Monday, August 31, 2009

Casualties of Academia

So I spent the afternoon with a former colleague of mine, who left the tenure track to care for small children. It was a great few hours (and the kids are adorable), and it got me thinking about the demands of this profession and the ways in which it shapes the choices that we (and by "we" here I'm thinking mostly of women) make.

One thing it got me thinking about is the fact that this former colleague isn't the only person I know who left a tenure-track gig with nothing career-wise in the offing. And the people I know who did this weren't slackers. They weren't in immediate danger of failing to earn tenure; they hadn't received negative performance reviews; their teaching evaluations were just fine. Either a situation came up where it would be advantageous for the family to relocate or childcare demands became impossible to manage, particularly given the weirdness of most academic types' schedules, or some combination of these.

And then I got to thinking about the (much larger) number of people whom I knew in grad school who either dropped out before earning the degree or who did finish the PhD but who never pursued t-t employment because they realized that to do so would have a severe impact on their personal life situations (whether it meant they couldn't live in the same place as their partners/kids or it meant that they would have to postpone having partners/kids or both). Again, these people weren't losers, and this wasn't about ability or talent or anything close to that. It was just about a realization (as far as I can tell) that one can't necessarily have it all - that choices need to be made.

And then I think about people like me, who stayed "unencumbered" (a way of putting it that I picked up from BFF about being unmarried and without kids that I just adore and that feels much more positive to me than saying "single" or "child-free" - let alone compared with "old maid" or "childless"), and who have successfully managed the tenure-track dealio, but who, no matter how vibrant our lives are (and mine is vibrant and I've got great friends and I'm a happy person, and probably a lot happier than many who are married and/or with kids) don't have the family piece in place, and not necessarily because we consciously have chosen against those things.

As I think about all these things, I think that they are in many ways three versions of the same thing. This profession forces many of us (though not all, to be sure: as Historiann has noted if one, "gets a wife," that helps a whole lot) to make impossible choices, and choices that are incomprehensible to most of the general public (and most especially to my family and non-academic friends). While it's true that people in all professions need to find ways to balance their personal and professional lives, I don't think that it's true that people in all professions with similar training need to choose so decisively to give up so much. It is true that if I were in law that I might have to make sacrifices in order to do a family and law both. I might need to take a lower-paying job in order to stay geographically planted; I might need to do something with my degree that isn't my One True Passion; I might, even, if I were particularly ambitious, need to uproot my family from a particular location if I wanted to pursue the One True Job for me, but that wouldn't be the only way for me to pursue my profession. If I met someone who lived elsewhere, and I loved them, I wouldn't have to give up my entire profession, even if I did have to give up my current job. It wouldn't be "choose chocolate or vanilla." It wouldn't be, "use your degree" or "leave the profession." It wouldn't be "have a career" or "have a motherfucking life."

I think that all of these choices are made for good reasons. I don't think that choosing to leave a t-t job, not to pursue a t-t job after earning the degree, or to leave graduate school before the degree indicates a lack of seriousness or of commitment to academic ideals or higher education, just as I don't think that choosing to postpone or to forgo marriage or children indicates a lack of desire toward those things, or a greater commitment to academic ideals or higher education. I think that the reality has nothing to do with commitment or desire. I think that it has to do with what is actually doable for actual human beings. I'm too cynical to believe that anybody - let alone a woman - can actually "have it all," and I've seen too much to believe that things just "fall into place" if they are "meant to be."

The women I know who've managed great academic careers and intact marriages and kids are few and far between. I know a lot of women who've managed to find great partnerships and academic careers - once they've hit their 50's and beyond (and tenure). I know women who've managed kids and academic careers, with no partner or with a partner who is history. I know academic couples (as well as couples with one partner who was in a "mobile" profession) who've managed to have kids and to enter the profession and then to end up divorced. I know academic couples with children, partnerships that have survived, primarily because the female half of the equation signed on to be a trailing spouse and an adjunct for life. I have no anecdata in the reverse - where the male was the trailing spouse and adjunct for life.

I know only a handful of women who've managed to have long-term partnerships and to have children and to have the career that they dreamed of having, and worked so hard to achieve. I know maybe two handfuls of women who've managed to have long-term partnerships where they consciously chose (as a couple) not to have children. But at the end of the day, I really believe that success in this profession is hostile to a full life, particularly for the women I know. I think it's possible, don't get me wrong, but I think the profession actively resists it.

