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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Gaps?
September 29, 2010 - 4:34am

I’ve been thinking about a different sort of gap year lately. Not the year full of promise, excitement and life experience that some graduating high school seniors plan before starting college (and mentioned in recent Mama PhD blogs), but instead the gap years in my life, where I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. These years are also filled with promise, excitement, life experiences, and learning how to parent my children. However, the years I’ve given up for family stand out as a glaring hole on my c.v. As much as I’d like to think that the academic world has become more family friendly, the fact is that taking time off is like dropping off the planet. I’ve submitted my c.v. for a couple of things recently, and I cringed thinking about the scrutiny to which the list of my accomplishments would be subjected. Of course when I complained about this to a stay-at-home dad I know, he laughed and pointed out that stay-at-home dads still have an even harder time explaining their gap years to potential employers.

But talk about scrutiny…nothing I’ve been through in my recent applications comes close to what my sister just experienced. I’ve written before about my younger sister, a mother to two young children and a professional musician. She recently applied to a doctoral program in music. As part of the application process she prepared a research proposal to present, along with her c.v., at an interview with the program’s directors. Candidates for the program received scores for the interview, the quality of their proposals, and for the accomplishments listed on their vitae. Bizarrely, the results of the application process were posted online for the world to see, including rankings for each candidate, and a breakdown of scores on each evaluation criterion. My sister was admitted to the program, but her c.v. was ranked lowest among the several people accepted, despite undergraduate and master’s degrees in music from prestigious universities and years of experience teaching and playing with orchestras and chamber ensembles. Her score would have been a barely passing grade in the university’s marking scheme.

In written comments, she was told that there were big gaps in her c.v. and no significant recent accomplishments. During these gap years, my sister left an orchestral position because the three-hour commute to see her husband (also an orchestral musician) on weekends was difficult to continue once she was pregnant with their first child. As is the case with many academic couples, her husband is older and got the first job, which left my sister to scrape up something for herself if they were going to live in the same town. With the difficulty finding childcare for late-night concerts, rehearsals, and irregular performance schedules, my sister stopped performing and took on teaching jobs. Unfortunately, heavy teaching loads in both undergraduate and elementary school music programs, AND mothering 2- and 7-year-old daughters, don’t count as significant accomplishments in the eyes of her doctoral application committee.

I’m proud of my sister’s attitude through all of this. I love hearing the enthusiasm in her voice when we talk on the phone about the research she wants to do for her doctorate. But mostly I admire her ability to laugh off the humiliation of having her life’s work put under the microscope. She carries on buoyed by the satisfaction she gains from her teaching and the difference she makes in her students’ lives. And she just has to look at her family to be reminded of the importance of accomplishments that are too grand to fit on a c.v. I have a lot to learn from my little sister.


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