Is it possible that you’re spending too much time on research? If you wish, that’s a question that you can ask yourself. It’s not really my business*.
I just got back home from a few weeks of fieldwork in the rainforest. Most of the science I’ve done over the years has been based out of a smallish patch of land in Costa Rica: La Selva Biological Station. It’s a special place.
There’s a lot to be said for becoming intimate with just one place, to develop ideas and make discoveries that wouldn’t be made by those just passing through.
This week I am officially unemployed. What does life as an unemployed academic look like? Well, in the first place not so very different from an employed one.
Sweden has a long school break so we’re just getting back into the swing of things here (read the kid is back at school). This is also the first week that I am officially without a contract and have to face the reality that came with grant decisions in November. But work as an academic doesn’t really stop when the money does. I have two masters students and a PhD to see through their defences this year so at the very least, I will continue to help them with their research and writing. Of course I also have a bunch of unfinished projects that I would like to invest in and get published. All this adds up to me doing lots of things that I would normally do as a part of my job.
When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.
It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.
The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine.
There are a couple facts that make regular exercise an obvious choice:
- Exercise makes you healthy and happy.
- Exercise helps you focus and get more work done, even after you subtract the time spent on exercise.
Those two things are definitely true for me.
Nonetheless, historically I’ve done a crappy job of getting regular exercise.
A few months ago I got a Fitbit, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is basically a step counter. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while to help me motivate my exercise and keep my work-life balance somewhat on track. Perhaps symptomatic of not managing the balance, it took me awhile to get around to deciding what to get and actually buying it. Luckily for me, in the mean time, my husband bought one as a present and now I get to obsess about how many steps I take in a day.
At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it.
A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.
The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me?
It’s easier to get work done if we use time efficiently and work to stay healthy. If I had to give a recommendation for something that can help out with those two things, near the top of the list would be: use a pressure cooker.
Don’t have time to cook a real dinner? With a pressure cooker, you do. If I sound like an infomercial, it’s only because I really am that enthusiastic about spreading the Good Word of pressure cooking.
By Sarah Bisbing
I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure.
Last month we traveled as a family to Corsica for a real honest to goodness vacation. We spent days on the beach and exploring medieval towns. It was mostly sunny and warm and relaxing.
But…I did bring my computer. I had minor heart palpitations when I realised that the cottage we were staying in did not come with internet but it helped me actually have a vacation. I was reduced down to a few hurried email sessions at cafes or restaurants where I answered the most critical emails and sent off a few promised items. I worked a little on a paper I’m currently facing down a deadline for but not nearly enough to make this week back to work a breeze. So I vacationed but I didn’t truly drop everything. I rarely do. Some might find this a horrid part of the job—flexible enough to always follow you around but for others that is some of the joy of academic life.
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.
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).
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.
My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.
Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.
You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.
So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.
To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.
But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.
So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.
So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.
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.
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.
Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job. Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.
As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.
I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.
The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.
I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.
As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.
Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.
Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)
Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.
How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)
It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.
I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.
At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.
Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?
Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.
Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:
So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.
I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.
How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.
I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.
It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.
I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.
I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.
I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.
I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.
I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.
Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.
I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.
Several weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)
The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.
Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.
The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.
Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.
As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.
Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.
Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.
If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.
I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.
I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.
On any given day, we don’t have to work as much as we usually do. A lot needs to be done, but a lot of this is set to a schedule that we prescribe for ourselves. For example, in a few weeks I have a grant deadline. But I don’t have to work on it today. I didn’t need to work on it yesterday, and I don’t need to work on it tomorrow. Because I’m taking vacation.
I am checking email a few times per day in case some huge problem emerges. And I’m sending a couple last-minute rec letters out. And I’m not neglecting editorial duties for those who managed to get their manuscripts and revisions out before they went on their own holidays. But otherwise, I’m on vacation.
I’m writing this post, well, because this site isn’t my job.
How are you at not working over the break? Are we collectively responsible at taking a refresher at once in a while, or are we all workaholics?
This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.
Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.
Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.
So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:
- New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
- Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
- Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
- Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.
- Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
- An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
- Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
- Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
- Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.
Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.
*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.
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.
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,
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.
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.