Explaining a non-traditional career timeline without invoking family?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgWhile I'm loving @nparmalee, I thought I'd repost a short series of tweets where she asks a really good question, and one that I don't have an answer to.

There's a lot of talk re: women in science and accepting alternate timelines, & I think this is great. I am very anachronistic.
That reqs explanation in acad interviews. The explanation is family. Saying that enters fam into career disc, which I would prefer not 2 do
Were I to say 'I had another career' (which I did) it wld imply lack of focus, which was never true.
Bringing up fam can suggest I want special consideration, which I don't. So if anyone really smart out there has suggestions for navigating
I'd be really curious to hear them.


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"I have a life" or "None of your business" or just "Hey, I am a human"?

"Other responsibilities" can include anything from family (spouse/children) through family (sick parents/siblings) to a stint of volunteer work (Missionary/humanitarian overseas, for instance.)

Or just, "no money." Not everyone can scrape up funding, and if you don't have a well-off family willing to support you that's a deal breaker.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

@Coturnix I love your attitude. If the world was full of people like you, my question would be moot. I'd love to see that become the standard way, and maybe that's where I was going with it.

It's specifically academia, because in an interview, the interviewer is assessing intangibles like commitment, focus, drive. While deciding to pursue science later in life is perfectly legitimate, and I respect anyone who does, it wasn't my story. I've had dead on focus about my career goals since I was 20, and never wavered from it (except maybe for a few moments somewhere in the course of normal experimental futilities, but everyone has that).

So when I interview, I know that my focus and commitment is a strength, and it is my true story, so I don't want to give that up. But that doesn't come across in my CV without explanation.

I've always opted for transparency. I'm aware though that then I become the "single-mom grad student" and I pick up all the narrative baggage that comes along with that.

I propose that if we're serious about this alternate career timeline concept, there needs to be a fundamental shift in chronological expectations. I'm not holding my breath, so in the meantime I think my algorithm is that I am interviewing the institution as much as they are interviewing me. In a perfect world, I'll gravitate to places with true openmindedness on these issues.

That might as well serve as notice. I have valuable contributions to make. I am dedicated above and beyond nearly any candidate I expect to meet. A good way to recruit me is to not even hint at turning my strength into a weakness. The institution that offers me that support will be well rewarded with my loyalty and effort.

By nparmalee (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

I'm not sure I agree that "I had another career" implies a lack of focus, not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. Specialisation is for insects, after all. Lots of people do a number of different things throughout the course of their lives, and that's a good thing.

Lots of people do a number of different things throughout the course of their lives, and that's a good thing.

You mean like working as a clerk in the patent office?

That would certainly be the mark of dead loser.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

If family/children is the reason for a break/tangent (as it is in my CV), i think hiding it does way more harm. Maybe not to you personally, but to professors/wanna-be professors with families.

Hiding the responsibilities implies that you are ashamed or that they are detrimental. Things are never going to get better if we all pretend to the outside world that science is all that matters! science matters, but so does my family. Do you really want to work somewhere were the fact that you took time for family is viewed with scorn?

You can always say, yes, i had kids. and now i won't need as much maternity leave then if i waited.

By christina@ands… (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

I think it's possible to err too far on the side of being sensitive about the perceived baggage. They *should* respect your drive and determination for raising children as a single mom and then coming back to grad school. And if they read your twitter-stream, which they should, they will know that you work All. The. Time. so your focus & commitment should not be in question.

When I was changing jobs last year, I just found it easier to be honest upfront about why I was moving -- a change in family -- than to use other reasons. So I guess I too support both transparency and the need for releasing unrealistic chronological expectations.

You are not asking for special consideration, but just being honest about your path.

Transparency is good. If we lived in a society that actually treated people decently and without bias against, oh, women then it would be absolutely fine to discuss matters like family, constraints, expectations, etc. at interviews.

I'll wait while y'all clean up the coffee spew and get your breaths back.

There's a reason why employers aren't allowed to ask candidates what their ages are [1], whether they are married, have children, expect to have children, etc. Standing advice to candidates is to always refuse to go near those topics, even (or especially) if the candidate has no concern about discrimination, precisely because otherwise "I won't discuss that" becomes the equivalent of "yes, I'm planning to have eight kids one after the other just as soon as I'm on your insurance policy."

The deck is stacked enough already.

I know that our HR and Legal departments are brutal about that part and conduct regular mandatory reminders for hiring managers and senior staff. I also get the distinct impression that academia is not, shall we say, quite so rigorous.

Of course, Catch-22 applies too. Nothing like saying "It's against the law to even bring that up" to totally kill your prospects.

I won't say that "hang together or we all hang separately" is the only way to go, but it's worth thinking about whether it's the least damaging of a bad lot.

