Study shows grad students want more balanced careers

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgA friend of mine posted this article to his Facebook page, and I thought it well worth pointing your attention to it. Researchers at University of California, Berkley surveyed over 8,000 doctoral students from the UC System about their career, family and life plans. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they found that "major research universities may be losing some of the most talented tenure-track academics before they even arrive. In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation--one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life." I felt reading this study was really really validating. More notes below the fold, although reading the article is probably your best use of your time.

What is so valuable about this study to me is that it is a reflection of how I have felt about tenure-track, but reflected by a huge study size. For example:

  • By the time they graduate, the percentage of men and women who want to be employed on tenure-track at a research institution has gone down -- 45% to 36% of men, and 39% to 27% of women.
  • Less than half of men and 29% of women think that research-intensive universities are family-friendly places for one's career.
  • Most doctoral students don't think they can have and raise kids while getting their degree, with 54% of women (compared to 36% of men) feel that being a graduate student is incompatible to having kids, considering the real limitations of " the time demands of PhD programs; current household income level; the perceived stress of raising a child while a student; and concerns about the availability of affordable child care, housing, and health insurance."
  • Doctoral students -- women and men -- who are parents report putting their education on hold, or sacrificing things in their careers in order to be good parents.
  • While doctoral students who aren't parents spend 75+hours a week on t"hD work, employment, housework, and caregiving, mothers log a crushing hundred-plus hours a week in these activities (and fathers ninety hours)".

The authors call for a new model for faculty life in academia, which I'm quoting lots of here for you:

We need new thinking and a new model to attract and retain the next generation in academia. If research universities want to attract and retain the best and brightest PhDs and encourage them to stay on the academic track, the administrative hierarchy (the president or chancellor), through the administration and faculty ranks, needs to take urgent notice of the ways in which the structure of academia at all levels is turning people away from the profession. Challenging some of the more common prevailing assumptions can be a way to start. These assumptions, and their possible antidotes, include the following:
  • Assumption: Fast-track academia is typically either a fulltime or a no-time pursuit, particularly for those on fellowships or grants. Antidote: Men and women can shift to part-time status or temporarily elongate timelines over their academic lives without suffering career penalties.
  • Assumption: The appropriate career trajectory for successful academics is linear and without breaks--from the doctoral years to postdoctoral experience to pretenure years to the attainment of the rank of full professor. Antidote: Many men and women will want or need to take time out temporarily from their academic lives for caregiving, and universities will support their reentry.
  • Assumption: Academic "stars" are those who move through the ranks very quickly. Antidote: Academic "stars" are those who produce the most important or relevant work--faster is not necessarily better.
  • Assumption: There is no good time to have children. Antidote: It is fine to have children at any point in the career path because a full array of resources exists to support academic parents.
  • Assumption: Having children, particularly for women, is often equated with less seriousness and drive. Antidote: There is no stigma associated with having children, nor are there negative career consequences, and the culture is broadly supportive of academics who do have children.
  • Assumption: All talented doctoral students should want to become professors on the academic fast track. Antidote: Venues exist to evaluate objectively and discuss different career and life paths in and outside academia--all are accepted.
  • Assumption: Work-life balance and family friendliness are not typically promoted as important values by academic administrators and faculty. Antidote: Family-friendly policies are promoted, campuswide conferences are held to support work-life balance for all academics, department chairs are trained on the issues, and faculty mentor doctoral students.

Amen. On a personal note, I don't know how all y'all out there do it -- ScienceWoman, and acmegirl and Isis and Tinkering Theorist and Janet and Dr Mom and FSP and ScienceMama and Twice and the guys too and everyone else in my googlereader who I should link to to give some link love but can't 'cause I have to go to a meeting.

Speaking of which, I should go do that. But reading others' online stories, even stories of difficulties, I still find encouraging. At least I'm not alone out there trying to figure this job/life thing out. At least there's not some big secret out there that everyone else knows already of which I'm just oblivious.

And eventually, hopefully enough of us will get tenure to be able to start making departmental, college, and university environments that make use of all those antidotes listed above.

More like this

I am a grad student who just made the decision to leave my PhD program. I wasn't because I wasn't smart enough, and not because I didn't have a supportive family. But because I found research life severely impacting on my personal life as a wife and a mother. When I drew the boundaries, not sacrificing home time for lab time, I found that my advisor's view of me and my work suffered. I had tricked myself into believing I could be a mother and a successful PhD candidate. That wasn't the case. The proposed antidotes would have made a difference in my situation, I believe. But how are these antidotes implemented?

