Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Family Planning

A friendly memo to tenure-track faculty who don't have as many publications as they think they might need for tenure and are getting stressed out about this:

Don't blame your lack of productivity on the fact that the wife of one of your male graduate students or postdocs had a baby or even on the fact that one of your female graduate students or postdocs had a baby during your probationary years.

There are various reasons why this is not cool, but the main one in my opinion is that many of us (male and female) have advised unproductive graduate students and/or postdocs (male and female) for a stunning array of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with starting a family.

It is indeed difficult for assistant professors who have to deal with unproductive research group members, no matter what the reason, especially if the unproductive ones are supported by a grant involving a finite amount of time and money (as grants tend to be). I definitely feel the pain of anyone who has experienced this. If you are in this situation as a tenure-track faculty member, it is important to communicate with mentors and/or your department chair and try to figure out the best strategy for moving forward with the research despite dysfunctional research group members.

Even so, the birth or adoption of a child is typically an anticipated event, so, assuming that your advisees inform you of the upcoming event, you can try to plan for the disruption of your research program. If possible, avoid organizing your research program so that your entire future depends on your research group members and their significant others remaining childless throughout your probationary period.

Another reason why it's not cool to blame your lack of productivity on the reproductive activities of those in and associated with your research group is that it's hard to avoid appearing to accuse women specifically for causing your problems. Your suspicion that other people's babies are incompatible with your tenure won't make up for a weak tenure file (which might not even be as weak as you think/fear it is).

If you are stressed out and just feel like ranting about research group (re)productivity to a friend while you're at a cafe, in the gym, blogging, or wandering the halls of academe, that's fine. Go for it. If, however, you are considering making your hypothesis part of your tenure dossier, first consider the people who are going to be reading your file: your faculty colleagues, various administrators, promotion & tenure committees, and so on. Some of these people might even be women and men who had (or have) babies themselves, not to mention that most, if not all, have likely had a wide range of advising experiences. Some may sympathize with you, but I'm guessing (perhaps incorrectly) that many will not.

32 comments:

alh said...

Wow. It never occurred to me to blame someone else for my (hopefully imagined) lower-than-desired productivity. Tenure is something I earn, not my students or post-docs.

I say this as one who has suffered through some unproductive graduates students. I viewed it as my mistake in not advising well, or not carefully screening before accepting. Not their fault for finding new girlfriends....

Anonymous said...

Some people seem to be especially angry when a group member has a baby. Especially if it is a woman. I often hear the expression, said with lots of anger: "she did it on purpose!!!". Yes, we reproduce on purpose. Usually they refer to this purpose as being "to get health insurance", "for the baby to be an American citizen", "guess what she did to him?!!!!" (i.e.the advisor) etc. etc.
My tenure case already went through the most significant votes, now requiring some signatures, and I agree with FSP that among the 8 graduate students I advised, the most unproductive and exasperating were ones that had no babies or plans to reproduce. The most productive student I have ever had is now pregnant. In a year from now I'll be allowed to be on our department's promotion committee and I can definitely say that seeing such an argument in someone's P&T document would make me very angry. Sounds very unprofessional.

Anonymous said...

And one more thing, while having or adopting a child may lead to a temporary decrease in productivity, I have seen many, many graduate students who become more focused and productive after the birth of their child. Having an infant really helps clarify goals! I have seen many more unproductive and unfocused grad students without kids then I have with. So this is a problem of an inability to effectively manage grad students is probably not a bad basis for tenure denial.

My response is thanks for throwing your grad student under the bus, it really helped clarify the basis for denying you tenure.

Anonymous said...

I am a male chemistry professor. About 20 years ago five females were in my lab and pregnant at the same time. Now one of the children is going to be my new student in the fall.

You should be producing results and publishing regardless of your students. It is like saying that your home is going in foreclosure because your son/daughter quit their paper route.

Lia said...

I have no idea how to send you an email, so I am choosing this, since you moderate it. Would you possibly consider writing an advice post on how to tackle the promotion from Associate to Full Professor? There is a lot of information on the internet on the subject of obtaining tenure, but not much on the next step. Also, the criteria for this second promotion seems to be less clear within each institution. Statistically, women that make tenure have less chances to move to the full professor rank than men do. Some advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks a lot!

