Dear Kate – January 2015 Edition
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous. We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.
We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.
Can a woman have kids and go for tenure? Why do older, white male MIT faculty ask me if I want kids when I’m asking them for career advise? Does my response (yes I do want kids) change what they tell me? Isn’t that an illegal question (it is in the regular working world)?
And, is there a way that I can respond to that question that respectfully challenges the reasoning behind their asking? I feel like I let myself and women down by acquiescing.
– Professor Mom
Dear Professor Mom
An older, white male faculty member once gave some very sage advice to me and a female friend when we were both thinking about tenure track and family decisions. He said: research, teaching, and young children were all full time jobs– it was possible to do any two of the three well at the same time, but you couldn’t really do three out of three well all at once. I think he is probably right. This, counter-intuitively, makes the tenure track more feasible at a truly top-notch university than at a second-rank university: top-notch universities are much more likely to really get it, and let you pause your teaching for the crucial year or so you will need it most. On the other hand, the women I knew who seemed to have it easiest managed to go to research labs when their kids were young (making sure to teach at a local university one or two semesters to have that teaching track record built up for later) and then took a tenured position at a university once their kids were school age or beyond.
Your research career will last for many many decades; you will have young children (by which I mean pre-Kindergarten) probably for less than a decade of your life. Things like the dynamic of your marriage, whether your kids sleep through the night early on, how much money you and/or your family is in a position to throw at quality childcare help, whether you have extended family or parents nearby to help, and other things will define the parameters of how stressful that period will be. Or what I am trying to say is: your personal life will impact your career decisions, it has to, so it could be an appropriate question in some circumstances. And someone will ultimately have to know all the parameters to help you negotiate creative solutions.
But the above assumes a supportive older male mentor who maybe has had a family of his own; there are also plenty of scientists (male and female!) who will still dismiss/think less of anyone who expresses any interest in doing anything other than science 24/7. So while a yes may give you a wealth of helpful creative work-life balance advice, it is a significant risk. So before saying “yes I want kids” I would feel the person out, by instead of saying “yes” reflecting the question back: “I am really interested in how your answer to my question would change depending on whether I said yes or no?” His response should quickly tell you where he is coming from, and you can both go from there.
Dear Professor Mom
A mother can absolutely go for tenure! Unfortunately, she has a lower chance of making it. The “baby penalty” that women pay in academia is well documented, whether it means not making tenure or struggling through the first years of her child’s life… or both.
Tenured professors are undoubtedly well-aware of these challenges, whether they personally support mothers in pursuing tenure or not. If you want to test their responses, try explaining that your husband wants to stay at home and care for the kids. Whether or not this is true, you may witness a look of relief – a sure sign that their advice DOES change based on your plans for family. It is also a way to respectfully challenge an outdated perspective.
If your husband does not want to stay at home and you don’t want to lie, try explaining that a grandparent is planning to move in with you or that you plan to hire a nanny. One thing is certain: it is extremely difficult to balance a tenure-track academic career and “normal” childcare responsibilities like picking your child up from a 9-5 daycare. So, whatever your childcare backup plan for helping you through the tenure track, talk to your mentors about it. Just remember that you are asking for their advice for a reason: if they have concerns about your plan, those concerns might be valid!
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate C., and Kate B.
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.