Adventures in Ethics and Science

A long time ago, on a flight to a conference, a friend and I discussed the psychology of search committee members. We noticed that even people who thought they were exceedingly fair and open-minded might unconsciously make decisions that don’t seem fair, but do, from a certain point of view, seem rational. So, when faced with two equally talented and promising job candidates, the committee members might opt against the one with visible signs of “a life” (such as children, a partner, even a serious hobby) and for the one with no visible signs of a life. Why? Well, which candidate is more likely to come in every day (maybe evenings and weekends, too) to bust his or her butt for the job? Which is less likely to be distracted from teaching, research, and service to the organization? Which is less likely to need time off for someone else’s medical crisis? Which is less likely to leave suddenly when a partner gets a job offer elsewhere?

The candidate with no life.

For the job seeker, then, we decided the best strategy would be to hide all traces of “a life” from the search committee. Once you had a job offer, though, you could safely ask questions about childcare facilities, employment opportunities for a spouse, etc., because once the committee was at the point of offering you a job, the committee members had a stake in convincing themselves they had made a completely rational decision that you were the best person for the job. Believing themselves to have made a rational decision to hire you, they could accommodate the knowledge that you came with some baggage; not to do so would force them to engage with the possibility that maybe their decisions were not always based on qualifications for the job.

Four months pregnant with younger offspring, as I prepared to fly, alone, to New York for philosophy’s major job-seeking convention, I couldn’t help but recall this earlier discussion on a plane. I was going stealth with my baggage.

As far as I can tell, none of the six schools that interviewed me at the convention had a clue I was pregnant. The feedback my advisor was able to get from them at the “smoker” in the evenings was largely concerned with their perception of how well I fit what each department was looking for. (This means that I got to hear, in the space of 30 minutes, that I was liked but was “too historical” and “not historical enough”.) In other words, it felt like I was being treated, essentially, like just another candidate.

Was it wrong for me to conceal my pregnancy (and, you know, the fact that I had a better half and child at home, too) from the departments interviewing me? Well, consider that it would have been illegal for the search committees to ask me about my marital or parental status. I took that as a reasonable indication that I had no duty to disclose either while I was interviewing for the job. My assumption was that neither was especially relevant to the skills I would need as a philosophy professor, nor likely to interfere with my doing the job well if I were hired.

Besides, by the time I got my (one) campus interview a few months later, my pregnancy was no secret to anyone with eyes. I did not get offered that job, but my sense is that this was another issue about “fit”, compounded by the search committee’s feeling that I didn’t come across as terribly enthusiastic about the job. (The “lack of enthusiasm” was actually a head cold cum sinus infection from hell for which I could not take any drugs because I was pregnant. In that sense, perhaps, being pregnant cost me a job. But the philosopher who ended up getting that job a few years later is the friend with whom I discussed search committees on the plane years earlier.)

Luckily, there was still another year in my postdoctoral teaching fellowship, so I still had employment (and benefits) for one more cycle of the job market. I had defended my dissertation just before younger offspring arrived, gotten my revisions in just after, and now had “degree in hand”. I also had the experience of having gone on the job market the year before, which probably meant that my cover letters, CV, teaching portfolio, and other application materials were more polished that the first time out.

But with younger offspring on the outside — and nursing — as the next year’s job-seeking convention rolled around, I couldn’t really go stealth anymore. I was bringing my baggage with me.

It’s a good thing I didn’t hold out any hopes of keeping my better half and offspring hidden while at the convention, because we managed to bump into someone from every single committee that interviewed me, at some point or another, in the hotel. They all knew I had a two-year-old and a baby. That was just how it was going to be.

Tips for conference interviewees with baggage in tow: Check with any local contacts you have about babysitters who might be available. My cousin, who works at a university in the city where the convention was held, was able to recommend an undergraduate student assistant to help my better half wrangle the children while I was off being my professional self. I’d imagine this would be even more important for couples who are interviewing at the same convention and have children to wrangle. (It might be important enough to see if you can arrange to bring a trusted babysitter from home with you. Yes, it adds expense, but it removes a whole set of worries you just don’t need while you’re out there looking smart and promising.)

Also, if you’re still the primary source of nourishment for a very small child, be sure to schedule your interviews to leave ample time to nurse or pump. (Keep your calendar by the phone.) It’s possible that negotiating for a different interview time will convey the impression that you are very much in demand.

The year the baggage was out in the open, I had around eight conference interviews (my memory is a little fuzzy on this — I had kids underfoot). I ended up with four campus interviews and three offers.

So, were my friend and I completely wrong about the wisdom of keeping one’s life out of sight until a job offer has been made? I have no idea.

It’s possible that my greater success on the job market my second time out was purely a matter of the practice I got the first time out. Maybe having the degree in hand was the additional positive factor. Maybe the jobs that were available my second year out were just a better fit for my interests and talents.

