I will not be a foregone conclusion.

Note: This post was originally published on 1 July 2007 at my old site. I am reposting it here and nominating it for inclusion in the Open Laboratory anthology. There is still time to submit your favorite posts from this blog, your own, or other blogs you read. Here's how.

Sometimes I get depressed when I read the blogs of other women scientists - particularly when the topic of children vs. an academic career is the topic du jour. The short version is that many of us seem to think we have two choices: (1) Have a career and no children, or children we never see; or (2) Give up our plans for t-t/research academia in order to raise a family. That we can't be both academic researchers and fantastic parents seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Well, I refuse to be a foregone conclusion.

In January, I was blessed with a wonderful daughter - a child that I had been aching for (and actively working toward) for years. I want to be an attached parent, one who knows what my child's interests are and what she had for lunch. I want to be there for bedtimes, games of pat-a-cake (and later, catch), and school plays.

In April, I got a job offer for a tenure-track position at a research university. I've been preparing for such a job for as long as I can remember. I want to get tenure, be a good mentor to students, teach interesting classes, conduct funded, intriguing research, and be a good colleague.

I'm having an incredibly good year, and it pains me when people suggest that I'll fail at one endeavor or the other. That I'll miss years of mealtimes and never have a weekend off, or if I do take time to be with my family, that I'll be unfunded, under-prepared, and untenurable.

That shouldn't be true. And I won't let such talk defeat me from the start.

I will work very hard and very efficiently at my job. I'll pour my heart into grant proposals and syllabi. But I'll also draw the line at some only-moderately-unreasonable number of hours per week (say, 50-60). It is equally important to me that I have the time to sing my daughter to sleep, make her mashed bananas for breakfast, and change the occasional poopy diaper.

If those things deny me tenure, then so be it. I will acknowledge that I could have done more, but defiantly reply that I shouldn't have had to.

I will not be a foregone conclusion. I will be a productive assistant professor. I will be an awesome mother. Just you watch.

More like this

My university seems to have a very high percentage of female tenured PI's compared to what everyone else on the internet says (roughly 50% of faculty in my department), and most of them are happily married and seem to be great parents. From what I've witnessed here, it is absolutely possible, and everyone is very encouraging that you can be both a fantastic mother and a superior scientist, and all without losing your mind!

My honey sent me this link because he knows that I struggle a lot with what will happen once we have kids. In my case I'm not on a tenure-track but I am on track to be an executive in a fast growing company and I work with all men. I'm lucky in one respect because I'm able to talk to my boss about anything, including the topic of kids. He's told me that he respects the work I do and is willing to be accommodating once I have kids. I still struggle though, with whether my job or how I raise my kids will suffer if I do both. I'm glad to read your post because it helps me realize that I don't have to be perfect at both. Thanks!

"Academia" is a farce, anyway. Useless research, irrelevant papers, and meaningless busywork for students who don't care. Academia isn't about long hours; it's about making it look like it's long hours.

Rock on.

I loved that post!! I have a 2 yr old that I left school to raise and am preparing to go back as soon as it is financially feasible, this post was very inspiring!!!!!

By RocketScientisttobe (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

You're right, people do think it is a foregone conclusion that you cannot do both. How many times have I sat around with a group of women scientists and discussed when is the "right" time to have children? And, you're right, you shouldn't have to decide to do one or the other. I'm glad there are people like you to show us that we don't have to!

I hope you are succeeding in your endeavor. I'm happily expecting my third son and working a 30hr part time week at a research institute in Australia. I love it, and really feel like this is the perfect balance for my life. You should be able to work science part time, and happily that is available in Australia, not in NYC where I was doing science before.

A worthy entry - if only because it means that more people might read it!

Personally, I've never got this idea that entering the glorious upper echelons of academia requires you to sacrifice having a normal life. The more people who point it out for the absurdity it is, the better.

I am in a similar predicament but with a twist. I happily raised one incredible child, then began college as a freshman. Ten years later, I earned my PhD and am now a licensed psychologist and Division Chair. Because I spent most of my life as a single parent but am presently beginning what I hope is a lifelong relationship, I am having to face the reality of making room for a personal life. It's hard to shift gears all at once but you are right - one life can hold a career and a life away from it. Freud is credited with noting that a normal person should be able to do both "lieben und arbeiten" (love and work) well.

Thank you for writing this.

I'm a postdoc (physics) and a mother of a two year old. I want a second child. I also want friends, I want to see my husband, and I want time for myself to just relax and get new energy. I'm not going to sacrifice my life (or my daughter) for science, but I'm worried that I won't be able to stay in academia with the attitude that a normal work week is 40-45 hours. Some people seem to get a balance, while others work around the clock, and I'm never sure what the standards should be. We'll see. I can imagine going on to other things. But it might be that it will be possible for me to find a life that suits me in science!

The bad thing about long work hours is also that your productivity does not scale with the number of hours. I hate those extra hours where nothing much is accomplished. That is just a waste of energy.

There is an inherent problem here that will not go away with good intentions alone.

Academia is the industry of self promotion. Like competitive sports, but unlike most occupations, academia is based on the idea that you are better at something than most people around you. You have to keep proving that your ideas and work deserve attention and funding. You have to show that you are better than the other contenders for the postdoc, for the tenure-track position and for tenure.

The rewards (mainly in terms of ego, prestige and political power, but also material rewards) are such that many people will be willing to under-invest in most other aspects of life in order to win those rewards. That puts anyone who is not fully committed to this race at a significant disadvantage.

With some luck and skill you may still survive, but the odds are against you.

This is a nasty situation, but would you have things be any different? Would you rather have a non-self-promoting academia? Would you support science that is not based on "my work is better than yours"?

In my experience on the tenure-track, if you put in more hours-per-week for the first couple years, you will be able to substantially cut down subsequently. My prediction is that if you do this, integrated over all of the pre-tenure years you will spend less total time on academic responsibilities than if you try to keep the number of hours-per-week steady.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink