Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is It My Heart That's Broken--or My Career?

I received a couple interesting comments to an earlier post, in which I rue the number of my female students who've turned down excellent law schools or have quit grad school in order to follow the men in their lives.  They made me think and produced a new post-length series of reflections.  So here goes....

Izzabitz noted that she had similar experiences and wondered if some of the talented women that she has seen forgo career opportunities to follow boyfriends/spouses is partly to do with fear of losing them.  I think she is right.  I wish I would see more couples meeting each others' career needs half-way. 

Nicole wrote, "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."

I definitely agree about not killing yourself working 80hr weeks.  And I certainly hope these women's choices will lead them down a happy and successful path.

However, that is only part of the story.  Many of my undergrads go on to law school and don't directly impact my career either way.  But their willingness to defer their own career plans to those of their boyfriends speaks to a broader trend with my female grad students that has implications for my own career and future women in my male-dominated area of study. 

I am at a research university.  My own long-run success partially depends upon my ability to produce Ph.D.s, particularly those who do work similar to my own, who become known as "my students," who publish with me, get great jobs, and continue to cite me over the years.

I have had a terrible track record in terms of my female graduate students (but not my male ones).  You see, for their own individual, very good(-ish) reasons, the best ones have been getting married, having babies, and leaving grad school.

My best friend from grad school advises his students not to have children if they want to be successful (Yes, he's a jerk--we're not so close now).  I can tell that it even bothers him when they get married.  And you know what?  He has become very, very well-respected in our field for producing great graduate students--grad students that he published with and that get great positions themselves.  This success moved him from a good university (like my own) to one of the top five programs.

I don't want his job.  But if I did, I should be a lot more strategic about whom I take on as a grad student, only investing in those who seem the sure bets.  Not just saying yes to whomever asks (as I do now).

Grad students are incredibly time-consuming.  This summer, I had weekly hour-long Skype conversations with a sobbing student doing fieldwork.  She sends me papers she writes for other classes, expecting my feedback.  We're doing a joint project for which I got her funding at her request (which she currently seems to have put on her back, back, way back burner).  Etc, etc. 

In sum, I have a lot of time invested in her.  Yes, I said "invested."  It doesn't mean I don't like her.  It doesn't mean I don't care if she is happy or not.  But it does mean that I see this relationship ideally as somewhat reciprocal in the long run.  I am not Dr. Self Abnegation, working my butt off for the poor, suffering grad students and expecting nothing in return.  I really need the occasional win-win situation, in which we work together and both benefit career-wise.

It isn't all about me--but some of it needs to be.  As my blog bio says, I'm an academic mom struggling with the work life balance.  And every hour I spend attending to a graduate student seems to me an hour that I don't spend with my kids. 

And maybe that is part of why it hurts me a bit more than it should when they drop out to have their own kid....


  1. In my graduate program, a higher percentage of women are still in academic positions than men. (A higher percentage are also still single.) However, the men and women who left left for different reasons. It is very easy to forget the man who left to pursue a 6 figure career on Wall Street but not so the woman who married another student and had a baby and put her career second.

    A post-doc I applied to specifically wanted men and single women only because women on the program kept having babies. Because a post-doc is a perfect time to have babies. BUT these women are doing better in their fields despite having had the baby than the men who also did the post-doc. But the professors still remember all the pregnant women (and what a waste), and not the fact that their careers recovered.

    While I was a student at my graduate program, we lost one IT person because she had a baby and decided not to come back, one because he got a better job in industry, and one because he was arrested by the feds. But they don't want to hire another woman because she'll just have a baby and leave.

    In the labor market in general, the statistics on tenure are such that men and women have the same predicted tenure. But they leave jobs for different reasons. Men leave to work for a competitor, women leave to focus on their families. But if you survey employers, they only remember the women leaving for their families, and not the men leaving for other jobs. Leaving for another job isn't as available in their minds.

    I think it is still best to judge individuals as individuals. Women may be more likely to care about work-life balance or they may just be the people you remember actually caring about work-life balance. If you write down the numbers for your entire program, I bet you'll see an equal propensity to drop out. Maybe not among your students because maybe you attract a certain sub-segment. But among your program as a whole, unless there's some serious discrimination making it worse for women (like there is at UIUC engineering, I have heard), it'll probably be about equal.

  2. I hope so.
    I do and will continue to judge individuals as individuals when I agree to take them on as advisees. That's a crucial point to emphasize, so I'm glad you did.

    I wanted to bring in to the conversation through my post that student choices about whether to continue or not, in a cumulative sense can impact the adviser and the adviser's career.

    I don't have a specific conclusion for people to draw from this. But knowledge is power, and as a grad student, I was pretty clueless about such things.

    So, I have a bad track record with grad students finishing relative to my peers. We maintain close relationships--so I'm not driving them out. But they leave nonetheless. And after a point, I needed to vent a little by saying that I really wish some would stay. I had such hopes for them, and for me continuing to work with them, helping them get that first job, seeing them at conferences, putting their book on my shelf, etc.