academic career NOT

Since I wrote the post about interviewing where I discussed whether one should talk about one’s family or not during an interview… I’ve been thinking a lot about this… and about role models, about how having career and family differs for men and women, about my own experience. It feels so odd to talk about this publicly- but people who know me well know that my family is extremely important to me.

If you have read the ‘about me’ tab- you probably realize that I have quite a complicated academic and personal history. That short paragraph looks so tidy on the page- but believe me, it wasn’t like that in real life. I always tried to go forward with the idea of keeping my options open- not closing any doors unnecessarily. Fortunately, I have some wonderful mentors… but I, like so many young women in academia, completely lacked role models. Role models that were women that had children before tenure, and then got tenure… and moved up the ranks. I had an N of 0 in my graduate department and in my field…, and seeing is believing- so it didn’t look good.

What was going through my mind as I was finishing my Ph.D…. academic career or not? I’m going to be perfectly straight with you… academic career NOT. I think this was a combination of at least three factors. First, I was unbelievably burned out on bench science toward the end of graduate school. What’s to say about this- it happens to some, and it was exhausting to me. The two female grad students that had graduated from the lab before me- were both struggling with their postdocs- and they didn’t have children….

Second, my older daughter was born during my final year of graduate school. Was this planned? Maybe. As well as you can ever plan anything like this… Did I think at the time about how this might negatively impact my career over the long term? Not really. I suppose at the time I thought that the chances of me having an academic career were so remote, that the joy of starting a family didn’t feel like it was interfering with anything. But I am going to be brutally honest with you here- I don’t think I would have let my career- even an academic career stop me from moving forward with this part of my life.

Third, no role models- so I couldn’t imagine how someone like me, a woman and with a baby at this early stage- could make it as an academic scientist. It just seemed like this career was off limits to me. I couldn’t envision myself doing this job.

After I finished my Ph.D. I had two years of veterinary school left to finish before I had to make some decisions about the direction of my career. These two years brought their own share of difficulty, (4th year of vet school can be back breaking, and with a small child and DrMrA just starting out in his first faculty position), but they gave me time to reevaluate a few things about myself, my skills, my training and my goals. The timing of this break was actually very fortunate- and seeing the time ahead when a fusion of my basic science training and my clinical training would be synergistic was highly motivating.

Up there I said that I felt odd talking publicly about this- but maybe if I share these experiences with you- and you are struggling through some of the same decisions… you will be able to envision yourself doing this. Seeing is believing… right?

Just FYI- Dr. Free Ride over at Adventures in Ethics and Science wrote a series about academic career and family some time ago which I have only just come upon ( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4…), and Candid Engineer has a recent post about her thoughts about choosing an academic career.


12 thoughts on “academic career NOT

  1. Burn-out at the end of the PhD is very common. By the end of my PhD, I was convinced that I was not going to continue in academia and, in fact, began an entire new non-scientific profession immediately after graduating. I only returned to academic science three years later.

  2. PP- Just out of curiosity what was your non-scientific profession… if you don’t mind me asking- and what prompted you to return?

  3. Thanks for posting this. I’m hoping to graduate from grad school in another year or two and am beginning to wonder what the heck am I going to do? It’s encouraging to read someone who is balancing life and academia.

  4. Amanda-

    Thanks for reading. It is my hope that people like you and people like me can learn from each other….

    When I was home after the birth of my first child (and this may seem totally unrelated but its not) I felt amazingly isolated- all my friends/colleagues were working… once I figured out that I wasn’t the only woman (esp. working woman) who had ever given birth, and I sought out others with experiences like me… things got A LOT better.

    This career stuff is the same thing- you are not the only one who has ever struggled with where to go next after graduate school. There are lots of us… we just have to seek each other out.

  5. Hi, Blue Lab, as you write in response to Amanda – we are not alone and we need to seek each other out. As we ask for change so that we don’t have to decide between family and career, the more choices there may be – if not for us – then for our daughters (and sons.)

    I’ve just completed a project – a collection of 34 personal essays written by women scientists balancing family and career in many different ways – which we hope will help to initiate these kinds of conversations. That there are many different ways to do science, and ways to evaluate one’s contribution to science.

    If you’re interested, the book is Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory:women scientists speak out, published by Cornell Press. For more info see

  6. Great post…I think the “role model” model of growing scientists is greatly underestimated….for me, I honestly think I’m one of the (few) chicks still standing in my area of research because of lots of subliminal messages I didn’t realize I absorbed until much later. Namely, my high school AP science teachers were largely women. Math too. My high school English and History teachers were largely men. Seriously, in 4 years of English I had one female teacher, and I never had a female History teacher. Onto college, and I had two female engineering professors. Coincidence? I think not. I think I shall write a post about this. Hmmm….

    I like the blue lab coat :).

  7. bikemonkey-

    I don’t know… that’s something you may have to ask him privately… although I’m sure the freedom to use more novel and creative language in blog format had something to do with it!

    Phizzledizzle- Thank you for your kind words. I don’t recall EVER having had a science or math teacher in public school- that was a woman. One thing I was fortunate enough to have though- were parents who did not lay out biases about what types of careers were for men and what types of career were for women… and an uncle and aunt (who I am close to) who were a two career professional couple… on equal footing I guess you might say… with two kids.

  8. A comment a little late, but I’d like to say a few things…

    Great post.

    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now (for some reason I missed this post up until now.. shame on me) and I’d like to let you know I consider you a role model.

    I’m torn right now trying to figure out weither to go the vet school and/or grad school route. I feel like I’m getting nowhere in making up my mind and some days its a little frustrating.

    On top of that, most (around 98% or so) of the professors I’ve worked/interacted with have been male (including an guy with a PhD/DVM) and sometimes its hard relating to them.

    Thanks for keeping an awesome blog!

  9. Eugenie- You are very kind, I hope that this blog can give back to you the benefits of some of my experiences- some of which have been isolating- and some of which have been just amazingly exciting in the science itself. I myself did not know any D.V.M., Ph.D.s until I did a short stint in big pharma where I met more of them in a few weeks than I had met in my entire life up until that point. I found graduate school and veterinary school to be very different- almost one extreme to the other. Perhaps I should post about this at some point. If I forget to do that, just send me a quick email and remind me to do it!

  10. I will do… I’ve love to hear your take. I pesterd the DVM/PhD I worked with over the semester about what his perceived differences where, and well he wasn’t too helpful.

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