Thursday, January 22, 2009

Non-Linear Life & Science

The current graduate education system that requires long hours over many uninterrupted years works well for some students (and their advisors), but it is perhaps not the best system in some? many? cases, and it is not 'family-friendly' in a systematic way for those students who are not the stereotypical unmarried monomaniacal types.

There has been discussion about how the (for some people) unappealing aspects of this system might be one reason for the lack of diversity in science. Let's assume for the following discussion that diversity is a desirable thing and that we want to find effective ways to encourage more people to become involved in, and stay in, scientific and related careers.

Efforts to date to encourage women and others to become (and stay) scientists, engineers, and mathematicians have had some success, in some fields more than others. I don't need to look at the numbers to know this. Early in my career it was not unusual for me to be the only -- or one of very few -- women at a conference session (or a faculty meeting). Now I see more women in my professional life, though most of them are students and postdocs, and it is rare for me to be the only woman in a room of scientists though it still does happen.

But progress has been slow and insufficient. The efforts to date have focused on such things as eliminating the worst, most evil and overt forms of discrimination and harassment, and on encouraging -- rather than actively discouraging -- women and members of other underrepresented groups from being scientists.

Can we conclude that this isn't going to be enough, or has there not yet been enough time? Perhaps I am impatient, but I think it isn't going to be enough.

That brings us to the issue of whether/how the academic system can change -- perhaps in dramatic ways -- to make it a truly diverse, representative environment.

So now let's assume for the sake of further discussion that one way to encourage a broader representation in the sciences is to make the system more flexible. From what I have seen in recent years, my male grad students and postdocs are just as interested in having a 'life' as my female students and postdocs, so people of all sorts may well be interested in changes to the system.

Even in the best of circumstances, a graduate student's academic program takes time and involves a lot of hard work. Most students need time to learn how to do research, many take classes, and some teach. Research is not a linear activity. And then there are the writing issues..

As a result, the typical time for a science Ph.D. is in many cases already longer than the average grant or guaranteed support from a department, so advisors and students already need to put together various sources of funding to keep the student supported (and eligible for healthcare benefits) for the duration of a Ph.D. program. Adding to the time-to-Ph.D., for however good a reason, can be difficult for all concerned.

Despite these difficulties in the current system, I have seen successful situations in which graduate students (male and female) with families have managed to balance life and academics without going (too) insane. In some cases, an agreeable situation is worked out between the student and the advisor and/or department in terms of how the student will manage their academic program. If these arrangements involve reduced work hours and prolonged time to degree, it's easiest if the student is in a well established or large research group. It can be more difficult for all concerned if the advisor is a tenure-track faculty member and/or has a small group.

I've mostly been talking about graduate students, but of course postdocs and tenure-track faculty face similar challenges. For example, I was able to work something out with my department chair re. teaching load when my pre-tenure daughter was born (I didn't take any maternity leave), and that turned out to be all I needed. Even so, I think it would be better for all concerned if faculty felt free to take parental leaves and/or stop the tenure clock, without concern that this would in fact have a negative impact on the tenure decision.

Maybe the current system does allow most people with families to manage somehow, but even if it does, word doesn't seem to be 'out' that it's possible to have a family and an academic life at any phase, from student years to faculty position. And even though it is possible, it can be very difficult and perhaps it doesn't need to be quite so difficult.

So, can Academia change to make Science more appealing to more people, and if so, how?

First, a selfish answer: In the sciences, one of the main issues is how the funding system would have to change. Without changes in the funding system, I don't think much else can or will change. That is, if I am still expected to write annual reports on my grants and be extremely productive in order to get new grants to support new students, it would help me, as a PI, if the funding agency and my department/university were prepared to help me help a student or postdoc who needed time and/or support for important non-academic life events and activities.

That's my point of view as a senior person with a kid whose age finally has two digits in it. When I was younger and had a baby/toddler, I was often tempted to write in my annual and final grant reports that I did such-and-such research and I took care of a very young child. I never did, but if there had been a separate box at the time for "Other information that may be relevant to the evaluation of your research activities", I would have included this very relevant information.

And if there had been supplementary funds that people with families could apply to for help with family situations (e.g. childcare) during the summer, when we are not paid by our universities, I would have definitely applied. The amount of summer salary I could raise from grants in rare cases approached but never exceeded the amount I spent on childcare so that I could do the research I was funded to do.

Another part of the solution has to be increased access to high-quality affordable childcare centers that employ well trained, sufficiently compensated care-givers. Such centers are expensive -- more expensive than can reasonably be supported by the fees parents pay. And if it's difficult for faculty parents to afford these places (assuming their kids even get in), it may be difficult or impossible for student parents, even with a sliding scale fee structure.

These places also need to be more flexible to accommodate different preferences and needs in terms of amount and timing of childcare. At some centers, even if your kid gets in before they start college themselves, you typically have to send them full-time, with no interruptions or you lose your spot. But some families would prefer part-time, and some would prefer summers only, and various other combinations. It's not currently feasible for the centers to be this flexible.

