Monday, November 21, 2005


Ask the Administrator: I Want Kids!

A female correspondent (it’s relevant) writes:


I graduated from one of those smarty-pants New England schools and moved to the Midwest to attend a Ph.D. program in sociology at State University (this was such a perceived “step down” that someone at my undergrad school accused me of making the school’s degree less prestigious by virtue of the fact that I was attending SU). However, now, several years later (and with a master’s degree in sociology), I am on the verge of leaving SU’s program for (surprise!) a teaching credential program with a concentration in secondary ed social studies.

I am a very strong student in the sociology program (publications, conferences, etc), but I’ve been struggling privately the last few years. I had real trouble with my prospectus - I simply couldn’t find a deep theoretical conflict around which to frame my research, although I was interested in a growing subfield of sociology. My advisors were of little help, and my prospectus defense was a disaster. Several months after that, I admitted defeat with the first idea and resolved to try again with a slightly different tack, also with little help from my advisors…

During this time I also married my grad school classmate. I really felt that things changed for me in the department after that. I felt like other professors saw me as a future trailing spouse more than a future colleague. Instead of talking about my dissertation, I found myself discussing job market strategies with professors who weren’t even on my committee (I never initiated these conversations. Ever).

And, of course, the job market is grim, etc. Worse, our department suffered a TA-ship funding cut after several years of large entering classes, which meant that I might have to take out loans to pay my tuition. In our department, younger students get funding preference, which leaves the older students bereft just as they need the money most in the dissertation writing years. The small probability of finding an academic job meant that I would run a significant risk of being unemployed when the loans came due. Add to that the lackluster dissertation idea, and changing directions seemed more and more attractive.

Additionally, I wanted a family (without the stigma of being a junior faculty mother) and time without the constant publish-or-perish stress of a tenure-track job. Teaching high school social studies would allow me to marry my interests in social science, working with young people, and a desire for a more sane life.

All the same, I feel like a total and absolute loser and failure for leaving graduate school. I come from a family where everyone has an advanced degree (many lawyers and doctors), and my family definitely disapproves my decision to leave (or “quit,” as they say). None of them has a degree that required a dissertation, and they all seem to feel that I am “so close to finishing.” While I don’t feel like this is the case, and I still don’t have a dissertation idea, I sometimes wonder if I am making a terrible mistake by leaving. I’m sure I could force myself to write a passable dissertation, but I wonder what the point of such misery would be when I know now that I do not want an academic career. Should I just buckle down, get a dissertation idea, and write? Nothing seems less appealing to me right now, but I wonder if not completing the Ph.D. is something I’ll be regretting personally and professionally for the rest of my life.

Second, I’d *really* like to have a child, but I am not sure when the best time to do this is. Assuming I don’t continue with my Ph.D., I’ll be entering ed school in the fall. Should I:

a. Have a baby in the six months after ed school ends and before the next school year starts, and as my husband is completing his Ph.D. [I’d try to find a full-time teaching job for the fall, unless my husband had found an academic job, since one of us will stay home with the baby]. The downsides of this plan are that I’d be pregnant while in school, I might have to student teach while pregnant, and that I might have to do job interviews while pregnant (and I worry about employment discrimination). The upside is that my husband could provide the childcare if I were working as a teacher, and we’d get to have the baby earlier (which is a big plus).
b. Complete ed school and work as a teacher, while waiting for husband, now with Ph.D., to get a job, first through an academic job search and then (if unsuccessful at that) a private-sector job search. At which point I’ll be, well, older than I am now.

If you were my dean, what would you advise me to do? Would your advice be different if you were not speaking as a dean, but as a father?

There are really two issues here: whether to bail from the Ph.D. program, and how to plan having a child.

My answer to the first question is yes, you should bail from the Ph.D. program. You’re obviously unhappy there, the dissertation isn’t exactly calling you, and the world doesn’t need another uninspired sociologist. Does that make you a failure? Let’s see: you got an advanced degree, you figured out what you really want in life, and you met the love of your life, with whom you established a nourishing relationship. I know a lot of people who would kill to fail that well. Family pressure is real, but you’re the one who would actually have to live the consequences of your decision. Besides, taking out more loans to finish a dissertation without a topic doesn’t make sense at all.

The question about having kids is tougher. It’s really, truly not for me to say what you should do, but since you asked, maybe I can offer some ideas to consider as you think about it.

First, have a talk with someone at the Ed school about how portable their particular state certification is. I know that certifications are often state-specific, so a credential earned at Midwest U may or may not be worth much wherever you end up. If your husband is planning the usual 50-state search (or anything close to it), rolling the dice on a state-specific credential may not make sense. (You might also want to ask about sociology as an acceptable discipline for social studies. Since No Child Left Behind changed the definitions of ‘qualified,’ some districts may insist on history instead.)

Second, keep in mind that timing a pregnancy to a particular month is a tricky business. You can certainly pick the moment to start trying, but there’s no guarantee that the first try will succeed. It might, but it might be the second, or the fourth, or the tenth, that finally works. Building a scenario as delicate as trying to hit (say) the beginning of summer assumes that absolutely everything will go right on the very first try. It might, but there’s no guarantee.

From my own life, I will just say that there’s no such thing as the perfect time. All else being equal, times when there’s a steady income, health insurance, and a committed partner in the picture will almost certainly be easier than when they aren’t, but beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. (The ‘no perfect time’ rule holds for career decisions, too. I took my first administrative position when The Wife was pregnant with The Boy; in some ways, it was a stupid thing to do, since my hours increased just when I was most needed at home. That first year, it wasn’t at all clear that I had made the right decision (and TW would back me up on that!). But I knew I was trapped otherwise, and administration was my way out of a dead-end teaching career. Had I waited for the perfect time to move up, I’d still be waiting.) For what it’s worth, I say that if you both really want to have a child, have a child. You’ll find a way, as parents always have.