We need to consider symptoms and diseases here, as well as choices:

1) I'd just like to start by reminding everybody that primarily undergraduate institutions really are academic institutions. We have titles like "Professor", we teach classes, we even have research labs--honestly!--and sometimes (believe it or not) we publish papers. Yet our lives aren't as crazy as the lives of Research I faculty. So when I hear that being a professor in a research university is a crappy job, my first thought is "Well, this job ain't so crappy, why not apply here if you're so miserable?" Some of our schools are even located in places nicer than New Jersey, New Haven, Urbana-Champagne, and all of the other fine locales we've come to associate with Big League Schools.

(Sorry, but this is a touchy issue for me: When I left my postdoc for an undergraduate institution, one guy in the lab actually said I'm leaving science. I had to resist a very strong urge to punch him. So when people talk about how crappy academia is, and then devote all of their focus to research universities without even acknowledging that undergraduate institutions are viable options for people who want to go the academic route, I get touchy.)

2) The sad fact of academia is that we are at the end of exponential growth, which means that resources are scarce and resource scarcity breeds insanity. It is what it is. The end of exponential growth is the cause, and the competition is but a symptom.

Research universities are built on a model of professors training grad students who become professors who train grad students who become....etc. That model can only continue for so long. Once it breaks down, you have two choices: Join the insane game, or do something else. I decided not to take a job where I'm training students to become professors.

3) Given that we're at the end of exponential growth, that factor dictates that research universities will be insane places. You can have the most family-friendly, well-meaning people in the world, but if the business of the school is to be a first-class research institute that trains Ph.D. students for academic careers, well, the scarcity of funds and faculty jobs dictates that the competition will be insane and the time demands will be unreasonable.

The solution is to find a situation where starvation isn't the order of the day. Big-league research universities are facing the competition that comes with the end of exponential growth, and so insane competition will be the order of the day. As long as the task is to produce research leaders who can compete for fewer and fewer openings, the competition will drive people to cut every corner, exceed reasonable limits, and do things that are incompatible with a balanced life. And they will prevail in too many competitions.

I am not an apologist for it. I think it's miserable, and I want no part in it. Hence I chose not to go down that path.

OK, enough negativity: If you want change, it won't come from trying to make the current model less competitive. The level of competition is inherent in the end of exponential growth. Instead, look at graduate level study as being about more than just preparing the next group of people who will compete for a handful of faculty jobs and a fixed pot of research funds. Train more people for careers in industry, in education (there is a shortage of science teachers with Bachelor of Science degrees in the subject they're teaching), in consulting, in technical entrepreneurship, in non-classroom science education (science reporting, writing, museums, science documentaries, etc.), and lots of other paths that I'm not thinking of. These are niches that the Top Tier Ph.D. programs are not focused on filling, so you won't have to compete with them. These are niches that students seeking more balanced lives might be interested in.

It's all well and good to change policies, but as long as the goal is to do something insanely competitive everybody will go above and beyond the formal requirements, and it will remain what it is. Real change in academia will require us to start training students to do something other than what we did. Once we do that, we won't all be crowding into the same shrinking niche, and it will be possible to get some control over our lives.

How to get there? Beats the hell out of me.

Oh, some of the alternative careers that I identified (and other alternative careers that others might identify) might not make sense for Ph.D. students. But they might make sense for well-designed M.S. programs. A model based on M.S. students has additional benefits: They're in the program for less time (more family-friendly for them), advisors don't need as much grant money to support them in the post-TA stage (less work for advisors), and many programs might be feasible for part-time students with careers and/or families.

I agree with totally with everything! What an amazing post! Thank you. And let me add, there are institutes out there where it is possible to be a professor with a 0.8 position (even without having children), there are first-class scientists who do publish frequently in single-syllable journals, have kids and leave work at 5 p.m. sharp. I know those people personally and they do have skyscraper high impact stats. My point: it is not nesseccarily the structure of the exponentially growth and resource scarcity, - it is more dependent on politics and society, who should encourage part-time position, increase subsities for daycare and give grad students and post-docs real contracts instead of scholarships.

I spent my career at an regional university without a PhD program. We had an MS program. The majority of our MS students did not go on for PhD but went in other satisfying career directions. So we turned only a few of our students toward PhD and academia. Talking with my colleagues at research institutions led me to the understanding that I had it petty good. I had more time for research and less pressure to produce, plus time for family and hobbies.

