Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers


Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.

Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.

Professor: Um, hi..?

Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.

Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].

Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.

Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.

Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.

Professor: Whuaaa?

Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.

Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.

Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz. Continue reading

Parental care and scientific careers: a fish metaphor


Dads typically do less parental care than the mom, at least in the US. This is a problem, especially for the mom’s career.

Many men, and I suspect particularly academics, are genuinely focused on parenting. They want to do right by their partners, and make sure that they don’t create an inequitable parental burden. Parenting is a joy, but time demands of the required tasks involved are often burdensome. In some some families, if you fast-forward from zygote to toddler, you’ll find that some, if not many, of these guys are not doing their share. Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse


Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading

LEGO makes more women in science!


Nine months ago, I asked LEGO to make more female scientists. As a start, I cobbled together a few from spare parts at home: arachnologist, chiropterist, herpetologist, ichthyologist and ornithologist. Click through to check them out. I made them with my 10-year old son.

I never thought they’d make a chiropterist. But, now, they indeed they are making an astronomer, a chemist, and a paleontologist! Continue reading

Submitting abstracts for conferences without having the data


I’ve developed a mechanism to make sure that I stay productive: when I submit abstracts for meetings, I promise data that I haven’t finished collecting. Of course when I give a talk, I can say almost whatever I want. Nobody’s going to cut me off if my talk doesn’t match the program.

I just realized that I always have been in the habit of submitting abstracts for projects that are so fresh, I haven’t even gotten all the numbers, much less run analyses. In grad school, that was the only option, because at one point I didn’t have anything else to say. Now, even when I have other newish finds that I’ve yet to present, I submit abstracts for projects that still lack a rudimentary answer. I do this at least once a year, writing a check for results that aren’t yet in the bank. Continue reading

Is grad school a good time to have a baby?


I have no clear answer and I had my daughter just after finishing my fourth year…

A post on having kids in grad school has been on my roster basically since I started blogging. I sometimes get asked this question because I had a baby in grad school. While contemplating what to write, I realised I actually know quite a few mothers who started their families in grad school. Some have gone on to continue their careers in academia while others made the decision to leave. Although motherhood plays a part of their personal stories, the mothers I know are not unlike the general population of grad students I came through with, who are all also trying to find their way and decide what to do with their lives and careers.

So last year, I decided that to ask all the people I knew who had babies in grad school about their experiences and what advice they would give to the question “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?”. The one thing that these parents all have in common is an enthusiasm for the idea and a lack of follow through (including me!). I posed the question but then got caught up with other things as I’m wont to, just like I’m sure all the other parents who said they’d like to contribute but ended up being far too busy to write about it. Instead of pestering them after having dropped the ball before, I thought I would write my own perspective first.

What follows is a modified email that I sent to a female grad student who directly asked me for advice on whether grad school was a good time to have a baby. One thing that did come to mind when thinking about this question is that I come from a supportive department in this respect and it clearly shows in the number of grad school babies that born there. So my answer to the question is coloured with the privilege of support, both from my advisor and department. Many are not so lucky.

My advice and perspective is also skewed towards mothers, although I know grad school dads as well. Part of the challenge of having a baby during grad school for a woman is, well, having the baby. Although parenting can be a lot more equal pretty quickly as long as both parents make an effort for it to be, the burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding (if you can/do breastfeed) falls squarely on the mother. There are real physical aspects of this time that means extra support and consideration for mothers that I think shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll see some of that perspective in what follows.

Here is my advice from a couple of years ago to a fellow grad student* pondering having a baby before finishing:

I seriously feel unqualified to offer advice–somehow I managed to make it through but I’m still not sure how. So I’m not sure I have wisdom but here are a few thoughts. First, they always say there is never a good time to have kids and although its true, you should never let that stop you. It is a tough thing to plan and it is always more of a crazy disruptive thing then you imagine it will be. But it is also amazing so if you want it I would say give it a try–you will always make it work somehow–sometimes things go a little slower than planned or differently than planned but that is all part of it. I think you will make your priorities happen–if you want the baby and want the PhD, you will make it work. My story was that I did manage to have a double TA at the end and that helped a lot. But I did it in the opposite direction from (another grad student)–I took off a semester (‘writing’)/had Maiken and then double TAed. Somehow I managed to come back, double TA and finish. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my committee was very forgiving—I am still working through publishing my chapters and sometimes I am amazed they let me go**. And of course, having a supportive spouse is huge–I couldn’t have done it without my partner’s help.

I think everyone’s situation is unique though. I thought I would do some writing when I was off but I did next to nothing those first few months. The birth was a lot harder than I had hoped (I had to have an emergency c-section). The recovery took more out of me than I thought–emergency means bigger cut and it was a while before I could even get out of bed normally. I also did not do well with the sleep deprivation so that made it tough to think and function–the hormones also can make you a little crazy and seriously effect your brain function. No one told me that I would be more forgetful once I became pregnant, for example…. Not to scare you but things can go in unexpected ways and although it is totally doable, pregnancy/breast feeding, etc is definitely a draining experience–but you will roll with those things as they come and they shouldn’t stop you. And many people have it much easier than me and hopefully you will too!

Ultimately, the decision should be up to you and your partner, so in some ways, I don’t think you need to talk to anyone officially until it is certain you are having a baby. Then the logistics can be worked out as they need to be and my experience with the department is that they are pretty supportive. My opinion is that it is your right to have a baby so they need to deal with it and they want you to graduate so they’re going to work with you to make that happen. When I passed 3 months, I went to my advisor and then my committee and the department chair. I basically started by saying I was pregnant and I had a rough outline of a plan of how to finish up. My biggest request was the double TA*** and they were good enough to give me that. I think they thought I was a little crazy and that I would not manage moving to Sweden, having a baby, coming back and defending but they were definitely supportive. I did lose one committee member because they wasn’t around when I needed to defend but everyone was fine with that and since I had four members I didn’t need to replace them. I guess you just should be prepared to be a little flexible and figure out what is feasible but I think it is definitely possible to manage it.

Having a baby is always going to be a huge disruption of everything else in your life and they only continue to be that. But grad school isn’t a bad time to start. You’re time is actually pretty flexible. So even though it was crazy busy, I’d do it again. The writing/stress of finishing always seems about the same to me, whether or not you have a baby (at least from watching other people). You basically fill up the time. When you have something else so huge going on, you are forced to work more efficiently and not worry about it so much. Revisions can always go on forever, when you don’t have forever, you basically have to stop. Part of the reason I am still working on things from my PhD is because I am trying for good journals so that is also a choice…

Anyway, personally, I wouldn’t ask permission/talk to anyone that I thought would try to dissuade me from doing it, at least if they were in a position of power. If they try to say it isn’t for the best and then you do get pregnant you’re possibly creating unnecessary tension. But once you are pregnant, it isn’t like they can advise you not to be. So the discussion will hopefully be more productive and positive about how to make it work.

I hope this ramble makes some sense. Follow your hearts, do what feels right and it will work out.****

So in short, is grad school a good time to have a baby? It was for me.***** I have a wonderful/stubborn/imaginative/annoying/beautiful/challenging/creative daughter and so far a career in science that I love. I wouldn’t change any of it. But having a baby is a deeply personal choice and I don’t think anyone can truly answer for another whether any particular time is ‘good’ or not.


*I’m happy to say said grad student now has a lovely daughter and PhD degree.

**Impostor syndrome alert: I had one published chapter and three manuscripts at the time of my defence. Not such an uncommon combination…but I had high expectations of myself and was disappointed that I hadn’t submitted more at that point.

***My salary support was through TAships and doing all my teaching duties in one semester instead of spread across two meant that I could come to Sweden and be with my partner during the first few months of my daughters life (her due date coincided with the start of the fall semester)

****I tend to live by this philosophy, although the ‘working out’ might not be how you first imagined.

*****A recent twitter conversation about grad school stipends directly relates to the finances of being a parent in grad school. I didn’t have to support my family on my stipend, nor was I a single parent, important distinctions.

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job


This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

I also like all of the advice of Karen Kelsky about starting out your first year. I wrote this before I saw her piece, and the similarities are more than conincidental.

Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do


This post is about a revoked job offer at a teaching institution that was in the news, and is also about how to negotiate for a job. I’ve written about negotiation priorities before, but this missive is about how to discuss those priorities with your negotiating partner.

Part A: That rescinded offer in the news

Last week, a story of outrage made the rounds. The capsule version is this: A philosopher is offered a job at a small teaching school. She tries to negotiate for the job. She then gets immediately punished for negotiating, by having the offer rescinded.

This story first broke on a philosophy blog, then into Inside Higher Ed, and some more mainstream media, if that’s what Jezebel is. There are a variety of other posts on the topic including this, and another by Cedar Reiner.

Some have expressed massive shock and appall. However, after reading the correspondence that caused the Dean to rescind the job offer, I’m not surprised at all. After initial conversations, the candidate wrote to the Dean:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Here is what the Dean thought, in her words:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

There has been a suggestion of a gendered aspect. That viewpoint is expressed well here, among other places. (There doesn’t seem to be a pay equity problem on this campus, by the way.) I wholly get the fact that aggressive negotiation has been seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. I think it is possible that gender played a role, but in my view, the explanation offered by the Dean is the most parsimonious one. (Now, my opinion will be dismissed by some because of my privilege as a tenured white dude. Oh well.) Given the information that we’ve been provided, and interpreted in light of my experiences at a variety of teaching campuses, I find the “fit” explanation credible, even if it’s not what I would have done.

A job offer is a job offer, and once an offer is made the employer should stand behind the offer. Then again, if some highly extraordinary events unfold before an agreement is reached, the institution can rescind the job offer. In this circumstance, is the candidate’s email highly extraordinary?

Did this start at “negotiation” communicate so many horrible things about the candidate that the institution should have pulled its offer? The Dean’s answer to that question was, obviously, “Yes.”

I would have answered “no.” Many others have done the yeoman’s blog work of explaining exactly how and and why that was the wrong answer to the question. I’m more interested in attempting to crawl inside the minds of the Dean and the Department that withdrew the offer. What were they thinking?

The blog that first broke this story called these items “fairly standard ‘deal-sweeteners.’” I disagree. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Dean and the Department, then this is how I think I might have read that request:

I am not sure if I really want this position. If you are willing to stretch your budget more than you have for any other job candidate in the history of the college, then I might decide to take the job, because accepting it is not an easy decision.

1) I realize that your initial salary offer was about what Assistant Professors make at your institution, but I want to earn 20% more, as much as your Associate Professors, because that’s what new faculty starting at research universities get.

2) I’d know that 6 months of parental leave is unofficial policy and standard practice, but I want it in writing.

3) I’d like you to hire adjuncts for an extra sabbatical before I come up for tenure. By then I’m sure I’ll need a break from teaching, even though everybody else waits until after tenure to take a sabbatical.

4) Before I take this special extra sabbatical, I want an easier teaching schedule than everybody else in my department.

5) I want to stay in my postdoc for an extra year, because I’d rather do more research somewhere else than teach for you. I realize that you advertised the position to fill teaching needs, but you can hire an adjunct.

While some of these requests are the kind that I’d expect to be fulfilled by a research institution, I’m hoping that you are able to treat me like a professor from a research institution. Now that you’ve offered me this teaching job, I want my teaching obligations to be as minimal as possible. Let me know what you think.

And the Dean did exactly that: she let her know what she thought. I’m not really joking: that’s really how I think it could be seen, inside the context of a teaching- and student-centered institution.

Here is a more unvarnished version of what I imagine the Dean was thinking:

Holy moly! Who do you think we are? Don’t you realize that we want to hire you to teach? I didn’t pull the salary out of thin air, and it was aligned with what other new Assistant Professors earn here. And if you want to teach here, why the heck do you want to stay in your postdoc which presumably pays less money? If you wanted to stay in your for 18 months earning a postdoc salary, instead of coming to teach for us at a faculty-level salary, then why would you even want this job at all? Also, didn’t you realize that we advertised for the position to start this year because we need someone to teach classes in September? If you have such crazy expectations now, then I can only imagine what a pain in the butt you might be for us after you get tenure. I think it’s best if we dodge this bullet and you can try to not teach at a different university. We’re looking for someone who’s excited about teaching our students, and not as excited about finding ways to avoid interacting with them.

The fact remains that the candidate is actually seeking a teaching-centered position. However, she definitely was requesting things that an informed candidate would only ask from a research institution. I don’t think that she necessarily erred in making oversized requests, but her oversized requests were for the wrong things. They are focused on research, and not on teaching. While it might be possible that all of those requests were designed to improve the quality of instruction and the opportunities to mentor students, it clearly didn’t read that way to the Dean. We know it didn’t read that way, because the Dean clearly wrote that she thought the candidate was focused too heavily away from teaching and students. I’m not sure if that’s true, but based on the email, that perspective makes a heckvualotta sense to me.

I’d would be more inclined to chalk the unwise requests to some very poor advice about how to negotiate. I’d would have given the candidate a call and try to figure out her reasons, and if the answers were student-centered, then I’d continue the negotiation. But I can see how a reasonable Dean, Department, and Vice President of Academic Affairs could read that email and decide that the candidate was just too risky.

New tenure-track faculty hires often evolve into permanent commitments. You need to make the most of your pick. Hiring a dud is a huge loss, and it pays to be risk averse. If someone reveals that they might be a dud during the hiring process, the wise course of action is to pick someone who shows a lower probability of being a dud. However, once an offer is made, the interview is over.

But according to Nazareth College, this candidate showed her hand as a total dud, and a massive misfit for institutional priorities. Though I wouldn’t have done it, I have a hard time faulting them for pulling the offer. If they proceeded any further, they would have taken the chance that they’d wind up with an enthusiastic researcher who would have been avoiding students at every opportunity. Someone who might want to bail as soon as starting. Or maybe someone who got a better job while on the postdoc and not show up the next year. The department only has four tenure-track faculty, and would probably like to see as many courses taught by tenure-line faculty as possible.

Having worked in a few small ponds like Nazareth, I don’t see the outrageousness of these events. We really have no idea, though, because there is a lot of missing context. But we know that the Dean ran this set of pie-in-the-sky requests by the Department and her boss. They talked about it and made sure that they weren’t going to get into (legal) hot water and also made sure that they actually wanted to dump this candidate. It’s a good bet that the Department got this email and said, “Pull up, pull up! Abort!” They may have thought, “If we actually are lucky enough to fill another tenure-track line, we don’t want to waste it on someone who only wants to teach three preps before taking a pre-tenure sabbatical while we cover their courses.” I don’t know what they were thinking, of course, but this seems possible.

Karen Kelsky pointed out that offers are rescinded more often at “less prestigious institutions.” She’s definitely on to something. Less prestigious institutions have more weighty teaching loads and fewer resources for research (regardless of the cost of tuition). These are the kinds of institutions that are most likely to find faculty job candidates who are wholly unprepared for the realities of life on the job.

When an offer gets pulled, I imagine it’s because the institution sees that they’ve got a pezzonovante on their hands and they get out while they still can.

At teaching institutions, nobody wants a faculty member who shies away from the primary job responsibility: teaching.

In a research institution, how would the Dean and the Department feel if a job candidate asked the Dean for reduced research productivity expectations and a higher teaching load for the first few years? Wouldn’t that freak the Department out and show that they didn’t get a person passionate for research? Wouldn’t the Dean rethink that job offer? Why should it be any different for someone wanting to duck teaching at a teaching institution?

I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: “I don’t want to teach” and “I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.” Of course everybody benefits when new faculty members get reassigned time to stabilize. But these requests were not just over the top, they were in orbit.

If I were the Dean at a teaching campus, what kinds of things would I want to see from my humanities job candidates? How about a guarantee for the chance to teach a specialty course? Funds to attend special conferences and funds to hire students as research assistants. Someone wanting to start early so that they could start curriculum development. Someone wanting a summer stipend to do research outside the academic year?

Here’s the other big problem I have with the narrative that has dogpaddled around this story. It’s claimed that the job offer was rescinded because she wanted to negotiate. But that’s not the case. The job candidate was not even negotiating.

Part B: What exactly is negotiation and how do you do it with a teaching institution?

A negotiation is a discussion of give and take. You do this for me, I do this for you. You give me the whip, and I’ll throw you the idol.

In the pulled offer at Nazareth College, the job candidate was attempting to “negotiate” like Satipo (the dude with the whip), but from other side of the gap.

What the Dean received from the candidate wasn’t even a start to a negotiation. It was, “Here is everything I want from you, how much can you give to me?” That is not a negotiation. A negotiation says, “Here are some things I’m interested in from you. If you give me these things, this is what I have to offer.”

How should this candidate have started the negotiation? Well, actually, the email should have been a request to schedule a phone conversation. What should the content of that conversation have been? How could the candidate have broached the huge requests (pre-tenure sabbatical, starting in 18 months, very few preps, huge salary)? By acknowledging that by providing these huge requests, huge output would come back.

“Once I get a contract for my second book, could you give me a pre-tenure sabbatical to write this book?”

“I’m concerned I won’t be able balance my schedule if I have too many preps early on. If you can keep my preps down to three per year, I’ll be more confident in my teaching quality and I should be able to continue writing manuscripts at the same time.”

“Right now, I am working on this exciting project during my postdoc, which is funded for another year. If it’s possible for me to arrive on campus after I finish my postdoc, this work will really help me create an innovative curriculum for [a course I will be teaching]. During this postdoc, I’d be glad to host some students from the college for internships and help them build career connections.” Of course, it’s very rare a teaching institution wants to wait a whole extra year. They want someone to teach, after all! It couldn’t hurt much to ask, if you phrase it like this, verbally.

“After running the numbers, I see that a salary of $65,000 is standard on the market for new faculty at sister institutions. But from what I’ve seen from the salary survey, this is well above the median salary for incoming faculty. If you can find the funds to bring me in at this salary, I’m okay if you trim back moving expenses. Being paid at current market rate in my field is important to me, and if you let me know what level of performance is tied to that level of compensation, I’ll deliver.”

By no means am I a negotiation pro. What I do know comes mostly from the classic book, “Getting to Yes.” The main point of this book is that “positional negotiation” is less likely to be successful. This approach involves opposite sides taking extreme positions and then finding a middle ground. Just like asking for a huge salary, and lots of reassigned time and easy teaching.

Getting to Yes explains how to do “principled negotiation.” In this case, you have a true negotiating partner in which you understand and respect one another’s interests. So, instead of haggling over salary like buying a used piece of furniture at a swap meet, you discuss the basis for the salary and what each of you will get out of it.

If you are asking for a reduced teaching load, then you explain what you will deliver with this reduced teaching load (higher quality teaching and more scholarship), and what the consequences will be if you don’t get it (potential struggle while teaching and fear that you won’t have time to do scholarship). And so on. The quotes I suggested above are what you’d expect to see in a principled negotiation. The book is a bit long but there are some critical ideas in there, and I’m really glad I read it before I negotiated my current position. When it was done, both I and the Dean thought we won, and we reached a fair agreement.

If you are in the position of receiving an academic job offer, negotiating for the best starting position is critical. You don’t have to be afraid of having the offer withdrawn as long as you’re negotiating in good faith. That mean you communicate an understanding the constraints and interests of your negotiating partner. And being sure that when you are ask for something, your reason is designed to fulfill the interests of your partner as much as yourself. So, asking for a bunch of different ways to get out of teaching responsibilities is a non-starter when your main job responsibility is teaching.

It’s not only acceptable to negotiate when you are starting an academic job, it’s expected. The worst lesson to take from this incident is Nazareth is that there is peril in negotiation. I suggest that the lesson is that you must negotiate. And, keep in mind that negotiation is a conversation and a partnership towards a common goal. Even when it comes to money, there is a common goal: You want to be paid enough that you’ll be happy and stay, and they want you to be paid enough that you’ll stay.

You won’t have anybody pull a job offer from you if you’re genuinely negotiating. It’s okay to ask for things that your negotiating partner can’t, or may not want to, deliver. However, what you ask for should reflect what you really truly want, and at the moment you’re asking, provide a clear rationale, so that you appear reasonable. If you’re interviewing for jobs, then I recommend picking up a copy of Getting to Yes.

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.


Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

So, teaching is for people who have imposter syndrome?


Isn’t it a bummer when your research is founded on an invalid premise? This can’t be a good moment for a researcher whose work was featured in Science online. This article would be just silly, if it didn’t take itself so seriously while also being offensive.

As represented in this Science “careers” article, the project was designed to understand what might cause scientists to change their professional ambitions from a tenure-track position at a major research university to, well, something other than a tenure-track position at a major university.

Apparently, that change in career ambition is some kind of flaw in performance, as the study reported these students as “downshifters.”

Apparently, a tenure-track position at a research university is “faster” than other jobs that doctoral students take. According to the study — or at least interpreted by the author of the Science article — a teaching position or policy job is is slower than a running a research lab. Maybe that’s what some tenure-track faculty at R1 institutions might think, but that doesn’t make it true.

Is it just me, or is the notion that deciding against a tenure-track position at research institution is a “downshift” is a load of crap? If you’re designing a study with this as a presumption, then isn’t that going to result in confirmation bias?

If we decide to choose an equally ambitious path in a different direction than the PI of the study, then why is it that we are labeled as having downshifted our expectations of ourselves?

In grad school, at some point, I decided that I didn’t want a job at a research institution. The job that I ended up taking, at a primarily teaching institution, is not any easier and not any slower than running an R1 lab. It’s not easier, it’s just different. There’s a good argument to be made that, after I chose against an R1 job, that I’m running harder and faster than a PI at an R1 institution.

According to this study, I’d be a downshifter. That judgment of me gives me some indigestion.

Moving into a tenure-track position at a research institution is often considered the default route for doctoral students, even if the bulk do not end up in such a position. If a doctoral student decides in the middle of grad school that she wants to pursue a different path, how is this shifting down one’s expectations? How is it that downgrading one’s expectations?

Here’s how the study identified what a “downshifter” is and what she found, as I read the article in Science careers:

The authors interviewed a whole bunch of doctoral students at one university. Only about 25% 33% had a goal of working in a tenure-track position at a major research university. (I found this rather surprising, and a form of good news, actually. Do their advisors know this?!) Of the entire pool, less than ten percent initially had an ambition to become a professor in a tenure-track position, but then changed their minds.  These were the “downshifters.” (There were gender disparities, with fewer women wanting the R1 jobs and more women who chose to against the more-exalted path.)

So, here’s what I see in these data: 75% 66% of grad students don’t want to become R1 professors. During grad school, 10% change their mind and don’t want to become R1 professors. These “downshifters” are more likely to be suffering from imposter syndrome, as it was measured in the study, and the gender disparity results in more women changing their minds about their career goals.

Note: Before going to press with this piece, I corresponded with the PI of the study. She didn’t want to write a response to be included in the original post, but she did clarify some numbers. She wrote:

As far as the numbers go – currently 22.5% of the women in my sample and 27% of men aspire to tenure-track professorships with an emphasis on research. 40% of the students have either changed or seriously considered changing career goals while in graduate school, but only 23% have actually changed. 11% of women and 6% of men were classified as “downshifters” because they shifted from professor with an emphasis on research to one of the 11 other categories. That means that *more* than that 22.5 and 27% originally aspired to the TT – about 1/3.

The take-home message is, then, that if imposter syndrome is causing a leak in the so-called pipeline, where the small fraction of Ph.D. students who want a so-called “fast” job decreases even more when they have imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women.

Maybe if we stopped portraying the tenure-track positions at research institutions as the idealized goal of grad school, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so worried about driving people away from academia and research? These gender disparities are real, and very concerning, and by continuing to up the stakes about how special and important R1 faculty jobs are, we’re not helping the problem.

This was not a brief rant, but it was summed up by a colleague of mine in just a few, less testy, words:

In all fairness to the PI of the study, she told me that she had no editorial power over what was published in Science careers. I’m sure the author didn’t do the PI any favors in how he represented her work, and that’s why I offered her the opportunity to clarify and rebut before going to press. She declined to offer a specific rebuttal, but did indicate that both the Science piece and this post itself were not fairly representative of her work or her views.

She did send me a link that represents her views and reassured me that the use of the term downshifter “is not meant normatively in any way and instead to capture the issue as it has been addressed in previous literature.”

Is using the term downshifter acceptable as long as it’s used only because other people have in the literature? Doesn’t the apparently broad use of this term in the literature suggest that this entire line of investigation has some messed-up assumptions built into the hypotheses being tested? If all of the research on women leaking out of the pipeline originates with these kinds of value judgements, are the conclusions trustworthy?

On the speciousness of “work-life balance”


Too often, people are apt to advise one another on how to live their lives. I’m not intentionally adding to this body of work, but remarking on it. I don’t intend to offer any advice in this post.

Let’s consider two pieces of career and life advice that we often hear.

Standard Piece of Advice #1. Choose a career that you love.

You need to pay the bills, but this should happen with a job that you immensely enjoy. Ideally, we love our job so much that it’s like a hobby. (And it’s that way for me. Science – the whole process – is a wonderful hobby. There are some parts I like more than others, but it’s a smashingly entertaining enterprise.)

Standard Piece of Advice #2. Don’t let work get in the way of living your life.

There was a well-written post about this written by a recently tenured Harvard professor about “how to stop worrying and love the tenure track.” The author, Radhika Nagpal, had a useful list to advise readers about how to not let the pursuit of tenure consume our lives and make us unhappy. Second on the list of seven items was to stop taking advice from others.

Depending on how well you follow Standard Piece of Advice #1, then Standard Piece of Advice #2 seems irrelevant, if not a little misguided.

Should we treat a tenure-track job like a 7-year postdoc? I imagine that this is a healthy attitude for Harvard junior faculty, considering rates of tenure. Is this a good idea outside Harvard? Well, I guess so. I don’t know if postdocs are expected to work with less effort than tenure-track faculty. If the phrase “treat the job like a temporary postdoc” should be read as “don’t let the job consume your entire life” then I suppose the advice is spot-on.

Is it important to make sure that you’re a complete person outside your academic job? Definitely.

Should you prioritize your loved ones over your work, and cultivate relationships outside of academia? Of course!

Should we expect researchers be complete people outside of their research endeavors? Hell yes!

Should we designate and separate working hours from non-working hours as a hard-and-fast rule? Should we make sure that we have a special amount of personal time each week that isn’t tied to research? Umm… I don’t think so.

If you really love research, then isn’t it okay to do it as a hobby?

Here’s what I’ve never understood about the “work-life balance” concept: Is not “work” a part of your “life?” Haven’t we academics argued for many decades that what makes our job cool is that we get to do exactly what we enjoy doing, and we can choose how we do it?

Isn’t my choice to pursue a useful, fun and challenging academic endeavor part of my own life? By trying to create a balance between “work” and “life,” then doesn’t that make work something we do when we are not fully living?

I reject the work-life dichotomy that governs thinking about how academics decide how to invest time into their research.

It seems to me that the methods to achieve “work-life balance” don’t seem to entirely add up.

I don’t want any work-life balance. I want the scale to be tilted to 100% “life.” My job is one of the few that allow me to do that.

When I’m doing research, when I’m mentoring students, and when I’m teaching, I don’t want to have that always placed into the “work” box because it’s part of my life.

At least some of us in academia have argued is that the job is wonderful specifically because the things we do for the job can have personal meaning, tangibly change the world and other people’s lives, and are often enjoyable. That’s something I shoot for. That’s a part of my life. Yes, it’s a source of employment, but I refuse to put it in the “work” box separate from my life.

How about we just shoot for “life balance?”  For some of us, that means “research-family-health balance.” For others, it’s “university-family-pet” balance.  Maybe it’s “university-political activism-family” balance for some of you.

My wife and kid matter everything to me, and as a corollary, so do my own health and happiness for their sake. That means that I can’t do research, teach, (and blog), in a manner that isn’t good for any of us. In all of my decisions about research, teaching and anything else about my employment, all of my decisions take them into account first, as well as myself.

Does my job demand that I spend a huge amount of time on teaching and research? Yes. But I happen to love it, and that’s why I took this job.

Does my job require me to do more teaching and research than is needed for me to have a balanced life? Not at all. Does anybody expect this level of work from me? Maybe, but if they do, I can tell them where they can stick their outrageous expectations.

I am not employed by my University in the summertime. I’m not on their payroll. That means that my summer is mine.  How am I spending it? Mostly on research, and mentoring student research. And a little teaching about ants. At the moment I’m on vacation, and enjoying it tremendously. I’m writing this for fun. I’m not writing it for my career. Is this “work?” Maybe, but that my job is one in which I don’t wish to create that work vs. life dichotomy.

How the heck can I have “life balance” if I’m writing this while away on vacation? Well, the spectacular setting and circumstances in which I’m writing makes it quite possible.

Maybe the phrase “work-life balance” is just a label. However, labels matter. If we academics do start to see our research and teaching as mere “work” in our own lives then we may have lost one of the few benefits that are tied to the profession. I’ll be the first one to point out that my employer is only entitled to about forty hours per week from me, and I’ll also probably be one of the first to exceed the forty-per-week mark partway through the week, if I have the opportunity.

Is it your right to consider a faculty job as a source of employment, to take a paycheck and perform your job description within forty hours per week? Definitely. I just enjoy it enough that I want to sneak in more when I have the chance. And when I do more “work” than necessary, I don’t worry that my life is becoming unbalanced. I’m just having fun.

Changing families are behind the decline of field station culture


The title of this post is more of a working hypothesis than an assertion. I put together a few observations I’ve made over the last month and this idea fell together.

Overall, there has been a steady decline in the pursuit of biological research involving long-term field research that relies upon a deep understanding of natural history. This is a well-recognized phenomenon among ecologists and evolutionary biologists. There are many potential causes, but here is one associated phenomenon:

A great variety of biological field stations throughout North and Central America have experienced a decline in research activity. At least, it seems to me, that many field stations have stagnated or shrunk, while the number of scientists has grown.

I’ve spent time in a variety of field stations, some with long histories that boast tremendous records of scientific productivity and discovery. The scientific progress at these sites was enabled by a culture of long-term scientists who have spent their careers working at particular locations in detail, and by bringing generations of students to work at these sites.

This doesn’t happen so much anymore. This was explained well by Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology.

What nearly all of these stations – with some notable exceptions – are missing is a set of senior researchers who are resident on site for long-term doing their field research. Nowadays, senior researchers don’t typically live at field stations for extended periods. Field stations are places where grad students, and maybe postdocs, work long-term. Undergraduates spend summers at field stations doing research and taking field courses, but at most field stations the faculty aren’t there for too long.

Without the consistent presence of senior researchers field stations do not serve as social and academic hubs like they have in the past. The emergent benefits from the field station as a thriving academic community, located in an active working site for field biologists, have diminished, if not fizzled.

Why has this happened? I think the answer is simple. Field biologists are no longer men whose spouses can stay at home with the kids all summer, or join them in the field to take care of the kids all summer. Decades ago, field stations that housed long-term senior researchers had trailing spouses who cared for all non-scientific matters, or had spouses who stayed at home and didn’t need to work for income.

All of us, regardless of gender, are now expected to support our families with a full combination of income, time, and direct parental care. I cannot be – nor do I want to be – the spouse that goes off to a field station while my spouse is required to tag along, or while my spouse stays at home. Either scenario requires me abdicating my responsibility as a parent. This summer, I’ve been away from my kid for almost a total of a month, over three trips, and that’s too much in my opinion. My situation isn’t different from many other biologists who are also parents, who have spouses who can’t drop everything during the field season.

I think my idea is reinforced, when considering the field stations that have maintained an active culture of long-term senior researchers. I haven’t worked there myself, but I’ve heard a lot about Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL), in southwestern Colorado. There is a large group of senior researchers who live on station full-time during the summer. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that nearly all of the senior researchers that work at RMBL have two parents that are both conducting research on site. So, there may be kids living on station, and these kids have two parents to juggle childcare together. Perhaps there are also senior researchers that have particularly flexible spouses or who are single. This seems to be a relatively unique scenario at RMBL, a special community that serves as home to two-career academic families over the summertime.

Another field station that has long-term senior researchers is Barro Colorado Island (BCI), part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. What makes BCI unique is that the Smithsonian employs many full-time research scientists whose job is to conduct research, often in BCI and the local environs. Other research stations don’t fully pay a big scientific staff to conduct research on site. However, it’s my understanding that the academic environment on BCI has atrophied a bit, with much of the community shifting to the little town of Gamboa, which hosts the launch site for the regular boat to BCI. Because working on BCI is pricier for long-term researchers, and Gamboa offers are more community for families, many researchers set up shop in town and may only occasionally visit BCI. Most of the senior researchers that live in Gamboa for longer periods are employed to work on site full-time. I suspect that senior researchers from universities abroad typically don’t work in Panama for longer periods, because of the same concerns about parenting.

If we want to promote long-term research in the field by senior scientists, then perhaps we could make sure that field biologists marry one another. Perhaps we could sterilize all field biologists.

I don’t have any practical recommendation about how to make sure that senior scientists spend more time in the field, which I do think would be good for science.