PS Something on how to make the most out of sabbaticals would also be very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Pregnancy is never the *cause* of the reduced productivity. I would say that dedicated students actually get *more* productive during and after pregnancy.

However, I have seen students that were not very productive to start with, becoming extremely unproductive once they have a baby. (Interestingly enough, all these students were male.)

My hypothesis is that the pregnancy makes the good students to be more focused, and the not-so-good ones to lose even the little bit of focus they had.

Almost like a magnifying glass. Perhaps we should only admit students with young kids that have stayed productive during and after pregnancy. Seems to be a better predictive filter than grades, GRE, or letters of recommendation :-)

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that as an advisor there's a lot you can do to enhance the productivity of grad students and post-docs who do have babies. My advisor has been amazingly supportive and has helped me continue to be productive in the ten months since my son's birth.

Anonymous said...

Hah - Anonymous at 9:27, I love your analogy!

Alex said...

I'm going to play Devil's Advocate:

Stopping the tenure clock is considered appropriate for faculty who have families during the probationary period, because it recognizes that a person who has a kid will probably get less done during the normal time frame. So, by the same argument, shouldn't institutions recognize that a lab staffed with new parents will probably also get less done during the normal time period?

I'm not saying that the allowance given to the faculty member should be as generous as it would be if it were the faculty member having the kid (i.e. no extra year), but if a faculty member is being judged on how much productivity he/she achieved with a group of trainees (and shouldn't faculty be judged on whether they are being effective with their trainees, seeing as it is their job to train their trainees?) then isn't this a reasonable thing to allow for?

Of course, there's a difference between writing "Stupid grad student got knocked up and now I'm suffering for it!" and writing something more nuanced about accepting some trade-offs between productivity and the personal circumstances of trainees. Indeed, I dare say that if somebody phrased it properly, instead of sounding like an excuse it would sound like good mentoring and many readers here would be happy to make an allowance.

Alex said...

BTW, while I don't doubt that all of the "I know grad students who were so incredibly productive during and after pregnancy!" anecdotes are true, I'm sure there must be some "I know assistant professors who got so much done during pregnancy and barely skipped a beat and got an amazing amount done right after the birth!" stories that are true. Despite this, nobody here would argue against clock stoppage.

So, I'm not quite convinced that true stories of super-productive pregnant grad students mean that there is zero productivity trade-off in general.

We can debate whether a professor (who is responsible for managing a group of people and getting this group to produce research) should get allowances for having to deal with personal circumstances in the research group, but I am not quite ready to believe that having a family has (on average) zero impact on the productivity of good grad students. Otherwise, we could argue that having a family really only impacts the productivity of the bad assistant professors who don't deserve tenure anyway. Anybody want to go down that path?

Besides, if we're going to go down the "I know this one person who was so productive so clearly it doesn't matter!" path, then I'm going to tell the story of my aunt who (as far as anybody can tell) has glands that produce caffeine and amphetamines and never has to sleep. Should we base policies and standards on her?

Anonymous said...

@Alex. No, the productivity of a pregnant student may drop, just a little, or a lot. However, you have to take that you'll have graduate students that will be unproductive at one point or another as a sure fact of life and plan accordingly from the beginning. I don't think there is an assitant professor that never had any productivity problems with any of their students, unrelated to pregancy. So there is unprofessional to blame your failure on the pregnant student or student's wife. Why pinpoint a certain personal problem ? My students had various personal problems. One wasn't pregnant but was unproductive for an entire year bc. of personal issues. Afterall, it is not that student who should get tenure, it is you. Hopefully an assistant professor has at least two students at one time in their group. These losses need to be planned for from the first year and do not be surprised when life happens to your students.

Alex said...

So, the sort of allowance I was thinking of wasn't an extra year or whatever if a professor has pregnant students in the lab. It was more "Well, this project is producing good papers but not quite as many as you'd expect, but the professor is clearly a good mentor for accommodating these students with families, so a few broader-impact-style brownie points for doing this good deed."

