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.