The field station where I work, La Selva Biological Station, constructed family housing more than 20 years ago, to accommodate scientists bringing their children. (I made use of this feature this summer for a couple weeks.) However, that can’t get me to live on station for the whole summer. While my kid could come along, my spouse isn’t going to drop her life to watch me at a field station all summer. I’m not going to take my kid away from my spouse for the whole summer and hire someone to care for him while I do science. The family housing can make me stay a little longer, but it can’t work for long periods.

The emergence of field stations in the United States happened during a time when most senior researchers were men who had spouses who handled the non-scientific aspects of their lives. Those times are gone. I don’t lament the change, but it does mean that field stations are less like to become long-term homes to senior scientists.

While I’d love to be at my field station all summer, I love my family infinitely more.

Am I less of a biologist by spending less than the whole summer in the field? Yes, I think that might be the case. However, my short visits to the field station make me more of a parent and more of a spouse. If there has to be a scientist/parent tradeoff, the parent side will always win out.

Note: I am writing this post while teaching a field course on Ants of the Southwest. Two of the course faculty are mothers, with their <2 year-old kids and non-ant spouses joining us on station. This bodes well.

Also, as an aside, here’s another prescription for helping improve the academic culture at field stations: shut off the damn internet between 8pm and 10pm. Lots of smart and interesting people hide with electronic devices when they could be interacting with one another.

Working with my dad at a field station (guest post)


DSC04136This is a guest post by Bruce McGlynn, my 9-year-old kid who came with me to Costa Rica for a couple weeks while I was conducting fieldwork and supervising students.

The first (and earliest) reason that I came to the rainforest is because my dad was telling me how I would be going to Costa Rica in three years. So I said, “Why are you planning so far ahead?”  Well, I found my answer. Three years from then is now. And I’m in Costa Rica at this moment. The second reason is that it’s awesome. You can’t get around that.

Next, I planned some plans and the planned plans were planned to be planned out here. Or I planned it to be. 1. Ocelot (not yet) 2. Photos. 3. Peccaries!!!! (check) Yes, I love peccaries. They don’t have tails! Doesn’t that blow your mind?

The thing repeated most often to me is “What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen so far?” The answer is everything. Not everything I have pictures of were good, so I’m not showing those.

There was a sloth hanging off of a bridge. There were flies and moths hovering around him. There also was a troop of howler monkeys eating leaves. They had four toddler howler monkeys, just able to climb by themselves. It was very cute.

Here’s the pictures I took.







Juggling summer parenting and research


Some people think that when kids are old enough to go to school, that parents get more time available to them.

For US academics, the opposite is true. Most scientists lose time for research when their kids transition into kindergarten.

Preschool is, or can be, year-round. However, once kids get beyond preschool, K-12 education takes a huge break in summertime. In summer, you’ve got a childcare issue smack in the middle of time when you aren’t teaching and is best for field research, travel and focusing on long-term projects.

Of course, summer is also arguably the best time to play outside with your kids, travel as a family, and hang out with friends for barbeques and stuff like that.

Today was my kid’s last day of school until late August. I get to spend more time with him, but also, this is a challenge for getting research done.

What can you do with your kids who are out of school?

  • stay with the kids and have fun playing with them
  • stay with the kids and attempt to work on occasion
  • enlist your kids as research participants
  • sign the kids up for day camp
  • ship your kids away to faraway camp for the whole summer
  • share your kids with extended family and friends
  • release the kids into the neighborhood village
  • go on vacation with your kids

How both parents make a living matters a lot. If one parent has a stereotypical weekday job, with some weeks of vacation, then the academic-job parent may end up spending a lot more time with the kids in the summer, but there are constraints on travel and recreation because of one parent’s job.

If both parents are academics, then there’s a lot of flexibility in the summer, but there also is a need for both parents to be able to focus on research and find a way to care for the kids. I suppose tag-teaming could work, but for the whole summer?

I know many couples that have an academic spouse and another that works consulting or some other gig that could be flexible and maybe even part-time. That lends itself to a variety of possibilities. And then there are those of us academics who have a full-time partner at home. That isn’t a carefree existence, but flexibility and planning for childcare and travel does sound a lot easier.

This much is the case, regardless of your situation: You just can’t take a full summer off if you have an active research agenda. You’ve got to work, at least part of the time, and you’ve got to do something with your out-of-school kid during that time.

How have I handled this with my family, over the years?

When my kid was a baby: I was parenting full-time and stopped research for several months.

When my kid was in preschool: As a field biologist, I’ve got to get into the field. This was easy enough to do, when my spouse could deliver the kid to preschool when she was working. A couple times, my family traveled to my field site (which happens to be a big vacation destination as well) and we then traveled around. We also took vacations elsewhere, sometimes around an international conference in a cool place to visit.

When my kid is on K-12 summer vacation: In previous years, I would be free from the university for almost a month before he got out of school. This was a perfect time to go to my field site with students to get research projects started. Then, I’d come home as my kid was getting out of school, and then it would be a mix of the options above. Some weeks, he’d be in camp. Some, he’d be with me. One week per summer, he’s out of town spending quality time with my spouse’s mom. We also would travel on a genuine vacation.

This summer: I went to the field for a couple weeks while my kid was finishing school. Then, I came back from the field, and I am taking him out to be my technician/assistant/collaborator. I have a few projects with which we can work together and get real stuff done. He’s 9 years old, and I don’t expect full long days in the rainforest conducting meticulous measurements, but we’re going to work together and hang out for a couple weeks, and my kid will be a real scientist by the time he’s done.

My students are already established in their projects, though I imagine they still want more input and participation from me to some level. So, I’ll be busy with mentoring my students, but this is also the first field season in which I’ll be truly combining research and parenting.

Once I return my kid from the field, then he’s at camp for a couple weeks while I am attending a conference and joining a working group, and then I’ve got a week with my kid, then I teach a field course, and then we go on a genuine vacation as a family for a few weeks, and then school starts back up. It took a lot of planning. I’m dizzy and the summer has only started.

Despite all the work in the summer, I am committed to spending some time traveling on vacation to somewhere new, as a family, whenever we can. (That can be expensive and difficult, but much of that is fixed by doing a home exchange.) My priority, in every decision I make, is the happiness, fun and well-being of my kid and spouse. Trying to make that compatible with everything else is the hard part.

How’s your summer juggle? Do you have a set routine or do you have to plan every summer differently? Do you get even half as much done as you hope to get done?

On gender, parenting and academic careers


It used to happen all the time. I’d be out in public, with my son, at the grocery store, zoo or bagel shop. A friendly person would ask,

Babysitting today?

And I want to punch someone. Or punch something else. Or cry.

