A blogosphere discussion on work-life balance in academia

Jenny F. Scientist over at her blog A Natural Scientist has written some great posts on the work-life balance and being in academia. Her first post, “Not all choices were created equal,” was written after she completed reading The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, which is one of the books I’ve been meaning to read. An excerpt from this post:

But these are not precisely free choices. To some extent, yes, we are all constrained by outside forces in our decisions, but women and mothers are constrained more. If maternity leave means no promotions, if having a child before tenure means no tenure, if even new female professors are consistently paid $10,000 less than their male counterparts- the choices are not equal for men and for women. We choose, but we cannot choose willingly, freely, if our alternatives are constrained by our gender.

I loved reading this post, if for nothing else then to know I’ve found another person out there who really struggles with many of the same concerns I have, not only on a meta scale but in the smaller choices of being in academia and doing science research. I wrote in a comment on her page that I’ve always had a problem with many of the practices in this country as being so narrow minded and business oriented. I think it should be possible for a married couple to each hold a part time job and still come up with a way to have health care benefits, similar to the few academic couples who “job share.” I know there would be extra paperwork, but I think that occasionally free market business needs to be regulated by the government in order to help people’s lives be more enjoyable. This is my husband’s and my dream: that we could each work part time while we are raising kids. Husband has his own business, so if that works out, he’ll be fine, because he can work from home and set his own hours. Me, on the other hand, I would most like to have a part-time academic job while my kids are young. But because of all of the career consequences of such a decision at this point in America, I’m not sure if I see that happening or not. It may be a choice, what to do, but it doesn’t NEED to be such a difficult one, with so many trade offs and sacrifices. It isn’t even as bad as it is here in many countries in Europe and even in South America!

Recently she wrote another post, about her continued disturbance about the price of motherhood, and I found this one interesting too. In this post she admits that her ideal is similar to mine; that she would work in academia but she would work part-time, and also get to spend a lot of time with her kids. Like me, she believes that staying home full time would not work for her sanity. She explains the problem with wanting to work part-time in a professorial position, and it is the same in my field:

Except it probably won’t happen that way. Statistically speaking, I will be unable to find a decent part-time job. Even if I do, the ratio of my earnings to either what I would earn full-time or to childcare costs will be a small, small number. And I certainly can’t get a part-time job being a professor and running a lab. The straight path doesn’t work well with childbearing, and it doesn’t work well with less than 60-hour weeks. At least not in my field.

All of these concerns bother me extremely as well. But what to do about them? In the past six months I’ve been thinking about the option of becoming a professor at a community college. My understanding is that it is a myth that community college professors don’t do research; some do. But it is certainly much lower key research, with fewer papers and less prestige. A community college professor will not become a big name in her field, but she will contribute. And she will teach students, but they may be of a different make-up and caliber with different primary concerns than those that she would mentor at a top research university. I’m at a university where I’m being trained to be a top researcher, and it often feels like a lie that I know that I may not pursue that. There is so much about the “leaky pipeline” of women in academia, and to me it’s no wonder why, but there is a pressure to not be another leak out of the pipe. In Jenny’s post she also links to posts by Thus Spake Zuska about Life as a leak, parts I and II. In her first post, Zuska writes some stuff that explains my own concerns about “choosing” life as a professor at a community college:

Leaking has the whiff of failure about it, and even though the leaky pipeline represents a system that is not working, a system that is failing women, somehow the stigma of the failure attaches to the women who leak, not to the faulty science pipeline. No matter the reason for a leak, it’s always the woman’s fault. She left because she just couldn’t make it. Absent some incredibly obvious and totally egregious, well-documented specific incident of bias and discrimination, if she had been able to succeed, she would have – but she didn’t, so it’s proof she just wasn’t good enough. In some cases, an individual woman is so talented you can’t ignore it, and she appears to have chosen the leaky path of her own free will. However, this just proves that she didn’t have a strong enough desire and will to succeed in academia, and therefore she wasn’t worthy of becoming a professor. She may have had the smarts, but she didn’t have the devotion, so in that sense she just wasn’t good enough.

To sum up: either she stinks, or she’s unworthy. Academic science remains desirable and good. Make no mistake about it, keeping a focus on each individual woman as a special case that is not illustrative of any larger issue is an important tactic in maintaining the status quo and avoiding engagement with gender politics in any substantive fashion.

In part II of her posts on being a leak, Zuska writes:

You can say we actively chose to leave the academic path, and some of us never gave it a backward glance. We chose, but it was a choice with a lot of push behind it. And we were all aware of how we were viewed by those who stayed on the path – those who were still in the pipeline. We had leaked out through our own fault. That is, there was nothing wrong with science – the problem was with us. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would have done so. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would never have wanted to do anything else. So leaving was evidence of our incompetence.

Maybe so, but leaving academia was marked by an increase in choices: what kind of work to do, who to work for, where to live, which path to take in the career. There was no longer one model for success; success was whatever we defined for ourselves, whatever we set out to make of our lives. For me, leaving academia meant feeling giddily untethered, almost adrift, for awhile. Inside academia, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to end up. Outside academia, there was no path except the one I would create. It was liberating and frightening. How would I know when I had become sufficiently impressive?!?!?

I find myself reading about these and thinking – why do I think I want to be a professor? In previous posts I have written about feeling like I don’t belong in academia, and I do wonder often if I want to a professor at a top research university or at a community college, or somewhere in between. But I don’t often consider jobs outside of academia. Maybe my reading of my peers is mistaken, but I have spoken to many of the people in my department and I don’t feel that academia is the only accepted career track. A decent number of my department’s graduates go into industry, where they lead research there, and it has never occurred to me that these people might not be considered scientists by those in academia. Now, I am a little bit younger than the other women bloggers I’ve referred to, so maybe there has been progress regarding other options for PhD’s in the past few years. Or maybe it just varies by department. But I myself haven’t considered industry, mainly because I think I want to teach; I think I may even want to teach at a (gasp) teaching-focused institution. But then, as I think about work-life balance issues, maybe I should consider research in industry. A professor that I really like at my school works full time in industry and teaches one course a year as an adjunct. Maybe I could combine teaching and research in that manner, and perhaps work-life issues would be better balanced at a place such as a pharmaceutical company where the atmosphere is different from the clique of academia. Or maybe I’m just romanticizing it because it’s something else, it’s something unknown, so it might be better, right?

Oh, so many things to think about. In the meantime, I’ll conclude the post with more books relating to this topic that I hope to read at some point:


2 thoughts on “A blogosphere discussion on work-life balance in academia

  1. Hey,

    I guess thinking about work/life balance after I finish grad school isn’t something I’ve been worrying about yet, since its probably still another 6 years away for me. So I really have no idea what the time restrictions are on trying to get a tenure track type position. But certainly tons of people go and do research in industry, where that type of stuff is probably more flexible.

  2. I ask my self questions like this all the time. I would love a 40 or 50 hour a week job where I can read, write, think, teach and research. I worry that my reproductive years are my tenure years.
    I don’t want to be a horrible mother, and I want to be able to do a job that challenges my intellect.

    Is there any evidence that colleges are willing to give people part time jobs for less pay even if you don’t job share with a spouse?

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