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Academia as a woman who wants a family

  1. Jan 31, 2015 #1
    So this is really something that's been bugging me for awhile, though I still have a lot of time. I'm only 21 now and in my 3rd year of undergrad. I plan to go on to graduate school, get a PhD, postdoc, and then become a professor. A long, arduous process, but one that I'm (so far) willing to attempt.

    My question is this: do you know any women that have succeeded in academia (i.e., become a professor ideally) while still maintaining a family?

    I'd really like to begin a family while I'm in my 20's or early 30's, but after I finish graduate school I'll probably be 28-29, then postdoc for a few years, and then all that is even before I start to look for a position somewhere.

    Does anyone know a woman who has had children/a family during graduate school? A postdoc? Does she take some years off? How does it work?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2015 #2
    Failure rate is high if you have a child while going through school. Economic, maternal instincts, and having to care for your husband. Many single mothers do acquire an education, however if you have no children now while subject yourself to a harder life? Love is fickle. It has been shown time and time over that people who marry early tend to have a high divorce rate. For a person posting on physicsforum the lack of common sense is astounding. No offense.
  4. Jan 31, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    There are female professors with children. There are female professors without children. There are male professors with children. There are male professors without children. An unscientific head count seems to indicate that there are more childless faculty of either sex than those with children, compared to the general population. I am not surprised by this - while most faculty positions have fairly generous policies with respect to childbearing and childrearing, postdoctoral positions, being fixed-term, generally don't.
  5. Jan 31, 2015 #4


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    Do you have any evidence to back this up or this just a personal observation. I ask, because my experience is different. The students that I went through with and that I've subsequently instructed who've had children didn't have any difference in failure rates from those who didn't have them. One thing to consider though is that students with children have greater constraints on the time they can dedicate to academia.

    Well, for some, having children isn't just a case of choosing convenience vs. inconvenience. For some, having a family is more important or at least equally as important as pursing their academic goals. And with women (and to a lesser extend with men) you have the biological clock to consider. The fact of the mater is that fertility rates decline once women reach their mid-thirties, making it harder to have children. And the risk of complications increases dramatically. So there is a lot of pressure on women who are entering the post-doc stage of an academic career to make decisions about having a family - and quickly.

    Again - do you have evidence for this or is this a personal observation? And what's early?
    In my experience people who get married fairly early in life these days (i.e. in their undergraduate years) are often particularly religious. Once people are into their mid-to-late twenties, I don't think it's early any more.

    I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. I think the OP has a legitimate question.

    To answer that question, I would say that there are lots of issues to consider when balancing family and an academic career, but it's certainly doable. I personally know lots of academically successful women who have children. I think a lot can really depend on their partner - how supportive is that person, how flexible is that person in terms of sharing childcare responsibilities, how mobile that person is in terms of being able to follow you to different post-doctoral positions. It's the two-body problem that becomes an N-body problem. But it can be successfully solves.
  6. Jan 31, 2015 #5

    Quantum Defect

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    Things are better now than when I was in graduate school. When I was in graduate school, things were better than the bad old days, when discrimination was blatant and ubiquitous.

    During my time in graduate school, many male graduate student colleagues had kids, but relatively few women did. I did know one woman who had two children while she was getting her degree. I have known many women who have had children while moving on up the academic ladder. I agree with much of what Choppy says -- so much depends upon having a partner who helps.

    US funding agencies are beginning to acknoweldge that balancing family life and science is something that they can help with through a variety of "family friendly" policies.
  7. Jan 31, 2015 #6
    My physics professor (female) from last semester had a kid. She's also married to another physics professor in the department. So it's certainly not impossible, even with two academics in one family.
  8. Jan 31, 2015 #7
    Well, if you're a tenured professor you will have a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to setting your hours and dealing with family stuff.

    Good luck getting there with kids, though. You might just have to make a choice about which one you want more.
  9. Feb 1, 2015 #8
    I think that's overly pessimistic. I'd venture to say more than a few academics had children before getting tenure.
  10. Feb 1, 2015 #9
    Of course, and getting on the tenure track is a main goal for many academics because the end result is exactly that needed flexibility to deal with family issues. But you have to admit that it would be much easier without family obligations than with.
  11. Feb 1, 2015 #10
    I've seen a lot of professors with kids, even some untenured, but I never saw a female grad student get pregnant during grad school. I knew male grad students whose wives were having kids, and it didn't seem to be a big issue, but they didn't have to be pregnant themselves, which is a considerable advantage.