Instead, I grit my teeth, and reply with masked fury, in a moderately loud and determined voice:

I am not babysitting. I am parenting. This is my own son. We do this all the time.

Then, I mutter under my breath:


I don’t get this remark anymore, now that my kid is approaching ten years of age. Instead, I can see that when I’m hanging out with my kid on a Saturday morning, folks could be jumping to a couple other conclusions. One might be that I have partial custody and am getting in “quality time,” or that I’m letting mom sleep in because she’s worked so hard parenting during the week. They might not jump to these conclusions. But one that is less likely is the truth, is that I’m parenting while my spouse is working.

I regularly get asked about my field research. I go to one place in the rainforest for weeks at a time, during which I am supervising students, working in the field and lab, and am generally really busy.

Do you take your wife down with you?

What is odd, is that people rarely ask if she joins me. They ask if I’m taking her. I do take students down. But if my wife were to go, I wouldn’t be “taking” her. She’d be making the time to come along. I think, “She’s not a possession for me to bring along as I please wherever I go. We both have things to do you know.” Instead, I reply:

No, she’s busy working. I don’t think she can blow so much time to go to watch me work or to volunteer as my field tech. Also, someone has to take our kid to school and feed him, so I’m rather grateful to her to cover for me while I’m gone. She has come down a few times, for some vacation before or after my work, though we’d rather vacation somewhere new when we have the chance. Actually, this summer my kid’s coming along for a couple weeks and I’m looking forward to that.

I’m more inclined to give people a free pass, because most people — even other scientists — can’t really imagine what it’s like down at the field station where I work, nor what I do from moment to moment. Nevertheless, it does seem absurd that someone would think my wife could just drop everything and join me as an accessory.

The bottom line is that If I was a woman, nobody would be asking me if I “take my husband” to the rainforest while I was working. Nobody would ask me if I was “babysitting” my own child if they saw me with him in a jogging stroller at the zoo.

These remarks don’t make me a victim of bias, other than the fact that I find them annoying. These remarks actually have the false presumption that I am the beneficiary of bias.

The unfortunate truth is that these mistaken assumptions have a real basis. Why do I really want to punch someone when they ask if I’m babysitting? Because most of the other guys at the grocery store with their kids probably are babysitting their own children.

Many families that I know well have one parent employed full-time, with the other part-time or not at all. In those cases, the division of parenting and household labor makes sense. In dual-career couples, though, it’s far too often that the guy ends up not holding up his end of the marital bargain.

I don’t know if my wife would tolerate it if I didn’t do my fair share of parenting. She presumably would be annoyed, but if I just abdicated my responsibility, then she would have no choice to pick up the slack. It would be the same the other way around, if she didn’t do her share of the parenting then I would have to.

This is the book I'm reading with my kid now, from a 1927 edition. The token role of fathers in their children's lives has always been important to their development

This is title page of the book that I’m reading with my kid now, from a 1927 printing. Even back then, the token role of fathers in their children’s lives was promoted, perhaps even more robustly than in today’s parenting culture that still emphasizes the role of mothers over fathers.

In our culture, in dual-career couples, many fathers feel perfectly free to let the mothers do more than their fair share. This rarely happens the other way around.

I don’t look at the arc of history and see the need for systemic progress. It would be great if our jobs made more accommodations for working families and the entire NSF work-life balance agenda is great. But this is not the root of the problem, and you can’t fix it by simply giving women more slack or more time or more money. Those fixes just make it less worse.

I see individual people making bad decisions. I see men who choose work over family voluntarily, and I also see some women who step in and parent without giving their spouses the opportunity to carry the load.  The problem starts once a dual-career family lets one spouse assume more responsibility than the other one.

In my family, we’re not equal, but I think we are equivalent. I have to admit that I rarely do our laundry. On the other hand, I spend an equivalent amount of time cooking. I would hope that if a behaviorist were scoring my house with an ethogram, that we’d come out relatively even with respect to domestic duties. The number of nights that I’m out for social affairs or volunteering match hers. (I do teach nights a couple times per week, though that often means that I get other mornings and evenings. It evens out.)

More importantly, we come out equivalent on parenting. I hold this as a point of pride, but it really should not be a point of pride. It should be the status quo, at least when both parents are working as much as the other.

The fact is that women are doing more parenting than their spouses, in most dual-career couples. This is not caused by biology or by the system. It’s caused by individual men screwing up.

I am tired of the trope that biological differences between genders makes women expend more time parenting than men. For most academic work (aside from dealing with reagents, and some fieldwork, and rare medical complications), women are capable of working for nearly the entire time they are pregnant. A few weeks after giving birth, women are as physiologically capable of working as men. The one factor that continues is milk production. However, pumping can often work well and formula isn’t exactly evil. (For what it’s worth, my wife went back to work full time after six weeks and we never spent a dime on formula.)

The only biological difference that causes women to parent more is that men might be more likely to be born as jerks that let their wives’ careers suffer because they are inadequate parents.

Just because women are the producers of milk, shouldn’t that mean that men can just as easily step up to the plate and contribute in other ways?

Especially in academia, men have plenty of latitude to do their fair share of parenting compared to other careers because it’s so flexible. Women partnered with someone working a typical non-academic inflexible job also can get lots of spousal support, from a partner that is available to cover mornings, evenings and weekends.

I essentially took six months off to parent full-time, aside from Tuesdays when Grandma stepped in for us. Did this hurt my career? Actually, it did. I was at a Catholic university at the time, and my male Dean expressed concern about my request for paid parental leave (as clearly specified in faculty handbook), because that was intended only for mothers and not fathers. He told me that he understood my dilemma because he had five children of his own and he never missed a day of work. That conversation was not good for my career.

My point is that there is no inherent biological reason that mothers, more than fathers, may have more negative repercussions at their work because of parenting, because both are equally capable of doing so. There may be sexist reasons that transcend scheduling and effort, like I experienced, but that’s not going to stop me from doing my job as a parent.

(As a side note, have you ever looked inside Parenting magazine? It should be renamed Mothering magazine. There is always a column about fathers, but it is always, without exception, about how women can convince their husbands to do something like change a diaper once in a blue moon or do bedtime reading.)

The only biological difference that makes women parent more is that some men are assholes. These men don’t fulfill their duties to their spouses or they demonstrably care less about raising their families on a day to day basis.

If you tell me that women have more problems at work because of they have more parenting obligations than their spouses, then I tell you: their spouses are doing it wrong. And the women are doing it wrong because they’re accepting less than 50% from their spouses.

As you can tell, I get mad when gender is conflated with work-life balance issues. This is probably a chip on my shoulder from being a dad and spouse that did his fair share, in an environment where this is a rarity.

