Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A family friendly career

Walking into work today, my partner mentioned one of this colleagues is trying to figure out how to make it clearer to students earlier in their careers that academia is not as family friendly as it seemed.
"WHAT?! Who thinks academia is family friendly? No one I know thinks that."
"Well, the question is, how many people you knew at 21 thought that."
So I paused and thought about it. My incoming college class had  a 55/45 M/F ratio, the most equal class to date. My university had a reputation for gender discrimination. It also had a reputation for working to get past that. So the students who entered with me were all aware of this issue, if even as a point of trivia about our incoming class to be forgotten about later. I think for many women, this colored our view of our future.

I did not see a female professor until my junior year. In total, I had 6 female professors and 3 female TAs. Two of the 6 were not in full time employment by my university. This made me, and all my female friends, talk and think about our chances in academia. Consciously or not, we asked ourselves variants of the question, if our professors are having a hard time making it, what makes us think we can? So we asked around, and found out that, yeah.. it's hard. And that from the people who didn't have families. When talking to people about grad school, we heard the rumor that once we enter grad school, extra curricular activities were frowned on. Not only was this devastating to someone who had heard all her pre-college life that the way to get into college was by having lots of extra curricular activities, and whose social life was built completely around the things she did outside of class, this perception clearly had family implications for me. "If PIs frown on someone spending 20 hours a week swimming competitively, how will they feel about families?" Graduate student friends talked about having to move away from their boyfriends for post docs. Post docs talked about PI's passing them up for conferences out of a desire to "be nice to them" since they had just become mothers.

I can't think of a single point in my post freshman life when I thought that academia was family friendly. I can't think of a single female friends who wanted to be an academic who relished the idea of having a family while doing so. When I think back on it, I recall conversations with women on the fence leaning towards industry because they wanted a family.

Not so for the women at University E. They see few female professors, but they also see professors of both genders not come in every day. They see that our "schedules" are similar to school schedules so that it is easier to take time off with kids. They see that we "get to travel to fun cities for conferences." They don't see the rest of it? How is that?

I know at my last institute, I did my best to discourage young women from thinking that academia and motherhood was compatible, in spite of myself, mostly by looking like a miserable under slept zombie for the first few years of Epsilon's life. More explicitly:
"Hi professor, I saw you bike into work today with your trailer. I was hoping to see you pull your kid out of it."
"No, I've dropped him off at daycare. By the time I get here, there's only a laptop in there." If I'd pulled my kid out of the trailer, how did you think I'd be teaching your 10 am class?""How is having a kid and being in academia?"
Well, that's direct. How do I be honest, and not discourage a very smart woman from going into academia? "One of the reason's I chose academia was that I've tried, and hated working 9-5. I've always enjoyed being able to go camping on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the parks are empty, and know that I can make up by working over the weekend. You lose a lot of that flexibility after becoming a parent. You work when you have daycare, or when the kid's sleeping."
"Yeah, I like that about this lifestyle as well. I wouldn't want to give that up."
"I work 8:30-4:30 now, so it's not 9-5. That makes it better. Let's start today's class."
My partner thinks that much of the difference in perception comes from the lack of discussion/awareness about any sort of discrimination in the general public discourse. If people aren't trained to think about this as a possibility by growing up with it being discussed, they are less likely to be able to look ahead and see potential pitfalls. I don't know if that it the primary cause, though I don't have a candidate hypothesis.

I do know that conversations like that over at IBAM's place today makes me very sad. As it does when mentors like GMP get overwhelmed, or Isis thinks about quitting.


  1. From the outside the job as an academic looks not overly stressful and as a student you only see half of the stuff that's on an academics plate. Even in grad-school you might get a glimpse of all the "background" that happens even besides research and teaching. So there is no chance to know what it can be like. And with the low number of role models (you had 6 female professors???? I had none - neither in the science section nor in the engineering section), who should be the discussion group?

    1. I went to school in the US, so we had breadth requirements. I had 2 female professors in the sciences, and 4 in the 8 humanities/social science classes I had to take. Still 2 > 0. The fact that there are no or few role models made me think multiple times before embarking on this career. I'm amazed that it isn't having the same effect on students in my partner's department.

  2. Genuine question. Is there any professional career that is family friendly? Do lawyers and physicians go around saying, "It was so easy having our first kid, we decided to have two more just for kicks?" Is industry that much better? I don’t follow any science industry blogs, and have no point for comparison.

    1. I know Cloud who writes is an industry scientist. From reading her blog, I think you're right and it's never easy to combine kid(s) with a full-time job. Perhaps we're not special snowflakes.

