• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


ABC’s and PhD’s: To make a break, before they break?

Thinking about time and priorities.


July 16, 2013

My brother received his PhD 10 years ago from MIT.  Upon graduating, he was thrilled to find a well-funded postdoc in the Bay Area in California at his beloved undergraduate alma mater.  His girlfriend, a chemist, finished her PhD slightly after he did and joined him from the east coast - landing a great job in industry.  My brother moved onto a second postdoc a few years later, but when that funding ran out the recession had hit hard and there were even fewer jobs around than the usual slim pickings. After years of looking in the academic and private sectors, and too much time unemployed, my brother finally found a completely insane research faculty position.  I won’t go into exactly what he did, but it involved rats and brain research, a lab with no windows, a very, very long technique to profuse animals on a regular basis and eventually a severe allergic reaction to rats, working 10+ hours at a stretch under an intense and money-mongering slave-driver and a 75 min. commute each way.

Don’t ask me how, but this unstable relationship lasted more than a year before my brother decided he had to quit - and then the fellow fired him first.  His firing wasn’t the full reason for the lawsuit my brother filed against his crazy boss (a complicated story) but after that my brother kept himself busy with law documentation tasks until he eventually won the case.  Meanwhile, he’s gone back to the job search, applying with hundreds of candidates for every job he can find and simultaneously doggedly working along with a co-worker (who quit at the same time he did) to research and write grants with the aim of founding their own startup company - a huge amount of work, but nothing has come to fruition yet on either front.

A couple years before he took the insane job, my brother and his girlfriend got married and they had my sweet little nephew (who my brother basically didn’t see for the first year of his life because of the crazy job stint).  He’s now three and has an 8-month-old brother, both of whom go to day care at my sister-in-law’s workplace (a 30 minute commute when there’s no traffic).  Her job has taken off, and as she is the family’s financial support, she works hard and does very well.  But her career is gradually taking over more and more of her life. 7am meetings have crept into her schedule almost every morning and she doesn’t return home until after 7 most evenings (the daycare is open for drop off at 6:30 am and pick up until 6:30 pm). Her travel schedule has also picked up, to about a week a month.  She can no longer afford the time to cook, something she loves, and gets little time with her kids.

My brother wants to be a supportive father who spends quality time with his kids. He shoulders the load at home - laundry, meals, shopping, etc. - but he wants a career as well, ideally in the field in which he was trained. He regrets that his wife and his kids have such long, insane schedules.  (My thought is that they should move the kids to a closer-to-home daycare, and have my brother pick them up earlier; but my sister-in-law loves their caregivers and having them near her.)  They looked into reducing the commute by moving closer to her work, but the area is so expensive they can’t afford anything.  So how to divide this workload more evenly?  He wants more, she wants less.  At this point, even if my brother does find a job, I suspect it might be hard for my sister-in-law to ramp down at her current job. 

For their long-term sanity, I hope my brother can find a career path that balances out his wife’s heavy-duty schedule. Their family/career balance veered onto its own trajectory that gradually lilted out of control.  Years later, it’s really hard to find the time and energy to figure out how to rein things back in. It’s becoming clear that something needs to change. I’m trying to convince them to make a break - move up near us in Seattle (far less expensive cost of living, and they’d have two nieces with good babysitting skills at their disposal).  As she moves up in her field, appropriate job opportunities occasionally come up for my sister-in-law here… and maybe my brother can start a llama farm, or maybe a winery - I vote for something radically different.


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