Thursday, February 28, 2008

Maintaining that Hard Core Persona

Today I heard an amazing thing. A tenured professor in another department hid the fact that he and his wife had had a baby because he thought that being a father might make him seem less 'hard core' and 'serious' to his graduate students. Ah yes, the dreaded humanizing effect of an infant..

That the professor in question is a tenured male professor and not an early career scientist makes this an unusual case (I think/hope). I know early career scientists (students, postdocs, assistant professors) and, in fact, women of all academic ranks, who worry about being taken less seriously because they have a child. From what I have seen, this concern is entirely justified in some cases.

In this case, however, the professor is someone who (according to his current graduate students) wants to be feared by his students and who worried that students wouldn't fear a dad-like person. According to my student-source, he need not worry about this.

Both men and women academics with young children may be concerned about being taken less seriously be colleagues and others. It will perhaps not surprise my readers when I say that I think it is a more serious problem for women, as I am aware of recent examples in which early career women scientists were discriminated against owing to having a young child, but I recognize that it may be an issue for men as well.

The more rare (?) example described above, however, is likely dominantly a male phenomenon, as it is more difficult for a woman to hide the fact of having a baby. (I am not ignoring the possibility of adoption; I think that would be difficult to 'hide' as well).

I can think of at least two general questions that arise from this anecdote:

Who wants to be feared by their graduate students?

First, I think we need to make a distinction between being feared and being respected, and also between being feared and having the effect of unintentionally intimidating students. What is the point of being feared anyway? To motivate students? -- I hope not, but I am trying and failing to think of reasons why being feared would be useful. To me, being respected seems like a more important (and desirable) element of an advisor-advisee relationship.

While I'm at it, I will also make a distinction between being liked and respected. We advisors don't have to enjoy our students' company immensely and hang out drinking coffee or beer and talking about sports or tropical fish. We just have to be able to work together (and respect each other if at all possible).

What effect does being a mom or dad have on your advisor-advisee relationships?

Logistical effects: When you are an advisor-parent, you can't always be in your office during normal working hours as much as you would be if you did not have a kid. This is a fact, though I will mention (as I have before), that members of my research group who have dogs spend as much time or more during working hours on activities related to their high-maintenance dogs than I do dealing with no-school days or school concerts that are scheduled for the middle of the work day etc. Even when my schedule gets erratic owing to parenting activities, I am almost always accessible by email or phone, and I work non-standard hours during which my students are welcome to stop by my office. So, although there clearly is a logistical effect, I do not think that being a parent has limited my accessibility as an advisor to my students.

Emotional/Intangible effects: If you are a parent, do your students perceive you in a way that is different from how they would if you were not a parent? And if so, does it matter? This is the issue raised by the anecdote discussed today, and it is the effect that is most difficult to assess. I suppose one could also ask of parent-advisors: Do you treat your students in a different way than you would if you weren't a parent?

I don't know -- I need to think about it some more, perhaps collect some data -- but I do think that if you truly value being feared by your students, your fearsomeness will probably not be significantly decreased by your parenthood, even if you start wearing Elmo socks and singing Raffi songs around the department.


Ms.PhD said...

Yes, that is amazing.

Most PIs I know who want to be feared think that walking softly is less important than carrying a big stick and using it a lot. In other words, they have found that threats and yelling frequently yield productivity. It is motivation of a sort.

I'm happy to say it doesn't work on me, and they know I will yell back if yelled at, so they don't mess with me.

Logistical effects are more interesting. For instance, where I work now, it seems like most people have kids, and women especially are viewed as oddities if we don't. Much more threatening than moms.

Threatening, in my experience, is not a good thing to be as a female postdoc.

My thesis advisor had daughters and it was bad for me because I think he tended to lump me in with them in terms of expectations & how he chose to express them & when he was disappointed. One of them had some health problems while I was in the lab, and he tended to disappear on short notice and leave me to cover for him. It was awkward at best, a lot of work at worst (and frequently).

