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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: More on the Mature Mama PhD
June 28, 2009 - 8:25pm

Psychology is a second career for me. I returned to graduate school at age 36, and turned 40 during my internship year.

I interned at a VA hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Because I wanted to diversify my experience and, especially, to work for and with more women, I chose to pursue a simultaneous semester-long placement at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. I enjoyed learning about methods of addressing eating disorders and got along well with staff and clients. When the semester ended, they offered me a paid position, performing diagnostic interviews and counseling clients, in the evenings after my VA shift. I enjoyed this a great deal as well.

My purpose in taking an in internship in NC was to explore whether my husband and I would be happy relocating. We decided we wouldn't be, so at its completion, I moved back to New York. I stayed in touch with my former supervisors and colleagues at Duke. Because a number of their clients were New Yorkers who wished to see a therapist with expertise in eating disorders when they returned home, I had a steady stream of referrals. I kept up with the literature in the field and, when in doubt, called a former supervisor to consult.

A year or so after my return, I saw an ad for an entry-level therapist at a university counseling center. The ideal applicant, the ad read, would have experience in working with eating disorders. I sent in my resume and cover letter and waited.

I did not get a call, but a friend who had a no relevant experience was interviewed. We were both puzzled about this. Our degrees were both fairly recent, and both from well regarded schools. Our training experiences were similar—including stints at the counseling centers of our respective universities—except for my additional training in eating disorders.

I happened to mention this to another therapist friend, who knew one of the secretaries in the counseling center. She offered to ask what the story was.

A few days later, my friend got back to me. "They have orders to check the dates of everyone's college graduation," she said. "They're supposed to discount anyone over 40. They don't think an older person can relate to undergraduates.

"She says that if you quote her she'll deny it," my friend added. "She wants to hold on to her own job."

I thought this was crazy. Not everyone attends college straight out of high school. And young people who are away from home for the first time, and frightened about out-of-control eating and/or purging, are as likely to want to talk to a mother figure as a peer. Besides, I doubted that anyone coming in at this level could have better experience or recommendations than mine. But I didn't see any way to address it.

That was my only overt experience of ageism. I have been turned down for other jobs, of course, but it has never been clear that this was the reason, and I have had fairly good luck in finding congenial employment. But I have heard similar reports from other mature women, and I think it is important to take them seriously.

Mothers are more likely than women without children or men (with or without children) to get a late start in their careers, and to progress slowly in their fields. Thus, mature women are often in the position of seeking entry-level positions. This is another way the system can work against mothers: They are expected to put their careers on hold when their children are young, then penalized for starting out later than their peers.

I don't have an answer, but I think the issue is worth discussing. Ideas?

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