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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Discussion
October 15, 2008 - 8:16am

Isn’t it funny how after you learn a new word you are suddenly aware of it being used all over the place? I feel like this happened to me with the academic career-family balance thing. Although there was general talk about balancing career and family as I went through my schooling, until recently I lived in a zone where there really was no recognition of the intricacies of balancing kids and academia; you just figured it out (or not). Then suddenly this summer not just one, but two books of personal stories about how academic women deal with having children hit the press – Mama, Ph.D. and The Elephant in the Laboratory – at almost exactly the same time! Kudos to the editors of both these works for organizing the stories into packages we can digest and explore, and for spurring further awareness! The zeitgeist has changed – this discussion is bursting out into the open.

A couple weeks ago I went to a panel discussion at the University of Maryland featuring ten of the contributors from The Elephant in the Laboratory (edited by Emily Monosson). This anthology focuses on Ph.D. moms who got their degrees in science fields, although like Mama, Ph.D. the essays cover a rich diversity of experience, and their perspectives are valuable for Ph.D. parents in any field. It was thrilling to see the enthusiasm these mothers have for sharing their ideas about what is hard, what is fun, what they’ve done to put together careers that work for them and their families, and where they think changes need to be made to the system.

Here are some of my favorite ideas and bits of advice I took away from this discussion:

  • Don’t get stuck! Research I Institutes (and success in achieving highly competitive academic positions) can make you think there is only one way to do things: the straight and narrow.
  • Advice from bosses, mentors and advisors is not necessarily good. Others can’t imagine how things can be possible, if they are too much “of the system”. Don’t believe something is impossible just because someone says it is. In the beginning of your career, especially, you need to rely on other people’s advice, but be wary of the perspective from which that advice comes! It is easy to think you have to do an academic career in the absolute traditional way because that’s the only advice you get.
  • Part-time work. This was a huge topic of conversation, with the merits of this option embraced by most of the panel. We need to figure out meaningful part-time, flexible career paths in the academy, with re-entry options. Not just for women, not even just for parents. Not part-time that means 40-hours-a-week. Mothers are not dumb. When they see that academia won’t recognize their need for sequential career tracks, they take their credentials in other directions. How many post-doc parents out there would love a tenure-track position, but are worried about getting sucked into way more than they want? In academia there are very limited alternatives. Outside the academy there is a world of part-time opportunity where a Ph.D. can creatively put together a flexible career, but for some reason whenever people think about part-time in academia everyone throws up their hands.
  • Appeal to faculty at upper administrative levels, where there is more power. (This was suggested by one of the only two tenure-track faculty moms on the panel, a full-professor and associate dean). These higher up positions are where things really happen. You need to be in touch with these levels of administration to figure out how things really work. People change through a career of competition and selection – those who are career-driven get ahead, and may not understand that options such as part-time positions have benefits that extend past the individuals to the department and the institution. Progressive administrators will be instrumental in implementing change.
  • Expressing your passions and your needs. Many of the panelists (who ranged in age from five years out of grad school to almost retired) stressed that they are no longer timid about expressing what they are passionate about. They openly advocate what they want to do, what their limitations are, and ask for reasonable requests when approaching opportunities (such as part-time). Easier said than done, but admirable...


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