Would it be worth it to a university or state or country to help people get the childcare they want and need when they need it and to make other changes necessary to make the family/career balance more possible for more people?

It wouldn't be economic if you just crunch the numbers, so it would have to be worth it in terms of the benefits to the community and society to increase the ability of people -- whatever their personal situation -- to acquire degrees and manage their careers. It would have to be worth it, despite the 'upfront costs', to increase diversity and to encourage more people to pursue careers -- such as those involving science, engineering, and math -- that benefit society.


Jenn, PhD said...

Interesting post FSP
I wonder though, if one should also factor in the COST to society in terms of lost resources when someone drips from the pipeline because there isn't that support? Can we really afford to train people knowing they will leave? It may still not make it economically beneficial to provide affordable access to quality childcare, but it might make it closer to a balance...

barbara said...

I'm not sure that having a demanding life as a grad student will ever be feasible, at least in fields like mine, where research moves on very fast. On the other hand, the time when you have to really work A LOT is short - I would say, three to five years. So there's time to have a family (or maybe just a life) after, or before.

And of course affordability of quality childcare is a key point. I stay productive through having my children in care 10hrs/day, including school vacation time when I'm not on holiday.

I like(d) breastfeeding, so for each child I took full leave for several months and halftime leave until one year of age: each time it was VERY hard to restart my research.

Wendy said...

Thank you for a great post.

Something on the work vs life, flexibility vs getting tenure discussion in childcare that tends to be missing is that quality childcare needs don't end with a child entering grade school. I finally have one of the precious spots in the campus daycare center for my preschooler. However, I still juggle after school care for my first grader. School gets out at 2:50 pm on about 80% of the school days, the rest either release at 1:15 pm, 11:50 am, or the random days with no school. Add in snow days, 2 hour weather delays and the like, and it's a mess. This requires shifting schedules, hiring college students of dubious quality, and exchanging play dates.

Greg said...

Great post with lots to chew on. My university automatically grants an extra year to the tenure clock when a new child arrives in the family (whether by birth or adoption). This is granted to assistant professors regardless of gender. This can happen up to three times during the tenure process. Of course one can always say they don't need the extra time and some do. The merits of this system can certainly be debated but personally I think it is a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

How about the idea that Paul Romer and others have pushed for? To take funding for graduate students away from PIs and give it to, well, graduate students?

One way to do this would be to increase NSF or similar scholarships ten or twenty-fold. At the same time most federal grants would stipulate that none (or maybe only a very small percentage) of the money could be spent on tuition and stipends for graduate students.

The idea is that grad students funding packages would be portable, not only for a few elite fellowship recipients (e.g. the NSF today), but for a very large fraction (perhaps a majority) of all US doctoral students.

Such a change would have many sweeping effects, but when grad students can vote with their feet *after* getting a chance to see what working in a certain environment is really like, school and PIs are much more likely to adopt pro-grad student policies, including better family care, flexible work policies, and so on. Probably also the average time to complete a Ph.D. would fall. Universities would have to end the ridiculous shell game that is tuition dollars for Ph.D. grad students. I don't know about state schools, but at private institutions graduate tuition seems to me to exist only as a way to redirect federal "research" dollars into the university's general fund.

At the same time, in theory some of the pressure would be lifted off of the PIs shoulders, because their average grant could be much smaller to do the same amount of work.

Anonymous said...

As a MSP now with three children (and fortunately tenure), I have to agree that one of the most glaring problems in empowering the workforce in academia (and, more broadly, in all work in the US) is no truly suitable plan for child care other than, "Well, I guess one parent will have to stay at home." Your comments about daycare being expensive and inflexible ring very true. And if it's tough for the professors, of course it's ridiculously tough for graduate students.

The argument I've heard back is -- well, it's your choice to have children, so you have to deal with it. (Why should non-child bearing people have to support your lifestyle choice?) That argument seems a clear case of where economic arguments fail -- a tragedy of the commons type problem -- that ignores that children represent all of society's future, and society must take some (but not all!) responsibility for their care.

I would have liked to think as an academic that universities would be the place to "lead the way" in this regard for the rest of the workforce. If anything, my impression is that they're even more backward, perhaps because of a long history where the (male) professor worked and the wife would stay home with the kids.

Things have got to change.

Anonymous said...

Much of what you propose is good, but there's also another dimension to consider as long as we're talking about making academia accessible to more people with difficult work-life balance issues:

Much of what you propose costs significant money, and the cost of education is already rising significantly faster than inflation. Anything that makes education more expensive pushes it further out of reach of people from various under-represented backgrounds.

Of course, if it brings significant value-added diversity that benefits the students, it's worth subsidizing these things. However, I look at the representation numbers in non-science fields, fields where work-life balance and grad school funding are certainly not easy, and I wonder if this is the key variable that explains the numbers in science. In many fields, Ph.D. students are expected to TA full time while also getting significant research done. That is no healthier for personal life than the demands of scientific research, yet those fields are more diverse.

