Several weeks ago, I went to my first academic conference since taking my daughter home. It was also my first occasion in eleven years to attend my favorite conference, for the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, called “ARNOVA.” Between presentations, my co-author and I found ourselves with a small amount of time that we used to attend a roundtable discussion about basing one’s academic career on studying the nonprofit sector.
I was particularly interested in attending this session, as I had decided that such discussion was necessary while attending my last ARNOVA conference, many years ago. I had attended that conference right after leaving one job for another, just steps ahead of being denied tenure in a traditional economics department in a business school. I wondered then, and still do now, how one can build careers in academics by studying topics that are interdisciplinary in nature, and how we can do that and be good teachers at the same time. And so I dragged by co-author into the discussion of studying the nonprofit sector as the focus of one’s academic career. It was only after we had been there a few minutes that I realized that he was the only man in the audience. This was not a problem, as he is not only a great researcher, but also very calm and easy-going. Within minutes, he was contributing thoughts to the discussion.
It was interesting to hear the thoughts of the other conference-goers, and it was humbling to realize that some members of the panel were pursuing academic careers at levels I would never aspire to. One man on the panel spoke of how to attain tenure at a “tier one” research university while still researching the nonprofit sector. One woman on the panel talked about the challenges of having twins while still in her tenure-track years. She went on to describe something she had done that I had also done. When she received “revise and resubmit” reports from journals, she had taken them as rejections, and some of those papers never got re-written. I had done the same thing, until many of the papers were resurrected by my co-author and I years later. But as good as the panel was, it was comments from the audience that struck me the most.
One young woman in graduate school spoke words that I could have spoken years ago. She said that she wanted “to become a really good teacher.” One woman, at a competitive college, said that if she didn’t figure out how to mesh her research with the expectations of her college, she felt she would need to find another area of research. She said this with what sounded like a tear in her voice, as I am sure that she loves studying the nonprofit sector. I understand this struggle, since it was once also mine, in some ways. But it strikes me as tragic that our academic system discourages such innovative research outside of traditional departmental boundaries. If she and others like her left the sub-field(s) of studying the nonprofit sector, who would pursue this important line of inquiry? I am afraid that I didn’t have anything productive to tell her.
It was the question that was asked by one young woman that hit home the most. She asked us all what was the best time to have a child, grad school or during the tenure track years? The minute I heard her question, I pulled out my business cards with the link to this column typed on the back; surely she should join the conversation here!
An answer to this often-asked question came from the audience that struck me as true, especially considering the struggles I went through to build my own family.
“Children are blessings whenever they come.”