started [at a higher salary than I stated with, to be sure] I had job hopped 3 times and was making similar wages and enjoyed a steady demand for my services for another 20+ years. I amassed no debt, we did not put off kids. Wish I could say I planned it that way.

    Later, I realized I had overromanticized the career paths of PhD’s. But still, it seems harsh to turn in years of sweat and stress and be handed mediocre prospects.

    Helping mold the fate of promising students, staying in the swift current of new knowledge or technology: do those feel like adequate compensation [if you presume the complaints about resources and co-workers are universal in the working world, ie all other things but the pay scales being equal]?

  4. #4 angiebean
    July 24, 2006

    Thank you for addressing an issue that is a topic among many female graduate students. It is talked about in dark corners and in hushed tones so the PIs can’t hear.

    While I truly enjoy research and intellectual thinking, I have always questioned if I had a strong commitment to science and academia. As a result of outside interests, I decided I didn’t want the research/professor tenure track position. I wanted to teach at a small college or go into industry.

    I got pregnant one month into my Post-Doc. Having a baby has made me realize that LIFE is more important than WORK. I only wish I had a baby sooner. I think many of us, especially women, get this notion in our heads of fear and guilt about having a child. It is a natural thing. As graduate students, we are considered professional students, so schools should treat us like employees of a company and allow us to have lives outside of the workplace. Research should not be LIFE.

    I think this whole idea of not having children while in graduate school or pre-tenure gets back to the fact that many in academia lack normal social skills. They can’t relate to the outside (normal) world or choose not to live in it.

  5. #5 Unlearned Hand
    July 24, 2006

    A diversion, but since you mention program prestige . . .
    Interesting paper out that talks about tenure track trajectories, among other successes, of two subject groups: admittees to top 25 hard science/engineering graduate programs and 12 year olds scoring at the top of their age group on the SAT: (hat tip to
    Interestingly, the score that got you into math camp may have been a better predictor than how prestigious your graduate program was. Look at p.3 of the study. They note that many of the math-camp kids did top-of-the-line graduate programs, but it’s not clear that such trajectories were necessary for “optimal” outcomes. An interesting inquiry would be whether there’s an alternate path to the typical rat race of top programs that still gets the optimal tenure track result.

  6. #6 Roberta Millstein
    July 25, 2006

    “Angiebean,” I find your comments pretty offensive. Just because a person chooses not to have children, doesn’t mean that he/she doesn’t have “a life.” There are other ways to have “a life,” and you know what? There are reasons that people choose not to have children that have nothing to do with being an academic, and even less to do with “lack[ing] normal social skills” or “not relat[ing] to the outside world or choos[ing] not to live in it.” Why *must* someone have a child? Because it was a positive life-changing experience for you, must it be so for everyone? I look around and see a lot of people who aren’t necessarily cut out to be parents.

    I am very sympathetic with the difficulties that Janet and other women academics who want to have children have had to go through. But the flip side of that is that academia is one of the few places where a woman who doesn’t want to have children isn’t seen as abnormal. At least, it used to be that way. Maybe now that women are expected to “do it all,” that is changing too.