Maybe this is the crucial issue for science, but I think that people on the other side of campus would be justified in wondering why support for science students who are unable to meet the timeline of a grant is deemed progressive while they are expected to TA full time. I think that undergraduates would be justified in wondering why high quality daycare for faculty and Ph.D. students is more important than opening up additional sections of courses that they need to graduate.

Anonymous said...

BTW, to be clear, I'm not opposed to these things per se. Diversity is a good thing that is worth spending money on. The question is how much diversity bang you get for your buck from any particular program. And people on the other side of campus are justified in wondering whether measures specific to fields that already get significant funding (e.g. support for grad students whose grants run out) should be a priority when in many departments the students are just expected to TA. Likewise, undergraduate students are entitled to wonder whether solving a problem for faculty and Ph.D. students benefits them to such a great extent that it's worth spending funds on that problem instead of, say, providing enough required classes at an affordable tuition rate.

If what you propose delivers significant diversity bang for the buck, then it is worth it. But a word of caution is in order when talking about significant money, because (amazingly enough) science faculty and their Ph.D. students are not the only people on campus.

daisy mae said...

i think that one of the major keys to a more flexible workspace for grad students is actually empowering them. for example, my undergrad advisors encouraged me to look for a school/program that had what i wanted. i ended up at a great university in a small mountain town, with an interdisciplinary fellowship. i chose this particular university because every grad student i talked to while visiting mentioned that it was a collaborative environment, and that 90% of the PI's (across departments) understood that students needed to have a life outside the lab.

i'm the only grad student in my lab (surrounded by a brilliant postdoc and 3 lazy lab techs) and am in classes - but my advisor knows that the coursework is an investment that will assist me in developing my research down the line.

i was also advised that if i were to have children, now is the time - because 1) my advisor would allow for time off and 2) the university provides daycare at severely reduced costs to students.

Anonymous said...

The question of daycare is particularly acute in career professions but it is really an issue for the whole of society. How can society afford to miss out on the contribution to society from half the workforce because they must stay at home taking care of the babies/children/young ones? Apart from being incredible unfair to we-know-whom and imposing deeply reactionary norms on innocent people, this way of organizing society is extremely uneconomic. A good deal of the discussions of who is to pay for the daycare of your child are not motivated by justified concern for taxpayers money, they are fundamentally a question of defending a nineteenth century ideology against the onslaught of the present. If tax payers in the USA can bail out banks to the tune of gazillions of $ you can afford to invest in daycare also.

John Vidale said...

This discussion opens many necessary issues but admits the only way to solve them involves suspension of "crunching the numbers". Our state legislature clearly would prefer that we teach more, research less, and request lower salaries, and have targeted us for a 14% cut at the moment.

If there is extra money lying around legislatures for more daycare, flexi-schedules, and family-related extended leaves, are profs really the first priority? And if so, the pros and cons for teaching and research productivity should be an important part of the discussion.

Maybe I'm unique, but I already feel pampered and privileged an a prof, more than I deserve for working longs hours in a job I love. I don't know of another job with a better mix of perquisites.

Cloud said...

HI FSP, I thought I'd give you a view from someone who DID leave academia. I definitely thought about this when deciding whether to take the postdoc or the industry job I was offered at the end of my PhD. It wasn't the only reason I went to industry, though- my interests were more closely matched to the opportunities in industry, as well. I have a toddler and work in science in industry now, and it seems that balancing work and family is a little easier here, probably because HR departments are afraid of lawsuits.

However, even in industry, you think HARD about the timing of babies. I work in biotech, which is a volatile industry. Lay offs are pretty common. If you get laid off when you're pregnant, you lose all maternity benefits, even the state disability leave. So you can imagine a worse case scenario of getting laid off right before you could go out on leave, and then having to either try to run a job search with a newborn (HA!) or just burn through your severance package (granted because it usually takes months to find a new job) as maternity leave.

So I think the problem, while perhaps exacerbated by certain aspects of an academic career, is more general. I think our society has yet to adjust our expectations for how families will be run to meet the modern reality of two working parents. And sadly, if you try to talk about this with some non-parents, they just snap that "you chose to have kids" and gripe about what slackers we parents are for having to take days off to deal with sick kids. Honestly, sometimes I think my husband and I should move to a more enlightened country. He has New Zealand and British citizenship, so it would be pretty easy to do.

Anonymous said...

We could set up a system like back in the USSR, where the entire extended family was forced to live together in the same apartment. Wives went to live with the husband's family of course, but we could change that for the sake of living in a more enlightened time. You wouldn't be able to get a tenure job outside of your city of residence, but at least you'd have not too much competition for positions at your university from outsiders. Unless you lived in a really big city like Moscow or New York.

And since everyone had a job, the retired grandparents and great grandparents would take care of the kids. I'm pretty sure I saw the old folks way more often than my own mom until I turned 6. Solves the day-care problem at least.

Plus, if you go to watch your local football team play, you'd know it was really made up of mostly locals due to the aforementioned way of raising kids, and not imported, well-paid, whiny Brazilians who still can't ensure that you go far in the Champions League.

But seriously, Curt Fisher's idea has promise, despite some pitfalls, it sounds better than the way grants are set up now.