    I'd imagine it would make a tough road even tougher, but some people do it somehow. I think for some people, they might get past the point of early career struggles, like teaching classes for the first time and otherwise getting established and there ought to be a window of opportunity in there somewhere, even before tenure.
  12. Feb 1, 2015 #11


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    One of my personal friends was pregnant while pursuing her PhD in statistics, and it didn't noticeably affect her ability to finish her studies (granted, this was in Canada, where one year paid maternity leave is guaranteed by law, although I'm not sure how this would apply to graduate students since they are not technically employees).
  13. Feb 1, 2015 #12
    But would getting pregnant shortly after getting hired be frowned upon? Thinking from the perspective of an employer, I'd be furious if I hired someone who would have to take a semester (?) off a year later because she got pregnant. And then it would interfere with the tenure process, right?
  14. Feb 1, 2015 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    I consider this question sexist- many male professionals (such as myself) have to content with work-life balance as well. But nobody ever asks a male how they are able to be successful while still maintaining a family.

    ps- the answer is figuring out how to balance work and life- there is no rulebook or 'best practices'. Figure out what works and then do that.
  15. Feb 1, 2015 #14


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    Why would you be furious? Just like sickness, pregnancy is a fact of life. Despite reasonably effective birth control methods, not every pregnancy is planned. And as an employer you have to plan for things like pregnancy and sickness. I can understand that often there can be a race to get certain results out in academia, and it can put a university in a difficult situation if they hired a person to teach a course and she has to take a maternity leave. But that's reality. And it's not like babies spontaneously appear. You have nine months to figure out how to adapt to a planned absence.

    From an individual's point of view, yes it can be tough to remain competitive when you take time off. Your colleagues will make more progress and put out more publications in your absence and there's only so much leeway one can grant for such things. That's why its more difficult to remain competitive while starting or raising a family... more difficult, but not impossible.

    And Andy makes a very good point. As a Dad, your schedule changes too. You don't necessarily take maternity leave. But you can't ignore family obligations either.
  16. Feb 1, 2015 #15
    But doesn't that create an incentive for employers to hire only males?
  17. Feb 1, 2015 #16
    Depends on the country you live in. In some countries males have as much right to maternity leave as females. If not, it has to be the female who has to stay at home. Also, it depends on how much time you think you need to invest in your own child as opposed to your career.

    The decision is similar for males and for females.

    When in a marriage both want to be competitive for PhD positions, getting top publications and tenured professorship, that's a big problem.
    If a male wants to have a family and be a top scientist at the same time, he has to have a partner who wants to stay at home.

    So for you it would mean you have to find and be attracted to a male who wants to stay at home and take care of the kids while you achieve your career goals.

    For most of us in science, we all have a hard time and we end up cleaning up the crumbs left behind by the top groups.
  18. Feb 1, 2015 #17
    Almeisan is right. It is possible, but very difficult. A female friend of mine just got tenure at the University of Arizona and she has three children. However, her husband is VERY supportive and fairly wealthy.
  19. Feb 2, 2015 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    Especially since child care responsibilities last considerably longer than 9 months.
  20. Feb 2, 2015 #19
    I recently was taught by two professors that had children towards the end of graduate school, went on to post-docs at Harvard and MIT, then when one was hired for a tenure track position at my undergrad school, the other (husband) was hired on a temporary basis. They eventually liked him so much that he is now on a tenure track as well. They have two beautiful children, are both active researchers, publish often, and are excellent mentors to both graduate students and undergrads. From what I have seen, they are also as good a set of parents as anyone could ask for, equally sharing the roles of raising their children.

