Grad School, Academic Careers, and Babies…

I saw this post over at Isis place this morning, and I have to say I had a couple of strong feelings about it. For those of you that have not read it- commenter Fia forwards questions she’s been asked about the intersection of motherhood and academia:

* Is it reasonable to have children during grad school?
* I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?
* Should I wait until later in my career to have children?
* I just finished grad school and am pregnant now. If I have the child, what are my chance on the job market a year later?

Yikes, that’s a lot of material to answer. But, as you all know I have two children and I’m an academic scientist- so I’ll throw my hard-learned lessons out there in case you are interested.  A little background first, my older daughter was born while I was doing my thesis work, and my younger daughter was born while I was doing my post-doctoral training, so I’ve been in all the different possible stages of motherhood and academic careerdom. From my perspective, I tended to worry a lot about how I would care for young children while in the early parts of my training, just assuming that things would get easier as the children grew older. I can tell you that as the children get older things don’t really get easier- but the kinds of tasks that you are doing for and with the children change, but they don’t lessen in amount or time commitment (with the possible exception of when the kids go to college themselves, but we are not there yet). Anyway, I digress, let’s start with this:

* Is it reasonable to have children during grad school?

Hmm. Well, as someone who had children during grad school, I’d have to say yes. Is it stressful? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it reasonable? I suppose that depends on your definition of reasonable.  In my experience people who are highly motivated to do their best at both these tasks, can handle this.

* I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?

WOW, just WOW. To me the decision whether or not to bear a child and start a family should be based on whether or not one wants to be a parent. Period. If the answer to that question is yes, then you just figure out how to work around everything else. Is it going to be tough? Yes. Is it going to be stressful? Yes. Can it be done- OH FOR SURE!

* Should I wait until later in my career to have children?

Having kids and an academic career isn’t easy no matter what stage you choose to have the children, unless perhaps, you wait until after you have tenure. In my opinion and experience, there is no perfect time to have children- vanishingly rare are the cases where you can plan exactly what events you want in your life and have them happen exactly when you want them to happen. Waiting until later in one’s career, like maybe after you have tenure,  comes with a whole different set of problems, including, but not limited to the fact, that this will likely take you into your 40s when fertility declines precipitously. So, decide what your priorities are- if being a parent is a priority in your life- … then learn to live with the fact that there is no perfect timing for this.

* I just finished grad school and am pregnant now. If I have the child, what are my chance on the job market a year later?

First, it is totally impossible to know what your chances are on the job market are a year in advance- REGARDLESS of whether or not you have children. Second and more importantly, your chances on the job marked should be related only to your qualifications and past performance on the job, and not to whether or not you have children! Goodness. I’ve never EVER heard a man say something like that, and it pains me to see that we women still feel we should have this conversation.

Any more questions?

(and Fia, I’m totally and completely hurt that I wasn’t included in your list of sciencey-parenty-academic type goddesses… sniff, …. SOB)

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16 thoughts on “Grad School, Academic Careers, and Babies…

  1. On the last question-
    My SO pointed out I’d have more trouble getting a job with a kid and that wouldn’t apply to him. I was incredibly annoyed with him, but I tried not to take it out on him (he’s not a jackass; he doesn’t think this is the way the world *should* be). And we weren’t even talking about being on the job market pregnant- just being on the job market as a woman with children. Maybe we’re wrong and it’s not an issue at all. I sure as hell am not going to let worries about it keep me from trying. But I suspect we’re not alone in having a default assumption that it is a non-trivial disadvantage.

  2. My very sincere excuses. To my defense, I had you in but then I ran out of cool goddesses. You’d be Athena, too. And, given your response here, you should be top of the list, actually. Thank you very much!

    I think the *abortion* question was posed in this way because the original women was still in first shock mode about discovering to be pregnant, and didn’t think about what she was writing (she decided to keep it). OTOH, when relatively young (22yrs) and having the chance on a (well-payed) PhD position at a top-class institution, it is valid to consider all options.

  3. I took the last question as wondering whether taking a year off to have a baby between grad school and getting a job would hurt your chances on the job market, not whether having a child/children would hurt your chances. I’ve wondered that myself–how hard is it to get back into the academic science job marked after taking time off between grad school and a post doc or between post doc and faculty position? It seems to me it would be next to impossible, but I’d love to see what people further in their career would say.