Anonymous said...

On the other end of the spectrum, consider someone like me who decided that there wasn't enough support for those with children and therefore decided to delay grad school until the kids were older.

By the time I get my Ph.D. and slog through the quasi-mandatory (for chemists) post-doc, I will be 45 or so. Really, what are the odds that anyone would offer a woman in her mid-forties a tenure-track position? Pretty much nil, sadly...unless I consider dropping research entirely and going to a liberal-arts college.

I don't regret investing a number of years in my children. I do regret living in a society where late entrants on the academic stage don't have much of a chance at success.

Anonymous said...

Great post - but I think there's another component to the "having a life" issue as well. Most scientists I know have either been married since early grad school or are terminally single. This is at least partly because the life of a scientist - not just the hard work and low pay, but also the social environment and (most unavoidably) the frequent mandatory moves - is just not conducive to developing a relationship in which the timing of children even becomes a question.

I'm going through this right now, in fact. I'm a postdoc, and I've met someone, and my boss made me go on the market this year even though I'm funded to be here until 2010, and now I have interviews. What happens if I get a job? I can't reasonably expect my boyfriend to follow me to a city that neither of us has chosen after less than a year, or to accept a long-distance arrangement that may never change (yes, I know such situations are common, even typical, for academics, but to many non-academics, who have the luxury of choosing where they live and staying there, long-distance relationships are considered an extreme hardship). Other scientists seem to consider it insane bordering on criminal to even consider turning down a job based on its nowhere-near-here location. So, unless I want to leave science entirely (and do what?), I have little choice but to end the relationship.

And this is not just me. This is a lot of people in a lot of places. There's no way to get around the small number or uneven geographic distribution of jobs, but it would be helpful if the attitude of senior scientists was a little more supportive toward their students and postdocs who want to tailor their job search to a particular geographic area, or consider less prestigious positions than they might be able to obtain, because of personal concerns.

John Vidale said...

At the risk of being a curmugeon, I have cognitive dissonance reading in yesterday's entry that grad students who insist on a life outside school probably should find another calling, but profs, drawing 5 to 20 times the salary in tenured or tenure-track (which > 90% of the time results in tenure) jobs, need more of a variety of expensive and pressure-relieving perquisites.

Both situations strike me as finding the balance, rather than declaring the current situation is untenable and unwise.

Perhaps that is FSP's intent in crafting these back-to-back posts?

By the way, I'm recommending FSP - the book to my grad students, it's a very sensible and accurate book.

Anonymous said...

I've said this in other places and I'll say it here:

Academic science careers (which are a subset of the set of possible and even rewarding science careers) are insanely competitive because there are too many Ph.D.'s chasing too few positions. The situation is even worse in research universities because of the greater prestige attached to those positions. Professors train students who become professors who train students etc. and the result is exponential growth until the system nears carrying capacity. Once the system is near carrying capacity, you've got a ton of students chasing a miniscule number of jobs, and a bunch of PIs (including new PIs suffering all the disadvantages of being new) chasing after a fixed pool of funds.

This situation will inevitably be insanely competitive, and such competitions will favor people who make extreme personal sacrifices. This is not to say that every personal sacrifice is actually conducive to productivity, or that success without extreme personal sacrifices is impossible. There are far too many laudable counter-examples. However, the odds will still be in favor of those who make extreme sacrifices.

Ph.D. over-production is the disease. Insane competition that favors those who sacrifice their personal lives is the symptom. I'm not writing this to justify anything or laud the virtues of those who sacrifice everything. Far from it. I chose an undergraduate institution in part because the demands, while still substantial, tend to be comparatively more reasonable than the demands of a research university. I laud anybody who values reasonable expectations. However, at the end of the day, the reality is that Ph.D. over-production is the root of the problem, and there's only so much that can be done until we address that fact.

Cloud said...

@Alex, I don't think PhD overproduction that is the problem. I think the problem is the persistent idea that a PhD is primarily training to be a professor. As you say, there are lots of other rewarding careers that use the PhD. I think the problem is the assumption among some that all other jobs are second best to academic jobs and the fact that grad students get precious few opportunities to really explore what other careers are on offer. There are more "alternative career" days now than when I was in grad school, but I still talk to some grad students who are extremely clueless about what other options are out there. Also, looking back at the "alternative career days" I've attended as a student and as a panel member, I am disappointed by how un-alternative some of the careers featured were.

Anonymous said...

In order for the system to change, as FSP notes, the funding system would have to change. Right now, young pre-tenure US faculty have absolutely no choice about what they do with their time, and working 80 hours a week writing proposals, teaching, trying to get research started, etc. is the norm. As long as there are people who are willing to do this, inertia will drive the system more towards this work pattern and there will be no room for non-work-centric lives, whether they involve children or not. And the system can't realistically change with the way Universities in the US are funded, with the declining state contributions and increasing competition for high-profile faculty. (Not to mention the amount spent on sports stadiums...)

The system is getting worse and worse now when young faculty are given target dollar amounts for tenure, thus emphasizing money in as more important than scholarly work out. Fortunately some places in Europe have not yet adopted such a model, thus my being where I am--outside of America.

