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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: My Cohort
July 2, 2008 - 5:22am

I started graduate school 18 years ago in September. I came into the program as one in a cohort of ten first year graduate students, all from different backgrounds and experience, sharing a passion for biology. Getting to know my classmates in this first semester and then throughout the rest of our time in grad school was a true pleasure, one of my favorite parts of grad school. In many ways, the bonds we forged together were similar to the bonds I would make with other parents (much later) when my daughter was born. We were thrown together into the huge unknown of forging our PhDs: we all taught introductory biology together our first semester (for most of us this was our first time teaching); many of us stayed up late together racing the clock to get NSF doctoral grant proposals written; we regularly helped each other to find this or that office or to discuss a teaching issue or snafu. As the years went on we saw each other less, but many of us would get together more occasionally at a party or on an annual apple picking venture.

Our shared interests pulled us together, but I think what really bonded us was working through the process of a massive job in tandem. As with the parents in the first playgroup I attended (with whom I shared fears of strange infant syndromes and best brands of diapers, sagas of embarassing tantrums and triumphs of weaning), I will always be interested in seeing and hearing about my graduate school cohort. At some level, through our friendly network, we will keep in touch with each other.

What is interesting to me is the diverse career paths these colleague-friends of mine have taken since grad school. Going into such an academic program, we all probably expected to end up as faculty in academic institutions around the country and world. But careers paths are wonderfully whimsical, and follow all kinds of paths for all sorts of reasons. Here, in no particular order, is what the members of my cohort are doing now:

The four women:

1. me – I am a non-traditional academic full-time mom of two, with my fingers in a large number of writing projects and involvements in my daughters’ school.

Colleague #2: After a postdoc, #2 chose to raise her daughter full-time, and is now at home with her four children. She has done some consulting projects related to her PhD work, and keeps up her contacts to potentially continue this kind of work when her kids are older.

Colleague #3: Single, no children. Director in a large environmental advocacy organization, a translator between scientists and policy-makers, among other responsibilities.

Colleague #4: Married, 2 children. Director of a large conservation fund involved in protecting Mexican national parks.

The six men:

Colleague #5: Got his masters and then, homesick for his native Canada, went back to teach high school biology. I don’t know his family status.

Colleague #6: Married, 2 children. After 5 years in a faculty position at a large private university, which he received straight from graduate school with no postdoc, #6 changed course and now works in annual giving, now as the associate director of giving for the dental school at a large state university.

Colleague #7: Married, 2 children. #7 post-doc’d diligently for 5 years, producing many quality papers, but was not able to get an academic job he wanted. The small, private conservation agency he ended up working for recently went through economic difficulties and, in the 6 months since his lay-off, #7 has realized the merits of being there more for his kids as an at-home dad (temporarily?...)

Colleague #8: Always fascinated with his animals of interest, #8 put together an organization to conserve these animals and keep them out of the pet trade. As far as I know, he is unmarried with no children.

Colleague #9: Married, I don’t know about children. This colleague is an assistant professor at a large state university.

And finally, Colleague #10. Married; his wife had one young child when they got married, but I don’t know if they have other children. #10 is an assistant professor at a large private university, currently mentoring 3 postdocs and 2 grad students.

So there you have it from my cohort: 20% in traditional academic postions (both assistant professorships), 30% currently at home with kids, and 50% in some kind of non-academic agency. Admittedly, this is a small sample size. But to me it indicates that our understanding of life in academia should be modified to address the fact that the traditional academic career is not necessarily the norm. In this light, we should think about what university programs are training their graduates to do, since many end up in productive careers outside of traditional academia, including parenting roles.


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