But maybe the jobs that were a better fit for me were also in departments that recognized that having a life might make positive contributions to one’s professional abilities. (For example, at a university with lots of “non-traditional” students — including students who are themselves parents of small children — having some appreciation for the balancing act this requires might make one a more effective and sympathetic teacher, or an advisor able to give better advice on how to optimize the use of the time available to write a thesis.) Maybe seeing me do well in the interviews and then seeing me riding the glass elevators with my kids convinced some of the committee members that I was the kind of person who could handle professional responsibilities and family responsibilities rather than letting one get in the way of the other. Maybe seeing a female candidate who was already getting that balance to work was more reassuring than seeing a single (or apparently single) female candidate and wondering whether she’d be able to balance family and career. (It turns out this is still a question women in the academy have to face. I just happen to have schlepped my answer with me.)

My sense is there are some universities for which being seen with my kids at the convention hotel would have knocked me right out of contention. I was not interviewing with any of those schools, and frankly, I don’t think I’d enjoy working at them. And, it may be that in the sciences it’s harder to convince people that you really can find a balance between setting up a research lab, securing grant money, and launching excellent research, since there still seems to be an assumption that more hours in the lab amounts to better research. But possibly, having a confident presence and conveying the sense that you have the childcare under control — even in a city you are only visiting for the duration of the convention — will persuade the search committee that you are a problem-solver and you know what you’re doing.

I’d welcome any reports from the trenches from those who have been on the academic job market in the sciences, especially reports that bear on how evidence of “a life” might be received by your standard search committee.

Comments

  1. #1 Tara C. Smith
    July 25, 2006

    Interesting. I don’t know of any convention like that for my field, so I don’t have a lot that’s comparable to your experience. For mine, we actually discussed family at my first interview, and they emphasized how family-friendly the institution and department were. So even though I went alone, I didn’t even think not to mention about the spouse and kids (I think they’d Googled me anyway, because they mentioned some article about a prize I’d won as a grad student, that mentioned my husband and daughter). Obviously it went OK, since they brought me back for a second interview and offered me the job. But as you mention, at other schools, this might have been a much bigger detriment.

  2. #2 David Harmon
    July 25, 2006

    The idea that “having a life is bad”, sounds like a touchstone for recognizing exploitative demands by an employer. Or to put it another way, If they can’t spare enough of you to let you reproduce yourself properly, then they’re treating you like a consumable rather than a fellow human being.

    Of course, that’s become disturbingly common in corporations over the last few decades, and of course, it’s spreading to academia.
    Just remember, a fish stinks from the head down….

  3. #3 Polly Anna
    July 25, 2006

    Oh, my goodness!

    Is Polly ever confused after reading your four part treatise and other’s comments on “what is the meaning of “life,” judgments on “evidence of a life,” “the idea that having a life is bad,” etc. as if what one spends the majority of one’s preparation and daily waking hours thinking about and often generating income from is a “bad life” or not the greatest thing ever. Isn’t this some sort of schizophrenia or masochism?

    The way our family has dealt with this fragmentation and unified our lives together for generations is to use a little wisdom in mating strategy in the first place so you have something in common, and then when progeny come along keep the family unit focused on common unified goals.

    When we were agricultural, we worked together in the fields, when we were industrial, we worked on the same line, spouses and siblings alike at the same factory. When we became musicians or artists, we played, sang and painted together in the same studio like the Jackson family, when we went into politics we lived and worked it together like the Kennedy’s, when we were religious or social workers, we were there together in a common goal, in the streets, in the church and tents.

    Now that some of us have gone into research and biotech, we worked in the same lab and the same business for common goals, essentially as spouses together 24 hr a day since we met and conceived. Immerse the kids in the lifestyle as soon as possible, cut the diverse curricular activities.

    The opportunities to live a unified family life abound, it’s everyone’s choice. You do have to make some sacrifices and accommodations, like the right choice of mate, sometimes it’s hard to pay the bills, you may have to go against the modern socio-ideological mores of permissiveness and unstructured individual freedom for the kids to let them live their own lives from birth. Sometimes I think from your story you unrealistically even in hindsight have the unrealistic dream of “having your cake and eating it too.”

    I cannot envision living the contradictory and schizophrenic split between “work,” “play” and family life that you describe when there is so much choice available, especially if you choose the right mate in the first place.

    Polly Anna

  4. #4 Dr. Shellie
    July 26, 2006

    YUP! I often try to hide the evidence of “having a life”– by not talking too much about hobbies that sound like they’d be time consuming, for example. And it’s a major reason that I blog anonymously. Blogging sounds like something that would take a lot of time, and hence decrease the amount of time spent on research.

