Dear Kate – May 2017

Dear Kate,

I am in the middle of my postdoc and will start looking for a tenure-track position in a year. My husband, who is also in academia, and I have been doing long-distance for almost two years. He recently got a new job and finally we are going to be in the same place (at least temporarily, before my tenure-track adventure). We have been talking about kids, and recently he suggested that maybe we should use this period to get a kid. I am not sure how I feel about this idea. On the one hand, I have heard a lot about how being pregnant and taking care of a newborn baby would severely decrease the work productivity and mobility, and I am not sure how much I can handle (or maybe I can handle it really well). On the other hand, we do like kids, and I am approaching my 30th so the biological clock is ticking, and “there is no best time for pregnancy”. I understand this problem really varies from person to person, but I was wondering if you can give some advice or share your experience on how you handled this challenge. Thank you very much!

— Troubled

Dear Troubled,

My own experience is not easily applicable to today’s career situation, because I was not initially sure that I wanted a career, but knew I wanted kids plus some opportunity to do interesting work outside of the home, for at least some of the year and some of the day. This was in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s, when there were few women in academic jobs. I got lucky because, when I asked my PhD. advisor for advice on getting a part-time job, he said I could work in his group part time, and have the summers off, which allowed me to have four kids, and yet, still ultimately get a tenured position when I was 40 or so.

That is much less likely to work now, when there is much more competition for each academic job. I recommend to young academics today to plan on two children, and to make sure that both spouses cooperate in raising the children and in accommodating their careers to do so. This may mean that one of you takes a lesser position for a time, even one in industry research, for example, to live close enough to share child responsibilities. Or that one of you takes a leave for 6 months or a year. The ease of getting professional work done, while having and raising a child, varies enormously and unpredictably from person to person and time to time. Try hard not to be a perfectionist, and accept help from others even if they do things differently from the way you do it. Get used to some level of mess, and don’t agonize about it.

I think having children in the late 20’s or early 30’s, after one has completed one’s PhD or the equivalent, is probably optimal, rather than earlier in one’s training, or later in one’s 30’s. One problem with waiting too long is that not everyone has an easy time getting pregnant, especially as you get older.

One thing I can say with great confidence is that, once you are past the stress of the first year or two, you will never regret having had children.
Kate M.

(Kate M. is a neuroscientist and a parent)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, many thanks to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate M.

For some other perspectives on having children as an early-stage academic, check out this article from The Times of Higher Education, especially the fourth person’s contribution; this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges faced by women in academia who become mothers; and this forum thread from the Berkeley Parents Network on when to have children as a young academic.

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