I'm thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been reflecting a lot about the choices I've made in my life and the life that I've managed to make for myself as a 35-year-old person. I can't imagine, really, leaving my job for kids and a husband. But at the same time, I want kids and a husband. And yet, time is running out. Biologically. I'd never really considered that this is where I'd be at 35. I never imagined that I'd have published a book (a) and that I wouldn't have a kid (b). I never thought that my clock would actually be ticking. What a freaking cliche for the modern career girl! What a ridiculous way to feel! But the reality is that no matter how cliche and ridiculous it is, this is my reality. I'm 35 and I'm not in a relationship that would lead to a kid, and I'd want that relationship and I would want a kid. But I've worked really hard at getting the career that I have, and it really matters to me. On the other hand, I've got friends who have chosen the kids/family thing over the career, and I don't want their lives either.

Maybe I'm just happy with nothing. Or, as BFF says I'm prejudiced against everything, or as FB would have it, I resist anything... (I paused to figure out what I resisted, but he insisted that I should just put a period after "anything"). But I really think that this profession offers us very little latitude for negotiation, when it comes to fitting the personal in with the profession. And by "us" I mostly mean "women." The casualties of this profession aren't slackers, or people who didn't know better, or people who didn't care enough, or people who were workaholics. The causalties are women. And sure, there are exceptions. But I'm willing to venture that the exceptions prove the rule.

31 comments:

phd me said...

Amen. I know very few female academics who have managed to create the life they wanted when they started down this road. There always seems to be a piece missing; most have made their peace with it but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

I know I never expected to be childless and single at 37 but here I am. I have a great job and a decent life but there are holes - and there's very little that I can do about that without giving up something professionally. It's a shame but I don't know how to fix it.

Dr. Crazy said...

You are NOT "childless." You are "unencumbered." Swirl that around in your mouth, and feel the awesomeness. :)

Zach said...

I am the 24 year old child of an academic (mother) and a judge (father). My mom worked at a college an hour away from our home, my dad worked in a city 30-40 minutes away in the opposite direction. My mom got tenure possibly before I was born--certainly before I was old enough to realize it. She had me at 39 and my sister at 37, after all of that had been figured out. I spent a lot of time in daycare, but her having summers off was great. She and my dad split cooking and chores pretty evenly, but my mom also sewed a lot of our clothes growing up. However, I know her research suffered. She is at a small Christian college that is very teaching-focused, but still, if tenure back then required as many publications as it does now, I'm not sure what she would have done. She's presented at lots of conferences (vacations from the family, really), but I'm not sure she has any publications at all. Now, nearing retirement, she's finally working on a book. She seems happy, but I know she wishes she had something to show for all of her years in academia.

Ann said...

Wow, Crazy--you said a mouthful. I agree with you: the price is high, and usually highest for women. Most of us have to make choices.

Zach's comment is very thoughtful, and suggests that even those who appear to "have it all" may not in fact feel like they "have it all." It reminds me of a friend of mine who had a child years ago. I asked her if she had considered working part-time (she was a consultant at the time) and she said, "No--not really. All of the women I know who work full time feel like they're doing everything half-assesd," with the unstated implication being that holding onto a full-time work schedule at least let you feel like your work wasn't half-assed.

Historiann.com

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It seems to me that things haven't changed as much as we'd like to think they have. I can think of many academic couples in which she supported him during his grad school/tenure process -- managing to work and raise the kids mostly single-handed while he thought big thoughts.

That isn't the case in reverse -- and it could be the fact for me since philosophy is still overwhelmingly male... but, even among blog girlfriends, your story is much more similar than him doing it for her.

Even in my own case, I would have eventually figured out how to move to Red State if hubby had landed a tenure track job... as it is, I'm the one with tenure and he's starting law school tomorrow.

gwinne said...

Amen. I can think of *one* woman I entered graduate school with who is now tenured (at a SLAC), with a spouse, a kid, and a book. The rest of my cohort fall into the situations you describe. It hasn't been easy, but I'm glad I made the choice I did to choose kid and work (not kid and spouse or spouse and work) simultaneously. Now if only I could get that elusive book contract I'd be in good shape...

Shane in Utah said...

In my English department and my university's history department, there are at least 7 women I can name who are in apparently stable marriages, have children, and have tenure or look very likely to get tenure. It seems to me that it's "the weirdness of most academic types' schedules" that makes their lives possible--in what other profession can a parent of either gender leave work at 2 in the afternoon to pick up the kids from school and take them to soccer practice?