The problem with such a "success = funding" model is that it does emphasize the importance of being a working machine, and de-emphasizes the possibility that a well-rounded person will be more creative--and gasp, even more productive--thus an overall better scientist, by having spent some time away from a computer. So much of the current literature in many fields is hype, quickly dashed off letters to Nature sub-journals, not the sort of work that actually changes real life. Is this related to the change in working model from one favoring scholarly output to one favoring money in? I think it might be a factor.

By the way, my only beef with this entire line of questioning is that it assumes that the only way to have a life outside of academia is focussed on having children. What if you want to be a childless part-time artist, a photographer, a sculptor, or a musician? Or perhaps I'd like to do the Ironman on my 40th birthday, thus promoting health and wellness alongside women in science and engineering. Should not a system promote these options as possibilities for taking up some number of hours a week if it became permitted to not work 80 hours a week trying to get funding? Not all female academics want to have children, and to equate quality of life with that particular decision is misleading (albeit amazingly common).

Anonymous said...


You captured a snapshot of the concerns that my female engineering graduate student friends discuss frequently.

As a married graduate student, I am having difficulty finding balance; what about when I do have children? I want to be a (research) professor, but I've opened my mind to government/industry jobs mainly for the possibility of [non-judgmental] maternity leave and possible temporary part-time status. My greatest fear is to have to choose between the great loves in my life, my profession and my family, because I am struggling to successfully manage them simultaneously...

Furthermore, I hate the idea that, should I need to take a less-than-ideal job--or no job--perhaps my exertions in grad school are for naught? :/

Hopefully we'll work something out!

Anonymous said...


Good point about the number of people who seek an academic career vs. alternative careers. A few issues here:

1) As you observe, even at "alternative career fairs" a lot of not-very-alternative things are labeled "alternative." To some, being a PI at a national lab counts as alternative, despite the strong similarities between their jobs and research university jobs. To others, undergraduate institutions count as alternative. I remember my last day as a postdoc, where another postdoc said that I'm "leaving science" because I was going to a job at an undergraduate institution. (I refrained from punching him, hence avoiding incarceration.)

2) However much we talk up alternative careers, academia will always have a huge draw: With tenure comes significant freedom and security to explore your subject as you see fit (whether in the classroom or the research lab). That will be a big draw, and as long as such spots are rare the competition will be intense and favor the unbalanced.

3) It doesn't help matters that we refer to anybody who goes for a non-academic job (or sometimes even an academic job at a school that doesn't have Ph.D. students) as a "leak" from the pipeline. The problem is not that the pipeline leaks (there simply aren't enough faculty positions to go around, so some people will have to for for non-academic jobs), the problem is that it leaks certain groups of people disproportionately. A woman, minority, or whoever else who decides to go for a non-academic career has nothing to be ashamed of, and if that person enjoys her/his job then I salute that person for finding a rewarding career path. The problem for the academy is that we disproportionately recruit from certain groups, not that people go for non-academic careers.

If we exalt the research university faculty job as the sole metric of success, and have dismissive metaphors for people who do something else, then the competition to get this job will drive people to go to extreme measures.

Anonymous said...

Another related issue that troubles me greatly at this stage in my career is how much I'm getting paid. I'm in my early thirties and finishing up my first postdoc. I have student loans from my undergraduate degree, had a stipend that just covered my basic living expenses as a graduate student, and now have a salary that covers my basic living expenses, student loan payments, and not much else. As far as I can tell, I will be out of the debt I incurred in order to become a scientist in about five years, and will be able to start saving for retirement in earnest by the time I'm about 40. I did not appreciate when I started down this career path how little physicists are compensated for the amount of work they do and training they have. While I am all in favor of physicists having lives outside of work, I think simply allowing people to have more time on the tenure clock, longer postdocs, or more time to complete their PhDs will exacerbate the financial issues physicists face.

And I would like to second the point the anonymous postdoc made about being terminally single and not in the same place long enough to establish a meaningful relationship with anyone. I have been told by good mentors that in my field, I will be expected to take at least one more temporary position before getting any kind of reasonable "permanent" job, both of which are expected to be in different places because it "looks bad" if you stay in the same place and people will frown upon your application if you do this. It feels like another crazy hazing ritual - I spend ten years of my life moving around the country getting paid almost nothing so I can finally be considered worthy of maybe having a job with similar salary and benefits to the ones my classmates got straight out of college.

Cloud said...

@Alex- I agree completely with your latest post.

@Anonymous right before Alex- now that I have a child, I realize I'm a lot more resourceful than I thought I was when I was trying to look ahead from grad school. Being a household with two working parents has presented a lot of challenges, but my husband and I have always found solutions. Have faith in yourself. If you really want to be a research professor and have kids, you will find a way to do it. You just might be surprised by what other things you'll sacrifice to do it.