But the same can be said for PIs with sick parents.

Two of my male postdoc advisors had kids and complained about them constantly, though clearly organized their whole lives (and ours) around their kids.

My main resentment is when the PI already can't manage their job or personal time efficiently, and then they add a kid into the mix and then even more of their job gets dumped onto me.

Not cool.

Oh and another thing I've complained about before. I am very, very tired of getting the crap time slots because we're all supposed to sacrifice for other people's kids' schedules.

Maybe it takes a village, or whatever, but I'm not getting much from this town in return for my contributions.

bsci said...

I've seen advisors who want to be feared. The most amusing part is when a student of a feared advisor gets a Ph.D. and then the interaction suddenly changes because it's magically now two peers instead of feared advisor and student.
This tactic doesn't teach students how they are supposed to interact with their academic peers of all levels.

Anonymous said...

Motivating by fear has a long tradition. It may be that this man was trained that way himself, so it is his model of how to be a grad mentor.

I think there may be an evolutionary reason for hiding one's child. I see it as protective of the child, not the parent. Family is personal and a child is vulnerable and thus should not be exposed to the world. It suggests this man does not feel like those at work are his extended family or community but rather are external to those he cares about. I wouldn't fault him for that. When you go up for tenure review, you find out that people you thought were friends actually are not. Why share anything you care about with people who don't necessarily like or support you?

Obviously, I can't know what is going on with someone I haven't met, but I am suggesting that there are reasonable explanations for his behavior. You seem to think that anyone who is not like you must be weird or wrong.

Anonymous said...

As a MSP, there are also benefits from students knowing that you are a parent--I think it is more attractive to many students if the advisor is human, and being an involved parent helps project that. Not a great reason to have kids, however, as they are way too much work for that, and if the intrinsic benefits don't do it for you, then....

With regard to whether being a parent has altered how I interact with my students, I would have said no in the first 12 years of parenthood. However, when my older child turned teen, and the inevitable teen-parent relationship emerged, I suddenly started to realize that some of my students reminded me of my daughter. We could get into that same sort of argumentative mode, I could get into the "dad" behavior that I hate, and my student (at least from my side) would retreat into a sullen silence. The fatc that the age difference between my older daughter and my grad students is diminshing may also contribute to this feeling. I am only a year into this phase of parenting and hope this will diminish with time.

Mark P

Beth Robinson said...

When I was a graduate student I don't remember ever knowing or noticing whether my advisors or other professors had kids. Maybe that was because I was just getting my MS?

Ewan said...

Issues regarding parenthood in (usually junior) faculty have been raised in a bunch of places in the blogosphere recently; many thanks for a piece which recognised that concerns in this area are not unknown to those of us with a Y chomosome ;-).

The limits on work hours have definitely had an effect on my ability to meet students (and schedule experiments) - that's been the biggest effect of being a parent on work, I think. But in every place I've worked, parenthood has been the norm for faculty of both genders, and I've yet to see a single instance of anyone (male or female) being considered less serious for that choice. [Certainly when I was interviewing this year, my choice of which offer to accept was influenced by the efforts made to demonstrate that the recruiting department was friendly towards families and faculty with children, so it seems that such an attitude may have benefits in attracting desired faculty as well as in promoting a healthy workplace environment.]

I don't *think* that I treat students differently because my son exists, but I *do* think that they see me as more approachable - which is a big positive, especially as a large male with predominantly female students. And I have also noticed that the fact that *I* have limitations I need to work around seems to convey that I understand that they, in turn, may also have such limitations. So I think that the net effect is a big positive. [Plus, the first three slides of my job talk all involved my son, and they got the desired laughs - and at least two places had search committee folks who commented that the presence of those slides and the message that I was not afraid to reveal that I have a life outside work was a positive factor in their decision to make me an offer.]

If I wanted to be feared by my students - well, I can't quite get my head around that idea :).

Anonymous said...

