Bad news, good news.

Since I was puzzled by why I could not find information about pregnancy in the graduate school, time has passed. Voila, now you see the topic of academics raising families all the time. (Or maybe I entered that phase of life at which Facebook friends post a related article every day.) Most notably, Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and Nicholas H. Wolfinger have written a book, Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, which gives bad news to the women who plan to have children in their early academic careers. (Ok, to admit it, I haven’t read the book yet but read this article “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only: For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer” written by Mason.) Unfortunately, the difficulty of having children while trying to succeed as an academic is structural. I hope the book will spread awareness. At the same time, if it is a systematic problem, we should contribute to the resolution by more openly sharing our experiences.

Good news is more personal. Probably because I’m in the field of humanities, I have not yet met discrimination as a young mother in getting grants, fellowships, and job positions. I even said I would spend the dissertation write-up grant to hire a caregiver, and I got it. My partner and I made a decision that we would be upfront about having a family during our job interviews. (This was inevitable for me because I needed to pump breast milk during campus visits). I also see how the phenomenon that the book seems to point out–women with children are at the low tier in academia, not climbing up the ladder–can happen by choice. I myself opted for postdoc fellowships when offered wonderful tenure-track positions. This was mainly for our personal preference for continuing adventurous experiences by moving to different parts of the world as long as we can. But it is true that doing a few years of postdoc and delaying serious engagement with teaching becomes an attractive choice for those with very young children. While doing that, I can also see, many women, especially facing the structural obstacles and pressure, would realize that life is bigger than academia. That, in and of itself, is an enlightenment for these individuals in my perspective. But it is a loss for academia, for sure.

So, how do I feel about pursuing my academic career? I had a lot of time thinking about it the past two years. In the end, I like my work. It’s as simple as that. Don’t I feel a lot of pressure? Yes, I do. And as my partner witnesses, I am sometimes stressed out about the future. But it is important that I find my own optimal balance and stick to it.

Posted in My Grad School Life

I’m Back. Sort of.

After a long hiatus, enough motivation came back to me to continue writing here. As you can tell from my last posting, Discussing Pregnancy of Dissertation Writers, I gave birth to a child in June 2013. It is not just “things became crazy busy”– yes, I was more tired and had more things to do every day. But rather I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I do not have even five minutes to spare, because both childcare and academia are such fields that make you feel guilty if you are not completely devoted to them. Recently, however, I realized that the last posting is still bringing visitors to this blog. I’ve also developed a weird sense of responsibility to continue sharing the joy and difficulty of being a parent while being a (in my case, itinerant) junior scholar because people keep asking me.

Before going back to the topic of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare in graduate school, I want to update where I am now. Both my partner and I completed our dissertations while being on the job market. Luckily we got offered a few options and opted for new adventure outside the US. I defended my dissertation in June 2014, the day before my son’s first birthday. A few days later, we completely left NY, and after a whole summer of traveling, we moved to Florence, Italy, for my postdoctoral fellowship at the European University Institute. We are relocating to Singapore this coming summer for other academic appointments.

Although I probably forgot a lot of how I felt at the time, we will go back to my graduate school life and pregnancy—in the next posting.

Posted in My Grad School Life, My postdoc life

Discussing Pregnancy of Dissertation Writers

I have been pregnant since last September. This single issue has been dominating my life, as it should, but I felt hesitant to discuss it openly in my blog. After living as a pregnant dissertation-writer for quite a while, I think I’m ready to share some of my thoughts about life and academia.

I always wanted to have a child or two. I had to postpone trying it until I was done with my field research, which I knew would involve a lot of traveling and constant change of address — not a good environment for pregnant women who should get frequent medical check-ups and maintain physical and emotional stability. I felt more blessed than any time in my life when I became pregnant right after my traveling. What a perfect timing. I will be just writing the next two years (well, and applying for jobs).

That said, when I looked up information about childbearing at this stage, I found very little encouragement. One or two articles said “it is manageable and rewarding.” Another few comments said “you should wait until you get tenure” (hah!). Overall, there is not much discussion on childbirth and dissertation writing or early academic career — it is strange considering that many women I know did give birth while writing and I think it is probably one of the best timings. Did I miss something?!

One reason for this odd silence is perhaps the fear that discussing it would somehow appear unprofessional and affect your job prospects. I also felt hesitant to write about it specifically for this reason. Can I complain about the lack of institutions that support mothers with small children in graduate schools? Would I sound like I am making an excuse for not publishing anything? Very fortunate for me is that my advisors, all parents themselves, wholeheartedly support my life plan. But some of us have a female advisor who proudly chose not to take that route. Would the topic of childbirth be a taboo in front of these professors?

Along the same line of thought, I am not sure if I am supposed to disclose my pregnancy in my fellowship applications either. One common aspect of applying to outside funding for graduate students is that we often give a detailed budget form, including rent, health insurance, food, printing, transportation and so on (as if we could go party with that amount of money). I have been adding newborn care in my budget forms and overtly mentioning it if I am asked to “explain how the money will be spent.” The detailed time schedule to finish the dissertation also gave me a bit of headache. Since I am due mid-June, realistically I will not be writing during the summer. Should I leave it blank, say “taking care of a newborn,” or come up with a fake schedule? My baby will be the central part of my life and it felt ridiculous to hide it from such detailed budget and time plans. But perhaps this would be considered “unprofessional.”

At this stage of PhD, job prospects become the central topic of conversation. I attended a workshop for graduate students early in my pregnancy and it was very hard for me to sit through and listen to advice from professors (from various universities). You are supposed to finish your dissertation early, publish a few articles, attend professional conferences, and network within your field — basically work like crazy in order to impress hiring committees especially because the job market is daunting right now. It’s great if you can. But pregnant women are not the only ones who cannot commit 80 hours a week to academic work. Some might have health problems. Some have to do a part-time job to make ends meet. Others might have a very challenging dissertation to write in the first place and have no time left for other career-enhancing activities. In the end of the day, I chose to go get a PhD because I enjoy it. I chose life over all the “rational” options that would bring better $$ and job security. When was my life overtaken by career-making goals? I literally felt like vomiting during this advisory session.

Since I started to feel a lot better in my second trimester, I also became better at handling the career pressure. But it is always there. The information on the job market and peer pressure is not a bad thing. But sometimes you need to shut down yourself from the stress and enjoy what you do. I want to enjoy my pregnancy. At times I just want to lie down and feel the baby moving for a while.

I was going to write about how I feel about my own writing while being pregnant originally, but ended up talking about why people are not talking about it. Maybe next time.

Posted in My Grad School Life