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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs
May 13, 2008 - 9:54pm

Last month my son’s first grade class did a unit on plants, seeds, and fruits. When his teacher sent home an assignment to collect a dozen different kinds of seeds, I was more excited than my son was. Since I was a little girl, I’ve collected seeds and seedpods from all over the world, and I offered to lend my collection to the classroom. The teacher said, “Oh, but would you like to come in and talk to the class?” I jumped at the chance, and prepared for the talk to twenty first graders just as I would have prepared for a freshman biology lecture, even staying up way past midnight getting it together. I had Powerpoint slides, fruits to pass around the room, seed pods, and all kinds of stories to tell about plant and animal interactions. I went way overboard. But I loved putting the talk together. And the kids seemed to enjoy it, even though they had to sit on the carpet while I went on for over an hour. The teacher, who knows a bit about my background, later said to me, “We need to get you back in the classroom.”

Now that my job is primary caregiver for my children I find I really miss teaching and research. I’m so eager to stay active as a biologist that I look for any opportunities to practice what I love, whether I’m paid or not. Talking to my son’s class was a chance to be a biology teacher again and engage my brain. I enjoyed the challenge of presenting ecological concepts in ways that six- and seven-year-olds would understand.

Recently a fellow Mama PhD blogger emailed a link to an article from The Wall Street Journal about “mommy SWAT (smart women with available time) teams.” These teams, composed of highly skilled women who left careers to care for their children full-time, are hired for short-term contracts to work on projects at a fraction of the salaries they commanded when they worked full time. The article suggests that both sides win: the women who are hired have a chance to refresh their skills and exercise their brain-power, while the companies that hire them gain cheap, highly qualified and motivated workers. No mention is made of health or retirement benefits.

On the one hand, I feel like these women are exploited. The companies with whom they contract are getting a great deal; do the moms feel the same? Would full-time dads be hired in the same way, with the same low salaries and lack of benefits?

But to be honest, my first reaction to the article was, great! If someone called me up out of the blue with an offer to be part of an exciting, short-term project that seemed right up my alley I’d forget all about practical considerations such as salary and benefits. After all, aren’t there some things we do simply because we’re passionate about them? How else did we get through the stress of completing a PhD, except by completely immersing ourselves in projects and research that we found stimulating.

When my husband got a tenure-track job and I needed a job in the same town, I eagerly accepted sessional lecturer positions for low pay and no benefits. I enjoyed the teaching, but like the companies that contract mommy SWAT teams, the university I worked for got a good deal by hiring me. I was a cheap, enthusiastic teacher earning a salary that barely paid for the childcare I needed after my first child was born. It seemed fine for me at the time because I could work part-time in my field and keep a toe-hold in academia.

It’s impossible to turn off the passion for biology and almost life-long love of nature that led me to pursue a PhD; they’re part of me. However, when the pursuit of these interests in a traditional academic setting began to clash with a desire for more time with my growing family, it was time to try a different approach. Now just as I immersed myself in my PhD research, I devote my attention to being with my kids with no regrets. I still desperately crave intellectual stimulation, and I long to work on projects. I haven’t stopped designing experiments in my head or getting excited when I come across new research papers in my field. One of the most arousing dates I’ve had with my husband (also a biologist) since my kids were born was a dinner at a great little restaurant where we drank lots of wine and talked about research projects we might do together. I felt sexy because I could turn my husband on with my brain and ideas. I know, what a couple of science geeks! But how exciting to know I still had it in me. And if I receive a phone call one day inviting me to join a mommy SWAT team, I’ll have a hard time saying no if it’s just the right project.


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