That said, you may benefit from a little networking to understand what options are out there. I've had jobs that I didn't even know existed in grad school. Is there an AWIS or WISE chapter in your area? Do you have an alumni network that you could tap into? If you answered no to both of these, try the national AWIS website- I think they have an online mentoring program. I'm a scientist, not an engineer, but if you are in a field at all bio or computer related feel free to email me at wandsci AT gmail DOT com.

Anonymous said...

Those are many good ideas that may help. Another issue, I know several women who have had advisers who acted unethically terrible towards them. Most of the women are still in science, amazingly, but these advisers continue to get new students and are not penalized, even when the students do stand up for themselves and confront the university about the problem. Maybe women have stronger negative reactions to these professors due to nature or nurture, but I for one have had my scientific career ruined by one of these men. I just can't enjoy science the way I used to. When the system rewards these kind of advisers, the leaky pipeline will continue. Who wants to put up with that just to work your behind off for years, be considered lucky instead of smart, maybe or maybe not find a tenure-track faculty job but perhaps in the middle of nowhere or somewhere expensive with a small starting salary, somehow deal with the 2-body problem, pray that your new department doesn't consist of jerks like these, not to mention try to have a family, get tenure, grants, etc, the actual work? No thank you.

No one stands up to them, even though everyone in the department, even the great advisers, as I'm sure you are FSP, know that they make most of their students miserable and they know it. This is a self-perpetuating system of more people like that surviving the process and the normal, sane people leaving.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post - When my son was born I was a postdoc at a big R1 university. The schedule was horrible, expected work hours exceeding childcare, long commutes because of the large city we lived in, etc.

I am still adjusting to the more family friendly nature of my new department that I am on the tenure track at (PUI). Most people leave at or slightly before 5pm to be with their families for dinner. While being family friendly no one has ever taken a maternity leave in the science department - there is still a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

I think that the work/life balance issue is *much* more than a childcare issue. The tenure timeline and academe in general is inhumane, regardless of whether you have children. We need to rethink the system and work within it to change it. But dang, if I know how to do this, other than getting into a department/college that believes in empowering the faculty/staff instead of the whack-a-mole model of academe.

Anonymous said...

I am in the same position as unlikelygrad and I agree 100% with her sentiments. Those who take time out for reasons such as caring for children are severely disadvantaged in the current environment. I won honours for top in my field at graduate level, completed my PhD part-time (using nationally recognised funding which I was able to change to part-time -the first person in my country to do so) and I now consider it highly unlikely that I will be offered a tenured job, as it is pretty clear that both increasing age and career breaks are important negative checks against tenure. Thus, ultimately, there is a great deal of lost talent and diversity. Not only society's loss, but a powerful message to our children that diversity is not valued.

Unknown said...

This has been on my mind a great deal lately while I anxiously ponder the status of my applications to grad school.
I am a single parent and worry about attempting to raise my child in a research discipline that rewards monomania. I figure that if I somehow managed to have a young child, carry 21 credits, work part-time, get divorced, have a demanding RAship, and make the Dean's list last quarter without losing my mind- then as long as my advisor isn't a complete sadist my pursuit of a PhD should work out.
However I waver b/c being a parent is an integral part of my life and I am determined to not be ashamed of it, but two of my recommenders strongly advised against me mentioning, either in my pers. statement or in any potential interviews, that I was a parent. I hadn't really thought about including that information before that but now I can't shake it out my head. So I have the choice of being honest, asking the questions I want to ask about childcare and healthcare, and portraying myself as a real person with limitations. Or withholding that information and passing myself off as a person with no life who lives and breathes the lab.

Off on a tangent: What is up with on-campus childcare anyway? The waiting list is forever long and at ours, despite the fact that it's on campus, its vacation schedule doesn't align with the university's so I'm always shuffling my son around between friends and sitters during exam week. The whole situation really does feel like it was designed to suit the needs of a two-parent family where one of the parents stays home or works only part-time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the terminal single female stuff. A mentor passed on a visiting scholar opportunity to me and I laughed out loud. Uproot for a year? why? I've uprooted for a bachelor's, master's, phd, postdoc 1, postdoc 2, current prof job. Like hell I'm going somewhere ELSE to 'visit'! But my mentor countered with "it's a scholar position - prestige - you're perfect -yadda yadda." I'm not a spring chicken. Moving around like a gypsy doesn't appeal to me anymore. I've 'visited' enough places, thank you very much.

I don't think the glut of PhDs is the problem. Women aren't leaking from the pipeline - they are actively deciding not to be a part of the insanity and bullshit called the ivory tower. It ain't ivory anymore. It's dark.

I think PhDs need more tools in their boxes so they can be competitive for different jobs, ie., not just R1, but teaching at small colleges, industry, tech. The whole point of a PhD WAS to specialize in a field and then become a prof who blazes the trail for their lifetime. It just doesn't work like that now. PhDs need lots of skills rather than specialized skills. So, academia needs to change its tune with mentoring and preparing students for whatever future they want.

Anonymous said...

