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.”
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.