  5. #5 projectid
    July 26, 2006

    As I’m still in school without kids, this isn’t my story, but it seems worth sharing. My sister and her husband were both speaking on a panel at a conference in a male-dominated field, and because their at the time 9-month old daughter didn’t take well to babysitters, they were able to bring her up on the panel with them. Maybe things are getting better?

  6. #6 angiebean
    July 26, 2006

    Thanks for the great stories about having kids and finding the job you want. It is really comforting to read a first person account of the situation!

  7. #7 Eric LaForest
    July 27, 2006

    Thank you for writing these articles about family and academic life. It’s likely I may go down the same path…

  8. #8 iao
    July 30, 2006

    Thank you for the very inspiring set of articles. I’m a female PhD student in physics and have been hearing the horror stories of life after the PhD. Unless we speak out about it, people aren’t going to know and change their attitudes. I’m glad that more people are discussing this issue.

  9. #9 m
    May 12, 2009

    Thank you so much for these lovely posts. I’m a female PhD student (in the history of science). I actually plan not to have children– a personal decision that doesn’t have much to do with the academic life. Still, I do have a *family* and I worry about how my partner, who is a geology PhD student, and I are going to navigate through the post-PhD maze. And I hate seeing my friends who do want to have children struggle with these choices. I love the intellectual part, but academia is still very anti-family (or anti-having-a-life). And the brunt of this falls on women. Its very helpful to hear about your experience. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  10. #10 KT
    June 15, 2009

    Always interesting to hear another perspective! I’m one of those science PhD’s who decided to have a family and an academic career in science. Original plan was to get academic job, then get pregnant during pre-tenure period. Then advisor strongly suggested submitting several Nature papers. Upon realizing that that would take a year to finish/get through review, meaning I wouldn’t be on the job market for another year, we decided to have a baby right now. Luckily I got pregnant almost immediately. Which made the timing: have baby in August, submit applications Sept,Oct,etc. Pre-baby this seemed like a good plan. Unfortunately, when job posting started appearing, the first applications were due 9/1. And since I also wrote a review with my advisor in June and July (final draft done except for abstract 2 days before daughter’s arrival), my application packet was not even started when daughter arrived. Which meant I wrote it during her first month of life in that chronically sleep deprived, can’t work for more than an hour at a time state. It’s a wonder it was even coherent. Great credit goes to faculty member across the hall who read the mess and gave much needed critical & coherent comments. I was also very lucky that my postdoc advisor was a woman with 2 kids herself. I was planning on hiding the fact that I had a child – normally interviews would be in Jan-Mar time frame, daughter would be close to 6 months, plan was to not be nursing by then. However, the year I interviewed, everything was early for some reason (several schools got turned down by applicants who had already take jobs elsewhere so decided to get ahead of the pack). Which meant that my phone rang with my first interview offer when my daughter was 5 weeks old. I had just submitted the application and wasn’t expecting to hear so soon, so was totally unprepared (ie. sitting, nursing my daughter when my husband handed me the phone saying “I don’t know who it is?”). And then was offered an interview in 3 weeks. Daycare didn’t start for 4 weeks, so all thoughts of hiding things went out the window. I simply stated that I had a (tiny) baby and needed 1) an interview slot after daycare started and 2) time to pump (usually no breaks in interview schedules in my field). Luckily, I was a very good fit for this position and the search chair was a woman (no kids). I was able to get an interview slot for 3 weeks after daycare started, negotiated to only stay 1 night, and have time to pump. Living in big east coast city at the time meant I could get a (very early) direct flight and be on campus the first morning only half an hour after their normal interview start time.
    I did 2 interviews at 2 different schools this way (get up at 3 am to nurse, dress, get to airport, fly, interview, give late afternoon seminar, go out to dinner with search committee, sleep/pump, get up early, interview all day, second seminar, fly home, arrive near midnight, collapse) in back to back weeks. With my daughters baptism the weekend between (scheduled before I got the interviews – who does interview in october/november?) with all the grandparents present. Considering how much sleep I had it’s luckily I could speak in full sentences. I got both offers. Truthfully, I remember almost nothing about those 2 weeks. I did 5 interviews later during the normal cycle, and finally accepted an offer at an R01 med school. I was helped by the fact that my institution, although a big-name research-focused school is family friendly (all the younger faculty, asst/assoc profs, have significant others, and most have kids). Maybe the location in the midwest, rather than on the coast helps. Good publication record certainly helped. And apparently I can be at least passingly coherent with no sleep. I’m not sure I’d recommend my path to anyone else though!

  11. #11 Emjay
    July 21, 2010

    Thank you so much for posting your experience. I’m about to embark on the grad studies adventure, and it is such a comfort to read your story. Yours and others success stories show me that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, as long as you are willing to deal with it all. I feel so much better.
    Thanks again! :)