    2. Physcians and lawyers don't have it easy. I'm not saying that. But my parents (both doctors) were both able to find residencies, and then positions in a major metropolis of their choice and build a life there. The same holds for all the female MDs I know. Because of state laws, lawyer in the US basically have to choose a state or a city to practice in. This allows them to plan for the future in ways that academics can't.

      I read Cloud, and I really enjoy her. From her time planning posts, it sounds like most of her weeks ar 40 hours long. From the discussion you had on the storyboard, academics find it hard to get things done in 40 hours a week. I know my median week is closer to 55. She feels she lacks some of the stability that doctors (I know very few lawyers, so I can't speak to them) enjoy. MDs and JDs work longer hours than she does, or academics do.

      There are different points of ease and difficulty in all the fields. I'm in academia so I write about what I see here.

      p.s. I'd love to meet a primary care giver who says "The first kid was so easy .... " ;)

    3. Hi guys, since you are referencing me and saying nice things about me I thought I'd weigh in. :)

      It is true that I work roughly 40 hour weeks in my industry job, and have done so for my entire industrial career. But that is not necessarily the norm, and it is most definitely not the self-reported norm- as in, a lot of my colleagues are always complaining about their 50+ hour work weeks. I am also unusually productive in 40 hours (I know this sounds like bragging, but I have timetracking data to back it up, as well as the comments of literally every boss I've had). I also happen to work in a computational field, which aids in flexibility. So industry is a mixed bag.

      I have a friend who recently had to move from San Diego to Buffalo for her husband's residency, and reading my favorite mother doctor's blog (Gravity Circus: makes me inclined to think that being a doctor is not necessarily a cake walk, either. However, my current pediatrician works part time, and has by her own admission a pretty sweet set up as a working mother. So another mixed bag.

      My opinion is that any couple who tries to combine two "big" careers with parenthood will have challenges, regardless of what the "big" careers are. Having left academia after grad school, I can't directly compare my current career with an academic one. I suspect each has its unique challenges. From the outside, one thing that seems unique about an academic career is that you have no structure to help you put limits on your work life. You have to do that all yourself, and no one teaches you how to do it- and in fact, the dominant culture seems to discourage you from learning how to do it. In industry, there is often someone whose job it is to help define project structure and who watches for too many long hours (bad for overall project performance and staff retention), and there is HR to help protect employees from ridiculous schedules. There are policies about not being in the lab alone after hours (safety/liability concerns). There are also policies about appropriate computer use at work, etc. and expectations of colleagues which I suspect helps people to avoid the temptation to waste a lot of time online at work (although, having worked in IT, I can tell you that people still waste a lot of time online at work- we'd see logs of people streaming 2 hour movies during the day, for instance).

      Academics seem to pretty consistently self-report a 50-55 hour work week. I can tell you from when I worked as a contractor and could actually get paid for a 55 hour work week that it is very, very hard to produce 55 hours of billable work. All of the research I've seen on the topic implies that humans cannot sustain that sort of work week at peak productivity for more than a few weeks at a time.

      I recognize that no one asked me for advice on this, and I know academics in general do not think that my industrial experience translates to their world, so I hesitate to say this, but I'd recommend any academic who feels that he or she has to put in a 55 hour work week try a time tracking exercise to see where those 55 hours are going. Maybe you'd find some time you could take back, maybe not. I don't know.

      The other thing that seems sort of unique to academia is the fact that there isn't much opportunity to ramp back for a few years and then ramp back up, which I think a lot of us in industrial science and other careers do, consciously or not. I've got nothing on that one, other than a "that sucks."

  3. There's nothing that's easy to combine with parenthood, not even stay-at-home-parenting. Some things offer more or less choice & flexibility but basically our society doesn't give a shit about procreaters. I have female relatives with jobs not careers and they didn't have any easier a time because they weren't scientists. The women cleaning bathrooms at the unis or answering the phones aren't singing the praises of their easy work/life balance. Don't confuse systemic structural fucked-upedness for academic science-specific problem. The details are different in academia but the overall issue is the same.

    Do you think the sanitation or admin workers even have the option to bring their sick kids to work with them? Some of the academic science problems we complain about are luxuries to others, and some are ones we share -or should share - in solidarity.

    1. I agree with you. A lot of the flexibility that academia offers has let me stay home with my kid as needed. I can't imagine having a job with few benefits and a kid and living far away from my support network, yet I know plenty of people do.

      Academia offers me flexibility in return for forcing me to live without a support network for many of my child bearing years. Two body problems, parents living apart, in cities where neither have social networks, for a year or two at a time as they hop around in search of a permanent position is more common than I had ever dreamed as an undergrad. I think this problem, to this extent, is nearly unique to academia.