Also, if you want to go down the "Professors should know that things will happen and plan accordingly" card then one could turn it around and argue "Professors should know that other grown-up professionals have kids and still get evaluated on their performance at work" card and argue against the tenure clock. I don't disagree with the tenure clock, so I'm not going to go there. I'm just going to note that your arguments have implications.

Alex said...

EDIT: In the last paragraph I meant "stopping the tenure clock."

botheredbyacademia.com said...

I wonder how these profs were treated when they were having kids themselves. If academia cannot function around basic life events like having children, then it is not a sustainable system. Agreed that it is ridiculous to shift blame like this.

FrauTech said...

At my workplace having children seems to have the reverse effect. I notice once there are little children at home, the Dads suddenly spend way more time at work. Many of them have SAH wive's but I'm not sure whatever decision the Mom made in having babies can factor in here. It's like they start working longer hours (and they don't get paid for OT so that's not it either). I snidely guess it's to avoid having to deal with the kid until it gets older and manageable. If they're only home for an hour or two before the kid goes to bed they get all the positives of "Daddy's home!" without whatever work the wife/mother/mother-in-law/nanny/caretaker/etc puts in. There are a few good fathers here, but really the culture encourages otherwise.

So much so that some of the single moms I know here really struggle to get out in time to go pick up their kids for daycare. They are criticized for "leaving early" after usually putting in 10-12 hour days and just trying to get to daycare by the required time. Other people leaving for sports activities or whatever else doesn't appear to be as closely scrutinized. So I somehow suspect on average people here are more productive the first few years after a kid.

Anonymous said...

I understand your argument with the tenure clock, but having a baby yourself is not quite the same thing as one of your students, or even one of wives of your students have a baby. I just don't think the two situations are equivalent.

I am going up for tenure and I had a total of 8 students so far. Among these: one was unproductive because he didn't want to work with me and was just waiting to jump boats once his actual chosen professor got funding (so he didn't like the project/wasn't motivated), another one was just unproductive because he had no clue, one was in a commuting marriage and was in huge distress when the husband cheated on her and asked for a divorce. Only one student was bam, bam bam, paper, paper paper, and that one is pregnant now :)) Among the rest, one is good, one very very bad, one mediocre and the last one is company sponsored and does whatever the heck he wants. Luckily they were unproductive at different times, so I could still make it. I'll take anytime a pregancy of a good student for a clueless student or mentally distressed one.

Anonymous said...

And anyway,that's not the point. In your tenure file you simply cannot rant about the various problems of your students: divorce, pregancy, stupidity etc. The are all equally damaging:) It's just not acceptable to put them in your file. I don't think you can even put your own pregnancy in the file. You do get one extra year, but don't get to rant about it.

Anonymous said...

My research group would be more productive if one of my students didn't spend so much time away from work to take care of his dog (and not during a lunch break -- in addition to lunch and coffee time). Can I put that in my tenure file, maybe with a picture of the dog?

FemalePhysioProf said...

There is a slightly more subtle aspect to this underlying issue raised in this post.

Perhaps female science professors are considered more family-friendly and therefore more likely to attract students/postdocs planning to start families. This bias may exist regardless of whether or not a particular female professor's group is actually family friendly or not. It is an example of unconcious gender bias--we simply assume women are more understanding of work/family conflict and make choices about the research groups we seek to join based on this bias and our own personal plans.

So, while I would never blame the lil' chillen for my poor productivity as a faculty member, this could be part of a larger issue of gender bias that institutions might do well to measure, if not address.

Anonymous said...

What about the opposite. Can a grad student blame a pregnant advisor for their lack of productivity?

Anonymous said...

I second the request for a post on sabbaticals, especially sabbaticals-with-kids-and-spouse.

All but one of my female trainees got pregnant while in my lab, and the last one has been looking broody. It would never occur to me to blame them for my low productivity. (I blame my own kids for that!). I think Alex's points are really an argument for giving grad students the option of pushing their "Ph.D. clock" back, and giving postdocs a decent leave. And figuring out how to do both of those things in a way that doesn't directly penalize them or their PI. That's what we should be fighting for.

Anonymous said...