The department where I had my first job (in benighted Texas, no less) also had several successful mothers on the tenure track. They look stressed, yeah, but who doesn't? I know this is all anecdotal, but are the two places that I happen to have worked really so unusual? (I'm not doubting the validity of your perceptions, just questioning the validity of my own...)

Ann said...

Dr. C--I've got a response to your post over at my place. Thanks for the link! I still recommend a "wife."

Historiann.com

Dr. Crazy said...

Shane, I guess I would say two things. First, I'd venture that for every one of those women you describe, there are probably 5 women who left the academy at various "weeding out" points. Your experience - that you're not seeing these women - is exactly the problem. These women are *invisible.* We talk a lot about how women get stuck at associate professor, or about the struggles of maintaining on the t-t for women, but what gets lost in that conversation are the *many* women who fall through the cracks. We dismiss them as not the norm, as failures, as mommy tracked, whatever. Perhaps more telling than the 7 women across two departments who seem to be doing it that you see would be a look at the female adjuncts that both of those departments hire.

The second thing that I'd say is that what seems stable or whatever on the surface often has a lot of subtext that people outside of the relationship don't see. There are lots of stories that I could tell about struggles with fertility, perfect academic marriages that after 20 years (and the kids are older) end really horribly. Now, on the one hand, one can just say those things of marriage generally in 21st century America. I think there are good marriages and bad, etc., across demographics. I've got a hard time believing that academia somehow makes it easier for people to be married.

(Also, that scheduling flexibility you note? Has one academic couple I know in the middle of a brutal divorce. Apparently after 15+ years of having totally opposite schedules in order to accommodate their children, they now hate each other.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Ann - Believe me, I'm looking for one!

Anastasia said...

could we just set this flexible schedule narrative in the context of posts hear and elsewhere complaining about the shittiness of academics with children who don't do their share of the work?

Anastasia said...

here, not hear. gah.

Shane in Utah said...

Let me revise my earlier off-the-cuff guess with some actual numbers from own department: We have 31 tenured or TT professors on the main campus. 16 are men. 9 are women with children (4 of whom are married to men in the department). 3 are women without children (I know two of these women pretty well, and they are both very happy to be "unencumbered.") 3 are women whose parental status I don't happen to know. So nearly a third of the TT faculty in my department are mothers. That percentage seems significantly higher than the average number of mothers working as partners in law firms, for example. And it's certainly higher than any hard science department I've ever heard of. My question is, is my department really that unusual in the discipline?

The lecturer situation here is decidedly unusual: none of them have PhDs, and a sizable majority are graduates of our own MA program. Women lecturers do outnumber men lecturers by two to one, but then women applicants to our MA program outnumber men by the same ratio, and we accept virtually every applicant. All this is a product of our extreme geographical isolation, which makes me wonder if that isn't also the explanation for my department being perhaps more family-friendly than most.

But I'd like to see some statistics on this, to take it beyond the realm of anecdata. The AAUP magazine recently reported on a study that found that women PhD candidates were far less likely than men to pursue academic careers, largely because of family concerns. But the study focused mostly on the sciences; I'd like to see just how bad things are in the humanities...

Shane in Utah said...

Quick correction: this should have read: "Women lecturers do outnumber men lecturers by THREE to one."

Also, I hope that last post didn't come across as too self-congratulatory, either about my own department or the discipline in general. Comparing ourselves to the hyper-patriarchal worlds of the science lab and the law firm is setting the bar very low, I realize. And my own university, which prides itself on being "family-friendly," doesn't even have day-care facilities for faculty, staff, or students. So there's a lot of progress to be made yet...

James said...

Comparing ourselves to the hyper-patriarchal worlds of the science lab and the law firm is setting the bar very low, I realize.

Ouch. I've encountered many interesting and strange ideas reading academic blogs as a scientist since most of them are written by people in the humanities, but this is the first time I've encountered this attitude.

While my academic life has felt like working in a monastery, I'm not sure that the situation in the sciences and engineering is worse for women than the humanities because of the fact that there are a wide variety of outside jobs for Ph.D.'s in the sciences or engineering where there is no tenure clock. While those aren't university jobs, many of them offer greater opportunity to pursue research in your field than an academic job with a 3/3 or 4/4 teaching load.

p.s.: Dr. Crazy, I love the term "unencumbered."

James said...