I applied for a position at a major institution and made it to the who shall we invite for an interview round (not me). However, I had talked at length with the colleague I would have replaced. He was leaving because of the horrific demands being made on him. So I think I would have declined to go for an interview had I been Invited.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Hey Alex! I went to a school like that and there was never any question that every professor was doing "real science". (Except the guy who wasn't, long story.) I think that some of the ill-feelings toward undergrad institutions is really based on not wanting to actually teach undergrads (eww, icky).

That said, is it possible to have a fulfilling scientific career, outside of tenure track, without a PhD or MD? Can I make a difference, publish papers, and research stuff *I* find interesting with an MS?

By JustaTech (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Wow - that post hit home on so many levels. I'm in my last year of my PhD and will be turning 30 this year. I definitely feel that I have to decide between a) starting my career and waiting 5 years to start a family or b) starting a family and waiting 5 (or more) years to start my career. I've discussed this issue with many women in my situation and most feel the same way. Academia is just not family friendly.

I think one big issue is that taking the academic path (BSc, MSc, PhD) means we finish in our late 20's or early 30's - exactly the time when a lot of women want to start having families.

I also don't want my career to be my entire life, but academia is portrayed to be that way (especially if one wants to "get ahead"). On the other hand, doing anything outside of that is considered "selling out" or leaving the field.

I like the idea of listing the assumptions/antidotes, but the problem lies in the antidote becoming a reality. The only way that will happen is if the general population of professors and graduate students start asking (demanding) our departments/faculties/universities for these things.

I've decided not to be a "real" professor when I get my PhD, but it has nothing to with the pressures on having a life (that difficulty predates grad school, and has everything to do with being the geeky kind of person that would find grad school attractive). I just look at the job my R-I advisor really does, which is scramble for grants. Don't get me wrong, she's very helpful at ironing out design details and interpreting results, but she doesn't get to do any of the fun stuff - no actual programming or building of apparatus, no data collection, no statistical analysis. I've heard several times that being a professor in a research university is like running your own business, and my reaction is always the same: If I were going to try being a small business person, I'd want a business that was a lot more interesting.

That being said, my new plans for post-PhD life are focused heavily on time management. Coming straight off my three-week semester break and thinking of all the trips I'll be making in the summer, I'm leaning heavily toward something more like teaching community college part-time. I've learned to survive on little money, and the lack of prestige seesm worth the flexible schedule.

I think that some of the ill-feelings toward undergrad institutions is really based on not wanting to actually teach undergrads (eww, icky).


I think a lot of it is the prestige thing. A lot of people actually do seem to care about teaching undergrads, they do seem conscientious about it. However, they aren't going to prioritize it above the pursuit of research glory as a PI and leader of a group. The problem is that the pursuit of research glory requires getting tenure at a research university, where the name of the game is training people to become professors. So you're trying to train your students to chase after fewer and fewer jobs with more and more competitors. How can you help them do it? By running the most competitive, prestigious, cutting-edge lab possible.

I won't pretend that every sacrifice made by an unbalanced person is as essential to research success as they might claim, clearly there is an advantage to those who single-mindedly pursue it. Going to an undergrad institution means accepting that you might not run the biggest, most cutting-edge lab possible. You'll still do research, and if you are clever about finding problems solvable with a bigger teaching load and a smaller team, you might even do really good research. You just won't be a bigshot. The road to being a bigshot may or may not have been easier, once upon a time, when science could grow exponentially, but it certainly can't be easy now when exponential growth is over and too many people are seeking too few spots in a shrinking niche.

How many people who complain about the difficulties of living a balanced life while working at research universities are interested in teaching at an undergraduate institution? If not, why not? Would you compromise on a department with Masters students but not PhD students?

Thanks for the link to the article. Two random thoughts I want to toss into the discussion:

1) You mention speed = prestige. I've moved through my program and lengthened my publication record very quickly. However, I'm not doing this for prestige or to be a rockstar academic, at least not for the sake of hearing people say "oooh, rockstar!" I'm doing it in part because I want to reach a stable point in my career as soon as possible, so I can settle down a little and start building a life, and in part because the easiest way to get a job with some control over my geography (a major concern for my partner and I) and responsibilities is to try and make myself as marketable as possible. Prestige is not remotely a concern of mine in the long run - but right now I'm just frightened of closing any door that could limit my job options at a later date, because I'm told over and over how hostile academia is to accommodating the rest of a person's life and needs. I suspect I'm not the only person with this motivation, and this could well burn out lots of young people in academia.