If you want to fix the dual-career couple inequity issue with respect to parenting, the first step is to tell women to not marry men who don’t parent enough. Women should not be spending more time parenting than their partners if they’re both living in the same house and both working full time. How many times and ways do I have to write this? Apparently, it is a lot, because it doesn’t seem like anybody else is saying it.

Of course, in our country there is so little systemic support, from the government, our own workplaces and our extended families, that we have a greater stress placed on working parents overall. This is not a gender issue, it’s a parenting issue.

If a married woman says that she has a greater challenge at her job because of the time demands of parenting, then she needs to hear that the problem is not the system, it’s her spouse. The problem might be her spouse’s boss, but I’m not convinced that this is a rampant problem. Perhaps this should be the main problem, but right now it isn’t.

I avoid these conversations because I it never has ended well when I’ve told a guy that he needed to spend more time parenting. And I don’t have the temerity to tell a woman that she picked a crappy husband who isn’t willing to accept 50% of the parenting load. (Now, I can just tell people to read my blog post about it and be done with it.) I’m not sure how to implement change when the necessary change requires individual responsibility on the part of others. We can raise sensitive males that understand their roles as partners. Hopefully, I’m doing that by example.

For me, it’s not a problem, because hanging out with my kid is the best thing in the world. I can’t conceive how a man would think otherwise about his own kids. I was lucky that my academic career gave me the flexibility to shut down my research program for a spell, so that I could be at home with my baby. (This I could do because I was at a teaching institution. With a big lab, and pressure for grants and pubs, it wouldn’t have happened that way, and daycare would have started earlier or we would have relied on extended family, both of which also would be fine options.) If I didn’t have that flexibility, I wouldn’t demand it of my wife. We’d solve it together, and it wouldn’t involve sacrificing her career.

There are substantial issues involving sexism in the sciences and academia, independent of parenting. That’s a separate issue, and one that I’m not addressing here. Perhaps I’m addressing it by claiming overtly that it is a separate issue — that parenting should not be a gender issue, and it’s only an issue in dual-career families in which the man is a wretched bum.

Every time I see a story or hear a person remark, “it’s great and inspiring that this woman can be a scientist and a parent” I get mad. You know what? That statement can apply to me, too, aside from the fact that I’m a man. I do just as much parenting as my spouse. My “success” or the lack thereof, that is tied to my status as a parent and a researcher, should represented in equal measure as it is for female scientists. (This would be different, of course, for single parents or those who have demonstrably jerky husbands.)

If you think that notion isn’t broadly applicable to all men, that’s because you think that many male scientists with kids are deadbeats. I might agree with you on that. The father-scientists I’m working with now seem to be dedicated and supportive of both their kids and their spouses, but that’s not the norm. My non-academic father friends are also doing their 50%, or their share depending on the family employment situation, but then again, I feel like I can’t relate to most guys, in part because of a fundamental difference in values. I can accept that some guys would be nuts for basketball, or have a specific religious belief, or drive a fuel-inefficient vehicle. But not parent 50%? That’s a dealbreaker.

If a man says that his full-time job doesn’t allow him the time or flexibility to do what needs to be done as a parent, and that’s why his wife is doing more parenting, I call bullshit. A woman would never say that she is incapable of doing what is necessary to be a good parent. A man should never be able to get away with saying something like that.

That just means that you don’t have the courage to tell your work that you prioritize your family over the job, and it means that you’re letting your wife do that and take the damage to her career as a result. That’s cowardice.

If there’s going to be a change, then men have to stop being cowards and start parenting. Men can address this problem by accepting the same career risks of parenting that are being endured by their partners. Until that happens, any progress is a mirage.

Class duration and time for research


If you had total control, how would you block your teaching time?

Would you want classes to meet frequently for short periods of time, or infrequently but for a long stretch each time? What is good for your research? What is good for the students? Are the two mutually compatible?

One end of the continuum (the block system aside) is having classes meet 3-5 days per week, plus a lab. When I was in college, my intro science classes met in the mornings, 5 days per week, for an hour, over 10 weeks.

At the other end of the continuum is where I am teaching now. Most daytime classes are either MW or TTh, so they meet for 1.5 hours twice per week. There are almost no MWF classes. Since most faculty teach four courses per semester, this presents enough flexibility so that scheduling is not impossible, though I feel deep sympathy for the chairs that have to schedule.

We also have a many classes that meet in the evenings, as I teach on a commuter campus. Plenty of them meet once per week, for three hours. My teaching load has included these for the last few years.

Tonight, after my kid already gets home from school, I’m teaching for three hours. I only see these students once per week. This semester I do this on two nights per week. I miss evening activities with my kid, but it does lead to having more time with him at other moments, including my being able to pick him up from school those other days. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I’m available for parenting the evenings I’m not teaching, and my spouse sometimes has weekend commitments. I think it evens out during the semester, in terms of parental effort.

How do feel about it, in terms of my research opportunity? I’m liking it a lot. On most days, I have massive blocks of time that I can protect to allocate to time-consuming tasks. It’s great. I also don’t have to rush into campus those days, and I can take care of business at home. It also leads to an expectation that I might not be on campus in the day, if I am there in the evening.

How does it work out pedagogically? At first I was reluctant and concerned that it wouldn’t work out. After doing the same class several times, I’ve been converted to this schedule. First of all, preparing for a class is three times as much work, though that also is less frequent. That’s something to take into account. But assuming that you’re prepared, how does it affect learning? I think it’s a net gain. Actually, putting my own schedule aside, I’d structure all of my classes to meet in a 3-hour stretches on a weekly basis instead of more frequent lectures.

Why do I think this time format is better? Because active learning requires focus and depth. I was reluctant to teach these long infrequent classes because, let’s face it, after three hours of lecture your mind is pulp. You’re exhausted and parched, and the students are on overload. All lecture audiences slow down after 20 minutes.

Once I learned how to stop lecturing, and to teach using other approaches, we have time to learn much more deeply when we’re together. And I have enough experience running a classroom to keep students accountable in the intervening week, so that their brains don’t shut off during that time span. I realize that it’s nearly impossible, at least in the short term, to shift class schedules around for many political and practical reasons. This is, though, a good thought exercise to think about what’s best when you do have the choice.

Grad students in the sciences who teach for a living learn to balance their time while teaching long class sessions. Usually, grad students are teaching the lab sections. I taught three 3-hour sections per week to get my TA wage (for a wage around the poverty line) in grad school. So, that’s not that different from what I’m doing now as faculty. If grad students with TAships have time for a dissertation, then if faculty plan well they should have plenty of time for research.

If you’re lecturing, I think short classes are best, or least bad, for the students, because the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to absorb lectures for long stretches, even when they are engaging. But if you’ve abandoned the lecture, then long classes will give you the time to let students consider topics in depth and learn a lot more. And, on the plus side, having classes in big blocks will let you schedule research in big blocks, too.