[1] Yeah, but we all know that the transcripts tell the story anyway.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

I am another total anachronism. Like you, totally focused on my science- love it- and have known I wanted to do it since my first year at university.
I also had a whopping career break essentially while my kids were young.
I've definitely hit the attitude that I am "too old" (I doubt I'll every get a faculty job for that reason)and people have remarked that I couldn't possibly take my science as seriously as them, or be as focused, seeing as I took a break like that.
My only consolation is that they know I won't be taking maternity leave!!!!
I've had to make peace with my situation- do what I can to show my passion and commitment, be an activist for equity (join AWIS), get support and find like minded people, and hope that my record will speak for itself. Where it will take me I don't know, but hopefully somewhere good with people I respect.

I'm not in academia so my experience will not apply directly.

However I did return to my first career 15 years after my first child.

Why the gap?

"When opportunity knocked I answered."

I could have returned to work after maternity leave, but for various personal reasons I concluded the effort at full time work would have been suicidal.

I got offered an opportunity to work part time for a small business. It started as just a chance to make some $$, but it turned into something much more. Instead of a desk job, I went somewhere new, and met someone new nearly every day. I got asked to do many things I never did before and somehow delivered. It gave me a chance to see parts of my city I never could have otherwise.

I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. My professional career may never advance to the point I'm even with the lifers. That's OK.

Several years ago I got a chance to do some volunteer work. Opportunity knocked, I answered, and I don't regret a minute of it.

Many truly fascinating careers turn on small choices as well as great plans. Having another career does not imply lack of focus. It indicates flexibility, new skill sets, and a willingness to take measured risks. Returning to your first choice indicates a passion for your subject and a clear understanding that GIVEN A CHOICE between last career and academia, Academia would win hands down.

Good luck.

I really appreciate these comments, and the thought going into them. I'd like to hear someone respond to @anon regarding the worry of an age cutoff for a faculty position/tenure. My age is not easily deducible from my CV, and specifically because of this worry, I've stopped advertising birthdays and...something I never thought I would feel the need to do...I've adopted what I'm told is a European attitude regarding my age. As in, it's information not volunteered.

Given that 50 is the new 40, and the average age at tenure is being pushed back all the time, I think it's a bit silly to feel the need to do this, but I just don't know how this plays. I want the opportunity to make my own career choices without these kinds of biases.

In my 'other' career, I picked up extensive skills, including managing people, teams, projects, and budgets, and I do think those skills are directly relevant, and also not necessarily included in the traditional framework. Yet I still wonder...will someone look at my application and decide that I'm outside the age bracket they expect?

There's so much discussion about how to retain women in science (and I would argue we need to extend that to men as well, because I see them leaving en masse too, and there's no reason to disregard them). So much can be accomplished with changes in mindset. Yet there seems to be a perception that millions of dollars in budget are required. That would help, but I really don't think the most key issues are money issues.

By nparmalee (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

Yet there seems to be a perception that millions of dollars in budget are required. That would help, but I really don't think the most key issues are money issues.

Perhaps not directly, but there are a lot of things that a shortage of money makes much, much worse. Then the dominoes fall.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

@D. C. Sessions I want a "like" button on the patent office comment :)

Regarding money, one model that would serve the purpose of equalizing family bias is the model the UN uses. There is a salary differential for dependents. I understand this would be a hard sell, and I see it as a philosophical choice, not an entitlement, but it is one model. At some salary levels, this is less necessary. I've made the argument, and I've made it directly to NIH officers (with good response) that the graduate student stipend, small as it is, only provides sustenance for a student in their 20s with no family responsibilities, thus, we are looking at structural discrimination.

I will also say, that I've presented some of these challenges to my institution, and they have risen to the challenge by responding, for which I give immense credit. Moving an institution as old and entrenched as this one is no small thing, but I've seen it happen and the people responsible deserve credit.

By nparmalee (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

Regarding the age issue: I know someone who recently lost his job and has been looking (not in academia, but in industry). He has tons of experience and is exceedingly bright by any objective standard - and is in his late 50s. He does great on all his phone interviews, gets invited for face-to-face interviews - after which, after every single interview, he gets told exactly the same thing: "you were passed over for someone more senior." The same thing, the same words, every time. The first time he thought, okay, oh well, but after the second and third time he got suspicious. Sounds too much like something legal advised HR to use in rejecting older applicants so they can't sue for age discrimination.

I do really think age discrimination is a big issue, alive and well, and one of the more difficult sorts of discrimination to pin down and deal with.

Thanks, Zuska.

I'm one of those "late 50s in industry" engineers who only recently landed in my current job. Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am to be working where I am, because the cow-orkers make it pretty damn clear that they value the experience. Well, that and the whole "steeped in evil" thing.

Nice place to work -- fairly even color gradient, plenty of cultural diversity, halfway decent gender balance [1], really great home-cooked goodies showing up from time to time, ...

It's nice to be reminded sometimes.

[1] Could be better but could be lots worse.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Sep 2009 #permalink