  4. A note (reminder?) to Becca and others with the question of being in the job market with children. Remember that it is ILLEGAL for potential employers to ask about your family situation. There is no need for potential employers to know if you do or do not have a family, or if you are or are not planning a family. Your professional qualifications should be their only concern. If you are worried about family leave benefits, etc., contact HR or wait until a job offer has been received. While it may be personally difficult to balance a job search with young children, whether or not you have children should not be an issue at all in your interviews. If you are asked about your family, you should kindly decline to talk about it.

  5. Is it reasonable to have children during grad school?
    Yes. This happens all the time.

    I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?
    Not because you’re worried the child will mess up your PhD position.

    Should I wait until later in my career to have children?
    No. It’s not going to get any easier.

    * I just finished grad school and am pregnant now. If I have the child, what are my chance on the job market a year later?
    For a post-doc position? Should be fine.

  6. Fia- Don’t worry, I’m over it. If you only knew how close you were on that goddess, we’d have a good laugh together. I could have my older daughter list off all the Greek Gods/Goddesses for you (it is a hobby of hers)…But- instead I’d be incredibly honored to share goddessdom with FSP.

  7. I’ve wondered that myself–how hard is it to get back into the academic science job marked after taking time off between grad school and a post doc or between post doc and faculty position?

    The former is *much* less of a problem than the latter.

  8. C PP- I agree. I did in fact, take 2 years away from academic science between thesis and postdoc, and it just wasn’t that big of a deal. I would never have tried that between postdoc and TT position.

  9. I was actually on the market with a newborn (#1). I had 2 interviews before #1 was 6 months old. I was nursing, and I asked for 2 20 min breaks in a private room so I could pump. It was stressful. Everyone survived it, though. I didn’t get either job, but I don’t think it was due to the child. (I was applying from outside academia, so I had to learn a lot of things about academic interviewing first hand).

    The next year, I had 3 great offers, picked one, and showed up at my TT job pregnant with #2 (happened faster than expected. Fertility may decline in the late 30’s, but that is a group average!). So far, my dept has been supportive. Then again, one of the things I liked about it when I interviewed was that it seemed really family friendly.

    In terms of academia and family, I don’t think academia is particularly family-unfriendly compared to other high powered careers (think attending, partner at a firm or large medical practice, investment banker, pro musician or athlete, etc). I do think that if you plan to have kids, only one person can have a high powered career unless you are both academics (or have a similarly flexible schedule), live near helpful family, or get very lucky with childcare.

  10. “Remember that it is ILLEGAL for potential employers to ask about your family situation.”

    True, and in the US where maternity leave is but a drop in the ocean compared to the average grad or postdoc duration, the following arguably doesn’t apply.

    However, in countries with very progressive maternity/paternity leave requirements (>9 months) it’s worth considering the position of one’s prospective mentor, particularly if they are junior faculty (someone you would hope to foment a trusting relationship with). If one learns of a pregnancy prior to applying for and accepting a PhD or postdoc position in the UK, for instance, and chooses to withhold this information until after starting work, then legalities aside, it will not be looked on sympathetically. I colleague of mine got burned that way (for a 2 yr postdoc, 9 months is a big deal), and she was STEAMED!

    In that case, honesty is the best policy, because things can potentially be worked out in a manner that will benefit both trainee and mentor, without generating ill-feeling and mistrust.

  11. I am a post-doc on the anemic job market, and I am also very pregnant. Was it ideal for me to be pregnant now and going on interviews in the spring with an infant at home? Probably not. Would I trade being pregnant right now to make my career easier? Definitely not! Frankly, if there are institutions out there that will hold it against me for needing a couple of breaks during the day of my interview to go pump, I don’t want to be a part of their department/institution anyway. I have often heard that there is never a “good time” to have a baby…but somehow people always make it work!

  12. I am a TT faculty, am a family-comes-first person and have been supportive for students and postdocs having problems. And I understand there is no good time to have a baby and it is not easy to wear many hats. BUT, I also think it is unfair for a TT faculty to support pregnancy and shortened work to take care of babies. TT are in the tough battle and all the lab member count, since the size of the lab is small. Losing one postdoc for 4 months for maternity leave and some decreased productivity for 1-2 years… This is a gigantic loss.

    Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

    Excuse my words.

  13. My own experience is that a woman with children may well suffer discrimination. I turned down a job offer that I would have given my eye teeth for, after it became absolutely clear the employer DID NOT WANT a woman with children.

    The upside is that eight months later I am now working on a project with two family friendly people who are also great scientists, so I feel I have ended up with a winner, not a second choice.

  14. Pingback: Grad school and abortion « Volcanista: a magmalicious blog

  15. Pingback: Talking the talk, but not walking the walk. « Blue Lab Coats

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