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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Oil spills and Post-docs
May 20, 2010 - 7:42am

I’ve been focused on the tragic, on-going oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: first, because my current documentary is about the erosion of Louisiana’s coastline and the disappearance of bayou cultures. And second, the spill reminds me of my own dependence on oil for long distance commuting to see my kids in Florida.

The only place that I can constructively place my anger about this disaster is by thinking through my own dependence on oil. I fly twice a month to see my teenagers in Florida (while my job is in Chicago), spewing carbon into the atmosphere the entire way. (My school employs at least three full-time faculty who commute to other homes.) Since the job market for academics is national, and many couples are forced to use a lot of oil for commuting long distances, what steps have universities taken in the hiring process to create positions for partners or to better acknowledge the time-intensive demands of parenting?

Post-docs or contract positions have traditionally filled in the post-degree job gap, supplying variable means of employment around the childbirthing years. But these positions have time limits on them and are no guarantee for acquiring or resuming tenure-track positions once these jobs end. And what of hiring/relocating a partner? A university's office of Human Resources occasionally assists non-academic partners with finding local job references, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Better news is on the carbon-filled horizon, though, at least for academic couples. Universities are finally starting to create more flexible forms of faculty teaching and research positions in order to better handle the temporary time constraints of family and health issues.

The American Council on Education (ACE) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently awarded $200,000 grants to several universities that have demonstrated leadership in creating flexible options for faculty careers. One award winner--Bowdoin College--supports partner hires through “shared” appointments that may be half time (or more) for an individual line. Bowdoin also has a “research associate” title for faculty who wish to reduce their tenure-track obligations. Middlebury College created an interesting “associate appointment” program for faculty who are new parents, caring for a parent, or phasing into retirement. These appointments have reduced teaching loads and include continued support for research and travel.

Creating new types of job positions for research-interested couples and families is something that we are behind the times on. Universities should push to catch up to the realities of the two-income family. I was encouraged that the new provost at my own university described, during his interview, interest in pursuing more flexible job opportunities for research faculty.

The oil spill significantly threatens a region that contains 40% of U.S. coastal wetlands (and seafood production). While it seems that we may have a hundred years before dire effects of global warming are felt by the coastal citizen, there is no extended timeline with an oil spill. Spills are immediate. This spill’s effect on Gulf coast seafood and tourism industries has already been felt and will continue to reverberate for years. (My Florida daughter is interested in training to clean oil off of birds.)

I think it would be a great idea for BP to finance alternative energy research at universities around the gulf and to endow a few flexible faculty lines to go with it. The ultimate goal here is sustainability, not--as G. Rendell so aptly describes--“the antithesis” of it…


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