Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Lil' Ol' Professor Heart, Broken

I'm reflecting on students who've broken my lil' ol' professor heart.  They have all been women.

One of my thesis advisees got into Michigan Law School, just like her fiancé.  Hurray!  They could be together pursuing the career of their dreams in the school of their dreams!   But wait--you've accepted an offer from a near-by law school that I've never even heard of? 

Yes.  You see, they didn't both want to be burdened by the student loans.  So she took a scholarship at a minor law school.  And he ... didn't.

Then there was the genius thesis advisee, who was so good, I hired her as my research assistant.  She got accepted to Harvard Law!  Hurray!  But .... Oh! Too bad! Your fiancé did not get accepted to Harvard grad school--or even any school near Harvard? 

With her LSATs and GPA, she had her pick of law schools, so she went to the law school at the school he did get in to.  Not a bad law school, but not, not, NOT Harvard.

Now on to the grad student I had at my old university.  I was her MA thesis adviser, and I wrote her many, many letters of recommendation for fellowships.  I wrote her a really over-the-top  letter that got her into a Ph.D. program.  Weird coincidence--I took a job at her new university the following year.  She was now in a different discipline, but her new adviser and all the other professors were also over-the-top about her. 

But then--oh wow, your fiancé got a great contract job in Africa?  Yeah, you should take a semester off and travel with him while he's there.  You could write up your dissertation proposal at the same time!  "Great idea!"   Oh, but where is that proposal?  Oh congratulations, you've gotten married!  Oh happy days, you're pregnant.  Here's a present for baby.  Sooooo cute!  By the way, I think that starting a new outdoor recreation business with your husband in that remote part of that far-away state sounds....interesting.  Yeah, that's it.  And it doesn't sound at all like a dissertation.

There have been many more.  But these are the ones nearest to the surface. 

My most successful grad student?  A man, a great guy.  He wrote fast, not always carefully, not consistently with great depth of analysis.  But he got 'er done!  Then he boldly approached publishers and got a book contract!  He did not hesitate, did not worry it to death, making those final corrections so it would be just absolutely, positively perfect.  Rejections did not phase him--he pushed on!  AND he has a great wife with a mobile job perfectly suited (through perfect planning based upon absolute career self-abnegation) to move where he needs to go.

I think he's great.  I'm very happy for him. 

But is there a trend here?  In such cases, feminism for me is not about condemning individual women for the choices they make.  Rather, it is about looking critically at the processes that produce relatively more male PhDs, more male tenured professors, more highly paid male lawyers, etc.

But it is the individual women that break my professor heart.


  1. Yes, my little professor heart has been broken too. One woman got a prestigious award from a prestigious university but, oh, dear, her fiance got a job in another city, so, darn it, she couldn't take it. And one very, very bright and lovely woman has entirely foregone graduate school because her husband decided they should move to another country. Of course, even though I talked with each of these women, I don't know everything that went into their decision-making process. And of course when one is partnered one has to make decisions that take that partnership into account. But it really seemed to me that these particular, very talented women followed their men for fear of losing them. Heart-breaking on so many levels.

  2. Yes, exactly. The women who've succeeded in academia that I know tend to be single when they go to grad school and/or single when they get their job. Or else they have flexible partners. And the flexible male partners seem few and far between (though they do exist, thank goodness!).

  3. In the past I would have thought the above stories are injustice and horrible. But now that I'm older and more experienced... academia and law school really aren't all that. People who are high quality and hard working will end up succeeding at whatever they do. And there's something to be said for not killing yourself working 80 hours a week whether you're single or familied.

    And I don't know any happy high-powered lawyers... plenty of miserable ones, and plenty of overcompensating type-A stay-at-home JD moms with debt who say they did it for their kids, but after talking to them it becomes clear they were just burned out of their corporate law jobs.

    So sure, maybe academia needs pre-tenure changes to make it more hospitable for biological clocks. But that's because academia needs the experience of female professionals who are also parents... not for the female professionals themselves. They're going to do ok.

    P.S. My husband went to his 6th choice graduate school to follow me to the top graduate school in my program. Maybe we should have both compromised on Berkeley or Northwestern. We're not afraid of losing each other-- we just like being around each other.