Wow, FSP, I just had that conversation with a grad student in our lounge. As an older female grad student, I can anticipate, that in the right circumstances, I might want to start a family while in grad school. I mentioned that this might be a good reason to have a female advisor.

After I went home, I reconsidered, and realized exactly how gender biased that idea might be. But, given you only have one advisor, is it not a little more likely that a FSP with kids might be more understanding than MSP? I know my previous (very young) male advisor who was not tenured yet would have been awful in a family style situation and would write the letter for his file that you describe.

Anonymous said...

It is just shocking that anyone would be so tackless to put their jaded scapegoating in writing on a tenure dossier.

Anonymous said...

I think the confusion on this board is a perfect example of the fallacies in the "subsidy mentality" of left leaning academia playing themselves out.

The tenure clock is stopped if the professor gets pregnant ...correct.

But its not stopped if a postdoc/student gets pregnant....correct.

But the productivity of a professor is linked to his students ...correct.

But a professor is supposed to take responsibility for students and know that life happens ...correct.

You see what's going on? The basic issue is... if you make subsidy for X, why not make that subsidy for Y as well? Then, someone argues back that Y is not as important as X and blah...blah...blah...

The answer is simple. Remove ALL subsidies, don't stop tenure clocks for family events of anyone. Life happens and everyone has to just suck it up.

Anonymous said...

On one hand, I think the professor's productivity is dependent on many grad students and postdocs, so one unproductive student (for whatever reason) shouldn't affect the prof's work. And students can be unproductive for many reasons. On the other hand stopping the clock for a prof with a student who needs maternity / paternity leave would give the prof some incentive to encourage students to have normal lives. You definitely hear about cases where a prof is very down on the idea of a student or postdoc having a family. Stopping the clock might ease some of the pressure.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Actually, an assistant professor's productivity should be nearly independent of the productivity of his or her students. I only had one student finish a PhD before I got tenure and only one or two of my pre-tenure papers had students involved.

Getting tenure should not be tied to setting up a research factory, where the professor is a manager rather than a researcher.

Alex said...

gasstationwithoutpumps-

That's easier said than done in laboratory sciences. Even if the assistant professor leaves the desk and heads to the lab and rolls up the sleeves and does hands-on work, many things in laboratory science are team efforts. Besides, a professor who also has to write grants and teach classes and do administrative stuff has less time to be in the lab with the instruments than a postdoc or even a grad student (or at least a grad student who is done with classes and isn't teaching).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My experience was in computer engineering, in which most experimentation can be done by one person. My teaching load was quite high (none of this reduced teaching load the first-year that scientists on the same campus get) and the department was a new one, so there were no grad students or existing research projects to tap into.

A campus that requires faculty to have successful PhD students before granting tenure is going to have a revolving door, because the tenure clock and the time-to-degree are almost the same.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11.29, you may want to reconsider choosing a female advisor when planning to start a family for an other reason. Several of us went through freaking hell when having babies pre-tenure, and some of us have little tolerance for other people's different ways of handling difficulties. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just explaining the mechanism...
for example the least sympathetic person I know to ast prof who have babies pretenure is an older woman who gave up the idea of marriage and family entirely in order to dedicate her life to science... she expects nothing less from the rest of us. it may be delusional, but it's a very useful info to have when deciding who to ask to for tenure letters....

Anonymous said...

I second Anon@2.33. Very careful when choosing female advisors if you plan to start a family. Childless female faculty are often (very) envious and bitter and there is a high chance that she will be the opposite of understanding. Some older female faculty with grown children and who went through difficulties back in their time when sexism was worse than today might resent you having it easier than they did. However, sometimes you can find understanding female faculty, like myself, who will be nice and supportive lol But be aware that your advisor being female will not be any guarantee for support, unfortunately it might be the opposite.

Anonymous said...

FSP,

I have been reading your blog for years and have just been notified that both the department and the dean strongly support my tenure case. I cannot credit you entirely for this happy turn of events but I have been indirectly mentored by you and I think your blog helped me navigate some tricky waters, avoid others and just ignore some others.

I too did have family concerns which proved just to be concerns.

Thanks for your wisdom from the ether.

ANON.

Female Science Professor said...

CONGRATULATIONS! (and thanks for the nice comment)