Family and Academia

So a theme of my blog has been the conflicts between being a scientist and having a life. In my immediate environment, I'm surrounded by postdocs in their early to mid-30s, struggling to get their career going and thinking about starting a family. In some respects I'm lucky -- I'm male, and my wife is not an academic. I will never face the stress of pregnancy + facing the trials and tribulations of academia. But that is not to say that being a father and a postdoc/junior faculty will be easy. We are planning to have children eventually, however the longer we delay the hard it will be. This coupled to the fact that living in Boston on a postdoc salary is already tough (especially when your wife is in the non-profit sector).

These past couple of days some bloggers here at ScienceBlogs have been telling their stories about work+family, and here are some snippets from their entries ...

Janet D. Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science (part I):

As I started my studies in philosophy, there were three woman faculty members in my department, all of them assistant professors. They were fabulously smart and very nurturing towards us graduate students, especially (but not exclusively) toward the women. By my third year, they started coming up for tenure.

One had a child near the middle of her probationary period. She did not get tenure. One got pregnant the year she went up. She did not get tenure. One got tenure (yay!) and got pregnant almost immediately after getting tenure. Her child was born very premature, and they had a long hospital stay that was rather more harrowing than anyone would have liked. (They're fine now, but still.) This was rather a disturbing data set for some of us to contemplate.

To be fair, it was not a cakewalk for the male junior faculty who had children to get tenure, and this was a university that showed some pride in holding the line for tenure very, very high. But, talking to another graduate of my program a couple years ago, he related to me that, as far as anyone had been able to ascertain, this university had never granted tenure to a woman who already had children.

and here is a snippet from part II:

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.


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."

*Crickets chirping*

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 dissertation and have a baby.

To be continued.

For a different perspective here is a snippet of Tara C. Smith's entry, posted on her blog, Aetiology:

Being a parent and a graduate student ain't easy. Obviously, the money sucks--at that time, my stipend was just over $13,000/year, and then they took out more every month for parking and health insurance. At my school, the health care also was pretty terrible: incredibly, though well-baby checkups were paid for, infant vaccinations weren't even covered. To top things off, I had (make that *have*) pretty hefty student loan payments from undergrad. Nothing like using the ol' charge card for diapers and groceries.

Anyway, since Baby #1 was the model of cherubic perfection (as of course, everyone thinks their own children are), and since my husband and I both have siblings who are close to us in age and we wanted that for our own children, we decided to confirm the fact that we were, indeed, insane. Baby #2 came along toward the other end of my PhD. (He was right on time, and no test that day--I was scheduled to give a journal club presentation. I'd already passed the file along to someone else, "just in case.")

Postdoc ensues, then I get to move up in the world as an assistant professor. Though family issues have always been a worry, now is when it really starts to kick in.

However, Tara finds that it all worked out well:

Again, I'm lucky on one level--I'm not planning on having any more children, so I don't have to worry about pregnancy, or maternity leave, or any of that jazz. I don't need to stress and tear my hair out trying to find the "right time" to start a family, since I already finished mine during probably the least-recommended stage of my career.

It's not easy, but not impossible.

I'm all too familiar with the arguments on both sides of the "academics and children" fence. "Overall, academics have it good." We're "spoiled, whiny complainers;" we "want it all and don't want to sacrifice job or family;" our "ambitions are too high, we should lower them" (especially true for women who want a satisfying family life); "hey, the system as it works now gave us quantum mechanics and the Internet, so why fix what ain't broken?" On the other side, "academia loses a lot of good teachers and researchers when it comes down to a choice between family and career"--and besides, "how would we con those naive, innocent grad students into aspiring to stay in academia without some kind of move forward on family issues?"

I guess it's a problem in every professional career. But that doesn't mean we should not try to improve things.

In addition, Janet points out (well actually a commenter): "there seems to be an inverse relationship between the prestige of a university and how acceptable the idea of "having a life" is within that academic culture"

And there lies the problem. In big institutions, the whole academic career resembles a pyramid scheme. And we all know the chant: Work hard now and the payoff is later. Under this banner, universities deny that postdocs need help ... they'll make it on their own eventually. But if later is too late? Our bodies' (well mostly the female body) is optimized to have kids before the age of 35. Academia instructs it's members to delay, delay, delay pregnancy. Then Larry Summers wonders why so many females drop out of science.

Academic institutions have to be more accommodating of the needs of junior faculty (& postdocs and gradstudents) who want kids in their late 20s early 30s. In many ways, Tara was lucky -- her husband had flexible hours and made enough money to support a family. This is however not the case for many members of academia (as was demonstrated in this postdoc survey at Caltech). But things may change if enough of us raise our voices. In fact since the shit (i.e. the whole Larry Summers speech) hit the fan here at Harvard, things have been happening. More money for researchers with families, more support for daycare ... but more could be done.

Change has always come from bottom up. The top will always tell the bottom, "stop complaining". And academia can get away with it. With an infinite number of postdocs overseas, there is no lack of manpower, and thus no economic presure to increase benefits for academic workers. So I guess we must raise our voices, if we want to change the status quo. It's all up to us.

[Update: Janet D. Stemwedel posted part III of her adventures in academia and parenthood.]


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Good post, Alex. One note:

In many ways, Tara was lucky -- her husband had flexible hours and made enough money to support a family.

Weellll...with more student loans on my part, and a lot of paying for diapers with credit cards. We made it work, which is pretty much all you can do, regardless of the stage of your career. It's never going to be easy, and you make a lot of good points about what could--and should--change.

Yes. And in fact academics just help the whole "selection against professionals". Why do we hurt eachother's long term happiness in the name of cut-throwth competition???

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 24 Jul 2006 #permalink