I’m just old enough to remember when people still argued about women entering the workforce. One of the arguments in favor was that taking the moms out of the houses would force workplaces to become more family-friendly: shorter hours, good quality day care on site, etc. Anyone else remember that? It (mostly) hasn’t happened, of course, and parents are forced to make some awful choices. My impression is that it’s worse for women than for men – the biological clock certainly ticks faster, and it’s easier for a man to hide an impending birth – but the work speedup of the last twenty years has hit us all.

If the endless speedup is going to change, it will have to come from people (both women and men) being willing to reject unreasonable circumstances, and insisting on being both professionals and parents (both deans and dads). If that means enduring some static from the uninformed, well, it’s worth it. Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

You're dead on with the advice about teaching credentials being so state specific. She should also be ready to focus on history and the social studies as, in many places, sociology is rarely taught (if at all). Having said that, she might be able to easily work into a high school position and teaching a class or two at a local community college or state university that while in itself not an income, is a nice way to continue more specifically in the field of sociology. A master's in a "content field" _should_ qualify her for "highly qualified" in almost any state. Also know that she only needs to go for the license and not for any additional degrees in most states (that will decrease the amount of time necessary to go to the next step in her career). There are also states that allow someone to simply take the tests (often the ETS' Praxis I and Praxis II (the latter varies by state but is often 00081 Social Studies) and enter the professional or to enter an alternative licensure program which will allow her to work and complete her degree at the same time. While the demand in social studies isn't great, if she's willing to teach in an underserved and/or urban area, the alternative license just might be the ticket. And she would be head and shoulders above the rest in regard to content mastery that is the first step to teaching well.

I also applaud your advice on the personal front. I, too, would love to have the committed significant other but I was back in school at an earlier time where "trailing" was the only option and not always the best one after earning your own PhD :-)
Once again, lots of wisdom in what you've written, Dean Dad.

I agree that demand for social science teachers isn't the highest and she needs to be prepared to teach a wide range of social studies courses beyond sociology.

One idea: if her sociology studies were highly quantitative and she has a strong grounding in statistics, she might increase her marketability to high schools if she can also teach AP statistics to fill out her teaching schedule.
I heartily second (well, at this point, fourth) your advice.

1. If you don't want the PhD, THEN DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME GETTING ONE. Go do something else instead--you'll end up earning money a lot faster. The only reason leaving a PhD program feels like "failure" is that within PhD programs, people buy into that. It's like brainwashing. Run and don't look back.

2. There's never a good time to have kids. If you want a kid now, have one. Being in school while having kids isn't such a bad gig: your time is more flexible. Don't worry about job discrimination w/r/t pregnancy; I'm sure it happens, but you can't predict what other people will do, nor should you let what other people might (or might not) think dictate your life. I have a good friend who got a t-t job at a very prestigious school after she showed up 7 months pregnant for the job interview. IMHO, the best approach is to live your life and broadcast confidence that your doing so won't impede your work.
I echo the praises of Dean Dad's post along with the other responses.

Getting a PhD doesn't make one a better person in any way. If it did, there wouldn't be so many total jerks in academics.

It sounds like choosing to leave would be ideal.

If you've got the math skills in general (and lots of sociology types have great math skills), you might be able to take a couple courses while working on your teaching credential so that you can teach general math, too. Everyone always needs math teachers.
As an academic mom who had my son a few weeks after finishing my dissertation, I have a few bits of advice to add:

1. Academics always assume that what we do is oh so much harder than what teachers do, but I’m in a field where I work with lots of teachers, and they work plenty hard. Being a high school teacher, especially the first few years, is a very stressful, demanding job. I guess what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t assume that teaching in a high school will be any less time-consuming or less challenging.

2. The best dissertation advice I ever got was “done is good.” It is not one’s life’s work and it doesn’t need to be brilliant or inspired, just finished. I would also add that writing a dissertation is lonely and miserable. I truly know no one who felt supported during the process—we all just felt very alone (and unoriginal, uninspired etc.) Knowing all this from people who had been through it helped me to see the dissertation as just another hoop to move through as quickly as possible.

3. Not all universities see motherhood as a liability. I’m a junior faculty mom in a wonderfully family-friendly department. Of the 45 or so faculty in our department, at least 40 have children. We have baby showers and bring kids to meetings, classes and the department picnic, and the secretaries keep jars of candy in their desks to hand out. Our chair has given my husband and I alternating schedules for the past seven years so that one of us can be there when our son is sick or out of school—another faculty member stays home with his kids during the day, so the chair schedules him to only teach nights. There is university life outside of tier-1 PhD granting institutions, at least, where faculty are not expected to sacrifice having a family for a high-powered career.

I think that doctoral programs brainwash students into mentalities that just don’t mirror the reality of life for most academics (in all sorts of ways). I was a trailing lecturer spouse for a few years before getting a TT job and my dissertation director literally yelled at me for “follwin’ my man, having his baby, and throwing my career down the toilet.” According to a Ms. Mentor column I read once in the Chronicle, I should have taken a job in a different state than my husband because “marriages come and go, but your academic career is always there.”

There are, fortunately, lots of academics that don’t feel this way. I guess I’m writing all this because it pains me to see this student going through anguish that I don’t think is necessary.

Professor Mom
Annonymous writes:"Not all universities see motherhood as a liability. I’m a junior faculty mom in a wonderfully family-friendly department."

Wow. Haven't heard about many of these types of departments. How great.

BTW, I've written a newsletter called Babies on the tenure-track
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Lindsay Rosenwald Dr. Lindsay Rosenwald is one of the re-known venture capitalists and the hedge fund managers in the world.
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