Shane: By the way, if you're looking at family patterns in the sciences and engineering, you've got to look at the effect of immigration. The majority of graduate students and increasingly faculty in most institutions are immigrants. In any field where the workers are immigrants, there tend to be many more men than women. They also tend to bring their families and cultural attitudes with them.

Susan said...

I wish I could add something to this. I think you are right, Dr. C., that this career is profoundly difficult in our culture for women with families. (For years I thought I'd try to meet an artist who was "portable", though in the end I married another academic.) Moving to where the job is, making sure that partner can have job -- that's all hard. And women carry the burden of that. Shane in Utah's comment about flexible schedules is true, but our schedules are NOT that flexible. Most of us have meetings at some point in the day we don't want them. And while our daily schedules are flexible, the overall demands are not.

What's striking to me is that almost half the women in Shane's dept. are spouses -- that is, his dept. has either done a lot of spousal hires, or has deliberately recruited couples.

I'd add one more comment. None of us is unencumbered. Dr. C was not unencumbered when her father died last spring, for instance.

Shane in Utah said...

Yep, Susan is right: my university has an awesome spousal accommodation policy (or it used to, before our budget got slashed by 20%). What's more, it has been used in my department to hire more men as "trailing spouses" than women. (I owe my own job to the spousal accommodation policy, in fact.) If my department is an exception to the rule, maybe that's part of the secret?

Flavia said...

I think that the reality has nothing to do with commitment or desire. I think that it has to do with what is actually doable for actual human beings.

This is beautifully put. Thanks, C.

Anastasia said...

I like unencumbered, too. I also wanted to say all I really meant was that this job isn't endlessly flexible.

BrightStar (B*) said...

I love this post. I LOVE IT. I would like for it to be published far and wide. Even without more data, the ideas in the post resonate so strongly with me.

- an "unencumbered" woman going up for tenure who got divorced in less than two years after starting her tenure track job and has been in a long distance relationship for almost 4 years... how's THAT for an anecdote?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

encumbered through most of the diss process, one encumbrance grew up, and the hours required by the job and the commute helped to kill off the other.

Currently unencumbered, later 40s, in a LD relationship while in her first t-t job, now dead in part due to trying to balance visits during opposing academic breaks ...

but I have cats. And good friends. And a job I usually love. But ...

Kiki said...

With all this in mind, what advice do you have for up-and-coming academics on how to create the balance that you feel is missing? I'm in the last year of my Ph.D. and this is a key issue for me now at the crossroads of moving on.

What mistakes do you feel you made? What choices could have made differently? What decisions would you not change?

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

As someone whose own career would have eventually demanded a choice (either for Hubby or myself) between job and "normal" married life, I have to wonder about the time line for most of the women in Shane's department?

Did they have the job first and then meet the spouse? In follow up comments, Shane also notes the excellent "trailing spouse" policy, which probably improves the situation.

joyehanna said...

It depends on the type of job you take too. I'm at a SLAC, and all of the women in my department have partners and children, and got tenure with the children. There are quite a few women of my generation (close to, but not quite at tenure) with small children as well, most with partners who are not academics, who will likely get tenure. I'm in a natural/social science area, and at a school where the publishing requirements are significant given our teaching load (which is still less than Dr. Crazy's). I think it is vastly more possible to accommodate family/spouse/tenure-track job in an environment where colleagues value all of those things, and where the teaching and research expectations are different that at an R1 (where more of the women I know had children either after tenure, or only had one child).

I don't know if my experiences are partly colored by having a wife instead of a husband - I still have to negotiate things like who-does-what around the house, and I'm the one who was the gestational parent so that I could have maternity leave (I'm in a state where second-parent adoptions aren't allowed, so if my wife had had the children I wouldn't have qualified for leave) and also extensions on my tenure clock. I guess it is good to have a wife, although her schedule is much less flexible than mine and I tend to be the more stereotypical mama in terms of keeping track of the kids' stuff (doctor's appointments and the like).

H said...

I am tenured in a science department. I have been here 13 years. We have 18 faculty. Four are women. In my time here one other woman had tenure and small children and left to follow her husband to a new job. His salary increase was greater than her annual income. She had been viewed negatively by several male department members because she had three children after she got the TT job.

Another woman had a FT temp job and two young children. Finally the Uni opened a TT position for what was essentially her job. She was stuck in the community as her husband had opened a business. She applied to the job. The (male) search committee did not even seriously consider her ap. The guy they hired in her place was pretty useless and lasted only one year. The "search" then failed the next year.