    If a family, and an academic career, are both pretty much equally important to you, are some answers on an online forum really going to sway you from either? You might have to make sacrifices in either of those pursuits, but that's how life works. Go for what you want, and adjust plans accordingly as situations arise.
  21. Feb 3, 2015 #20
    I think it may work the best to have kids (or the first one) during your PhD because that is a long period of time anyway, so it is more readily extended and a one with relatively most job stability (until you get tenure, but then it may be too late for biological reasons). It is easier if you live in a country where there is good support for families in general, for example in Scandinavia.
  22. Feb 3, 2015 #21


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    It is perhaps worth pointing out that this is not problem unique to academia; the same is to a large extent true in any "high performing" profession where there is a lot of competition. We (my wife and I) have friend who work in finance, media, law, marketing etc and all the women (and men!) who work in those fields faced very similar problems and most of them had children in their late 30s.
    Knowing this doesn't make it any easier, but keep this in mind when weighing up to the pros and cons of a career in academia; this is an issue you will face (at least to some extent) regardless of your choice of career.
  23. Mar 4, 2015 #22


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    Women have it tougher in the career world, because someone has to have the children and it falls upon the woman to be blessed with this.

    Having a child or children will definitely set you back a couple of years in your career. But I would also say, what are a couple of years compared to having a lifetime of happiness that children can bring you (granted, I say that from hindsight, my kid is now out of college and working, not a teenager!). :woot:

    It will help a LOT if your husband can share in the child rearing when and where he can. However, one of you will tend to be more needed to take care of the kid(s) when they are sick or home. That usually ends up being Mom, but that wouldn't be to much trouble for you, if you are able to work on your studies at that time (which can take some serious concentration, something children won't cooperate with you on). But remember, He ain't going to suffer the first nine months (well, not quite as much as you).
  24. Mar 5, 2015 #23
    I mean, don't get me wrong, having a husband who will (and wants to) stay home and take care of a kid or something would be great, but then you have an income issue. Living on $20k/yr (a typical grad student's salary 'round here) is difficult for one person, let alone a married couple with a kid. And if your husband works, then you have a childcare issue. I've seen some online blogs and such about people with this issue who work for half the day, go home, and then their significant other works the other half of the day, but doing this for several years (at least until the kid is old enough for school) just seems like cruel and unusual punishment... I mean really, only seeing your significant other on weekends?

    TL;DR, my only options are to marry Bill Gates or win the lottery.
  25. Mar 5, 2015 #24


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    Let me take off my PC hat and make the following statements (w/o any formal studies, just some of my own observations).

    Couples who have children when they are in their twenties seem to have the most well adjusted children. Why is that? Well, we could say that the parents can devote time, blah, blah, blah...., However, I have seen many couples(and maybe even myself), who really did not know a lot about supposedly how to raise children. Yet, I suspect this family group is probably the most normal (all families are usually dysfunctional in one or two ways). The children are probably the most well rounded (and this could also be due to the whole heard concept of 80% of the families are of this makeup).

    I have known some individuals who were from parents of older years ie just prior to the woman's biological clock running out. These guys were often very smart (giving some credence to the intelligence knowledge of the parent being past on). However, these same people were the stereotypical NERD and did not mingle well with people in general. You are rubbing elbows in academia, you could certainly ask around and see how well my little theory holds up.

    So, have the normal kid now (or in the next 3-5 years) or have the insufferable brainaic in 15-20 years.

    I worked for a Woman who ran a fair sized company and did not have her children until she was about 40. When her kids were 15, she was often mistaken for their grandmother and often wished she had her children much younger when she could have played with them more. (oh, and her kids were smart, lending credence to my unscientific observation).

    Best time to plant a tree? 10 years ago. But you only got today. My advice, if you want children, make it happen in the next 3-5 years (or sooner). Don't wait as you get older, you only increase your chances of having problems.
  26. Mar 5, 2015 #25
    Age is not a major issue when raising children. Health and activity is. You have to be able to keep up with them even (especially) as teens. My brother and sisters all started having children in their mid to late 30s. The kids are all healthy and quite ordinary (with bits of extraordinary mixed in).

    As others have pointed out, those in ANY high performing career need support. This is harder for women because of what our society expects of mothers. I think this is unfair, but unfortunately, there is no easy solution. As a father of three, I will be the first to admit that anyone having a child will have to slow down just a bit and spend the time you'd otherwise use in the career on the kids. Instead of writing a book on the weekends, I take them to activities, tutors, music lessons, help them with homework, show them how to cook meals, fix a tractor, build projects with an arduino board, etc.

    I see this as a pay-it-forward acknowledgement for what my parents, my teachers, my mentors, and relatives did for me. I may not be the famous or wealthy person I had hoped I would be when I was younger, but I can be a great father and mentor. That's the choice I made and I made it deliberately. I do not regret it one bit.
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