Friday, August 2, 2013

Don't Cry For Me, Academia

Oh, did I say I would start something exciting here in May? HA HA HA. (That was one HA for each elapsed month in which exactly nothing exciting happened.)

Let me be totally frank (because nothing bad ever happened as a result of being totally frank on the internet) and explain that I intended to start posting bits of my squid racing novel. Then, against all odds, I got a few nibbles in the world of traditional publishing, so I decided to wait and see if those nibbles bear any . . . fruit . . . what was that metaphor again?

Then my hard drive crashed, I picked up a new editing gig, and my daughter learned to crawl. 

On that note . . . 


Five years ago I wrote a breakup letter to academia. I was very attracted to writing as a career, but I was also in the middle of grad school and felt more like negotiating than dumping. "Make yourself tempting, academia," I wrote, "and I'll seriously consider a commitment."

Well, academia did not make itself tempting. I finished my degree, but I didn't really consider postdocs--I ran straight into the arms of writing.

Still, it was a fairly amicable breakup. I've continued to work diligently on academic publication; today I submitted revisions for the last paper out of my thesis. I won't cry if it's my last paper ever; I don't particularly enjoy academic writing and it pays diddlysquat. (In fact, if you want other people to be able to read it, you may have to pay the publisher.)

That may be explanation enough for why academia and I didn't work out. But I think the truth lies deeper. After all, partners who are otherwise well suited can learn to tolerate each other's quirky hobbies. So what went sour between me and the ivory tower?

In the letter, I blamed academia's "baggage." This was primarily a reference to the systemic lack of support for and negative attitudes (I first typed "attidudes" and cracked myself up--yes, there are some negative attidudes in academia) toward women, especially women with children.

Recently in Slate, Mary Ann Mason called academia out on this with more than ten years of research:
For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children. . . . Before even applying for the first tenure-track job, many women with children have already decided to drop out of the race. They have perceived a tenure-track job as being incompatible with having children. . . . It is well established that women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men. There is a baby penalty, especially strong in the sciences—but women without children also receive tenure at a lower rate than men. . . . Women who achieve tenure are more likely than men to fall into the midcareer slump. They take longer, sometimes much longer, to be promoted to full professor, the top of the academic ranks.
Well, there you have it. Academia hates all women, and mothers most of all. Good thing I dumped that jerk before having a baby, right?

But Mason goes on:
Women have responded in record numbers to the national campaign to include more women in science and receive significantly more Ph.D.s . . . but they also drop out in record numbers. This is a great loss in trained talent, but also the loss of a major economic investment; it costs at least several hundred thousand dollars, largely from the federal government, to support a young scientist through a Ph.D. and postdoc.
Now, I understand that it behooves academia to try harder to keep its women, but the perspective of the final sentence seems to be missing something. I'm definitely a leak (a leaker? a drip?) in the traditional pipeline. But do I really constitute a loss of several hundred thousand dollars, just because I didn't channel my talent into academia? I like to think I'm still exercising my skills, still serving society, still representing a good investment.

As Jarrett Byrnes recently pointed out, a Ph.D. can be "amazing training for a wide variety of careers." The second link is a pile of tweets rattling off science jobs in government, NGOs, consulting, communication. I picked that last one--but my love for storytelling goes beyond science. Does a Ph.D. constitute amazing training for a novelist? Absolutely! Just wait till my marine station murder mystery comes out.

My childhood puppy love for writing deepened into something more serious when I noticed how well it goes with family life. At the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop in 2008, I was impressed by the number of women, especially mothers, in attendance and on the faculty. Then at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators summer 2012 conference, the attendees were 85% female, and almost everyone I talked to had children. (I was heavily pregnant, so it came up a lot.)

The advantages are obvious. As a writer, you can work at home, at the playground, when the baby's asleep, or even during her three minutes of solitary play before she needs you again. You can work all hours, odd hours, or no hours. Since becoming a mother, I've been hitting about 5-10 hours a week, with a few 0-hour weeks and one 20-hour week.

Of course, writing those sorts of hours is contingent on another source of income. I am incredibly fortunate to have a husband who is both willing and able to provide. In other situations, I'm well aware that writing can be a wildly demanding more-than-full-time job, burning the midnight oil natural gas to meet deadline after deadline. I have major respect for those writers.

My point is that it's possible to write for only 5-10 hours a week. It's hard to imagine keeping up any kind of academic career in that time, even with all Mason's suggestions:
. . . paid family leave for both mothers and fathers, especially for childbirth, a flexible workplace, a flexible career track, a re-entry policy, pay equity reviews, child care assistance, dual career assistance. . . . . 
These are truly important changes that will allow many parents to reconcile an academic career with a family. But me?

I want to be my daughter's primary caretaker, without employing day care or a nanny. I'd like her to experience preschool, but not all day, every day. And once she starts K-12 education, I want to be available when she's home. So at a rough guess, I've got two or three years of 5-10 hours a week, three years of maybe 10-20 hours a week, and eventually 30-40 hours a week. And that's with just one child. We're planning to give her a sibling.

Plans and preferences often change; man is, after all, a giddy thing. It's possible that once our kids are no longer dependent on lactation, my husband and I could switch roles. It's possible that once our kids are in school, I might actually like to be a professor. But I'm not suggesting academia sit around waiting for that eventuality.

I don't think every career has to make itself available to the parents (mostly mothers, but there are some fathers too) who also choose to be the long-term primary caretakers of their children. That desire limits our career options, and I'll happily accept that.

In my case, it's not that academia was such a jerk. We're just not right for each other. But I don't regret our time together, and I hope academia doesn't either.

It's not you, it's me.


  1. I also had issue with the statement about the cost of educating a Ph.D. I always thought the Ph.D. student was the most economical option. The good ones usually put in 60-hour weeks for 4-5 years. If a tech did that there would be a lot of overtime that would double the costs. Students are usually less expensive than post-docs, and they last longer. Rare is the tech who delivers four publications for their adviser.

    1. Yes, a good point! As I mentioned to my friend Laura, even if I did nothing constructive for the rest of my life, my contributions during my PhD were worth all the money I was paid. It's not like I sat around being a sponge for six years. =)

  2. "So what went sour between me and the ivory tower?"

    Love the rhyme and rhythm!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.