I'm also not sure it's all about childcare. I WANT to be with my kids, not have them in childcare for 10 hours a day so I can do science. A few things that would help:

1. Paid parental leave. 1 year would be great.

2. A culture shift so that it's OK to scale back your effort, for whatever reason, and still be a scientist. Sure, those who scale back will make less money and won't be the big shots, but we should at least be able to keep our jobs. Why does it have to be all or nothing? I actually feel there is an element of this attitude around, at least at my institution (large state university, but 'soft money' field).

3. For students in particular, I completely agree that a change in the funding model for students would really help them be more flexible- give the $ directly to the student, not through grants to the PI.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure that having a demanding life as a grad student will ever be feasible, at least in fields like mine, where research moves on very fast."

And what if science moved slower? Why the hurry?

As far as I can understand it, there is nothing inherent in some science fields that makes them advance faster than others. It is people who decide to put everything in it, and other people who decide to fund only those who do, and this crushing competition by people with lives, and most importantly the (science) culture (us) that accepts this as something we cannot change.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post. Just to make the Americans jealous, I'll outline the UK system. Lectureships are tenured straight away, so there is no tenure-track pressure. Once you've got a lectureship, you can get on with your own indenpendent research. And having a baby gets you a full year of maternity leave (and you can't be fired while on leave). Everyone takes at least 4 months off for a baby - I can't understand how people manage with less.

In terms of publications per $ invested in research, I think the UK is pretty similar to the US, so it is possible for a more friendly system to work.

One drawback to the UK system is the imbalance in maternity / paternity leave. Mums get 1 year, Dads only get 2 weeks, which can mean businesses & universities don't want to hire women who might get pregnant. More parental leave for men would be a good solution.

Anonymous said...

I write as a senior female scientist now in my mid fifties with 2 children in their late twenties. I am concerned that so few of the comments are about what's best for the children. I put the advancement of my career on hold by taking part-time post-docs while my children were small. Yes, this delayed my career for a few years compared to full-time workers, but meant that I was able to keep up with the science and still get some intellectual stimulation without becoming totally exhausted and a stranger to my kids. It shouldn't be an all-or-nothing situation, there needs to be a work-life balance.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you Zed. I just had my 3rd child while pursuing an MD/PhD. Luckily, my current advisor is very understanding about students' having lives outside of lab, so he doesn't give me a hard time when I need to be with the kids.

He is actually my second PI -- I had to switch labs almost a year in, because my first advisor couldn't deal with the fact that I couldn't be in lab 24/7. He would get annoyed when I'd go to mandatory classes, so, as you can imagine, the childcare issues were just intolerable. He was a terminally single young PI, who had no life outside of lab whatsoever, and it made him incredibly bitter and resentful. It didn't help his productivity either. But I'm glad I spent some in his lab -- it made me determined not to become that unbalanced.

Unfortunately, with this last kid, I ended up on bedrest for a while, and since grad students don't get much maternity leave at my institution I basically didn't get paid for half the year. I have to wonder -- given the measly sum we get paid anyway (certainly less than my nanny does), would an extra month or 2 really hurt the university's bottom line?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Alex that this is largely a supply and demand problem. When universities have a huge pool of PhDs from which to choose, it's only rational for them to choose the most productive ones. It's true that being monomaniacal can decrease productivity for some people, but there are plenty of people who work 80 hours a week, produce excellent work, and produce a heck of a lot more work than people like me who only work 40 hours a week. I don't blame the university for preferring to hire and tenure them.

I do, however, blame the university for contributing to the problem by lowering the number of tenure-track positions, thus aggravating the supply and demand problem. The AAUP has disturbing stats on the explosion in the use of adjuncts and other non-tenure-track labor to teach classes; universities have also raised class sizes ruthlessly, and tried to automate education as much as possible with online classes and education "technologies". It's similar to what other businesses do to raise productivity: outsource jobs, replace workers with machines, and require more labor "off the books." But universities have an advantage: academic culture has bought into the idea that a true intellectual doesn't care about compensation, and if you're truly dedicated to your discipline, you shoud be willing to work at it 24/7. Other businesses *wish* they could instill that kind of mentality in their employees. Think of it -- in what other industry would it be perfectly standard to pay people 9 months of 40 hour-per-week salary, but receive 12 months of 60 hour-per-week labor, with no complaint from the employees?

Anonymous said...

For me, it’s clear that colleges and PIs pursue their own goals that can be different from mine (as a graduate student). University administration and PIs try to maximize funding in order to stay on the job. How can we expect them to care much about graduate students in particular and society in general? This sort of private parties’ interests result in all kinds of ugly distortions in academia, I guess.

The work-life balancing efforts remind me of an anecdote about a computer scientist who wanted to develop the cheapest diet. He loaded information about caloric content and cost of different foods in a database and wrote a program that minimized the cost of meals. The result was 14 glasses of vinegar per day. Astonished, he put further restrictions on nutrition values and food interchangeability. The final menu consisted of 14 cups of coffee with milk per day.

I strongly believe that work-life balance in academia is an ill-defined problem. The happiness of graduate students and staff is neither measured (is it measurable at all?) nor included in universities’ balance sheets. Even if schools give more benefits to graduate students and staff they will ultimately lose in a competition because there always be some school that can offer cheaper tuition.