Is this post about the relationship this PI is choosing with his advisees or is it about your disappointment at not being able to formally welcome him into the academics-with-kids-group. For all the reasons that he may have decided that his personal life should remain private (perhaps this was a difficult pregnancy, perhaps they've lost a child in the past, perhaps it is not any of your business), your gossip source chose one of the worst. Being seen as less serious (i.e. having your students worry that you'll not be there when you need them because of baby issues) is probably quite important, and you've written on it in the past, that you are taken less seriously. Having a kid is probably a huge deal in this guys life and you can't even give him the benefit of the doubt that it might be his insecurities that stop him from shouting about it? A hard core persona is his choice.

Anonymous said...

Interesting--and honestly I can see both sides. I think there is a great amount of appeal to being able to keep your family life away from work and vice versa. That said, surely at some point he'll want to bring his kid to a department picnic or somesuch.

As for how it relates to the advising relationship--I once joked with my advisor that he should set me up with his son (advisor talked so much about what a great guy, athletic, intelligent, etc... his son, my age, was--I figured my comment was only logical). The reaction was the dirtiest look he's ever given me--and I never did get introduced to his son. :)

Ianqui said...

Mostly this story makes me feel bad for his wife. If he's going to maintain exactly the same life he had pre-child, it presumably means she'll be doing *everything* for the kid. I'd hate to be her.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student who's advisor has two little kids, I think the fact that he has kids is great. He puts their art up in his office and they come to visit him occasionally with their mom. It makes him seem like a real person instead of a science-producing-robot.

Plus, his kids send him in with cookies for his grad students every now and then from their baking adventures :)

The fact that sometimes he has to work from home or leave early because of their school schedule isn't a big deal. We (his grad students) can always reach him by phone or email and get a quick response. Or when he tells us ahead of time that he won't be in we setup times to meet with him on a latter day.

Plus, since we sit in a lab right outside his office, it's kind of nice to have a day off from the (implied) pressure to work harder and faster like good little science-producing-robots-in-training.

Female Science Professor said...

I should clarify that I was not talking about whether this person (or anyone) should make their family life very apparent to their students or other colleagues; that is a personal decision. The person I mentioned hid the fact that he had a child. I raised the issue of whether the perception of someone as a parent has any effect, though of course this perception will be affected by how much someone involves their family in their work life.

Anonymous said...

As a female grad student with kids myself, I actively sought a program where there were many junior faculty with kids. Ironically, my advisor does not yet have kids (and is younger than I am), so maybe I can't speak to this particular issue. I do think it's useful for everyone in a research relationship to remember that we're all human, we all (should) have outside commitments, and that is called LIFE.

Auntie Em said...

I just left a post doc early because it was a run by a very much 'rule by fear' PI. The constant, low grade bullying of all his postdocs really got me down (passive aggressive comments in team meetings, refusing to negotiate on anything, veiled threats about 'career prospects' if we didn't shut up and play nice).

Thankfully for me, I have an excellent partner and a huge safety net of previous colleagues who were only to happy to try to find me something more fulfilling. When I expressed my dissatisfaction at the way I was being managed and was told 'do as I say or clear your desk at the end of the week' it was the easiest choice I've ever had to make!

The bullying seemed to be the first and only tactic this boss had. I understand that he has problems with knowing how to manage - but they're his problems and the department's problems. I take my professional development seriously and so should he. Going out and learning the skills you need is part of the job.

Difficulty is, I think the macho 'rule by fear' culture has become so normalised that I don't think my ex boss even realises that he *has* a problem.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I love your blog. It's one of the highlights of my day.

I'm a FSSP (social science, very male-dominated subfield). I don't rule students by fear, but they do seem to be intimidated sometimes. I think grad school can induce that feeling, whether the advisor encourages it or not. But it has sure helped some students feel at ease since my daughter was born 4 years ago. I don't put her art in my office, but I do have several pictures of her. Well, she's cute.