2) I haven't left academia yet, but I regularly remind myself that this is an option (in fact, I think it has helped save my sanity, and helped me to stay, by reminding myself that this degree I'm pursuing isn't my entire existence). My partner and I, however, are so far ambivalent about raising a child one day, so this isn't what currently factors into my thoughts on leaving. What concerns me is to look around and see academics that either spend every waking hour on their jobs, or academics that work even more waking hours on their jobs and families. I know very few people with multi-dimensional lives, devoted hobbies, or much of anything that they define themselves by besides their work (to be fair, I likely don't have a great sample population) THIS is what is nudging me away from academia; I want a richer life that sometimes seems possible. This isn't to say that there aren't academics who climb mountains and write novels and all sorts of incredible things...but I don't see many role models along those lines.

In short, I think focusing just on family concerns leaves out the larger reason for why people leave academia in pursuit of "balance". We need mentors that define their academic pursuits as a part - a precious and demanding part, but only a PART - of their lives. Anyone with examples like this can fill in the blanks however they like - with lives that involve families, childcare, extracurricular pursuits, or whatever they want out of their lives as a whole.

Longtime lurker, love the blog, thanks for this post!

This post also hit home for me right now. Because this career doesn't give the option of taking a break and returning I have always said I would keep going until I know it's not right for me. I keep saying I want to be the change I want to see, but all I see around me are lives that I *know* I don't want. Now I'm worried that after 6 years of PhD and 3 years of postdoc I'm simply afraid to take that big step away and feel stuck.

I am passionate about my basic science research, I enjoy teaching science at the undergrad level and the flexibility of class choice, and I enjoy training undergraduates how to "do science." However, I want to work 9 to 5 and not work on the weekends because work is only *part* of my life. What does teaching at a PUI really look like on a daily basis? My husband is my first priority and I want to have a family. I used to have lots of other athletic and artistic hobbies that enriched my life but now I can't squeeze them in. I am starting to think that it's seriously not possible to do it all - and in the end it's my happiness and family that matters most. I was on the job market this year...I'm still in my postdoc and I don't know if I'm going to do it again next year.

Re: Luna,
I teach at an undergraduate institution. We're expected to do research and publish, but we're given a lot of resources and good teaching is emphasized. I love the interaction with undergraduate students.

I had my two children the year before and the year after I got tenured. Since getting tenured I take about 6 weeks out of the summer off to be with my kids. My publication record has faltered some, but I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll get things back on track to get promoted to full.

Most days I get in at 8:30 and I need to leave by 4:30 to get the kids from daycare. I'm not one of those night owls, so I don't have much energy to do work at night or the weekends. I have the flexibilty to chaperone field trips or take my kid to gymnastics class when needed. I spend most days prepping for class/lab, writing or tweaking a new lab or assignment, and helping research students. This semester I have the luxuring of a sabbatical, and it's feeling good to get back into research for more than 45 minutes at a time.

So life at an undergraduate institution (for me) is hectic, but doable.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 16 Jan 2009 #permalink

Two notes on a PUI, one positive and one negative:

1) On the positive note, despite having less time for research we have more intellectual freedom. I don't have to become a bigshot within a subfield to get tenure. I just have to have a productive program that is generating some papers with some interesting results and student involvement. If I want to branch out and try something different and take that risk, I can do that. As long as it turns into a paper at some point, it's fine. I'm not competing to be one of the leaders of the field, I'm just trying to contribute something.

Aside from the obvious work-life balance benefits of having less research pressure, I think there's even a scientific benefit there. The best project I've got going right now, with results that are turning out to be pretty important, started from something that I thought would be a little side project for a student to tinker with and get a few modest results from. If I were an assistant professor at an R1 school, I don't know how much time I could have devoted to starting that project. But I had the freedom to try it out and put in the time to train the student for a project that didn't look like it would make GlamourMags. (It isn't making GlamourMags, but it is making it into journals just one level down.)

So there's still the possibility that I'll do something quite grand, but it will be the fruit of a project that I pursued because I had less pressure.

2) Now the downside: Those first few years as an assistant professor at a PUI can be pretty hellish, even if not like an R1. Teaching (and prepping!) a bunch of classes for the first time while getting a research program started is not easy.

However, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, where you start getting some classes down and things become easier. Once you've got a few classes prepped and that first grant funded*, everything becomes much smoother sailing. You don't have to exhaust yourself every single day until tenure.

*Our grants don't have to be as big, and we compete for different pools of money than the R1 folks.