Ok, the four of us who are here now. One just got tenure and desperately wants to start a family. Rumor has it that if she succeeds, she'll quit. She put her hubby (who HAD been one of our grad students at the time she came) through med school and residency. She took his name though she was a published scientist. I was surprised, though she is from our rather traditional area.

The other two raised families while here. Each has kids now grown and one left in High School. They have made compromises to be "good moms". They both have successfully stayed married.

H said...

The other half of my exessively long comment.


I am unencumbered and am almost 52. My work has always come first and I think I am missing some key ingredient, maybe pheromones, so my devotion to my work is kind of moot. I have almost never dated, and have a few casual sexual relationships and maybe one boyfriend in my past. What little social life I had pretty much faded away in grad school.

I always assumed I'd marry and have children. Now I can't conceive of what my life would have been like had I done that. I am entirely my own person. I too have great friends. I would love my life if not for the insane load I have had to take on. Boys clubs have formed and they finagle release time for themselves and have left us women holding the teaching bag. I have 400 students in 5 classes and run a research lab with 4 grad students and three undergrads. We only go to Masters so my grad students cannot hold the fort down. Oh, and we don't get TAs at my Uni. Grad students teach lab classes. Meanwhile the majority of men in my division have a reduced load and a special research designation that the formed for themselves. I have published four times what some of them have, and their research center name includes my specialty. Somehow they never though to even talk to me about it. Instead I was simply told to move my lab a year ago to make room for their center.

OK, having ranted.

I see women leaving science all the time. Usually to have a family or to care full time for the family they have. I am struggling to get my senior grad student to write her thesis. She is married now and I fear that she just wants to make and care for babies, and she had been such a good student.

I feel betrayed. Yes, it is HARD to do science and anything else, anything. But we invest time and money to help good minds develop skills and knowledge bases only to have them leave. I feel like telling them "look, it is really hard to be a wife and mother and a scientist. So if you are serious about science, realize that it may negatively impact those things and/or your stress level. If you intend to have a family and kids, either find yourself one of those very rare truly equal partners, prepare to be a super hard driving sleep deprived person, or do not bother.

yes a well trained scientist may pass some really useful info on to their kids, but that can happen when you are not a well trained scientist, so why are you wasting my, my Uni's, and my State's precious resources?


We are not training enough scientists. In my area over half are women and most of those drop out of the research track. We as a society have largely thrown money and time away every time that happens.

I am turning into a curmudgeon. We are short of good scientists, not short of children. We are sentient creatures, supposedly not driven solely by our biology. What is this? Why is having kids and being a full time mom more important than rare skills and intelligence and how that could contribute to multitudes of people?

Of course, if only society were different dad would realize the importance of mom's skills and work, and would stay home to raise the little people.

Ha!

Aurora said...

Another great post (I'm reading them backwards.) I've beaten the odds by far it appears. You know what does me in - paperwork. Sigh.

Aurora said...

Also thinking of how happy I am. Hmmmmmm. Still thinking. Funny thing -- my subject requires this intense concentration (probably like every other subject) that shuts out everything else so there are many times when I'm not paying attention to anything but my work. I worry a lot about my kids.

pocha said...

"And then I think about people like me, who stayed "unencumbered" (a way of putting it that I picked up from BFF about being unmarried and without kids that I just adore and that feels much more positive to me than saying "single" or "child-free" - let alone compared with "old maid" or "childless."

I get your point, but honestly while I don't care for "child-free' or "childless," I equally don't care for "unencumbered," because it implies that those with children and/or partners are encumbered. Ick. As if my child were a burden, a limit, a restraint. NO WAY.

Sure, I don't have all the time in the world to myself, and I definitely miss certain aspects of my life pre-child, but I don't see my life being limited or restrained by my child. I'm on the tenure-track and, while I might not be as productive as my "unencumbered" colleagues, I don't see that as a problem. It's just the way it is. (Of course, check back in a few years: if I'm denied tenure because I demonstrated limited scholarly engagement, well then maybe I'll rethink this position, but I still wouldn't consider myself "encumbered." Again, ick.

Great post otherwise!

Libby said...

for what it's worth (since you were looking for this kind of anecdata) I have a "trailing spouse" husband who has left academe after a series of one- and three-year jobs (but no adjunct work; he would rather be unemployed). I agree, they are rare--but not nonexistent.