I cannot untangle this Gordian knot alone so I decide to cut it altogether (leaving academia for good).

Anonymous said...


You're largely right about the limited number of positions, but be careful: If an expansion in the number of tenure-track jobs were accompanied by a proportional increase in the number of Ph.D. students enrolled, then the ratio of Ph.D. students to tenure-track openings would reach the same level in the long run, and we'd be right back where we are now.

Any change in the research university has to go beyond positive attitudes towards work-life balance, and include a recognition of (1) supply and demand issues and (2) the unsustainable nature of any model based on exponential production of Ph.D.'s, i.e. graduate programs must either get smaller or else stay flat while tenure-track hirings increase. Without addressing the underlying supply and demand factors, efforts to promote healthy work-life balance are largely doomed.

Finally, as I said above, attitude shifts in regard to work-life balance must be accompanied by a recognition that most students won't work in academia and that those who don't work in academia are perfectly good people who can be successful in important endeavors. Exalting the tenure track above all else only exacerbates the supply/demand problem.

Anonymous said...

From reading estraven's blog it appears that her field is mathematics. In math most grad students are supported by TA-ships, so they do not depend on their advisor for funding. However, the nature of research problems in pure mathematics often requires great mental (and arguably physical) stamina and single-minded dedication to solve them, and creative mathematical ability typically decreases with age.
Look at the biggest accomplishments in the last few decades- the proofs of Fermat's Last Theorem by Wiles and the Poincare Conjecture by Perelman. Both were open for over a century, and their solutions eluded hundreds of brilliant and dedicated people. Both were solved by men who (in their 30's) spent a decade withdrawing themselves from all other activities and working on the respective problems in isolation. Wiles and Perelman probably wouldn't be able to work in this way had they been for example primary caregivers for children, but the problems would not have been resolved. Instituting "work life balance" and the "slow track" in pure mathematics research is not much different than instituting it in professional basketball...

Anonymous said...

Alex - Good point. Part of the problem here is that the message grad students receive is not only that becoming an academic is the only worthwhile goal for a PhD student, but that you've only truly "arrived" in academia if you become a research professor in a graduate program. So creating more tenure-track positions alone won't solve anything, since those folks will all be pushing to start or expand grad programs at their schools, and then there will be more PhDs produced, and so on...

Sadly, my own mediocre department is trying to start a grad program (though it's been temporarily tabled because of the recession), and the reasons are the obvious ones: more prestige for us, teaching assistants who can take over the more onerous teaching tasks, more funding for our department, and possibly a new FTE or two. There has been little or no discussion of whether this would be at all good for the potential grad students or for the profession. And when it is suggested that we add some kind of training for our students for careers outside of academia, everyone shudders. We don't want to get our hands dirty by making contacts with the business world or the government, finding out how they work, finding internships for our students. All we want to do is train little clones of ourselves. Undergrad education is the same way: we all want to teach the upper division courses, where we're dealing with students who might go on to grad school in our field. I don't know - maybe it's just human nature. We like to teach people who are like us and help them follow our own path.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of good ideas here.

My only comment is regarding the inclusion of women without harassment. I went through a lot as a grad student that I shouldn't have - and I had no recourse against a tenured professor who had priors on his record, which had been dropped by the administration due to "misunderstandings". There were warnings about not having a family because it would ruin my career, I was hit on and made uncomfortable, and I was told how to handle my social life in unpleasant and inappropriate ways.

Until the old guard is gone and replaced with more open-minded and sensitive professors, women are going to have trouble in the sciences.

Anonymous said...

Children in care for 10 hours a day ! Might as well hire a live-in nanny. Child care at a New Zealand University 40 years ago was solved by the academic wives club (yes it was a long time ago !) who set up a nursery using a university house, and charged an hourly rate on a sliding scale from single student to rich double professor couples, and allowed that to be exchanged for volunteer time 'assisting' - minimum of 2 hours a week, which enabled parents to pop in between lectures or at lunch time and learn parenting skills from the professional care staff and organise play date swaps with each other.
But I do think firstly that anyone who is capable should do a PHD if they want to, it does not have to be an academic career reason,and a wider age range on campus would make time out for young parents easier. Secondly the two parents working model demands more flexible and humane working conditions commercially too, or we may as well be back in the Victorian era as far as the children are concerned. So more campaigning is very necessary. Everyone has a mother after all.
A little skepticism might be in order, or maybe a shift in 'respect for academic past'. The big inert over-formal, too many committees academic institutions or corporations don't always produce the best work and there is nothing to stop 'alternative' schools from springing up if the meritocracy sytem of 'best' universities was less prevelant.A bit more 'do-it-ourselves' and saying no to dependency on the largesse of the universities might be the way forward. I know it is a generational thing, there is nothing worse than the older female professor in the Department who had to fight her way through the male club system and barely mention her children, then attacking younger women who expect more of a life and their husbands to shoulder part of the childcare tasks. I am hoping my daughters will be less family sacrificing than I was for sure. They are the academics of the future after all.
Amiga Inglesa