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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Non-Traditional Academics - "NTAs", not "SAHMs"
July 9, 2008 - 5:41am

We do not want to enter the typical stay-at-home mom vs. working mom battle – rather we believe that there is a continuum of balancing academic activities with taking care of children. Some women choose to accept an academic position at the best university from which they get an offer; several women choose to take a position at a less prestigious University because they prefer the added freedom to devote more quality time to their family-life. We three authors consider ourselves as non-traditional academics or NTAs because we are the primary caregivers for our children, and piece together fulfilling and useful academic work in our off-hours and free moments. We have consciously decided not to take a full-time position in academia because of the challenges this type of position can pose for traditional academic mothers. Universities across the country are increasingly trying to make their communities more family-friendly, offering such options as delayed tenure decision because of children, lightened teaching loads during pregnancy and after birth, or subsidized and convenient onsite childcare. However, a position at even the most family-friendly university is not as flexible as being an NTA -- although the income from being an NTA can be sporadic or nonexistent.

Unfortunately, NTAs are often denied academic benefits, including library access, office space, and a formal affiliation necessary for some grant applications. However, it would not take much to empower NTAs to use their skills fully and productively. In the long run, assisting the NTA will benefit not only the individual, but also the institution that has already put considerable energy into training and forming the individual as a scholar.

The Whiteley Center at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories stands out as an institution that exemplifies the rich realm of possibilities for supporting NTAs. We highlight this facility because all of us have worked there extremely productively, and because it offers a clear, concrete example of how an academic institution can successfully support the intellectual activities of an NTA and simultaneously enrich the experience of other scholars. The Whiteley Center encourages established scholars of all types to study and write on specified, approved projects for periods of a few days to a month. Most important to the NTA, the Whitely Center accepts applications from those not currently affiliated with an academic institution, and motivates the NTA by endorsing and validating his or her project. The Center provides convenient office space, computer equipment and internet access, extensive library facilities, space for collaborations, a forum for intellectual interactions, and housing for families in a wonderful setting.

While having all these benefits in one location such as the Whitely Center is ideal, any university could, at little additional cost, open its facilities to NTAs and provide one or a subset of amenities to support our intellectual activities. Free or reduced cost access to library facilities may be the simplest way for institutions to encourage NTAs, especially now that so many resources are available on-line. Providing space, affiliation, computer equipment, and software is also of great help, as is creating opportunities for intellectual interactions. Perhaps just as important as any of these services individually, however, is recognition by the academic community (and perhaps society as a whole) that NTAs make valuable intellectual contributions through non-traditional venues and can connect traditional academics with broader sections of society, such as school-age children.

If you also consider yourself an NTA, please contact us. We are forming a network to support and educate NTAs and link them with opportunities.


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