      Though, if your point is that when students talk about family friendly careers, we should talk to them about how family unfriendly being career driven in general is, I may agree with you. I have no idea how to even start having that conversation.

  4. I agree with Zuska and Zen Faulkes and others that careers and jobs and even staying at home is not easy to combine with parenthood. What I really like about being a prof is the "local" flexibility, meaning that I only really need to be in my job for teaching and that means at most 6 hours per week (in a research intensive university). Of course I have to do tons of stuff and I'm also restricted by daycare hours, but if the needs arises, if there is an emergency at a given point of time, I only need to be there for the teaching, and even for that I can find a replacement if the emergency is serious enough. This is much better than most other jobs I can think of.

    I think in this discussion one should separate the two cases "finding the job and having a family" versus "having the job and a family". The second case would be when you're already a professor, which I discussed in the previous paragraph. The first case would be while you're a postdoc / student / professor that needs to move / suffering from a two-body problem / instructor in a unstable position, etc. Obviously, from this point of view the academic career sucks big time, this period is too long and full of uncertainty, and certainly it's worse than many other jobs/careers in terms of family balance.

    Now, students don't always understand the difference between people in the first case and people in the second case. Often they don't know if the professor teaching a class has a professorship, an instructorship, etc because they don't even know the difference. Also, many young students may not even think of having a family in a concrete way and they don't take into account these issues.

    Finally, successful people have more visibility than unsuccessful people. Think for example about panels that broadcast women in science, who do they invite? Do you see unhappy people in those panels? I agree that frank discussions are in order, but as long as the discussions are led by those who stayed and managed to be successful, it's much harder to convey the hardships of the academic path to someone who is only starting to walk through it.

  5. I don't know about family-friendly careers in the decades ahead, but my dad had the most flexible, secure job I have ever seen: academic librarian at a primarily teaching college. He was tenured, he only had an intermittent need to publish, and he could switch shifts around and work weekend days or evening shifts when he needed to stay home with me when I was sick, or to see my 3rd grade play. And I spend many sick days and summer weeks up at the library, reading and coloring in his office or being gopher for the circulation desk. And it wasn't just him -- all his colleagues (male and female) had to bring in kids every once in a while, and everyone was nice and accepting of it.

    But librarians are becoming less important on campuses and increasingly are non-tenure-track hires -- won't provide the same secure family-friendly full paycheck in the future.

    My experiences at his teaching college erroneously convinced me that academia was a family-friendly place, but at least I know where I got the crazy notion from.

  6. I'm a little under-placed (according to my grad professors, but maybe less so now that we've been hiring people who didn't get tenure at the top schools) but in a supportive, somewhat funded (for a state school), and relatively child-friendly environment. My husband is amazing and egalitarian, and good help is cheap to hire. Also we're incredibly lazy parents blessed with amazing kids. I'm in a social science that values policy work and doesn't require competition to grants (though summer salary is a nice thing to have).

    I'm pretty happy. I like my job. I'm tenured. I feel like I'm doing right by both job and by family. I have my own office with a door that I can close, so I can pump, something a lot of folks in industry don't have. I wish I had a lower teaching load and a higher salary, but not enough to move. Someday I may move, but that will be my choice. I really really love the flexibility that this job allows me. But I don't have time-sensitive biological experiments that I need to be running.

    So I don't know what to say here. I don't know that anything is easy or a cake-walk. There are trade-offs with most things. I can't really think of any job, requiring ambition or not, that doesn't have some kind of trade-off. The trade-offs for academia are different than for an industry job than for a job that doesn't require ambition and education. We all have different preferences, and jobs have different demand functions.

    Do we need to tell undergrads that academia is easy or hard? I'm not sure that my experience or your experience is necessarily what that undergrad's experience is going to be. There are definitely trade-offs, like not being able to live where you want, intense competition for resources depending what you go into and so on, and it's good to know what those trade-offs are likely to be. There's also advantages, and not just having one's own office space. Additionally, I'm finding that my preferences over these trade-offs change over time. Prestige is less important. Quality of life is more important. And so on, so even what I cared about at age 27 is not what I care about in my mid-30s, and we're finding that with the people we hire as well. Associate profs ask different questions than the assistant profs do.

    Also, my read of wandering scientist's blog is that she's doing just fine combining career and family. There are bumps here and there (and the current bumps have nothing to do with her family and would exist even without the kids), but I'm fairly sure she'll pull through, if not at this company than doing something else.