Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Running with the Big Dogs- Work/Life Balance

Work-life balance is always an important issue, but perhaps more so in academia. It is a world that is primarily self-driven, where success is not assured no matter how many hours you put in. It is a world that prides itself on insane hours and long days. You will find many different paradigms of work-life balance in faculty members. Many faculty members are married with families, but each seems to respond differently to this pressure. I have seen faculty that put a great deal of time into their work, leaving very little time for family; and I have seen faculty that are home every day by 5 or that always take Fridays off. The most unusual arrangement is the split family, where one member works at the university and the spouse and/or children live in a different city (or even state). This is more common than you might think, as it is very difficult for two Ph.D.'s to find employment near each other.

It seems that most faculty with families have stay-at-home spouses. This may largely be a result of the times, a product of male-dominated field. However, now it is not uncommon at all to see women professors with stay-at-home husbands. Where does that leave the rest of us? My husband works and I like to work too. I guess technically I could stay home. We have the money for this, but I would not be happy solely at home. I love my children, but I need more intellectual interaction than Wiggles and Dragon Tales. I thrive on my interactions with colleagues and students. On the other hand, I do love my family. I want to spend time with them. I enjoy cooking dinner, tucking into bed etc. I don't want to work 60 hour weeks and never see my husband and children.

I am looking for a middle ground. Most of the "adjustments" to the tenure track have not yet addressed this issue. Sure you can get an extra year if you stop to have a baby, but what if you don't want to stop, you just want to slow down. Why do women have to go a mile a minute at a time when many of them have young children and are starting families. I would be happy to work long hours later in my career, when my children are older. Unfortunately, the present academic system was designed by men for men. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some radical feminist or anything. I am just stating a point. The system was designed for men, particularly unmarried men or men with a stay-at-home spouse. Now that the ranks of faculty are changing, how can this system accomidate the goals of its new members?

This problem applies to men as well. I recall a colleague who had to cut a conference short because he had three young children at home. Obviously he could have benefitted by remaining at the conference (where he received an award!), but he felt compelled by family demands. The system needs to change to meet these demands. The ideal I think would be to have the option for a reduced work week (30-40 hours), but still remain on the tenure track. Perhaps percentage credit could be given for the percentage of time worked based on a forty hour week? Teaching loads (for both classes and grad students) could be reduced accordingly.

For a system like this to work, it is imperative that the university not stigmatize members who choose this plan. It will certainly not be popular with the academy. When a chair hires a new professor, they expect 100% delivery. It may be difficult to get funding for a 75% appointment. The reduced teaching loads may require additional hires, and there is time and effort required in that process. At face value, it appears that such a plan would not be in the academy's interest.

However, I argue that a number of bright women AND men are turned away from the academic profession because of its demanding nature. If family friendly options were offered, surely universities could expand their appeal and attract a new class of applicants. People with balance, with lives. Their fresh approach might extend into the classroom. I know that my parenting has certainly made me a better teacher. I am more understanding of the perspective of a student. I can better communicate my ideas by breaking them into smaller more digestible chunks. Perhaps we might have fewer professors that keep their students as "slaves" for years, requiring them to work long hours, weekends and holidays. [Don't laugh I am sure that if you talk to 5-10 grad students at least one and an advisor like this.]

I don't think that having a commitment to family makes me any less of a scientist. In fact, I think it makes me a better one. Richard Feynman was once asked if physicist should have outside lives. He said that someone who dedicates all of his time to physics may be a good physicist, but he isn't much of a person.


At 2:01 AM , Blogger DJ and Kim said...

Absolutely love this post! That is the struggle I've had with this chosen track. My ambition exerts itself via my productivity but it has to properly managed b/c my time still has to be given to my baby.
Love it!


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