There's a whole 'nother story about how undergrads relate to it. I haven't figured that out at all. With the undergrads, though, I make a point of mentioning my daughter in lecture every now and then. I figure, I can afford to say, "Hey, female professors do have kids, too, deal with it." I have tenure ...

Average Professor said...

This person clearly did not have a father like mine if he worried that students wouldn't fear somebody dad-like. I owe probably 95% of my straight-lacedness to many years of dad-based fear.

Anonymous said...

Very timely posting.

I am an untenured female academic thinking of having my second child heavily these days. So far I am not doing great towards my tenure though I would say the situation is not too terrible either (i.e., I believe that I have a 50:50 chance to get my tenure. is it bad or what?) My university allows the tenure clock to be stopped for one year but I am still worried that it may affect my tenure evaluation. Should I wait till my tenure decision be made? By then I and my husband will be close to 40 and well over 40 respectively, and my daughter will be close to 10.. :-(

Any suggestions or advice?

Anonymous said...

anonymous 3:13, obviously, nobody can tell you what you should do, but my opinion is that you need to balance all the factors:

how family-friendly is your department? how many years do you have before tenure? how devastated would you be if you don't get tenure? how set up are things research-wise so that things could go on even if you slow down for a while? how devastated would you be if you don't have a second child? how are you doing healthwise? how do you response to sleep-deprivation? how do you respond to physical stress? where is your partner in his or her career? could s/he pick up some of the slack?

After considering every possible aspect of the decision, we decided to go for our second pre-tenure child. I don't regret the decision one bit, but I know I would have been more productive without a second baby and sometimes I think about that.

Female Science Professor said...

I really don't have any advice either -- only you know what is best for you and your family. How supportive is your spouse? Do you have good childcare options? etc.

chemcat said...

anonymous 3:13
one cannot always plan these things- and one doesn't always get what one wants, either. I had zero problems getting pregnant at 37, but two years after it's a different story. We've been trying for a year, with no luck, and sometimes I regret not having started right away.
Having a child has had an impact on my productivity, but nothing was as disruptive as the emotional impact of having to deal with the lack of support, unreasonable expectations and borderline harassment from the chair/senior colleagues/dean. It has brought me to revise my priorities to an extent I didn't expect. I do the best I can, but I am not willing to sacrifice my family, marriage or overall balance to please a bunch of jerks. Incidentally, I am much more productive since I stopped caring...

Anonymous said...

I am anon 3:13. Thank you so much for the comments to my posting but let me clarify my question.

Suppose that when I am up for the tenure, my case is borderline and not crystal clear whether it will be accepted or rejected. Will the fact that I had my second one even though I was not performing well enough can be considered as being less serious and push my case towards rejection unless otherwise it could have been accepted? Has any of you seen a similar case or am I unnecessarily concerned?

Female Science Professor said...

It's hard to say (not knowing your department), but I would hope that your case would be judged based only on the usual criteria of research-teaching-service, however those are defined at your university. Presumably you will external letters, and the external letter-writers will not be considering your family situation, only your research record and reputation. If you have positive letters, this should carry the day with your department (in theory).

Do you get a yearly evaluation and that is how you know your case is borderline? At my university, these evaluations are supposed to give specific recommendations of what you should do in case there are some aspects that are deficient. If you have information like this, you can consider what you need to do between now and the tenure review, and see how that factors into what you want to do, what you can do, etc.

Leanne said...

This is such a touchy issue. I commend you for speaking to it!

I actually find that I am a bit more considering of people's personal situations (people meaning students, other postdocs, faculty, what-have-you) than I was before I had children. I am also more wary of offering my time, but I think that is is an overall plus to be more protective of my time interests while simultaneously seeing the best in those that present themselves with issues to be considered.

I hope that people with children with see their new-found skills in child-rearing as assets in the management workspace and not necessarily liabilities for a life in science. It need not be a "problem", everyone simply needs to devise their own solution (sharing with others where appropriate).